From October of 1995 to the end of January 2000, I worked at a human services agency in the Greater Boston area. I was a freshly-minted Masters degreed social worker who didn’t feel ready to fill his shoes, specifically that of being a psychotherapist. So, I took a job as an adult foster care case manager to get to know the ins and outs of my profession in the real world. I then could ease myself into my particular, true calling I’d awoken to at the age of fifteen. I was still so overrun by anxiety and a subsequent lack of confidence long developed during my childhood. Well, that combined with having attended Smith College School for Social Work, an impressive place of learning which had left my brain top-heavy with psychodynamic theories but hardly any practical training in treatment methodologies.
Working in the adult foster care department of an elder services agency, I nervously struggled through my job, especially during the first six months or so. I got to know some kind, interesting people along the way. A little over two years into this position, the agency relocated, losing some great staff in the process, which included a mini exodus of diversity, these nonwhite folks being competent, savvy workers. The move into a less expensive, more industrial area off the beaten path from our previous site in the heart of a renewing, artsy urban center helped to shed these employees. But, financially, a non-profit human services organization simply could not keep up with increasing office rents in a fast-gentrifying city square. This change was one of a handful of reasons why and when my job satisfaction started to go downhill.
Feeling too insecure to look for other work, I stayed for almost two more years after the agency moved. Midday often found me in the building before driving around to homes for the afternoon to meet with my assigned foster families or returning to the office down the hall to complete paperwork and make phone calls. The kitchen was a larger space in the (old) new building, usually filled during lunchtime with a handful of the same people over and over again. I don’t remember ever having any stimulating or particularly engaging conversations in that eating area. The culture there largely consisted of heterosexual white women who tended to gossip and complain, which is probably why the same ones generally showed up there and other employees stayed away. I don’t recall how long it took for me to catch on, but I eventually did. I started meeting up for lunch downstairs with Joyce and Lolita, two friends who worked together in the fiscal department.
Joyce and Lolita were two heavyset women who lived in Dorchester, or Joyce did and Lolita may have resided somewhere else close by to that part of Boston. Many details are no longer clear to me. Joyce talked more than Lolita, had some grown children, and, I believe, was divorced. Lolita was at least ten years younger, childless, and never married. Her voice was deeper than Joyce’s.
These two women of African American descent quietly took me into their precious space and break time, their duo of support and unspoken understandings. Their caring warmth was palpable to me, like a calming thickness in the air between them. I don’t recall much what we talked about and, honestly, that didn’t matter. Their communication with each other, and then with me too, was often nonverbal. A single sentence would be said and the other usually nodded, adding a slow, “Mm hmm.” Then, silence would resume. I think I spoke most often, filling the air needlessly with my voice, though I never once got the sense that this bothered either Joyce or Lolita. Their wide faces always appeared relaxed with a calm, wise knowing. It’s hard to explain. I remember expressing appreciation for letting me hang out and eat with them, stating that I felt uncomfortable with the social scene in the dining area upstairs. Joyce nodded in empathy and said something like, “Yeah, we know. We don’t care for it either.” I felt a wave of relief. I’d finally arrived at a safe haven there at work. An implicit understanding of how all three of us were outsiders had been made explicit.
I sometimes joked with Lolita, calling her “Queen Lolita– you know, like Queen Latifah.”
“I wish I had her money!” She’d reply in her smooth bass drawl, slowly smiling.
I agreed with her on how nice that would be.
This brief banter happened on at least three occasions, probably more.
Joyce was the main person I spoke with in the fiscal department whenever I had to inquire about a monetary concern with a case. She was always responsive and easy to problem solve with.
I remember talking to Joyce a little about her being from a Southern-based family, her being black something I did not overtly ask about. I didn’t blatantly come right out to her as being gay either. It was simply understood. I can’t recall now what state her family originally hailed from. I do remember consulting with her about a young African American man from Florida who had flattered me with his almost aggressive attentions at a movie theater one Saturday afternoon. I wish I still knew exactly what she had said, but my mind draws a blank. The gist of it was that being direct was culturally his way, that she too had not been raised to beat around the bush. This felt refreshing to hear about, me being a “proper” white boy whose anxiety included feeling conflicted over the need to be polite and “not too intense” versus being forthright, up front. (Years later, another woman I met would say to me how some of her white friends and coworkers described her strident frankness as “having a black moment.” I’ve always admired the directness of many African American women.)
This exchange with Joyce elucidated for me Joyce’s and Lolita’s natural openness and comfort with their feelings. Even though they spoke little of their innermost thoughts or — so often– actually much of anything at length (at least in my presence), whatever they felt was right there on their faces, to be known, shared, joined in feeling. Their ample bodies were an extension of all this sensing and emotion, or vice versa. Their calm, slower movements relayed a graceful comfort and centeredness in their fullness, indifferent to some foreign, white-created standards of health and beauty. I find myself thinking of the ancient Venus of Villendorf figurine when I reflect about Joyce and Lolita. Earth Mothers incarnate.
After leaving that first job out of graduate school for a full-time clinician position elsewhere, I returned a few times to visit Joyce, Lolita, and some other former coworkers. When I said a last “goodbye” to each of these two women, I don’t remember thinking about the finality of it. I was preoccupied with my new job, my home life, and whatever else that was going on for me at the time. Somehow, I recall it being rather brief and casual, almost as if I were soon going to see them again for lunch by the small break room area not far from their office cubicle. At least that’s how it comes back to me. The last time I ever spoke with Joyce may very well have been that conversation about the much younger (than me) guy from Florida.
My farewell to Lolita is even fuzzier. I still think of her in the hallway, chuckling at my calling her “Queen Lolita” while wearing a lovely bright cloth wrapped around her head. I saw her in more than one headscarf over the year-plus that I knew her. I think one was bright yellow, or had yellow in it along with green. In my mind’s eye, I see her in a red one too. And while it ultimately doesn’t matter what colors Lolita actually wore, that my brain has long shifted around and altered the hues and patterns of her headscarves and clothing beyond factual accuracy, what is important is how I so clearly remember her quiet yet bright fabulousness. And then there was Joyce’s more understated fabulousness. It came through in other ways, such as in her big-toothed smiles and kind words of clarity and understanding, very much a fabulousness.
And I feel a warmth, mingling with gratitude, rise up inside from my stomach into my throat and head, to settle all through my body as I think about how Joyce and Lolita offered me safe haven of real human connection while on the job. From their presence flowed a sweet water of sorts that I came back to drink in, now and again, at lunch time.