We've all met them-- those grim-faced, suspicious workers at government facilities. Their words are clipped, their sentences are to the point. They don't offer their opinions, they aren't expansive. They give only what you ask for and not one thing more.
Why are they like this? Why is it when you visit the DMV darned near every person who serves you is abrupt and stiff? Why is it at the Post Office the people behind the counter don't smile at you when you approach the counter? Why can't you engage the lady behind the bulletproof glass at the Social Security Office in a conversation about the weather?
I can tell you that the majority of these people were once friendly smiling workers who in the beginning of their governmental careers truly wanted to help every person that walked through the door.
Everyone is different; it could take a month, a year, two years maybe, dependent upon how resilient one is, but eventually serving the public becomes distasteful and some days it is impossible to serve the public without fantasizing about taking them outside and cracking their head open with a large stapler. And then walking away from their prone body, snickering. Because they are stupid.
Co-worker Kerri and I used to be happy, smiling workers. Eighteen months have passed since we started working in the same office and in this time we've noticed ourselves morphing into Bitter Government Workers. Our personalities are similar in many ways, so we've arrived in Bitter Town at approximately the same time, having been hired by the Hamlet just weeks apart. To Kerri's credit, she's a little behind me in the cranky department, because she's just a nicer person to begin with.
This is how it happens.
One day you realize that you are in no way in control of your work load.
Each citizen walking into the office needs something right now, wants to complain about something, or alternatively, they are there to pick a fight.
About ten percent of those you serve are in dire need of medication, the psychotropic kind.
A request from the public can be large or small, bad or good, do-able or impossible. Many times it is no one's responsibility because no one wants another piece of mangled, unmanagable crap on their desk and because you're in the service industry (don't kid yourself; government workers are in the service industry whether they like it or not) IT BECOMES YOUR PERSONAL PROBLEM.
These day-to-day requests are terrible time-suckers. Kerri and I both experience these kinds of calls at least once a day.
The guy who called a couple weeks ago and asked what permit was required to hold a parade in the Hamlet-- "A zombie parade!!!" he elaborated.
"A zombie parade." I stated. I heard Kerri choke on her hot chocolate behind me. Michelle cackled from the back office.
"Yeah!" he exclaimed. "Everyone dresses up like zombies and they shamble down the sidewalk. I think it'd be awesome for the tourists. They'd love it!"
"Alrighty. I'm gonna connect you over to Kerri, who will be able to tell you what kinds of permits you need for the zombie parade. Just a sec!" I said, transferring him to Kerri, whose face was a mask. She picked up the call.
"A zombie parade, sir?... okay, so will you march in the street?... well, I only ask because we'd need to block off streets and have traffic control down Hamlet Avenue... Okay. So you'd march on the sidewalk instead? What happens then?... You march into the park. Then what?" asked Kerri. She listened intently to the caller. "Well, sir-- typically when there's a parade of some kind, it's for a purpose, so I'm just trying to figure out-- so the zombies will 'shamble' down the sidewalk to the park, then at the park, the parade is over?... Will you have a barbeque or anything? Is this a fundraiser?... Okay. Well-- sir, I'm not sure you need a permit for the zombie parade. It sounds like you guys are dressing up like zombies and walking down the street, so you don't need a permit for that... Okay, you bet. Thanks for calling. 'Bye." She hung up.
"Shamble?" I asked Kerri.
"That's what he said." she answered. "That's ridiculous. I wonder if he'll actually get a zombie parade put together?"
"Are you crazy? He's already forgotten about it and is lighting up his next bong hit," I said.
Here's another example. Our office is located down a hallway behind the Hamlet PD. To get to our office, one must walk past the PD dispatch window which is encased in dark, bullet-proof glass. In the lobby of the PD, there are two large signs that state, "PLEASE PAY TICKETS AT THE DISPATCH WINDOW."
Naturally, people coming in to pay tickets wander through the lobby to our doorway, which has a sign on it that states, "IF YOU HAVE A TICKET, PLEASE PAY AT THE POLICE DISPATCH WINDOW".
They walk through our doorway and because of our many, many, many experiences with illiterates who amble (not shamble) through our doorway, we can spot a person who needs to pay a ticket from a thousand yards. We are talented that way, Kerri and I.
"Uh... I was at the Hamlet a couple of weeks ago... and I got this, uh..."
"Ticket?!?" I fairly screech at them.
"Yeah, this ticket... and I need to pay it. Is this where I pay?" Ugh. Another dullard who can't read signs.
"No. You pay at the dispatch window. It's that smoked glass window through that doorway," I say, pointing toward the window.
"But... there's no one there. It's dark!" they say doubtfully.
"Oh, there's always someone in dispatch. Just knock on the window," I instruct, for the five millionth time that day.
Then later that same day, another illiterate slob will shuffle through our door. Past the sign that says, "PLEASE PAY TICKETS AT THE DISPATCH WINDOW". And the second sign that says, "IF YOU HAVE A TICKET, PLEASE PAY AT THE POLICE DISPATCH WINDOW."
"Uh... I got this ticket yesterday... is this where I pay?"
"Nooooo... go through this doorway up to the smoked glass window. They can take care of you there," I say, my voice wavering upward an octave.
"No one's there," says the slob.
"Yes. They are. Just knock on the window," I say tensely.
"It's dark," the slob says doubtfully.
"TRUST ME. There's someone always in dispatch."
Combined, these little vignettes of constant idiocy and neediness knit themselves into a chain that wind around our necks. I shouldn't carry the chain home (like Jacob Marley, who forged his chain in life), but here it is-- Saturday night and I'm thinking and writing about it.