Saturday, February 28, 2009

Six months later

Merry & I moved to St. Louis six months ago on Labor Day, 2008. I made a two year commitment to relocate here when I was hired, so one quarter of that commitment has now been fulfilled. The current arc of our lives started when the ALJ job was offered to me in late June. Then came the whirlwind of the move - selling my practice, finding someone to rent our house, finding and buying a new house in St. Louis, packing up the house in Syracuse (accomplished by Merry while I spent all of August in Baltimore being “trained”) and finally moving. I was required to go to work immediately, so Merry did most of the work getting our new home ready to live in. 2115 Ann had been “rehabbed” in the recent past, but once we took possession it became obvious that the conversion from two-family to one-family had been heavy on style and light on careful workmanship. The concept is good, the execution less so.

The new laundry room was unpainted and without a dryer vent. The electrical system was left incomplete in minor (we hope) ways. The two bathrooms were painted horrible colors (downstairs was dark blue with white stripes, upstairs dark green with a silver glaze). The master bedroom had been painted a dark chocolate brown. Merry applied her considerable painting skills and remedied the decorating faux pas. She also had the electrical system inspected and a dryer vent installed. She decorated the house with the art work we brought along and bought the necessary new furniture and fixtures needed to make it a home. She contracted for a new fence for the yard and had a gas fireplace installed in our upstairs sitting room. The place looks great. There are many things that still need to be done, but I feel that we are finally settled in. As spring approaches we are planning for a garden.

All through the turmoil of moving I've been amazed and blessed by all Merry accomplishes every day. In many ways she has the harder job. She retired from her long time mental health social work job in Syracuse and moved to a new place where she knew no one. Nonetheless she has engaged in an undaunted course of discovery that has led us from one joyful event to another. Thanks to her efforts we now belong to the Missouri Botanical Garden, the St. Louis Art Museum, the St. Louis Science Center and the Missouri Historical Society. We have walked in the major city parks and explored many nearby State parks. We spent a weekend in the Ozarks and a week in New Orleans. The list goes on and on.

For my part, I've spent most of my time learning how to decide Social Security cases. In my first six months I've held a total of 309 hearings. Of these I've issued decisions in 204 cases. I paid benefits in 118 of these cases and denied benefits in 86 (including those dismissed because the claimant failed to show up at their hearing). That means so far I've rendered favorable decisions 58% of the time. The national average is 60% favorable. I'm probably being a bit more careful granting benefits because of my lack of experience. I also had to adjourn 105 of my cases for various reasons. 28 were adjourned because of the January ice storm in Cape Girardeau. 30 claimants needed post trial development of the record. The other 47 were rescheduled for further hearings, usually because the claimant wanted to hire a lawyer. To my astonishment at this time I have 835 pending cases assigned to me, and the number keeps rising weekly. Even if I reach the informal goal of deciding 500 – 700 cases a year I will keep falling behind. The cases are just coming in faster than they can be fairly processed. Our office has been promised two additional judges from the hiring that is anticipated this coming summer. That will help; in the meantime all the Judges here are meeting and exceeding every goal set for us; yet we are still falling behind.

Today's blog is the 26th entry in the series. Frankly, I'm enjoying doing the writing. Every day I write for about an hour before heading off to work. Much of this ends up in the trash, but the process feels right to me. I hope the product will eventually improve. I worry, however, that I've overstepped the bounds of friendship with each of the people who receive this by sending what may be seen as junk mail. Perhaps the problem for me is that I don't know what most of the recipients think about being on my mailing list. A few people have responded to individual posts, so I'm pretty sure they want to keep getting my postings. The fact is that most people on the list have not ever replied, so I'm starting to feel uncomfortable.

I started this project as a way to keep in touch with friends, and as an incentive to keep me writing about something creative every day. This blog is working for my purposes, but I don't want to unnecessarily annoy my good friends in the process. Believe me, I won't be hurt if anyone doesn't want to stay on the list. I'd rather know than not know.

Accordingly, I ask those of you who have not responded in the recent past to please drop me a brief note to let me know if you still want to get these postings. Better yet, a little feedback on the writing or subject matter would also be nice. I'm sure many of you have questions about the midwest or St. Louis you are dying to have answered. Just let me know. Thanks.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Monte Bello

On Valentine's Day we had dinner at a very nice Persian restaurant. Our young waiter was a St. Louis native so we questioned him about his favorite restaurants. For “St. Louis style” thin crust pizza he recommended Monte Bello Pizzeria. We had already tried thin crust pizza at Imo's, a ubiquitous family-owned franchise, but had not cared for it. He encouraged us to try it again. He assured us this place makes the real thing. It has existed for as long as anyone can remember. His parents first took him there. He told us an old couple operate it in the basement of their house. He couldn't remember the address but described the location. Intrigued, we resolved to try it.

I used Google to locate the address and telephone number. That's all I could find. They have no web site. They do no advertising. They don't deliver. Merry called and spoke to a woman who told her they are not open Monday night, except for take-out. We decided to wait until we could eat there.

On Wednesday we took I-55 south, crossed River de Pere which defines the south boundary of the city and took the next exit. Weber road runs toward the Mississippi through an old working class neighborhood. Modest houses sit close together mixed with old warehouses and factories. We found the address a few blocks down. There is no parking, no sign or anything else to indicate this is a restaurant. The front of the house, perhaps what was once a front porch, is entirely covered with aluminum siding so all you can see is a door with the house number and a neon “OPEN” sign. The door leads immediately down cellar steps. At the bottom of the stairs another door has a cracked window pane mended with scotch tape. A hand lettered sign warns they do not accept credit or debit cards. We check our wallets. $28.00 OK, that's probably enough for pizza.

Inside it's pretty dark. There are about fifteen tables covered with red and white checked tablecloths. There's no one there. One wall is covered by a very old fresco, divided by arches to appear as a view across the Tuscan hills. A concrete floor, once painted grey, is now worn to its original surface. As we hesitate at the door a woman emerges from the kitchen in the back and invites us to sit anywhere. We order a large sausage pizza, a Coke and an ice tea.

She brings our drinks. She's obviously the owner. She sits at the next table. While we wait for the pizza, she talks. The restaurant story comes out. She and her husband and a partner bought the restaurant as a going concern in 1961. Things didn't work out well with the partner so they sold it to him and opened a barbeque place for awhile. Soon he was in trouble for failing to pay sales tax and convinced them to buy it back. They have operated it ever since, forty eight years, six days a week with Monday off, but still making pizza for take-out and prepping food for the week ahead.

She's worried about the economy. Her regular customers come in once a week at the same time every week. They are now feeding the grand children of their original customers. When they call for take out she claims to usually recognize their voice. Recently business is off a bit. Could we believe Oprah told people to stop going out to eat for a month? What if Anheuser Busch laid people off, what would happen to business then? One customer is trying to sell her a new car but her 2001 only has 60,000 miles on it. She doesn't need a new car.

She's a small woman. Every joint of her hands is swollen with rheumatoid arthritis. Her eyes are sunken but bright. One thin eyebrow rims an eye socket the other shoots upward in an arc. She speaks with the soft, half-southern accent I've come to identify as native to this place.

Through the open doorway into the kitchen I can see her husband patiently throwing then stretching the pizza dough, smoothing it onto a baking pan. He shuffles about slowly, getting the ingredients together. He never leaves the kitchen.

I mention how we found her. She wants to know the waiter's name. I mention I found the address on the internet. This leads to a long discussion of her son's distinguished carrier as a forensic computer analyst for a local police department. He's done well. She is pleased to tell us he bought a big old house in Clayton, the upscale suburb where he works, that used to belong to the Imo family – the people who founded the largest pizza chain in the metro area.

The pizza arrives on a battered rectangular cookie sheet. It's of indeterminate shape, cut into three inch squares. The crust is thin and crisp, a freshly baked cracker, really. The sauce is homemade with just the right amount of onions and provolone cheese, a hallmark of St. Louis pizza. The sausage is heavenly and unlike any I'd had before, mild with a nice mixture of spices. I inquire about the sausage. She makes it from scratch each week using a recipe they got from the former owner 48 years ago. The pizza disappears quickly. She gives us a copy of the menu and urges us to come back soon. Another couple comes in as we finish and she moves off to help them.

The bill is about $15. We emerge from the cellar and re-enter the 21st century.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lost in Translation

I had to take the testimony of a Bosnian woman a few days ago. She speaks almost no English although she's been in St. Louis since 2002. That might seem odd until you consider the Bosnian community here has grown over the past decade to more than 50,000. A fairly large part of South St. Louis centered in the Bevo neighborhood has become “Little Bosnia” complete with stores, restaurants, a newspaper, doctors, social service agencies and mosques. As a complete coincidence on the same day of this case Merry and I had a crew of Bosnian carpenters at our house to build a new wood fence for our backyard. The contractor proudly informed us he hires Bosnians because they are dependable, hard workers.

I was not worried about the trial. As a claimant's attorney I'd participated in dozens of trials over the years where the claimant could not speak English including hearings with Spanish, Vietnamese, French Canadian, Polish and sign language translators. Because I considered myself pretty experienced I made no special preparation for the trial, just read the medical evidence and made notes.

It was not until I was on the bench that I realized my mistake. Unlike the trials in which I represented a non-English speaking claimant, this time I would be required to ask virtually all the questions. Use of a translator entails a stop after every sentence so the translator can repeat what I said, then another stop after the answer, and so on. My trials ordinarily last 45 minutes. If I conducted a normal hearing with all my normal questions this hearing was sure to run at least twice that long, if not longer – and I had three other trials scheduled for that morning.

The translator and my vocational expert arrived. Fortunately the translator, a middle-aged Bosnian woman with the oddest pinkish-orange hair I've ever seen, had participated in many Social Security trials. She knew the routine. She also knew the claimant's lawyer who, I learned, represents almost entirely Eastern European claimants and had a Bosnian speaking staff member along with him to help. We were off to a good start.

I summoned the claimant and her lawyer to the courtroom and began. I decided to cut the length of my questions in half - just the basics – in a hope that the trial could be concluded in an hour. I had not considered in advance how difficult this would be to do on the fly. Try it for yourself. Take any paragraph of simple dialogue and cut it in half before you know what the other person is going to say. Now try it with a person who is constantly in tears. Believe me, this work is not for the faint-hearted.

For example, I usually say this at the opening of every hearing:

“You're here because Social Security previously denied your claim and you asked for a hearing to present your case face to face to a judge. This is that opportunity. I'm going to hear whatever you have to say about why you can't work, then apply Social Security's rules to those facts and decided if you are disabled under Social Security's rules. I am not bound by the previous decision in your case. I plan to make an entirely new, independent decision based on the record as I see it.”

That paragraph became:

“I'm going to ask you some questions about why you're not working, then make my own independent decision about whether you could work according to Social Security's rules.”

I carefully made my way through a series of simple questions about her background and past work. I asked about her medical care then about her activities of daily living. Finally the direct testimony was over. I had a vivid picture of the claimant's condition and had made up my mind. Only 30 minutes had elapsed on the courtroom clock.

Now it was time for the claimant's attorney to ask questions. I started by asking him if he spoke Bosnian. He claimed to know a little, but would be using the translator. Of course, I know by heart the questions most lawyers would ask in this situation, so I usually cover them in my questioning. This means most claimant's lawyers only do a small amount of questioning to fill in any gaps. Not so this time. Because of his knowledge of Bosnian life in St. Louis he had a few entirely new questions to ask. “When did you last attend mosque?” “Have you been to a wedding lately?” “How does it make you feel to have your sons take care of you?” “Do you still sew?” “Do you own a telephone and can you use it?” I had asked about whether she could drive a car.

This was all very interesting until he started asking about her experiences during the genocidal war in Bosnia. I knew from her records that she lost a large number of family members and had lived in a refuge camp for a few years. I had chosen not to ask about these things because they were well documented in her psychological records. He waded right in. Before I could stop him he had reduced his client to uncontrollable sobbing. She softly told the translator she was about to be sick. I excused her and the lawyer's staff member helped her to the restroom.

Once she was out of the courtroom I bluntly told her lawyer to discontinue that line of questioning. I explained that I only have to decide if a claimant can work. In the questioning process I do what I can to assure all claimants maintain their basic human dignity. He said he was sorry. When his client recovered enough to return to court he had no further questions.

Now I just had to take some brief vocational testimony and I'd be done. The vocational expert [a VE in Social Security speak] testified the claimant couldn't do her past work. What did the VE think about the battery of tests she had been administered recently showing her job aptitudes and skills? Well, it turns out it is improper to administer these tests to a non-English speaker using a translator, so the results are invalid. OK, but even if I throw out these test scores can the claimant perform competitive work? No. OK, thanks.

The hearing was over. One hour exactly had elapsed. All the parties exited. I put my head down on the bench. I was really, really tired. After resting a few seconds, I sat up and called the next case.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


As I emerged from the Imperial Theatre I saw my friend Chris Whyland standing by the Stage Door on 46th Street flanked by a gaggle of pre-teen girls clutching Billy Elliott Playbills hoping for autographs. It was a wind-whipped, fiercely cold January afternoon. I pulled on my purple SEIU 1199 stocking cap and zipped my coat.

We had failed to agree in advance where to meet Chris and his family after the show. Merry and I had been searching in the lobby when it occurred to me to check the stage door. There he was, casually chatting with a fellow who also looked like he was also associated with the show. He told me that his wife, Melissa, had already taken the girls across the street to get a table at the Edison diner. The three of us hurried to meet them.

The Edison Hotel is a art deco gem with gorgeous terrazzo floors, murals and glittering lighting. Melissa, Erin and Casey were in the lobby. We got a table in the far corner of the diner and settled in to discuss the show. The Edison diner, it turns out, is a hidden NYC gem. It caters primarily to hotel guests and theatre people. It serves breakfast all day, has a cash only policy and a NYC gruff wait staff. I got a big bowl of good borscht with sour cream crammed into a plastic cup. Erin had a belgium waffle and Casey a pizza burger. Merry, Melissa and Chris ordered a medley of diverse breakfast, lunch and dinner foods.

We peppered the girls and their parents with questions about the show. Was the show substantially different when the role of Billy was played by a different actor (there are 3 rotating Billys)? The girls agreed that it was not, except for Billy's solo dances. Did they get tired performing eight times a week for three hours at a shot? They did not. Well, at first they did, especially on days with two shows, but now they were in better shape. Chris told us that Hillary & Chelsea Clinton had recently seen the show. What was it like if they knew a famous person was in the audience? The girls seemed unimpressed. Who would they like to see the show? They agreed they hoped the Obama family would come. Casey confided that she didn't actually care if they came to the show, but would love it if the Obama girls would hang out backstage with them. That would be “so cool.”

We discussed Casey's ankle injury and how the understudy system works. There are three understudies for the ten “ballet girls,” small, medium and large. Since Erin has a speaking part she has her own understudy. Melissa told us when Casey got hurt, she was assisted in her parenting duties by a theatre “guardian.” The show hires several guardians to manage the child actors at all times they are at work. The parents are not allowed backstage. Parents drop their kids off at the theatre and take them home but must rely on the guardians for supervision at the theatre. Since there are two Whyland children in the show, nursing one at home and having to shuttle one to work was going to take some juggling. Not to worry, a guardian did all the transporting door to door, on his free time and at his own expense.

Right then a small seven-year old boy rushed up to say “hi” followed by a tall young man. This was Michael Michaliszyn, one of the two boys who share the role of “The Small Boy” in the show. We chatted with his guardian while he goofed around for a second with the girls. Chris pointed out several other cast members and theatre staff were eating in the diner at the time. I remember seeing Carol Shelly who plays Billy's Grandma across the room. Two other guardians came over to say hello. One was introduced as the “head” Broadway guardian. I asked him how he keeps tabs on so many active kids at the same time.

“Can't really do it. Just last week I caught one driving a Zamboni down 45th Street.”

Our meal came to an end. The girls had to go back to work to get ready for the evening show.

We grabbed a cab. As we rode uptown we reflected on the life of child actors and their parents. Chris and Melissa seem to be handling the role of stage parents very well and actually enjoying the process most the the time, even with Chris having to make the weekly trek from Syracuse. The girls are clearly having a ball. Casey is a theatre veteran at age 13, having toured the country in Annie two years ago. Erin is full of energy and loves being in the spotlight.

How was the show, you ask? We loved it, but we're biased. A musical about a failed strike that ruined the coal industry in England? From my perspective they did as good a job of putting working class life on stage as can be done in a Broadway musical. The dancing is terrific by any standard, often elevated to divine. The production is inspired and the stark sets work well. The songs by Sir Elton John are hummable, but not forever. I recommend it.