BITCH: The Maria Pappas Story

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APPLYING FOR UNEMPLOYMENT WAS NOT WHAT I EXPECTED. THE OFFICE WAS CLEAN AND MODERN WITH NONE OF THE RAGGED, DEPRESSION-ERA DRESSED PEOPLE I IMAGINED. THERE WASN’T EVEN A LINE. THE INFORMATION DESK WAS MANNED – OR IS THAT PERSONNED – BY TWO WORKERS, MALE AND FEMALE, WHO BOTH SEEMED HAPPY TO HAVE SOMEONE NEW TO TALK TO. THE WOMAN GREETED ME WITH A SMILE AND ASKED ME THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF MY UNEMPLOYMENT.

“Were you laid off? Fired? Did you quit?’ She inquired, trying to determine which form I needed to fill out. Seldom are things so clear cut and likewise, my recent unemployment was no simple question that could be answered “yes” or “no”, “black” or “white”. Besides, having voluntarily quit, I wasn’t about to close any options that would make me ineligible for free government money.

“I was forced to quit.” I answered, hoping being forced out would count just the same as being fired. For unemployment  eligibility requirements, being fired is second only in desirability to being laid off –  quitting is for losers. The lady looked over her glasses at me, clearly needing more information. “My boss heard a rumor I’d called her a bitch,” I explained, “Maybe you’ve heard of her. Maria Pappas, Cook County Treasurer?”

“Oh, she is a bitch!” The woman declared. Everyone has a Pappas story.

And such is the reaction I’ve come to expect after falling into disfavor with the baton twirling Maria Pappas, newly enshrined Cook County Treasurer. But the odd thing is, up until Ms. Pappas turned against me, I thought she was great. It’s funny how sometimes you look back and smack your head and shout, “What was I thinking?” I’m having that kind of summer.

After being led into an immaculate, carpeted room, furnished with two conference tables and a dozen empty chairs, I got right to work on the stack of forms I was handed, using a borrowed #2 pencil from a box of thousands. Employment History was the first intimate detail of my life they wanted to know about.

I started at the Treasurer’s Office right out of college. Not that working for Edward J. Rosewell, who was the Treasurer before Pappas, was the reason I spent over thirty-grand in student loans. All my life my family warned, “You better go to college”, as if it were some magical place that transformed you, by association, into a highly employable individual. So I went to DePaul University and drifted back out a few years later armed with a Bachelors degree in English. Unfortunately, I had  graduated in the middle of a recession and for employment purposes, an English degree during a recession is about as impressive as an Associates Degree in Telemarketing.

My first job offer out of college was from a rental car agency. They wanted me and my English degree for a Manager Trainee position. They saw my potential! And they wanted to groom me for management! As it turned out, the only thing I was groomed for was a career in washing cars. I left within two weeks. The day I “quit” (by mutual agreement) I made a frantic phone call to a politically connected fraternity alumnus who wanted to get in my pants (I told him “no thanks”, as there was one ass in there already). He made a call to his buddy, Edward J. Rosewell, Treasurer of Cook County and as simple as that I had a job. It was a temp position at first, but because I was able to dress myself and not show up drunk – and I could run a computer – I eventually got a permanent position as an “auditing clerk”.

I was constantly interrupted from my form-filling by a stream of well- meaning, but bored workers wanting to assist. There seemed to be about three workers for every unemployed person there. Thanks to the booming economy, many of the people helping me fill out those forms were in danger of becoming unemployed themselves. How ironic that their job security goes up when everyone else’s goes down.

One guy wanted to help me find a job, and asked me what kind of work I formerly did for the Treasurer. I wanted to say, “No thanks, I’m just here for the free money”, but instead I described my work experience. Despite having absolutely no financial background, I had spent the last six years doing accounting-type work for the County. Reconciling accounts, computing interest and distributing tax money in the Treasurer’s Cash Management department. But the last thing I wanted to do was work with numbers again, but nevertheless, I was handed pages of available accounting jobs. I politely accepted them and continued to fill in the blanks on my multitude of forms.

“Reason for leaving?”

We were back to that question. I wasn’t always the model employee I ended up being under Maria Pappas. I started off in the Treasurer’s office wanting to make good. I rushed through each assignment, then proudly reported to my supervisor that I was ready for more. That is, until a co- worker took me aside and asked “What’s up with that shit? Take your time, slow down.” That’s the culture you find in some government offices, where promotions are reserved for the connected.

I thought working for Maria Pappas would be different. I had followed Pappas’ political career through the years, admiring her confrontational style. She was always bitching about something and stirring up controversy. I liked that. I rooted for her when she ran for the County Board Presidency against John Stroger and Aurelia Pucinski. I cheered her on when she twirled her baton every year in the Gay Pride Parade. When she announced she was running for Rosewell’s job, who was retiring under the scandal of an indictment for ghost payrolling and for placing his window-washer “room- mate” in a $70k job. I was excited about the prospect of working for this political maverick and when she took office, I transformed myself from lackadaisical county employee into Super Worker, eager to be part of the team.

There were a lot of worried faces within the rank and file as the day approached when Eddie Rosewell, a very sweet, energetic little Irish man – and the top vote getter for the Democratic party – would gallop off into the sunset (or possibly prison) and Ms. Pappas would take over the helm. Gossip and rumors filled the office. Pappas had a terrible reputation as an employer during her years as a County Commissioner. The gossip columns buzzed with her latest firings or of disgruntled workers calling it quits. One estimate pegged her as going through over twenty employees in an eight year span, which is a staggering figure when you realize commissioners are only allotted three employees. There were also rumors that called into  question Pappas’ mental health. Supposedly she had  her office swept for bugs – the electronic kind – afraid someone was spying on her. There were also tales of her employing handwriting analysis of people she didn’t trust, trying to judge character through their scribblings. There were so many, many rumors, I just discounted them all. At worst, I thought, she was a little eccentric.

On Pappas’ first day in office. I was appointed by her Chief Deputy, a wonderful guy named Mike Shine, to assist with computer related issues. The Treasurer’s office wasn’t exactly the information superhighway. When I first started, we were still doing spreadsheets on grid paper. I was good with the different programs like Excel and Word, while most workers couldn’t find the “On” button; and because of this I gained a reputation for being knowledgeable about computers, which Pappas’ people found to be of value. This is what I craved – what any worker craves – to be recognized and to feel needed.  I responded well to this new and unfamiliar stimuli. I found myself staying late and arriving early, working harder and what was really odd – taking work home with me! Because of my enthusiasm, Pappas’ top management recommended me for several different promotions, but for some reason, Pappas always turned my promotions down. I never took it personally which was a mistake, because it was personal, only I didn’t know it yet.

The first clue that working for Maria Pappas wouldn’t be all roses and lollipops came the second day she was in office. It was early December, with signs of Christmas all around, but for a half-dozen employees, their coal-filled stocking came early. It was expected that the new administration would want their own top management, but the people Pappas canned were hardly top management. Most were mid-level career employees who had worked in the office for ten or more years. Two of the workers fired were a gay couple, both approaching retirement. The biggest shock was when they fired Kelly, a young woman from my own department. Kelly started working for the Treasurer’s office right out of high-school, needing the job to support her younger siblings after their parents died. Kelly was an invaluable resource for everything related to the functions of the Cook County Treasurer. She was also six months pregnant when she was abruptly informed her services were no longer needed.

Everyone was freaked out by Kelly’s firing, including me, but I tried to remain calm. That was my reaction to everything that happened, “Calm down, I’m sure there’s a reason.” Even when Pappas made all the women  – and only the women – wear ugly blue blazers. They were hideous, baggy and had the effect of turning even the most shapely woman into a frump. You could feel the humiliation from the ladies when they were forced to put on these over-sized men’s cotton jackets. Males were required to wear white shirts and a tie, unless you were part of the janitorial service, she made the male janitors also dress in those awful blue blazers.  Women and janitors. Let that sink in for a minute and what that says about Madam Treasurer’s regard for women. (Given Maria’s psychology degree, maybe someone should ask her!)

The ladies hated those fucking jackets, but were all too afraid to complain. Except for one.

Pappas liked to hover about the workers, and when the blazers were distributed, she went around asking the women how they liked them. She questioned the wrong person when she asked Joyce. a fifty-something lady not known for her quiet nature. Joyce told Pappas she hated the jacket, “I feel  like we’re in prison,” she replied. Pappas seemed startled by this frankness and asked the lady seated next to Joyce for her opinion. The lady answered “They’re fine,” which caused Joyce to erupt, “That’s not what you said a few minutes ago!”

After several more futile attempts to promote me went down in flames, my supervisor took me aside, “Did you do something to piss off the Treasurer?” he asked. I was surprised by this, “No,” I replied, I honestly couldn’t recall saying or doing anything that would put me in disfavor with the Treasurer. She certainly didn’t behave toward me as if anything was wrong. Pappas had even bragged about my serving on the county Domestic Partnership committee – chaired by Congressman Mike Quigley, who then was the man newly elected to Maria’s old County Board seat; and also Greg Harris and Kelly Cassidy (before they were elected State Representatives).  My role was to draft a letter that all County officials would sign in support of extending benefits to LGBT domestic partners of Cook County’s 25,000 workforce. Our committee crafted and helped pass the Cook County Domestic Partnership Ordinance, and Pappas boasted to everyone that she and I were working “together” on this project (although her only involvement was not objecting to my attending the committee meetings).

Despite all of the signs, I still could not believe that Pappas had something against me.

“Are you finished with your forms?” The Unemployment officer asked, interrupting my trip down memory lane. I nodded yes, but her keen eye spotted information I had yet to fill in. “Put your previous salary here.” She said, pointing to one of my errant blanks.

Your former salary helps determine your winnings in the Unemployment Sweepstakes. County employees are not lavishly paid, unless you’re a former window washer. Rosewell gave me a secure job with benefits, but no lavish salary. Luckily, money wasn’t an issue for me. Like Pappas, I had  married well. Not nearly as well as Maria, whose husband is an owner of the Treasure Island grocery store chain, but well enough that when the shit hit the fan, I was able to walk away without worrying where my next meal was coming from.

During her run for Treasurer, all the Treasure Island stores had Pappas campaign signs in their windows. A precinct captain told me about Pappas campaigning at the Broadway Treasure Island, sitting on a table, puffing away on a cigarette inside the store. One of the employees, a young bagger, approached her about this, pointing to a very prominent “No Smoking” sign and asked her to put the cigarette out, to which she seethed, “I own this store!” Apparently this is the manner Pappas treats all of her subordinates. Very early on, we were given a memo instructing us on how she preferred the phones to be answered; a script ending with the chilling words “Phone Calls may be monitored for quality assurances.” After that, we assumed we were all being listened to, even departments such as mine where calls from taxpayers were rare.

No one could have convinced me that Pappas herself was the one doing the phone monitoring, until one day a worker in the Refund Department told me about a call from an irate taxpayer who referred to Pappas by every four letter word imaginable, without any contradiction from this employee. Later, an angry Pappas confronted him, demanding to know why he hadn’t defended her. “You instructed us that the customer is always right.” he replied. This rule, he found out, had some exceptions.

Another lady was written up twice for going into her own purse during work hours. Pappas had targeted her for ill treatment to get her to resign so she could give the job to a supporter and the fact that this poor lady had lost her entire family in a drunk driving crash a year earlier had no alleviating impact. They drove her to quit without pity.

The cumulative effect of all the memos, the blue blazers, the mysterious firings and the massive write-ups for petty infractions led to a state of paranoia, distrust and multiple forced resignations.

My turn came on April Fool’s Day. Pappas summoned me to her office for a meeting. I wasn’t the least bit nervous, assuming she wanted to talk to me about one of my projects. She invited one of her deputies to sit in our meeting, explaining as she closed the door, “I want a witness to avoid any confusion later.”

“Uh-oh,” I joked, “what did I do?” I had no idea what was about to happen.

“So, you think I’m a bitch.” Pappas said, taking a seat behind her massive desk, “and that I’m part of the Greek mafia.”

I was floored. She could have had me on the “bitch” part, as I’ve used that word liberally my entire life. It’s a great, all purpose word, and as a political friend later commented, “If calling Maria Pappas a bitch is a firing offense, then crank up the hiring mill.”

Pappas and the word “bitch” had a quiet wedding years ago. Former County Board President Dick Phelan made a big splash in the press when he called her one during a County Board meeting. Pappas was called a bitch so many times by so many people, I thought it was part of her name until they painted it on the front door.

She might of had me on the “bitch” remark, but the “Greek Mafia” thing was not from me. I tried to defend myself, but she kept insisting her informant, whom she would not identify, was “trustworthy”. Then her faced turned cold and sneering, “Quit!” she yelled, “If you don’t like it here, then quit!”

Walking back to my desk, I felt like a truck hit me, or I’d gotten kicked in the balls. I was bewildered that someone would do something like this to me and powerless to defend myself without knowing who was my accuser. Later in the day I attempted to speak to Pappas again, to iron out this mess. I was talking to her secretary when Pappas poked her head out of her office and hissed, “What are you doing here?”

By the tone in her voice I realized it was a lost cause. I returned to my department and typed up a letter of resignation and began looking forward to a long, luxurious summer collecting unemployment and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, now that I’m all grown up.

I’ve also made a decision to retire the word “bitch” from my vocabulary, I’m considering a switch to the “C” word. Bitch is still a great word, it’s just that I won’t be able to use it without thinking about Maria Pappas. I want to move on, you know.image

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