Antonia, a warm, famously doe-eyed woman in her thirties, was one of three receptionists at my former law office. Their long desk was in an area accessible to members of the public, while the rest of us worked safely behind code-locked doors. We referred to them as the front line. Of her two colleagues, one was off in outer space and the other sour. All three were civil servants. For one of the three, Antonia (not her real name), to be bright, alert and cheerful was a cause for celebration.
After litigating consumer cases for four years, I was asked to run the office’s mediation program. A facet of our work was to process all calls and letters that came in. We handled a staggering annual volume of anywhere from fifteen to eighteen thousand written complaints, and so it was crucial that we steer away callers whose concerns needed to be handled elsewhere. It meant the receptionists had to make referrals to any of hundreds of other agencies. However, the outer-space receptionist had only a basic notion of how to handle such calls. The sour receptionist had some knowledge, but it was limited, as was her willingness to absorb more. On top of that, when speaking to callers, she sounded more hectoring than helpful. By contrast, Antonia studied our referral guide and spoke soothingly on the phone. If the matter was not for our office, she could point the caller in the right direction and thus spare us from becoming bogged down in problems beyond our capacity to solve.
Because Antonia made herself the go-to receptionist for calls requiring more than in-house routing, I became one of her de facto supervisors. Recognizing it would be miserable for her to be answerable to more than one person, I limited my role to advisor and resource. When a caller’s problem presented special difficulties, she would consult me. Knowing she always had a member of the public on the line, I’d put aside whatever I was doing to discuss with her the best course of action.
Antonia could get agitated. I don’t mean angry or tearful—I can’t remember her once raising her voice or crying in the seventeen years I knew her. But sometimes when she came to my office, she was flustered, a sign she was concerned for the caller. Often my role was to guide her toward accepting that however sympathetic the caller’s predicament, we would only be doing harm by pretending to help.
When I hosted a staff party at my apartment, Antonia was so integral to our operation and so well liked that I invited her to join us. She balked. I’m not sure why. Perhaps she felt awkward at lacking the educational background of the rest of the staff, all of whom had or were working toward college degrees. But after thinking about it, she agreed to come. At the party, she parked herself on the couch, where she spent the evening surrounded by people chatting with her. I sensed a dignity in the way she carried herself, by which I really mean stiffness: not the stiffness of aloofness, but of shyness.
In 1995, a new chief was appointed to our office. Soon after her appointment, she took me aside to tell me she’s urged Antonia to dress better. Antonia earned in the $20,000s, the chief said, so she ought to be able to afford to. The chief was independently wealthy, and I realized she hadn’t a clue how hard it is to live on that level of income in New York City. Two good things came out of that moment. First, our chief came around to recognizing just how difficult it was for many of her staff to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Antonia delighted the chief by showing up at the office in attire that met her approval. The two women developed a mutual respect.
I resigned in 1999. A year later, I learned that Antonia had been arrested for welfare fraud. According to the press release issued by the arresting agency, she was accused of failing to disclose her salary at our office and thus fraudulently obtaining, over the course of fifteen years, all told about $50,000 in housing allowances and another $50,000 in direct welfare benefits. (The press release is available online, but I withhold the link out of respect for Antonia’s privacy.) According to that same press release, which has an air of gloating, during those years Antonia had earned a total of $300,000, or roughly $20,000 annually. Her current salary was said to be $31,000. The charges she faced exposed her to a maximum sentence of fifteen years.
There was a sad irony in these charges. Antonia not only helped countless people during her two decades at the office, but, there on the front line, she saved our mediation program from being overwhelmed. Without her, I would have been forced to lobby for more staff and possibly more technology. She thus saved taxpayers substantial expense. She did all that in a rigid civil service system that denied her any expectation of additional salary or bonuses.
A recent study concludes that for a family of two parents and two children to live comfortably in this city, a six-figure income is required. Another study contends that an individual can live on $50,000, assuming they have roommates to share expenses. Although the cost of living was somewhat lower then, these figures suggest how hard Antonia must have found it to manage on her salary. She had a daughter and helped support other family members.
On hearing news of her arrest, I agonized about what, if anything, to do. As one of her former supervisors, offering anything remotely resembling legal advice would be unethical. worse, she might be receptive to giving my words more value than they deserved, considering I had no expertise in welfare fraud cases. Did I call her in the end? I have a vague recollection of wishing her well and offering to listen, but it’s just as likely that I decided against meddling. I also don’t recall if I found out whether she served any time in prison. My sense is that she did, though nothing like the maximum sentence originally hanging over her.
Sixteen years later, she wrote to my new website. Delighted, I replied right away, but didn’t hear back from her. Because my email address doesn’t have a common domain name, such as Verizon or AT&T, my messages are sometimes rejected without my being notified. I tried emailing several more times, called phone numbers I found by Googling, and even had my wife write to her from her more conventional email address, but all in vain. I still don’t know if she’s aware I tried to reach her.
Looking her up now, I find her quoted in numerous online publications. In one, she praises a new local action agency that relies on volunteers to run programs in her neighborhood. In another, she talks about overcoming denial about having contracted type 2 diabetes. She’s now 68, according to the most recent article I found. Her determined yet gentle spirit comes through even in on-screen type. The years following her arrest must have been hard, but she wasn’t daunted.
Much crime has a context. Violent conduct can often be traced back to terrible treatment during childhood. Holdups are often committed by people who see no way out of poverty. Context may not be justification, but it shows the way to remedies beyond the criminal justice system. It’s the recognition behind the ill-conceived slogan, “Unfund the Police.”
Trust and honesty are essential to social cohesion, and compliance with the law is a minimal standard for trust and honesty, which is why we hold violators accountable. But here, too, there’s a context. We’re a rich country that pays too many people too little to live on. Antonia’s conduct could not go without consequences, although I believe imprisonment would have been harsh. But we should condemn even more the income disparities that lead to temptation.
One more detail: Antonia is African-American. Both her receptionist colleagues were white. In that light, I think of Black Lives Matter and all the prejudices we harbor about each other: white people about black people, black people about white people, each of us about ourselves.
The Antonia we knew at the office was hardly the stereotyped black welfare queen. She was the spirited epitome of public servant.
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