In NYC: State of Collusion

(Photo: No-Entry sign at Love Canal, NY. This was a NYSDEC fiasco, too.)

[This entry is one in a series of dispatches from my recent trips to Gotham.]

What was I thinking? The first day of the first of my interview trips to New York City this summer, I wore my interview clothes from before my crack-of-dawn airplane ride, to my arrival at 20-year-best-friend Peter’s house an hour after I literally walked out on my planned interview at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Before I left NYC in 2003, I knew NYSDEC to be somewhat less than a class act. I’m surprised at how short my memory has become during my tenure on the shores of Lake Michigan.

I could give perilously putrid details of my past dealings with NYSDEC and their consultants, but my experience with them this month sums my understanding of them up more succinctly. NYSDEC was to be my first Gotham interview of several. A community relations position, too–the absolute heart of what I love to do. I envisioned reaching out to families and businesses in working-class neighborhoods and helping organize informational meetings to collect their concerns regarding open space and clean air in their communities.

I know, I know. But for some reason, I always give governmental agencies the benefit of the doubt. One bad apple–or experience–shouldn’t be allowed to spoil the reputation of the whole barrel. Or state regulatory agency. I mean, not everyone at, say, the Post Office is, for want of a better term, postal. So all of NYSDEC couldn’t be untrustworthy.

Feh. After the afternoon of my alleged interview, I am still awaiting evidence to the contrary. I arrived at NYSDEC’s Long Island City, Queens office on time, prim, pressed, and prepared to give it my ethical all. I gave my name to the receptionist, sat, and waited. And while I perched on the tired, leather, government-issue waiting-room chair, fidgeting with my tie, I wondered about the culture of the agency that was about to interview me.

Very quickly and wholly unexpectedly, I got my answer. Into the waiting room strode another prim, pressed, be-suited individual. An off-puttingly stern individual, however, made even more off-putting by his loud snarling loosely aimed into his tightly clenched cell phone:

“You better listen, because your job is on the line, ok! You hear me? That reporter is coming to check up on the site and he better not find anything! You make sure it’s clean enough for him to see it and not have anything to report or it’s your neck! Are you listening to me? I don’t care what’s there. Make it look spotless!”

You’re putting me on right? Where’s the camera? Am I being Punked?

Sadly, no. The gruesome truth: as I sat in the offices of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation awaiting an interview for a job involving telling the truth to New York State residents, a Department of Environmental Conservation functionary was strutting around in full view of the public ordering another NYSDEC functionary to hide environmental contamination information from the same public. And my heart–and my estimation of NYSDEC–sank into the floor below me.

But what was I gonna do?

Let’s face it, I need a job to be able to return to my Gotham hometown. And let’s not mince words, I need a good-paying one just to be able to pay NYC’s astronomical rent. I’ve had healthy interest in my communications-laden resume, but who wouldn’t want a cush state job?

And when you get right down to it, isn’t every state agency everywhere at least a little corrupt? The world we live in is an imperfect place, and those in power, or wishing to remain in power–sometimes at all costs–have the upper hand and ultimate say in official decisions at all levels of government, no matter what good-government minded individuals might like to believe.

I can’t change the world alone, and I need an income to live in it. What choice did I really have? I might as well just muddle through the interview, maybe get hired, and see if NYSDEC was really all that bad. I mean, what could a few lies told here and there to the public by a well-meaning community-relations official really hurt?

All of this flashed through my mind in one turbulent moment as I got up, walked over the receptionist desk, and canceled my interview. Sure, I need a job, but I’d like one at an ethical organization, thanks. And there’s no paycheck big enough to make me forget that I have to check my principles at the door in order to receive it.

As I walked back to the number 7 train, having for the very first time in my life walked out on a professional interview, I wondered whether I had made the right decision. When I got to the subway entrance, I paused, considered my career goals, and looked back at the NYSDEC building. I realized the conversation I had witnessed couldn’t have been an isolated one. And with that light bulb flashing over my head, I realized one thing more about NYSDEC, this time with absolute certainty.

You couldn’t pay me to work there.

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