• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Bureaucratic Bullying

Learning different lessons.

February 9, 2014

I have been struggling with a sinus infection, an artifact of a bug that laid me low for a week. I am okay, but very tired.

On Wednesday, I saw patients all morning, then took a train out to New Jersey to play the mother of two grown daughters in a comedy film. I wouldn't have accepted the part if I had realized I would still be feeling punk, but the cast and crew were delightful, and filming went fairly smoothly.

Even so, as happens on every film, there were mishaps. Traffic noise interfered with a take. An actress's face was shiny; she had to be powdered and reshot. I blew a line. As a result, although we were supposed to wrap at 10 we went on until midnight. After that, several of us took the train back to Manhattan and then the subway home.

So it was going on 1AM when I stood befuddled at the turnstile for the #2 train and swiped my MetroCard repeatedly with no success. This happens every few months, for reasons unknown: I get repeated messages, "Please swipe again at this turnstile," and then the dreaded "Just used," dreaded because with an an unlimited-ride monthly card, you then have to wait 18 minutes before using the card again, or talk to the station attendant.

Usually the attendants are used to these glitches. They run the card through a reader that shows its history, then buzz you in through a special door. This one, though, decided I needed to be taught a lesson.

"Ma'am," she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm,  "this" (making an exaggerated swooping motion with the hand that held my card) "is not the way to do it. Watch me. Not this way. You swipe a card like this, not like this."

She held me captive, watching her demonstrate over and over how ridiculous my swiping efforts had looked, while we both saw the flashing lights announcing that my train was arriving at, then departing from, the platform downstairs. All I could think about was how exhausted I was, how much I wanted to get home and collapse into bed, and the fact that I needed to be up by 6 the following morning for the long train trip to my job.

I let her have her fun. What could I do? She had my card. Finally she tired of playing and released me. Because it was early morning, I had to wait a long time for the next train.

Whenever something like this happens (at the DMV, going through security at airports, one horrendous set of encounters with Unemployment which I will detail next week if my stomach is stronger) I think about those of my patients who are on government aid programs, and for whom this sort of obstruction and humiliation isn't a periodic outrage, but a way of life.

Critics carp about "entitlements," but this is the least entitled group I have ever known. They have been through hard times and they want desperately to hold on to their apartments, to feed their children, and to live their lives like the rest of us. Many of the people they encounter are caring and helpful, but when they run across a bully—and bullying is built into a number of these systems — there is nothing they can do but take it or risk their children's well being. Having to live this way tends to have a corrosive effect on self-esteem and the belief that change is possible.

I don't think the answer is to cut their benefits further.

More next week.


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