Failure, too

So. I am still reflecting on failure. It has occurred to me that my worst failures were those times where I failed myself. Or did I? Sometimes I guess I did, but there have been times when it wasn’t that simple.

Many years ago, when I was working in local government, I had one of the most horrific encounters with another human being that I have ever had. It was all the more horrific because it involved only virulent intent, abuse of power, and absolute callous hatred. All of that dark and light-engulfing malevolence was aimed at me, during a work day, and I didn’t deserve it.

I was the only person left in a department that was responsible for installing and maintaining all of the telephone services in City Hall, and outlying sites. It was a grossly underpaid position, as most civil service jobs are, but I had a fair amount of freedom. I also apprised incredible amounts of marketable skills while there, because I was free to learn and experiment with technology and vendor relationships. I enjoyed it, despite the low wages, and life was good.

There was a period of time when the work load was overwhelming, and even if I’d been the most organized and relentless worker on the planet, I couldn’t have kept up. There should have been at least six people working with me, but I was a solo act for quite a while. I didn’t complain, and managed to do quite a lot. My superiors understood more or less that it was an impossible situation, but as all managers are likely to do, when the feces hit the fan blades they saved themselves.

There came day when I came back to my office, to find a paper taped to the outside of the door. I removed it, and unfolded it to see what exactly it was. Expecting to see a note from a building worker with a telephone problem, I was entirely unprepared to see an official looking subpoena, from the criminal courthouse.

I read the document, and it seemed there was a criminal court judge who had become infuriated that phones in his courtroom remained in disrepair, or something like that. He was commanding me to appear, to explain why. I was frightened, and rageful. I was doing as much as I could possibly do with what I had to work with, and this arse felt that he was entitled to speedier service.

This guy had a reputation for chewing up civil servants and spitting them out whenever something happened that he didn’t like. He once verbally abused the manager of the parking enforcement bureau, for whom I worked at the time, in a packed courtroom because people on his staff had gotten parking tickets. The man stopped a murder trial to deliver a scathing soliloquy to her in front of more than 100 people. It was unnecessary and full of bravado. His intent was to embarrass her, and make a spectacle of her operation.

So, I already knew what I was in for with this jerk. I brought the whole thing to my boss, and said I wasn’t going to appear, because this was not even legal. Or something. My boss said I had to go, and she would go with me. I wasn’t terribly keen on her, but couldn’t say I’d rather go myself because your’e more of a liability, but I kept my mouth shut. When dealing with fragile political appointees and elected officials, you learn to keep your mouth shut quite a lot.

We appeared at the designated time, to find the surly judge waiting for us, fangs bared and drooling. We sat down, and he started in on a trivial problem with one phone in his clerk’s office, and how ridiculous it was that it would take so long for repairs to be completed. His face was red, neck bloated and spilling over the collar of his shirt. He was so angry that I could feel the heat form the other side of the desk.

He kept going, on and on, and on, and on about how it was unacceptable that he couldn’t get a sufficient response from me. My boss said, in an overly conciliatory tone, that I was the only person working in the department, and she had not been successful in hiring more staff. She was apologetic and would see that his problems were resolved and blah blah blah. He ranted and raved for a few minutes more, and I remained silent.

We got up to leave, and he walked along with us outside his office and into the courtroom. He was telling my boss something, and I was trying to hear because there were other people nearby conversing. At the same time, one of his back office workers – a particularly idiotic woman I had dealt with previously, and who gave me bad information on a frequent basis – started waving something toward me. I ignored it, because I needed to hear what other little gems he had to deliver to my boss.

Suddenly, he vaulted his fat arse over to within an inch of my nose, and started yelling in my face, “When someone on my staff gives you somthing, YOU TAKE IT! Do you understand me? YOU TAKE IT!” I said nothing, but I was fighting with every cell in my body to keep my mouth shut. I wanted to scream back at him, “You are spitting on me, and you will not talk to me that way!” But I knew he was crazy enough to throw me in jail or something. For a second, I thought he might slap me because he was that enraged.

Mercifully, he pivoted back to my boss, screaming and pointing at me, “You have an attitude problem here. I can see that You need to get someone else to do this, because there’s an attitude problem here.” And with that, he flounced off and back into his office, slamming the door. My boss looked at me, and I looked down. I was so angry, and I had no where to go with it.

On the ride back to our office, I looked out the window and said not a word. I did not trust myself to say anything. I was angry at him, angry at her, angry at the situation, angry at the price of gas. I felt that she could have intervened with him yelling and spitting in my face, but of course, she saved herself. Par for the course.

When we got inside the building, she told me I could go home if I wanted to relax after having been through such a difficult encounter. I said no, I have work to do, which was entirely true. I went back to my office, and she to hers. I stewed over the whole thing, and berated myself for not having stood up to him when he became abusive, whether he decided to abuse his power more and throw me into jail.

I had another boss, who was worked under the one who’d accompanied me to the courthouse, and I trusted him way more than her. She was the department head, and he was the assistant. He had not been there when the debacle occurred, but he was back. He asked me how it went, and I told him. He shook his head, and said nothing.

We both sat there in silence for a minute, and he said, “Look. Here’s what we’re going to do. Write a memo to me and to the department head, and recount exactly what happened. Tell me that you are doing the work of 5 people, and have been doing as much as you can do Then ask this question – as a classified civil service employee, where are my rights in a situation like this.?

I nodded, and he left. Immediately, I began furiously typing on the keyboard, and spat out a 2 page memo to him, with a copy to the Civil Service department and the Mayor’s Office. I asked where do my rights as an employee begin and end in this situation? Can any official subpoena me or subject me to their own disciplinary measures without consulting my department head? Am I expected to take abuse like this from an elected official with no recourse?

The memo was sent. There was no reply. He told me there wouldn’t be, because they wouldn’t know how to answer it. It would all just die, and I wouldn’t have to worry about it. He suggested I get the idiot’s phones repaired, to which I acquiesced. But I never stopped worrying about it. And I never got over it. And I have never forgotten about having a bloated, sweaty, red-faced and misshapen white man spitting in my face in his rage that I dared appear insolent before him.

I count this as a failure because I felt that I failed myself. I wanted to stand up for myself and tell him that he was not going to speak to me that way. But I did not. I said nothing. I kept my mouth shut like a good girl who knows her place. I can still see the scene, still hear his shrill voice, still smell his putrid breath in my face and the spittle landing on my chin. And I said nothing. I had no power, I had no way out. For the millionth time in my life I was trapped, like a mouse in a mouse trap. And there was no cheese.

Was it important that he was white? Absolutely. The previous boss that he’d embarrassed so much, over parking tickets, was a black woman. The department head who accompanied me that day was a black woman. I am a black woman. I can’t say he would never, or has never, done that to a white person, but I have not seen it. He has a reputation for pulling of scenes like the one directed at me, so all I know is what I have seen.

When an unfair thing is happening, and you can’t say anything, some part of you shrivels and dies. A little tombstone pops up in its place, like one of the ones at Arlington, and marks the spot. I have a field of little head stones like that, marking all the times I didn’t stand up for myself, all the times I felt that I couldn’t stand up for myself. All the times I felt completely powerless, like something less than human, with no agency whatsoever.

That feeling of being trapped in a bottomless pit with no way out is devastating. You know that it’s not fair, that you’ve done nothing to deserve being there, but there you are. It’s a dark, cold, and empty place and if you are lucky enough to be released, the shadow of it remains. The ire I had for that pitiful excuse for a man got referred to other people, other situations, and ultimately to myself. Fortunately, I was no longer drinking at that time, but I found other ways to harm myself, with food and irresponsible purchases and bad decisions all around.

That is the legacy of inequity, and bias that has no name. You stay enraged about it for a long time, but no matter how angry you are, no matter how many affirmations of the wrongness of it you get, no matter what else happens, something died in you that day. I am fortunate that all my days were not spent like that, and that I don’t have more grave markers for parts of me that died under the heels of intolerance and hatred. For some people like me, though, it happens all the time. And they die a little bit more each time, until there’s very little left that passes for hope of a better world.

In the general scheme of my life, this was a relatively small thing. I feel as though I need waste no more time on that horrible man, and only hope that he picked on the wrong person at some point and got what HE deserved. Probably not, but I’ll hang on to the fantasy. What has kept the tombstone in place, though, is that I have spent a lot of time denying the hurt. That encounter was a repetition of a pattern in my life that I loathe – the pattern that says when the chips are down, when my spirit is on the chopping block of some foul smelling butcher, there is no one to stand by me, no one who will help me. It’s a dungeon, and I am trapped. And that sucks.

I’m working on trying to see my part in that pattern, and to turn it around in some way. When it happens, I most certainly do forget that I know how to fly. Everyone needs to remember they can fly, and that an escape can be fabricated in one way or another. I want to fly again, feel the wind in my hair (yes, even though I will look like a troll doll) and see the ground far, far below. I need to be able to see, and to feel as though nothing is holding me back, or down, or even up. I can fly, dammit, so what do I need with a cage? I can fucking fly.

The eagle flies the highest, and takes no prisoners. They mate for life, and return to the same nest year after year to raise their young. Their eyesight is the best, their claws are fearsome, but they feed their babies out of their own beaks, and shelter them from the elements with their enormous wings.

Published by annzimmerman

I am Louisiana born and bred, now living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Fortunately for me, I was already living in NC before Hurricane Katrina decimated my beloved New Orleans. An only child, I now feel that I have no personal history since the hurricane destroyed the relics and artifacts of my childhood. As I have always heard, c'est la vie. My Louisiana roots show in my love of good coffee, good food, and good music. My soggy native soil has also shown me that resilience is hard-wired in my consciousness; when the chips are down (or drowned)...bring it on.

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