What brought the feds into an undercover investigation at the Camden County Welfare Board was something I alluded to earlier as well as something that I failed to mention. I’ll take the last point first in order to supply the proper context to this story. One Monday morning after I had dragged my sorry ass into work to face the usual bureaucratic routine, I found the whole office caught up in a big hub-bub about what had taken place over the weekend. It seems that tens of thousands of dollars in checks had been printed up and cashed using various aliases. It was obvious that this had to have been an inside job as there were no signs of forced entry. It was also obvious because the perps knew precisely where everything was and how to operate the elaborate keypunch semi-computerized system that printed up these checks and mailed them out to the client population every month. As I stated earlier a keypunch machine was basically an office automation system that ran and had to be programmed like a computer. It was in fact a computer that one programmed through the use of a card system. Only someone familiar with the existing system and how it was programmed could have exploited its weaknesses to accomplish the ends associated with such an elaborate financial crime. As usual the administration was able to keep information related to this event from being aired publicly. That was part of the reason why a high octane attorney by the name of Fred Strang who had no previous experience with social work or anything even remotely related to it was the Director of the county welfare board. It was also just par for the course in regard to how things were run in Camden County and the City of Camden, New Jersey.
Fred Strang was the guy who had hired me with a wink and a nod knowing full well that I had gotten this job through “politics” which meant having the right political connections. The Democratic Party may have had a monopoly on public offices in the City of Camden, but it was the Republican Party that ran the county. I walked into Streng’s office that bespoke power (the only place in an otherwise Orwellian milieu that did) knowing full well that I had the personal recommendation of the leading county commissioner and as someone who grew up to some extent in the extended family arms of the soon to be Republican Governor of New Jersey. It was heady stuff for a young twenty year old suffering from a serious personal identity crisis who was seeking to find his way into a world that he found threatening and otherwise than he thought that it would be and/or should be. At that point in my young and wounded life I was the perfect embodiment of effusive self deprecating humility. These were the most important years in my life for many reasons not the least of which was the fact that I was in the process of trying to transition from the loving arms of a mother and a family that deeply loved me to a world that didn’t give a rat’s ass weather I lived or died. What ever signs of personal arrogance and risk taking behavior that accrued to me over the next two years was not evident at this point in my early introduction to welfare work and would only accrue as a result of an unconscious defense mechanism used to obscure the fact that I was deeply insecure and felt less worthy than other people to have any kind of success in my life.
So it was the business of the stolen checks that bought the feds into the case because as I mentioned earlier about 90% of the funds that went into these welfare programs was federal money. The fact that the perp(s) used a key to enter the back door to the building and that only certain casework supervisors and other top officials had such keys sort of narrowed the field of possible suspects quite a bit. I felt no need at the time to speculate in regard to who the guilty party or parties might be; as a matter of fact, I myself didn’t give a rat’s ass who had been responsible. It never ever even entered my mind to give a shit about such things in spite of the fact that the very person or people who did this was someone whom I worked with and knew.
The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were the heyday of the Black Power Movement in America that was taking place primarily in the cities. Many of these cities had gone up in flames during this time frame, and Camden was no different. I remember going home from a friend’s apartment, a fellow by the name of Nelson M., and being stopped by national guardsmen about a block away from the nice middle class type apartment project that I lived in and being told that the city was under marshal law. Seeing Army National Guard vehicles on the street was a sort of serious culture shock but it was also an adrenalin rush and thus stimulating to my suburbanite zeitgeist that would never have been capable or realizing that such scenarios were possible and did actually happen to real people in the real world. It was at that point that I began to realize that the world that I grew up in and that gave me such innate feelings of security and personal invulnerability to the actual pushes and pulls of life was not altogether real. It was only partly real in that it had in fact happened to me but unreal in that it had not exposed me to the totality of what life was all about. When I look back on this period of my life I see all these things now as some sort of blessed experience given to me by The Universe in order to initiate me into the supreme and sublime reality of that higher order of things that Buddhists call Enlightenment or Nirvana. Therefore I see it as no accident of fate that it was at this point in my young life that I was first exposed to Buddhist thinking complements of the Japanese Buddhist sect of Nichirin. I still remember the beads and the chant that we were given-“Nam yoho renge kyo” or something to that effect.
Buddhism and Black Power! What an interesting combination that merged in the personality of one particular casework supervisor by the name of Al B. who was the particular culprit that the FBI nabbed for the inside job at county welfare. Al and his wife Mary were the perfect Black Power power couple in every way, shape, and form. Their story is Camden’s story and their tragedy is Camden’s tragedy. Al & Mary were the very definition of cool. They invented the word, at least for me. They both wore shades all the time and played that ultra cool version of Jazz in their offices invented by such Jazz greats as Miles Davis, Dizzy, Monk, and my all time Philly favorite John Coltrane. Tears literally come to my eyes when I think of these folks and that whole vast and wonderful era that was immortalized by such Beat writers as Jack Kerouac and poet Allan Ginsberg. America has crucified its savior. I saw it with my own eyes. I am only happy that seeing and understanding such things was the key, I think, to my own personal enlightenment. On that long and winding road of that popular Beatles tune of the same name, this was my first real satori. It was Allan Ginsberg in his memorable poem My Alba who said- “I saw the best minds of my era destroyed by drugs!” I in turn saw the best and the brightest that Black America had to offer destroyed in the same manner.
Al was one of my pot customers who raved about the quality of Colombian weed that I was able to vend to him. We used to drive around Camden in his super cool T-Bird listening to miles of Miles. Al was a pipe smoker and just a very very classy type guy. He used to mix pot with his pipe tobacco to sort of hide the odor of the pot and because he still has something of a sweet spot for H, used to mix in a little of that as well. Hence the need for shades at all times! Al served seven years in a federal prison and I met him many years later while living in Philly at the time and checking out whatever possibilities existed for getting Section 8 Rental Assistance in Camden County where he ran the program. It was sad seeing him again. He had become a thoroughly broken man not because of his felony conviction but because of his addiction. Jazz always spoke to the deep pathos inherent in the lives of African-Americans but few of the denizens of the mainstream culture ever took the time or maybe had the need to see what that was all about. That reality was my first and maybe most important way station On the Road to a hoped for Nirvana. Al told me that day when I went to see him about Section 8 that the one thing that he held onto and that enabled him to survive his prison years was his chanting of “Nam yoho renge kyo.” When he told me that at the time I merely saw it as more evidence of the fact that here was a man who had been completely broken by the system.
I guess I should thank my Lucky Stars that it’s the crimes committed by Black America that have always been seen as more prosecutable. There are so many other personal stories waiting to be told from this era of my life. These people’s stories haunt me like living ghosts calling out to be faithfully acknowledged in some way for the truth inherent in such lives that now give meaning to my life if only because I have this need to tell their story. I live for the day when I will be able to present a fuller and more complete history of this part of my life and the working class heroes whom I encountered there at the Camden County Welfare Board in Camden, New Jersey. Their story needs to be told because it’s a story ripe with hope for what America can be at its best and at its worst. It’s the stuff of legends, Jazz legends every bit as important and valuable as those of the ancient Greeks. Thousands of years hence people may be as proud of these mythical but real heroes of the American working class as we are of those of the ancient Greeks. Why should there be any difference when these two time points are just two different way stations On the Road as Jack Kerouac might have suggested to the wonderful singularity of an eventual planetary awakening.
Note-This piece was originally posted to Open Salon on 01-26-2014
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