About twenty years ago, give or take, business was booming in my temporary help business. We had, after a lot of work and a great deal of frustration, developed a core constituency of clients who ordered office help from us week after week. These were major corporations like Budget Rent A Car and The Quaker Oats Company. Not only did they order from us with regularity – we could depend on receiving payment for our invoices in a timely manner. Naturally, we were appreciative of their business and bent over backwards to keep them happy – making sure that we filled every assignment with a qualified person.
Every so often they would throw us a “ringer” position. Our specialty was in secretarial help – but from time to time they would request someone for the mail room or to do document copying. We did not have a big bench of people with those skills as that was not the focus of our recruitment efforts.
One day, one of our best clients requested a person for a two month period to work in sorting and delivering inter-office mail (naturally this was long before email was in the extensive use in which we find it today). The client indicated that if they were happy with the person we assigned, it might turn into a permanent position.
After combing through our files we called the few people who could handle the position and would be likely to accept it. One of those, a young man named Jamal had worked on two assignments for us although it had been quite some time since we had an opening that was appropriate for his limited skill set. But we called him and he said he was available. That’s when I heard one of the most heartbreaking truths about poverty and the inner city.
“You know, I would like to take the job – sounds good – and I’d like something could turn permanent. I been looking for permanent work for a year. But, problem is, I don’t have the bus fare to get to work.”
I didn’t talk to this young man but my Sales Manager, Stephanie had the conversation with him and she came into my office to ask if there were something we could do to get him some money so that he had bus fare until he got his first paycheck. I adored Stephanie. She was bright, creative and I think most importantly, she had a big heart. She handed me Jamal’s application and the first thing that I noticed was the he lived in the Robert Taylor Homes – one of Chicago’s worst housing projects. It was so bad in this part of “the hood” that Chicago’s finest were nervous about responding to calls in “Da Homes.”
I got Jamal on the phone, asked if he would meet us in a half hour outside his apartment building and said that we would be happy to give him a cash advance so that he could get on the bus to take the job. There was a brief pause when he heard this and then he emotionally said he would be downstairs and described the clothes he was wearing. So I grabbed one of the guys in the office (without telling him where we were going) and we headed out to the projects, stopping at the bank to cash a small check and make sure I had some singles and quarters in the forty dollar advance as the CTA frowned on its riders who didn’t have exact change.
True to his word, Jamal was downstairs as we pulled up, navigating between the empty McDonald’s containers that littered the area in front of his building. I handed him the details of the assignment, two time sheets and the forty dollars. The Cheshire Cat had nothing by way of a grin that came over the face of this young man.
This is one of those stories that has a happy ending – well sort of. Jamal showed up at our client on time and did a great job. After the first week he came into our office and brought his time sheet. He thanked everyone, starting with our receptionist, then Stephanie and me for giving him this chance. The client apparently was very pleased with him and had told him that if he kept up the good work for the two month duration of the assignment they would make arrangements with us to hire him permanently. Jamal was 22 years old and had never had a full time job. And that is, in fact, what happened.
About two years went by. Our relationship with the client grew and in a typical week we had more than thirty temps working at their corporate office. One morning Stephanie came into my office, tears streaming down her cheeks. I got up from my desk, fearing that something tragic had happened with one of her family members, put my arms around her and asked what was wrong.
“I just got off the phone with Vera Jackson. (She was the lady who placed orders for temporary help for this client.) Jamal was coming home from work on Friday and when he got to his apartment, he was killed in a drive by shooting. Vera said that he had told her that he had nearly saved up enough to move out of the projects and into a safer neighborhood and was looking for an apartment. If only he had found one a few weeks sooner.
I thought about Jamal yesterday as I watched the riots in Baltimore. According to the news report, the thugs who had the accelerant and the matches burned 140 cars in one night. They did their work in a poor neighborhood, burning down what little was there in the first place. I thought to myself that those cars were the biggest asset their owners held, the way they got to work.
And I thought in light of this destruction, I hope these poor souls have bus fare.