On the way back to my office from the so-called oral exam, which I knew I’d flunked brilliantly, I stopped at the State Building Number 8 cafeteria for a cup of coffee. It was, I thought, the least I could do for myself. Outside it was typical Sacramento winter weather, dark, temperature about 40, not exactly rain but a mist or fog that chilled you to the bone. This would alternate with bouts of real rain, usually accompanied by winds, for the next few months. Once you could count on some sunny days in February, what used to be known as a “false spring.” Lately though, as the weather had become weird all over, you never knew what to expect.
As I’ve mentioned, I knew I’d flunked the oral. I say it was a “so-called exam” because, as everyone knew, it was a charade. I was 48 years old and had worked for the State of California for 18 years. The State civil service was supposedly based on a merit system. When I’d started there was a written exam, which actually tested your knowledge, followed by an oral exam presumably to make sure your were reasonably presentable. Promotions in those long-ago days were pretty well based on merit. For my first exam, the entry level one for Research Analyst, I studied for and was actually tested on probability and statistics. The written exam has long since been done away with and the oral was for show only, to make it appear there was some competition for a job whose occupant had already been selected.
I’d recently read an article by a well-known writer about his early business experience with a large company. I was surprised that he wrote he’d quit his job because he realized he could advance no further as promotion was reserved only for minorities and women. Everyone knew about this, but it was politically incorrect to say it aloud and so nobody did.
The State of California, always on the cutting edge, had been one of the first to embrace affirmative action, as it was called, and as a result many of its higher-level employees were Afro-Americans or Latinos. I knew applying for a promotional exam was a futile exercise, so why had I done so? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s because with one daughter in college and one a few years away I could certainly use the extra money and I still had a glimmer of hope. Maybe because I wanted to see what the oral exam board was up to these days.
In the event, I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, one of the first questions was: how did I feel about affirmative action? Ah yes, wasn’t that first proposed to level the playing field about 40 or 50 years ago? How long did it take to level a playing field? Of course, had I answered about how I truly felt I might as well have left the room right then.
Regarding the work I’d done, a large health care survey I’d designed and carried out was dismissed as just a routine study, although the federal government had latched on to its results. As for my supervisory experience, after many years as a State employee, I was head of a unit consisting of a mere three persons. Nothing. At the end of the interview, if it could be called that, I was asked if I had anything else to say. My mind flashed to an old Woody Allen movie in which he’d appeared before a congressional committee trying to prove everyone they didn’t like was a Communist and he’d been asked this. His replay was: “Go f--- yourself.” I was tempted, but I still had a few years before I’d be able to retire so I just stood up, said it had been instructive, and left. Okay, that was enough of that. Time to get back to work, unimportant though it was. As I left the building, as if on cue, the rain started.
In my office, my secretary Juanita, or I should say Office Tech, as I suppose “secretary” had become a politically incorrect word with the State, asked me how the exam had gone. “As expected,” I told her. “Don’t worry, I’ll still be here for a long time. Any messages?”
She handed me half a dozen phone slips. “You also have a memo from the Division Chief, better read it.”
“Just what I need.”
“Oh, yes, Doris managed to lose our computer run request again.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
I went into my little office and sat at my desk. I looked out the window; the rain was now coming down hard. Sacramento winter. I flipped through the phone slips; one from a legislative aide, top priority, of course. Another was from my wife Amy. Uh, oh, what was wrong now? Amy rarely called me at work, and when she did it was usually because something had gone wrong with our 30-year-old house. I hadn’t told her about taking the oral exam because I didn’t want her to be disappointed. I dialed our number. As I’d expected, something had gone wrong; the washing machine had overflowed.
“Maybe you put in too much soap.”
“I don’t think so. That’s the second time this month. I think it’s worn out.”
“We can’t afford a new machine right now. I’ll look at it when I get back.”
“All right. Be careful driving back. It’s coming down in buckets.”
Next I called the legislative aide, who had a request for information about cancer deaths in the last five years. This would be difficult to get, especially as per usual with a legislative aide, he wanted it instantly. I managed to convince him that early next week was the best we could do. I called in Frank, one of my two analysts, and assigned him the task. Frank was an old pro; I knew he could handle the job. Then I looked at the memo from the Division Chief. I expected some impossible-to-do job or a reprimand for not doing a job quickly enough. Instead, he wanted me to represent the Division at some meeting of health data specialists in San Francisco later in the month. Well, somebody didn’t think I was a complete loser.
This unfortunately brought me back to the oral exam again. How did I really feel about affirmative action? I didn’t like it. It started out, as most social initiatives, with good intentions, but now, I thought, it was doing more harm than good. Did this make me a racist? I considered. Doris, the Data Systems clerk who was always messing up was an African-American so, as everyone knew, had to be handled with kid gloves. Juanita, my Office Tech, was a Latino; she was my right hand. Frank was a crackerjack analyst. Like myself he was a middle-aged white male. I’d been trying for two years to get him a promotion, but he’d probably gone as far as he could go. Brian, my other analyst, was an African-American, a nice young guy but only a fair-to-middling analyst. He was on his way up. The State used to operate on a merit system, mostly. Why couldn’t everyone be evaluated on his or her merits? No, in today’s atmosphere, this was too radical a notion.
As for myself, any promotion was blocked. Did this sour me on my job? Of course it did. I wouldn’t have been human if it didn’t. Like the now well-known writer who’d realized any advancement was blocked I’d have liked to quit, but I couldn’t. So I tried to do the best I could, if only from self-pride. Well, this wasn’t getting me anywhere. I looked through the rest of my phone slips and started making my calls, hoping the rain would let up by quitting time.
* * *
Saturday morning, soccer time. Our 12-year-old daughter Kate was playing. I wore a heavy jacket and a wool hat, but still I was cold. It was a gray, morose day. The field was still muddy from the rain that had finally stopped early that morning. “Come on, Kate,” I yelled as our daughter moved the ball down the field. Unlike Beth, our older daughter, the scholar, Kate was athletic. Then a defender tripped her up and she fell down into the mud. “I see I’ll be using the washing machine today,” said my wife Amy. “I hope it holds up.” So do I, I thought.
“Great weather, huh?” It was my next-door neighbor Ed Blake. His daughter Sandra was on Kate’s team.
“Yeah, perfect for soccer.”
“I heard you took the oral last week. Don’t tell me you still think we middle-aged white guys have a chance?”
Ed, like myself, was a long-time State employee. He was stuck in an agency headed by one of those neurotic women, a dedicated feminist of course, the State seem to favor for promotion. “Any openings in your department?” Ed always asked me that.
“No, I’ll let you know if anything comes up.” This was always my answer.
The game finally came to an end, our team losing 2-1. Kate and Sandra, after the ritual handshakes with the other team, came running over to us. “Good job,” Ed and I both said.
“Are we going to have pizza?” Kate asked.
“Not today,” I said. “We have to get you into some dry clothes.” Toward the end of the game it had started to rain again. We got into the car and I drove home. Kate went into the shower, Amy went to the washing machine with the wet and muddy uniform, and I went to get a hot drink.
* * *
Sunday. Miraculously the sun was out. On an impulse I dug out my tennis racket. I called Ed to see if he could play, but he said he had to get to his yardwork before the next storm. I walked to our swim and tennis club, which was just around the corner. I usually played doubles with Ed and two other neighbors, but no one I played with was there. Three players were on Court 1: Larry Foster, Dick Niles and Hank Miller. All were 4.0 players; I was at best at 3.5. To my surprise, Larry called for me to come down and make a fourth. He was a big man in his early 40’s, an African-American, who’d played football in college and still looked like a formidable athlete. He also worked for the State but not in the trenches; he was a Deputy Director somewhere.
I was a little nervous about playing with these guys but tried not to show it as we rallied before the game. Foster had picked me for his partner, the best player teamed with the weakest. I knew what my job was, try to keep the ball in play and deep if I could until Foster got a short return that he could put away at the net. I was able to do this often enough so that we won the set 6-4; of course Foster’s coverage at net extended to almost three-quarters of the court. We played a second set and were tied at 4-4, their serve. At 30-40 I caught the other two at the net and was able to hit a lob that landed just in front of the baseline for the point and game. Larry then served it out for the set.
“Good playing, partner,” said Larry, shaking my hand. “Come on, I’ll buy you a beer.” The club had a nice patio. We took a table there and it felt good to be in the sun. Larry handed me a cold beer, then surprisingly he said, “I saw that survey you did. Nice job. We have a survey of our own coming up and there’s no one in our outfit who knows anything about sample sizes or designing a questionnaire. Any chance of getting you to come over? I wish I could offer you a senior-level, but I can get you in as a Research Specialist, just a couple of steps below.”
I quickly did the math. A Research Specialist would net me at least a few thousand more a year. We could put Beth through graduate school and Kate through college. We could get a new washing machine. “Are you offering me a job?”
“That’s right. Interested?”
“Yes, but how will you get a transfer through, and a promotion?”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of it. Is it a deal?”
Needless to say, my answer was “Yes.”
Back home I told Amy the news. “Just like that?” she said.
“Just like that.”
“Does this men you can retire earlier?”
“I don’t know, but the extra money will help. I’ll work it out later. Let’s go out to lunch now and celebrate.”
As I showered and dressed, I reflected on the events of the last few days. If I ran into any of those people on my oral exam board would I now feel free to say, “And you can go f--- yourself”? No, I was too polite to say anything like that. Besides, wasn’t my unlikely promotion due to an African-American guy, Larry Foster, being in a position to give it to me? Maybe, but wasn’t I qualified for the job? Or was it due to my brilliant tennis playing? Well, whatever the case, I’d take it and maybe I’d be able to get out of the whole mess a few years earlier.