She looked tired, tried not to slump too much, and stirred her coffee, adding several sachets of sugar.
“Oooooh, I really need this; I'm on a diet, and this is no good - I know, but I really do need this..."
I stared into my cup of water. I can't stand coffee, and water can't be much wrong, except that it might be poisoned or contaminated, but you don't expect that in a social services office in Klotestad.
How the hell did i end up here? After yet another attempt at self-employment, which was doomed to fail from the start, i had to stop my business attempts and had no income anymore, because employers weren't really jumping for me either. So i reported to the municipality.
After submitting all kinds of documents, i received a letter. The following week i had to report for an information meeting, which was mandatory.
We had to report to the staff entrance of the same depressing buildingsee the video above this story. Different people of different ages, ranks, classes, colors trickled in, reported to the counter and wrote their names on the attendance list. In the meantime, many employees came in, it was only half past eight. The suits, smart trousers, pointed shoes clocked in, meanwhile chatting animatedly about the weekend.
We stood like dull pillars of salt with backpacks scattered across the small hall. There was some fuss, a man with graying hair, he reminded me of former social workers with those brown ribbed trousers and cozy sweaters, but with a tie. He walked around with a badge, so he was an employee, and also exuded a kind of authority. He was trying to arrange something, it was unclear what.
After about ten minutes we had to go through the security gate, and were led through some narrow corridors into a sort of classroom. The sun was kept out as much as possible – there was a large projection screen on one side. Opposite were about thirty chairs, all of which were about 1.5 meters apart. It was 2015, so no pandemic yet, so the question is, why?
The graying man welcomed us person by person upon entering, no hands were shaken, we had to sit down. Next to the screen stood two women, arms tightly folded, faces straight. At the back of the room stood a large, broad, sturdy security guard, also arms folded. Graying Man stood in the front, slightly in front of the two women, introduced himself - i forget if he also said his name, maybe just his first name and his position? - and gave a short introduction. A film would be shown, we had to watch it carefully, afterwards he would answer questions.
I've never been in a prison, let alone as a prisoner. But this felt like we were gathered here, to get an explanation about the disinfection and the visitation that would take place afterwards. We were trapped like rats. The detachment, the security, a kind of uniformity that was aimed for: it felt so oppressive, it was like we were criminals with no brains.
The film. An acquaintance i spoke to later had to see this too, and called it a ridiculous toddler film. And so it was. It was an animated film about a young woman going through a barren landscape of a house and office and a street, and it was about how to apply for social security benefits. And what your rights, but especially your obligations, are.
The woman was an animation figure, which exaggeratedly rises and falls when walking. It irritated me immensely. The animation seemed to go on for hours. I would have preferred a brochure or a website. And the Q&A session afterwards wasn't much better. The questions that were asked were about personal situations, and each answer meant that they had to discuss that separately from the group.
After many warnings we were allowed to go.
And now i was sitting here with Mrs. Iwontmentionhername, but someone with the same, rare, last name is a fairly well-known person in Klotestad, and every time i read that name somewhere, i think of this civil servant.
The fact that i had to report again at half past eight that morning, and that the doors were still closed, had not done my mood any good either. Of course i was well on time; i lived in a different district, and with public transport you never know if things are going well, and the film and the letters had made me quite afraid of doing something wrong. Plus, i needed money, not endless movies and sermons.
I was already there at 8:15, mid-December, so i was freezing for fifteen minutes, there was not even a bench anywhere. The doors were opened by the security guards at exactly half past eight. When i politely asked if the doors could not have been opened sooner, only shoulders were shrugged.
Those who don't work, those who don't complain.
Everyone i met in this building afterwards seemed to have a personal grudge against the unemployed. Among themselves, the staff appeared to be having a good time, jokes or kind words were shared, but as soon as an unemployed person came into the picture, the tone changed. Then suddenly it seemed as if they really hated their work.
I don't remember much about the conversation with Iwontmentionhername. I quickly hated her, she probably hated me too, like everyone else there. We spoke several times in a few months.
One time she suddenly gave me a terrible sermon. She told me that i should be happy that she gave me the opportunity to participate in this very special program, and that was not for everyone, i had to understand that well.
Later - when she had more or less forced me to agree to that “special program” - i was given a laundry list of assignments for next time. It was a week before Christmas. She told me that she was going on holiday for two weeks - so longed for it! - the next appointment would be after that, so i would have two weeks to complete the assignments.
The assignments were so ignorant; things i had to do 1000x before in my meager life. What are your wishes? Your dreams? What can you do? What do you want? All sorts of crappy questionnaires. And: the biographical exercise: i had to write at least 1 A4. She would email it to me.
When i got home indeed everything was already in my inbox. The explanation of that exercise was already three A4, and i wondered how the hell i could get it all done in 1 A4. I got a little desperate. But after a few days i thought: well, fuck it. You want my story? Then you get my story.
The result was my work biography, but because everything has to do with work and education and life with everything else, right?, it turned out to be 33 pages of A4. Happily i emailed it back to her between Christmas and New Year.
2015 started, new round, new opportunities. It definitely didn't feel that way to me. With lead in my shoes i went to the umpteenth appointment with Iwontmentionhername. She said she was pleasantly surprised - her face spoke other volumes - with my 33 pages; most people sent in a few sentences, she said, so this was… well... She swallowed the rest of the sentence with her coffee.
She had indicated before, that she would make a timeline of the biography, so that i would gain insight into my work life, and then i would become more aware of my own strengths and abilities.
However, the 33 pages had fallen so hard on her that she had not succeeded in making a timeline. She would email me her attempt, then i could do it myself – as a new assignment.
A few weeks later, there i was again at the other end of the row of screened-off tables, Mrs. Iwontmentionhername across from me. With a lot of fiddling in a grumpy office package i had managed to cram the timeline onto one A4, it had been hours of work. I had to e-mail it to her earlier that week, so it was laying on the file in front of her. She praised me for it. She told me that a colleague had walked by just before and asked who made it, and that colleague wondered how someone who could make something like this was unemployed. And that she herself also didn't really understand that, me with all my talents!
My pants sank to endless depths on the spot. With me included.
It is now 8 years later. My anger at that seemingly innocent remark is still dizzyingly deep. Layer after layer after layer my mind thunders towards everything that was wrong with it. And is, because it never goes away.
At that time, i tried to explain to her what was wrong with it. I couldn't do it without getting angry, because i was already angry when i opened my mouth. I tried my best to be as polite as possible, but i still remember how i sat shaking in my chair, and how the ground moved away from under me when she pretended not to understand me. There was nothing wrong with a compliment, it was a compliment! If I couldn't appreciate even a compliment…. She could also kick me out of the program, if I preferred? She had expected a little more gratitude from me, not everyone got such an opportunity. And so forth.
For all those reading this who don't understand what's wrong with that comment of hers, let me explain.
She complimented me, but not to actually compliment me. She had already done that, i had thanked her for that. She thought it necessary to twist the compliment into a weapon: a weapon to blame me for not having a job. I had told her my whole fucking life story, all the struggles, all the hassles… she wiped everything off the table with this remark: whatever i did, told, said, explained about my problems, it was all completely subordinate to the purpose of her work. I had to find a job as soon as possible, and every attempt by me to get some input into it myself was rejected.
That my age was a problem, that i often did not have the right education, that others were given priority for reasons that were unclear to me: suddenly none of that mattered anymore. It also turned out to be completely incomprehensible that i had no job. As if all those factors had disappeared like snow in the sun, and no one had informed me about it.
To be honest, i never had understood what kind of track I was assigned to during all that time. It came across as if it was fake, something with which she had tried to soothe me. Criticism was not tolerated. Period.
We raised our voices. That she did that was okay, but for me that was forbidden, so in no time a large guard stood behind me. If the lady wanted to calm down a bit. I was trembling with a strange mixture of anger and fear. I wasn't afraid of the security guard, but i was afraid of what awaited me. Penalty discount? Payment stopped? That woman told me all sorts of things. But, she said, she would still turn a blind eye. I really had to do my very best, and for next time I got some annoying assignments again.
It took a while before i got summoned again; i was suddenly invited by another department, which she had threatened me with, but had not told me to go there.
She probably didn't dare tell me, or had she changed her mind afterwards? No idea. It was very strange. I started doubting myself for a moment. Had i misunderstood something, because of all the emotions?
But no, i checked my notes again – she really hadn't said anything to me. Bizarre.
Much later i found out that she had also given me penalty points…
To be continued, because this story has a very strange, long tail.