The Joys of the Low Bar

Thanks to the clown I was hired to replace, I could do no wrong

I showed up for the job interview back in early 2004 the way I always did in this situation—in a sports jacket and tie, beard neatly trimmed, exuding as much confidence and enthusiasm as was warranted by the circumstances.

It was a group interview—three candidates, myself and two younger women, and the agency director and assistant director, all seated around a conference table. The three of us were more or less equally capable and qualified, but I got the job, based in large part, I believe, on the fact that I was replacing a male on an agency staff now comprised exclusively of young females. Management wanted to at least maintain some level of gender diversity.

Like with any new job I've ever undertaken, I came into it with a desire to affirm the boss' decision and with some mild performance anxiety. It didn't take long to find out that those anxious feelings were for naught.

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It turned out that my predecessor in the position was a piece of work. Well, at any rate, a piece of something. For openers, he had a thing for hookers, with whom he was not averse to cavorting in his office after normal business hours. The woman who shared that office regaled me with stories of coming into work in the morning and finding used condoms and other sexual paraphernalia on her desk.

Making matters even worse, on one occasion my predecessor had the audacity to schedule a hooker assignation DURING business hours, and for some unknown reason, he gave the escort service the name of the boss. It made for quite a scene in the reception area when the hooker showed up asking for the boss, and the hooker insisted that, service or no service, she wanted the boss to pay her for her time.

There was more to it, of course. The guy also faked a lot of home visits to desperately needy clients, took regular five-hour lunches and conned everybody into thinking that—his hooker habit notwithstanding—he really was a caring and responsible social service case manager.

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This was the clown I was hired to replace. But I didn't fully appreciate the depths to which this gentleman had set the bar until I began visiting his former clients, who were now my clients.

"Thank God," cried one woman client, laying eyes upon me for the first time. "I don't care who the fuck you are, just as long as you're not the other guy."

This client, who lived with her developmentally disabled son in a wood shed-like structure they shared with a family of raccoons, had not seen the other guy in months. Now she and her son were facing eviction and the prospect of having to move into a shelter that was even worse than the raccoon-infested wood shed.

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On client visit after visit, I was welcomed as a kind of liberator, a social service version of Simon Bolivar. I didn't have to say anything, let alone do anything. Just by showing up with a smile and a shoeshine, I was already leagues ahead of the other guy.

I expressed my deepest gratitude to the social service gods for the joys of the low bar. This was not the first time I'd ever stepped into a job previously held by an incompetent, or a major jerk. But nothing of this magnitude. I was like the president who followed Warren Harding; the second feature on a double bill with "Freddy Got Fingered"; the comic who filled in for Bill Cosby on his last tour. It was a no-lose proposition all around, a deeply liberating feeling.

"You know," I later remarked to the boss, presaging by 12 years the words of Donald Trump on the campaign trail. "I could walk into a client's home right now and shoot him between the eyes, and I'd still be a better case manager than the guy I replaced."

Anyway, I spent the first few weeks at this job reveling in the freedom of the low bar. But, eventually, it was time to let go of the sordid past, set my own performance bar at a much higher level and make my own mark on the job. I'm proud to say that over the next 4-plus years, I accomplished that feat.

But, ah, that low bar! Let's give a little shout-out to all the hooker-loving, condom-leaving, no-show jack-offs who make our working lives so much easier. May you all find some solace in that.

Tags: memoirs