I recall a scene that took place in my family around 1958. My aunt Joy was in some kind of trouble and unemployed. My parents were trying to help her get a job as a telephone operator. My mom loaned her a beige dress for the interview, and some lipstick that she hardly knew how to put on. Everything about her, down to the red lipstick, was sad and grotesque, as she tried to comply with expectations. Of course she didn’t get the job. How much that day must have cost her, who had so close to nothing that it’s frightening to contemplate.
Decades later I was in mid-career as a Rehabilitation counselor, providing job-related services, including interview clothes, for unemployed, mostly low- or semi-skilled, and painfully inarticulate. Like Joy, they were trying to cross a line from poor to working-class. They knew enough to say they wanted a job, but the word had little meaning to them, because it had no concrete referent in their personal experience. Still, they tried, sometimes valiantly, to say what they thought an employer wanted to hear.
Between the Rehab counselor and the client this cannot avoid being a patronizing relationship. The counselor probably has a Master’s degree, and gets a salary. The client gets pants, shirt, and shoes, and maybe a subsistence allowance equal to a few days’ panhandling proceeds. But more significant than any material benefits is that line he or she has to cross into the uncharted territory where others have all the important decisions in their hands and the rules are unknown.
As it happens, the Owl had experienced this situation from the inside. Although he attended and graduated from a renowned seminary, he did not learn until afterward how the various religious denominations groom candidates for ordination and employment in ministry. When he wrote to the chief pastor in the Methodist parish where he thought he was a member, the reply was a cursory note of congratulation with no further advice, as if we had never met. My parents had started their careers as a telephone cable splicer and a nurse’s aide, and had simply drifted away from church.
One could go on from this point to decry the social and economic causes and effects of unemployment, or social ills like drug addiction and family breakdown, or other barriers that confront poorly assimilated people. The verses and chorus of that song are well known and need not be rehearsed here.
What is more to the point here is the relentless patronizing and condescension we helpers visit on those with whom we think we are in sympathy. We don’t really know them at all, any more than my upwardly mobile parents actually knew their sister Joy—or I with my bodily comforts understood Rehab clients with their bad backs and educational failures. May God forgive me all the asinine things I said to them about pain before I knew anything about it.