An Encounter

POOR correspondent - Posted on 06 July 2010

Tony Robles
Monday, April 21, 2008

"A man is his job and you are f****d at yours!"
--Shelley Levine from the movie GlenGarry Glen Ross

I was sitting at my desk once again contemplating my worth and my value as a person, as a man, as someone who possesses a spirit. My biggest fear is that I will lose my spirit while sitting behind my desk, that somehow the desk will become a coffin that will encase my spirit and ingest my soul into little drawers to be trapped in an eternal communion with rubber bands, paper clips, glue stick and the ever-trusted bottle of white out.

My job is with a non-profit organization in the city as an employment counselor. I find this position to be both funny and ironic since I have been fired from most every job I have held in my life. My first job was a paperboy with the San Francisco Examiner in 1976. I had a fairly big route, about 56 papers. Like many kids, I wanted expensive tennis shoes and I saved my earnings for a pair of red pumas that I had seen in a storefront window.

The job went well for a short time but I got a good number of complaints from people who didn't get their paper. There wasn't a name for A.D.D. at the time and I believe I had it. My boss was a grumpy old-timer who supposedly knew my grandfather in the old days. He dyed his hair the color of black shoe polish. I felt like an idiot when he brought the complaints to my attention. The complaints kept adding up and I eventually had to give up the route. I did manage to buy the 60 dollar pair of Puma's which my father described as a "damn waste of money" and that we could have gotten steak, rice, eggs, chow mein, milk and a roll of Italian salami with that money. He demanded that I return them to get my money back. I told him I couldn't return them because I had been wearing them for a week. He shot me a disgusted look that made me feel like eating my shoes.

Over the years I worked as a dishwasher, security guard, radio DJ and office clerk. Somehow I could never follow the rules. Somehow, the rules were superfluous and the enforcers of the rules, in my estimation, did not have the imagination to conceive of a situation free of rules, a space in which creativity could be appreciated and one could truly be his or herself without feeling guilty. The people who followed and insisted upon the rules were rewarded with promotions and bigger salaries. I was often let go or quit to find another job with rules.

So now I sit at a desk at 7th and Market Streets with a computer and business cards with my name and position printed in a fancy font: Tony Robles Employment Counselor.

People walk in and ask for help in getting jobs. Most are looking for manual labor, janitorial, or maintenance positions. Some have been in and out of prison. Many do not have much education. Many do not feel that they deserve anything but these positions. It is from my desk that I see these leaders.

Eric M. walked into my office 2 months ago. He'd heard that we helped people get jobs so we sat and talked. He indicated that he wanted to get a job as a janitor. We sat down and talked. He was formerly incarcerated, homeless and trying to get his life together. He told me he had worked in Bayview Hunter's point in a mentorship program for young entrepreneurs. He had helped write a grant and create an in-class curriculum for the program.

We talked about his skills and his experience. He wrote down each job he had held and what he accomplished. I watched him write, there was something special there. Maybe it was the care he put into the words. His writing was like brush strokes that said more than any resume could. He said he'd return the next day to work on his resume. The following day came but Eric M. did not show up.

A month later he came back and said he didn't mean to disappear, that he'd been looking for housing and that things had been rough. We sat down and went over his resume. It looked good. We looked on craigslist and saw an opening for a community organizer position at ACORN San Francisco. We called and secured an interview for Eric.

2 days later Eric M. walked into the office and said 3 words: "I got it". We hugged and his eyes held all the light I needed for the day, or any day. I felt good for him. I was in the presence of a leader. We walked to the elevator where we bid each other goodbye.

Eric M. ain't no janitor. He's a strong young black man, a leader. A leader among many leaders who are told they are janitors and menial laborers.

Eric got on the elevator going down but he was really going up. I walked back to my desk, a guy who'd been fired from most every job he's had, soul intact, at least for the moment.


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