“Don’t answer that,” I told my wife, when the house phone rang for the fifth time early that morning.
When she had answered the first four times, whoever was at the other end waited long enough for her to know someone was on the line, then disconnected. This had been going on for several weeks and had become a growing irritation. Caller I.D. had been blocked, so we couldn’t tell who was harassing us.
“We may as well let the answering machine pick up,” Madeline suggested. “This way we can screen the calls and only answer those we want to.”
It was a sensible, practical solution to the problem and I tried to suppress my anger at this persistent phone intruder. It took another two weeks for the frequency of the calls to diminish, then they became sporadic and we thought the situation was resolved. We started answering the phone again, but a few days later the anonymous calls resumed. We had to be at the office by 8:30 a.m., so we didn’t have much time for our daily routine to be distracted by annoying phone calls.
We both worked at the Outreach Center. Madeline was the executive director and I was the program officer. The Center provided social services to homeless families with children who were placed in temporary shelters, without services. We provided referrals for housing, medical and dental treatment and other needs. Somehow we began giving meals and life skills workshops to several of the family’s children and we needed a social worker to deal with a case load that kept growing.
Madeline and I met at Gotham University, in New York City. We were very different people. She was a dedicated jock who believed in liberal causes. I was a computer and gamer type who believed that child molesters should get the death penalty. My sister had been molested when she was seven years old and it took her a long time to get over it. Madeline was opposed to the death penalty and we argued about it often, never reaching a compromise.
But we found many things in common. She loved poetry and got me to read her favorites, Blake, Emily Dickenson, Whitman, Rimbaud, Rilke and others. I liked them. I introduced her to the world of gaming and she actually got involved in a series of women’s war games and was a fierce competitor. One big quality we had in common was we both wanted to serve the needy.
In our junior year, a close friend, Warren, inherited a huge amount of money from a trust fund when he turned 21. He half jokingly asked our opinion what he should do with his new fortune and Maddie instantly replied:
“When we graduate, fund a program to help the homeless. Charlie and I will run it.”
‘Wait a second! What do you think you’re doing, committing me to some kind of project?’ But I didn’t say it. I only thought it. From that moment on she took charge of our lives, which now included romance and marriage. Warren didn’t know how tenacious Maddie could be. After graduation and our wedding, where he was our best man, she persuaded him to put up $150,000 a year for five years to start a not-for-profit organization to serve homeless families with children. After that we would be on our own.
We rented an office and workshop space in the East 30’s, in an old commercial loft building. Then we reluctantly gave up our dorm rooms that had been so comfortable for the last four years, rented an apartment in an old walk-up tenement building off Third Avenue in the twenties, and began a new life. We quickly got more and more involved with the homeless children, many of whom we discovered were gifted and talented. So we started a computer learning center and more and more kids came to us. A lot of them weren’t in school, so one of our goals was to get them all into classrooms. The problem was we didn’t have enough time or personnel to deal with all the needs and services the kids required.
If we wanted to continue working with the kids, we needed someone capable to help with them. That’s when the complications grew. $150,000 a year may seem like a lot to some people, but after rent, $2,600 per month, Madeline’s executive director salary, $30,000, my $28.,000, we’d have to hire a social worker, at $35,000. All the other expenses, insurance, electricity, the list went on and on. This meant we didn’t have much money for a project coordinator. After some quick grant writing and Mad’s funding efforts we raised $15,000, so we could pay someone $24,000, which would mean our stretching every dollar for the rest of our expenses. But we started interviewing candidates.
The kids were mostly black or hispanic, so we wanted to hire someone who could relate to them. However, the only qualified applicants wouldn’t work for that low salary. And I couldn’t blame them. We finally hired a bright young black woman, a recent college graduate, on a two week trial basis. She seemed to be afraid of the kids and quit after the first week, without explanation. Then we hired a young latino man, but we found out he was bribing the kids to participate in life skills workshops, with trips to McDonalds and promises of new sneakers. Mad fired him. We were getting desperate. I was leading most of the life skills workshops, which I enjoyed immensely, even though I didn’t always know what I was doing. Yet I didn’t have time to do program development, grant writing and outreach to all the agencies and services we needed. Then Michael Donnigan applied for the job.
Michael was in his 40’s, with a history of working for not-for-profit public service organizations. He had a great resume, outstanding references that Mad called and he made a very positive impression. So we hired him. He started his two week trial period on a Monday and spent the first few days going through our records and program guidelines, which seemed to take a lot of time away from the kids. Then somehow he always had a conflict when it was time to do something with the kids. This was disturbing, but I talked to him and he seemed to understand what was required. On Thursday he took the kids to Madison Square Park, then he didn’t come in on Friday. We only found out later that day that while they were in the park he yelled at the kids for making too much noise. Some local parents tried to calm him, but he cursed them and stormed off abandoning the kids.. Of course we decided to fire him.
He didn’t come in Monday. I phoned him, but only got voice mail and left a message asking him to call me. He didn’t. When he didn’t call or show on Tuesday, I phoned him and left a message firing him. I would have preferred to do it face to face, but he didn’t give me any choice. Our good judgment was confirmed when some of the kids told us he ordered them around nastily and treated them disrespectfully. He finally came to the office on Friday and wanted two weeks pay, as well as severance. I told him we’d pay him for the first week, even though he walked off the job on Thursday, but there was no severance, since he wasn’t a regular employee, but was hired on a trial basis. He took his check, told me he’d sue us for wrongful termination and stormed out. We were relieved to see him go.
We hired a young black man who wanted to get children’s services experience and he fit right in from the first day. He liked and respected the kids and they really took to him. We forgot about our previous employee, until we got a subpoena to appear in court. This was a new experience for us. I had never been to court and Mad’s vast experience had been when she paid a traffic ticket once. We did some quick research on the internet, learned we needed a lawyer and Mad contacted a legal referral agency. They told her to ask large law firms for a pro bono attorney who would handle our case. Mad called several firms and one responded, assigning a young associate to meet with us. After a mutually satisfactory meeting, Mary Takagawa took our case.
Mary, a recent Columbia Law School graduate, was barely 5 feet tall, but full of energy and resolve. She had played the cello since childhood, the instrument almost bigger than she, and was sensitive to the plight of her clients. She admitted she knew nothing about labor or wrongful termination law, but researched enthusiastically online. The first hearing was to determine if the plaintiff’s case had sufficient merit to proceed. The judge, actually a lawyer doing court service, an older white woman with an abrupt, almost nasty manner, terrified Mary, who was almost tongue tied. We had hoped for a dismissal, but this was not to be.
The judge scheduled a hearing in a month and Donnigan cordially said goodbye to us, as if this was nothing personal. Mary apologized for her inadequacy, admitting she never appeared in front of a judge before, and vowed to do better next time. Mary was more confident at the next hearing, which had a new judge, a very pleasant, reasonable woman, who stated that not-for-profit public services groups deserved a fair chance to be heard. Mary presented a basic case, outlining the terms of employment and the circumstances that led to termination. Donnigan contradicted those facts, raved about how he was injured on the job and exploited. He presented an alternate scenario and claimed there was no two week trial period. It was our word against his. The judge scheduled a hearing in a month, at which time we could present evidence proving our claims. After abusing us verbally in front of the judge, he bid us a courteous farewell, assuming a lawyer’s persona, which Mary thought was crazy.
At the next hearing we brought letters from former applicants and our current employee, attesting they were told of a two week trial period. Donnigan, citing case law, insisted that the letters didn’t allow cross examination, accused us of forgery, and insisted we were colluding against him. He accused us of nepotism, husband and wife getting government money and exploiting the children. He called us dirty names and when Mary objected to his tirade he told the judge he was being persecuted by a big firm lawyer. Mary’s heartfelt declaration:
“Your honor. This man has more experience than I do,” gave us a laugh, but another hearing was scheduled.
Now that Mary was in an actual courtroom fight, her samurai spirit emerged and she was determined to prevail. She persuaded her supervising attorney at her firm to give her the services of an investigator. The investigator discovered that Donnigan’s employment history and references were false. He had a pattern of either being fired or quitting previous jobs, then suing for wrongful termination. He had worked for the Department of Sanitation, was constantly late, out sick, or walked off the job after disputes with his supervisor. In one ugly incident, he dumped a load of garbage on a supervisor’s lawn and porch. He was dismissed and filed a wrongful termination suit that was still going on. The judge learned these facts, dismissed the case, Donnigan thanked her politely, then said goodbye to us politely, as if this was just a lawyer’s lost battle, not an involved individual.
We promptly forgot about him and went on with our lives and work. Until Mad told me she thought she saw him following her when she left the office to go to a meeting. We talked about it and finally shrugged it off, until she saw him again. And we started getting phone calls at night, just like the earlier ones. Mad started to see him every time she left the office and I knew she wasn’t imagining it. We were playing Pokemon-Go one afternoon in front of Macy’s, at 34th Street and Herald Square, and we both saw him. I decided to confront him and went towards him, but he disappeared into the crowd of shoppers and ‘pokies’.
We decided that this was becoming a problem and went to our local precinct to file a complaint. The sympathetic desk Sergeant informed us that since Donnigan had made no overt threats and we had no evidence that he was making the phone calls, there was nothing the police could do.
“You should file an official complaint, so if he ever crosses the line in any way, we’ll have a record that can be used against him.”
“Thanks, Sergeant Paxton,” Mad said. “Any suggestions how we should deal with this?”
“Yeah. Don’t go anywhere alone for a while. Be more aware of your surroundings and monitor things more carefully. If there’s any kind of incident call 911.”
“Thanks, Sergeant Paxton,” we both said.
This was a new experience for us and we had a long talk about whether or not Donnigen was dangerous. I dismissed him as a nut job, with nothing better to do at the moment.
“As soon as he gets a job and gets on with his life we’ll have seen the last of him.”
“I hope you’re right,” Mad replied. “But there’s something wrong with him. I think he’s mentally disturbed and we should take the cop’s suggestions seriously.”
We kept seeing him at a distance, but as soon as he saw that we noticed him, he quickly departed. The phone calls continued at night, sometimes going on for hours. We talked about the problem, but couldn’t figure out what to do. When Mad suggested we get a gun I couldn’t tell if she was kidding, or not. We were playing Pokemon-Go one evening and we went to the subway station at Park Avenue and 23rd Street. We were on the platform and Mad suddenly poked me.
“Look. It’s him.”
I made eye contact with Donnigan and he grinned…. No. He smirked at me, letting me know he was getting to us and it would continue. I started towards him, anger changing to rage, just as the train came in. He waved at me dismissively, turned to melt into the crowd and I don’t know if he tripped, or was jostled, but he fell on the tracks. People started screaming and the train came to a stop. A lot of the crowd left the station realizing the tie up could be for hours. I stood there stunned, then turned to Mad, who didn’t know what happened.
“Donnigan fell in front of the train.”
She was shocked, but said: “Is he dead?”
“I don’t know. Should we stay and find out?”
“No. Let’s go.”
“We could tell the cops who he is.”
“Did you push him?”
“Of course not,” I replied indignantly.
“Then let’s get out of here.”
We left as the cops and emergency personnel came thundering down the stairs.
That night there was a short article on the internet about the man who fell on the subway tracks and was killed, but nothing after that. Someone had been devoured by the ravenous city, quickly forgotten in the throb and pulse of continuity. There were no phone calls that day and none after that, a definite indication that Donnigan was the culprit and could no longer call out from wherever he was.
A few days later we got a call from Sergeant Paxton from the local precinct. He spoke to Mad and I listened in.
“Did you folks know the guy you complained about was killed in the subway?”
“No. When did it happen?”
“A few days ago. He fell on the tracks at the 23rd Street station. Some eyewitnesses said he tripped and no one pushed him. I guess he won’t be bothering you anymore.”
“Those phone calls stopped.”
“Then your complaint will just be filed away somewhere. Funny how things work out sometimes.”
“Isn’t it. Thanks for calling, Sergeant Paxton.”
“You take care,” and he disconnected.
We looked at each other for a few moments, then I said:
“I almost feel sorry for the guy, dying like that.”
“Well I don’t,” Mad responded. “I’m glad he’s gone, before he did anything worse to us.”
“That’s a bit harsh.”
“What if he got crazier and violent and hurt us? How would you feel then?”
I thought about it, then answered:
“I’d never forgive myself if he hurt you.”
“Then forget him. It’s time to get on with our lives.”
“Weird how things work out sometimes,” I mused.
“Yeah. Now come to bed. I want to celebrate being alive.”
“Is that an order or request?”
“Whatever brings you to my arms.”
Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn't earn a living in the theater. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 36 poetry collections, 14 novels, three short story collections, one collection of essays and seven books of plays. Gary lives in New York City. Gary recommends City Harvest.