Saturday, September 27, 2008

Old Post Office

I spent the first two nights of September at the Park Avenue Mansion, a bed & breakfast in St. Louis. It's located on Lafayette Park near our new home. We needed temporary quarters because we had not yet closed on the new house. Merry and Joli joined me for the second night after driving our VW to St. Louis from Syracuse.

The B&B is owned and operated by a man named Michael. On the second morning we were passing the time waiting for our real estate agent to arrive to drive us to the closing. Michael was regaling us with stories about the history of his house of which he had made a very close study. Having exhausted that source he moved on to discuss other highlights of St. Louis architecture. He insisted we visit the “Old Post Office” building downtown and claimed it was architecturally one of the most significant of all of St. Louis' buildings. To prove his point he told us the following unusual things about the building: (1) It has a two-story basement that once served as the US Treasury gold depository for the western US. He claimed that it featured its own underground railroad station so gold could safely be shipped in and out. (2) The windows can be completely covered with steel shutters that slide out from slots in the wall. He claimed the shutters were installed in the 1920's during a trial of organized crime figures as a defense against possible mob machine gun fire.

A few days later I was talking with a fellow judge at work, Tom Muldoon. Judge Muldoon informed me that the hearing offices for Social Security used to be located in the Old Post Office. He described the grandeur of his former office in the building and told me he had the good fortune to tour the building with an architectural historian following the building's renovations in the 1990s. He too told me of the steel shutters that pull out of the walls, but in his version they were original to the 1884 building and were intended to turn the building into a fortress against attack from forces hostile to the Union. He explained border conflicts occurred in Missouri for quite a time after the Civil War. He repeated the story about the underground train station and added that the open air space surrounding the two story basement was designed as a moat that could be flooded in an attack thus protecting the gold by covering it with two stories of water. Finally, he told me that to stabilize the massive building it was built on pilings that rest on giant cotton bales. He claimed the bales were inspected during the renovations and were still sound after more than 100 years in the ground.

The very same day after a hearing, Jane Lanser, my hearing reporter, told me she had a book on the Old Post Office she would bring in for me to look over, and by the way, had I heard the story about how the gold mysteriously disappeared from the vaults there. The vocational expert in the courtroom waiting for the next hearing added that during the 1904 World's Fair people wanted to see the basement of the Old Post Office because it was rumored to be the entrance to a tunnel to the center of the earth.

I had to go look. It is an amazing building and architecturally significant for a number of reasons [see attached photos]. The real eye opener, however, occurred this past week when Jane brought me the book she promised. It was published in 1979 by the Landmarks Association, a St. Louis civic group that was leading the efforts to save and renovate the building. This book includes the following (presumably reliable) information: (1) When excavation for the building was underway a large bed of quicksand was uncovered. Attempts to excavate the quicksand caused the surrounding streets and buildings to subside, so excavation was stopped until hundreds of yellow pine pilings were driven then capped with 4-6 feet of limestone slabs (not cotton bales) on which the building now sits. These pilings were inspected in the 1970s and found to be sound. (2) The building was furnished with its own underground railroad platform but it was never used because it was impracticable to stop a coal fired steam train for long underground. (3) The metal shutters were original and intended for fireproofing. (4) There is no moat, the space around the basement was designed to admit light to basement windows.

Great old buildings inspire the imagination and gather stories. There is no tunnel to the center of the earth where the missing gold can be discovered by the fortunate soul brave enough to open the right passageway – but there should be.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Hello again everyone. Here's another short reflection on my new job. Thanks to everyone who commented on last week's entry. It's a bit lonely out here and the friendly contacts are certainly welcome.

After two weeks of hearing cases I've already discovered a rather surprising (surprising to me at any rate) basic law of judging Social Security cases. Finding in favor of someone and granting benefits is easy. It's gratifying, too. Claimants come to court convinced they are so disabled that they cannot work. They tell me their story. These stories are always heart wrenching. The claimants are sad, worn-out folks. Some have worked hard all their lives until an accident or bad judgment laid them low. Some are deadbeats, drug addicts, and lay-abouts who ran out of friends and luck. Some are ordinary people whose body has inexplicably turned on them. Many are mentally ill, undiagnosed and unable to care for themselves in any meaningful way.

During a hearing this week, as I listened to another sad story, I realized that I was going to have to deny this person benefits. I am certain that she believed she could not work, indeed it may be true that she can't work. The problem is she simply did not have any credible evidence to support her belief. Her good doctors had done their work well. According to them she had recovered most of her body's function. She hurt and was tired but I knew without a doubt that she could hold down a job.

As she told me that no one would hire her no matter how hard she tried, I looked at her lawyer. He is a well respected practitioner. He caught my eye. Somehow he saw that I had reached my decision and that it did not favor his client. I saw a slight change come over his face; a look of resignation, perhaps. As I noticed this change, he realized I knew that he knew the case was hopeless. At the end of the testimony I asked him if he needed more time to gather evidence that might convince me. He knew that such evidence did not exist and to his credit he did not pretend it did.

The next day I wrote the unfavorable decision. It took a lot of time to explain why I did not believe the testimony of the claimant and why her doctors did not provide adequate evidence of disability. This was hard work. Lonely work. Necessary work.

To my surprise, I did not shrink from this work or even find it distasteful. Judging means being striving to be fair. To be fair you need rules. It some cases the rules dictate some claimants lose. In order for me to do my part in this system of justice I have to apply these rules impartially, even when it means someone loses. It is hard work to be sure. I hope I can be worthy of it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


My “training” period came to an end at last after 7 hard weeks of not sleeping in my own bed. This last week our furniture arrived and I started hearing cases.

Let me set the stage. The Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) in St. Louis is located downtown in a modern office tower called St. Louis Place (picture attached). It occupies three quarters of the ninth floor. The office is roughly shaped like a “U” with a waiting room and elevators in the center. There are ten judges organized into two work groups with five judge's offices located on either long end of the U. There are about 45 support staff including ten decision writers (all lawyers) and 10 clerks called Senior Case Technicians (SCTs), one assigned to each judge. Tara Achembo is my SCT. She is essentially my paralegal helping get cases ready for hearing and following up afterwards. The rest of the staff is general clerical workers and managers.

Along the long flat side of the “U” adjacent to the waiting room is a row of five identical courtrooms. Claimants, their lawyers and any witnesses enter the courtrooms through locked doors from the waiting room. Judges enter from the inner office through a wooden door with a peephole that allows a fish-eye view inside. The judge's courtroom doors are unlocked from the office side but cannot be opened from inside the courtroom unless you have an electronic key.

The courtrooms each have the judge's bench on a raised platform at one end with a large desk, a computer hooked up to the SSA mainframe and a seat for a hearing reporter and their computer. In front of the bench is a large table with a seat for a vocational expert witness (VE) and seats for the claimant and their representative. Since 90% of our files are fully electronic, the attorney's seat and the VE's seat are equipped with computers, and they often also bring their own laptops. Each seat has a microphone to allow for electronic recording of the testimony.

On Monday I put on my new Judge's robe for the first time and headed for courtroom #2 a few minutes before 1:00, the time for my first hearing. I opened the door and was surprised to find the morning hearings had not yet ended. I apologized for the interruption then went to find my group leader to figure out what to do. I was quickly assigned a different courtroom and a different court reporter, but we couldn't get the computers to work. Finally, a half-hour later I was on my way. The confusing start took my mind off being nervous. I looked out at the claimant and his lawyer, introduced myself and started my questioning. I had perhaps over-prepared for a routine hearing but I wanted to really know the case. After about 15 minutes I knew what my decision would be. It was not this claimant's lucky day. His lawyer knew it was not going well. I gave the lawyer, who was very well prepared and comfortable, plenty of time to question his client, then granted his request for more time to try to get key evidence. They thanked me and left. The first hearing was over. It was 2:15. Not bad.

The next case involved a very mentally disturbed very young man. After he testified his mother testified and told me that virtually everything the claimant told me was a delusion. The file was devoid of adequate evidence. The claimant could not afford medical care so this time I ordered the client to get psychological testing paid for by Social Security. Another hour gone. The last claimant failed to show up. I dismissed his case. I walked out of the courtroom at 3:30, half an hour ahead of schedule. I felt great.

It's been pretty much like that every day since. After the hearings I issue orders for further development of cases and write decisions (actually I mostly write instructions to decision writers who draft decisions for me). Before the hearings I read files and make notes to prepare and occasionally decide a case without having to hold a hearing. I expect to decide at least 12 cases a week, or about 600 per year.

The work is inherently interesting and it suits me. I have a fair amount of compassion for claimants, but I've seen enough to not be a fool. I know what claimant's representatives go through and how they think. What's so different about judging is the realization that I'm the one who decides what will happen next for these folks. They need to move forward, and until I decide their life is on hold. Win or lose, after I decide, their story continues.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Forest Park

This is the first installment of my St. Louis blog. I send it to you for your amusement and as a way to keep in touch with valued friends. When I left Syracuse on Labor Day I started a new chapter in my life, but was at a loss about how to realistically keep in touch with the many friends I made during the last 20 years. A former neighbor of ours (Curt Miller) moved to Spain a few years back and sends us his occasional thoughts on his new life by email blog. Merry and I both enjoy reading Curt's blog so we decided to try doing something similar. Since we have different views on events and a somewhat different list of friends we decided to each write our own blog. If you do not want your mailbox filling up with our random thoughts, please let us know and we will take you off the list – no questions asked and no hard feelings.

The three of us (Merry and I and Joli the dog) arrived safely in St. Louis this past week and have bought a classic (circa 1900) brick home in a city neighborhood called McKinley Heights. Here is our new contact information. Our new address is 2115 Ann Ave., St. Louis, MO 63104. Our new phone is 314-865-0699. My new office phone is 314-588-7534 x 3015 and my office email is We are working on a new Internet connection and will probably get new email addresses soon but our current addresses will work for at least another month.

Yesterday (Saturday) was pleasantly warm so we took Joli for a walk in Forest Park. Forest Park sits in the heart of St. Louis and at 1,371 acres is one of the largest urban parks in the country. By comparison Central Park in New York is 843 acres. The park was dedicated June 24, 1876, and was originally four miles outside the St. Louis city limits. George Kessler, a well-known Midwestern park designer of the time, redesigned the park as a part of his master design for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. A popular myth says that Frederick Law Olmsted designed the park, fair grounds and Washington University campus. Kessler briefly worked for Olmsted as a Central Park gardener when he was in his 20s. The vistas in Forest Park seem to show Olmsted's influence.

There were 15 main palaces built for the 1904 Fair, but only one (now the Saint Louis Art Museum) was constructed as a permanent building. Today the park is an urban paradise with acres of lawns and gardens, walking trails, playing fields, several lakes, a golf course, bike and boat rentals and “the Grand Basin.” The Art Museum is the dominant architectural feature but there is an open pavilion from the Worlds Fair, the “Jewel Box” glass house, a beautiful boat house, some cafes, the Municipal Theatre, outdoor Opera and the Science Museum. A few illustrative pictures are attached.

The park's PR says that more than 10 million visitors come each year to relax, walk, play sports or attend events. Saturday was a prime day. We parked near the “Grand Basin” where a large wedding was underway. We arrived just in time for the “I dos.” The view from the Grand Basin is a classic of 19th Century park design. Water in a formal setting with fountains and row boats; marble arch bridges, then a steep lawn with the neo-classic museum at the top of the hill. People and dogs were everywhere. Wedding parties were every where. I lost count at 10 sets of brides, grooms and magenta colored bridesmaids.

We met everyone who was walking a dog and all the little kids who wanted to pet Joli. Most importantly we started to relax. Our new home has a spacious guest room. Please keep in touch and start to plan your visit to the Gateway to the West. Ed