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Keeping Station

Posted December 29th, 2010 at 08:06 AM by chas
"I love you guys. But next week you'll be trying to navigate this 2,000 person 27 building institution without me! So don't throw away this contact reference list I've made up for you. Otherwise you'll find it takes you two weeks to find out who the one person is who can answer your question. And then it'll turn out they've just gone on vacation for another two weeks!"
--Me, hosting New Employee Orientation
At the end of my Civil Service career

First Assignment

I was hired with many other provisionals (temporary appointment, pending examination) in a wild circus like environment, when they needed to hire many people quickly, and get a impossible amount of work done on deadlines extending over the next year. And the place had just thoroughly reorganized, and were performing many duties instead of specializing in their former field. "One stop shopping" or horizontal over vertical integration especially makes sense when a new Director takes over and wants to show he's making a mark on the organization. So my first manager admitted that half the time due to the radical changes, they themselves didn't know what they were doing! But it was a great learning opportunity. After a few weeks I was ordered by someone at the second highest rank of upper executive management, a lifer, to violate all the rules on a certain matter, so I did. Compromised from the start; at an agency that made the rules for all the others! In those days at my ("submanagerial but performing confidential duties") rank, the worst sin we usually indulged in was using the newly invented cash machines to cash our biweekly paychecks in a few moment, and then use the extra half hour we got for lunch to have a long family like meal with a gang of our coworkers. Taking advantage of a loophole, which would soon close (the extra 30 minutes on paydays would go the way of the dodo, once cash machines were more widely established, and you didn't have to wait on glacially slow bank teller lines. (Direct deposit via internet was years away).

How could you not kid around at work when you had to share one ringing phone with the next guy over? And what a cast of characters! There was the guy everyone was afraid of, because he was a former MP in the army, and rumored to be an internal investigator--I just had lunch with him occasionally, having nothing serious to hide. The older "double dipper" (going for two pensions from two different jurisdictions of government) who drank his lunch--better do any business you had to do with him in the morning! My young first supervisor who told his own manager to stop fretting at me with "Don't bother him; he's working! Little did I know, I'd never have another one like him again in 26 years. And so we ran New York City, behind the scenes. Sometimes at the end of the day, they'd keep us over because they might need us on some last minute Emergency, until someone High Up finally decided whether to release us for the day or not. So we'd sit without pay, kidding around at first with cynical wit, until they came around if they kept us long enough, and suggested we might actually keep performing routine stuff while we were waiting. Having a sense of humor, I'd always become official myself when performing in any independent role. When I was in charge of a floor, my boss would find me patrolling the halls over my temporary domain, clipboard in hand; appearing to be checking things off and taking notes in the most professional manner. You've got to use the props they give you.

After a year was up and the major work we'd been hired to do was finished, they asked me to stay. but the writing was on the wall. Where they'd been fairly loose running our shop because we were working super hard, suddenly they were asking why we were taking an extra five minutes for lunch. This after I had found out there was a rule on the books that I couldn't take two exams at once, and move up quickly, as my abilities would have allowed. But I left because they didn't offer me anything to stay, and this was the only chance I'd get to transfer before my exam score allowed me a permanent assignment--where I'd be stuck in place for a while. These were the Seventies, good economic times, and I wanted a faster track. After many of us left, they finally offered a few, of the few who had stayed, an incentive. They gave them two per cent.

Second Assignment

This was the opposite type of place, small and quiet, but very high status. Where the first agency had made the rules for all NYC employees, this next one enforced them. In the system, as any other, Knowledge was Power. I was standing on a very long line once at a supply agency where I'd driven our pool car on a special procurement mission. Finding out I was in Personnel, an expert on a very complicated system that ruled over the lives of everyone, a local guy offered to send me to the head of the line if I'd just answer a couple of questions that he had that he couldn't get answered from his own personnel department! No problem.

Third Assignment

I'd left City government to write for a year. Now, unpublished, I needed work again. I remember one day as a taxi driver, when four of us were going for coffee together because we were to tired to go right home after a 12 hour shift, we discovered that there were two Masters (one me) and one Doctorate among us! So a contact got me a job with a boss no one else would work for; a certain politician's wife. A fun bunch of people, where a senior manager once said to me: "Don't worry about the report--we can always make an adjustment." I liked his style. One day I came in in summer when the air conditioning was broken and it was in the high 90s. In the old days we would have been given an early dismissal as a Heat Day, but they weren't doing that anymore. I got 'talked to' because I was wearing shorts in the office.

Fourth Assignment

Finally appointment as a manager! I'd helped orient a new guy back in my first assignment, who shared a phone with me back in the day. Now he was the assistant director of an office and put in the word for me. But you have to understand about 'Civil Service.' Managers, you see, have no union protection, and the famous civil service grievance procedure does not apply to them. I was now working, not being Someone's Relative, without a net. At the Central Office of this agency, I would later get assignments in three of its local offices (Assignments Five, Six, and Seven). Two were voluntary, and one a transfer. When I was told of the transfer, I responded "Great, its closer to where I live!" My reward for being positive about an involuntary move from my boss was: "I don't care about your feelings." Nice. My new boss turned out to be an old pal, so it was even nicer than I expected. The funny thing was, when I reported in, she thought I was there for another temporary job, as I'd done for her before. They had told her she was finally getting an assistant, but not that it would be me. We both chucked. Ah, The System...


If you're a lazy bachelor, you may have a pile of mail around your place that is too important to throw away, but too boring to open. When I opened a year old envelope, I discovered that I had been offered a special early retirement program. Late to buy into the pension system, I finally had done so, and then bought back to the beginning. Now I was hitting 55 years old at the same time my 25th (actually now 26th) year of service. So I tucked the letter into my pocket, and went down to visit the Retirement System. I asked the counselor there if I was eligible for the 55/25 Program. He said no. Then I smiled, and whipped out the letter. He said he'd have to check with his supervisor. The rest went very smoothly, and I retired at the end of the year. If I hadn't opened that envelope, I'd still be working today.
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