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"Don’t hate me … it’s just my job” 

Jeanie Riess talks with people whose work brings them into conflict with an often-angry public

click to enlarge Tow truck operator Phillip Spencer says he's been cursed and fired upon with an AK-47 while towing cars. "I'm just doing my job. ... We don't make the rules."

Photo by Jeanie Riess

Tow truck operator Phillip Spencer says he's been cursed and fired upon with an AK-47 while towing cars. "I'm just doing my job. ... We don't make the rules."

Walk into the Office of Motor Vehicles (OMV) on Veterans Memorial Boulevard on a Monday morning and you will be met with smug, dodgy and territorial glances. No one is giving up a place in line, and if you look clueless as to how the carefully orchestrated system of lines and numbers and desks works, you'll probably get schooled. Three people holler at me to get in line when I approach an officer near one of the windows to ask a question.

  I don't blame them. This is the biggest OMV in the state of Louisiana, and people have been waiting a long time. Every time a number is called, about 200 chins lift to read the red flashing sign that tells what number can approach a desk, just to make sure their ears didn't deceive them.

  It's easy to hate the OMV, and though the office's employees are only extensions of a bureaucratic government agency, it's easy to hate them, too. Diana Durham, who made it to the relatively plush confines of an actual chair (past the standing room-only line) in the OMV and was listening for her number, called the employees "horrible."

  "The management makes it horrible," she said. "I've even asked for the manager before, [in the OMV] on Airline (Highway), and she said, 'I am the manager.' They're ugly, they're nasty, they're uppity. When the lady earlier asked us to back up, she said 'please.' I turned around and looked at the man behind me and said, 'I can't believe she said please.' I couldn't believe it. They just don't say please at the [OMV], or any government entity."

Around New Orleans there's a handful of jobs that triggers real loathing from the public. In many cases, it doesn't much matter what an employee does to make things more pleasant. The experience of having to be there at all already has clouded their customers' attitudes.

  Even talking to those in official capacities is tricky. Meter maids and impound lot employees topped the list of workers we wanted to get on the record about their jobs, but the city rebuffed numerous requests for interviews with these employees, so like OMV workers, they weren't allowed to talk about daily life behind the desk. Though Mayor Mitch Landrieu has made much of the "Innovation Delivery Team" at New Orleans City Hall, which is designed "to make customer experiences better, easier and faster," we couldn't manage to talk to any of those employees. After several emails and phone calls, Landrieu administration spokesman Tyler Gamble wrote, "Don't think this one's going to work out."

  A request for an interview with an OMV window worker was routed to state government. Finally Captain Doug Cain, the public information commander for the State Police, offered himself instead, saying simply: "The motor vehicle employees, manager, supervisors and senior staff are always looking for ways to create efficiency, make the process more effective and, frankly, make it as painless as possible for our customers."

  Cain says the Veterans Memorial Boulevard branch serves more than 650 people a day, and many of those customers arrive without the proper documents or don't know how much a particular transaction costs.

  "Almost half of the people who come to the [OMV] can take care of the transaction online, so they don't even have to leave their house," he says. "We encourage people to go online, find out if they have the right documents, what the process is and plan ahead as you would do for the grocery store, bringing a grocery list."

Phillip Spencer, a tow truck operator with Mid City Automotive, doesn't go anywhere without a loaded gun. "I always keep it loaded," he says, "because you never know."

  That might seem extreme for someone who picks up cars from illegal parking spots for a living, but when you ask Spencer about moments when he's felt truly hated in his seven years on the job, it becomes a question of which near-death experience you want to hear about.

click to enlarge Customers at the Office of Motor Vehicles on Veterans Memorial Boulevard wait to hear a service representative call their numbers. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Customers at the Office of Motor Vehicles on Veterans Memorial Boulevard wait to hear a service representative call their numbers.

  Last week, Spencer says he picked up a car at an apartment complex in Metairie. The owner of the car saw Spencer from the window and ran down the stairs, shouting to Spencer that he would move his car, which was parked illegally inside the residents' lot.

  "I say, 'Sorry, I can't give it back right now. I already hooked it,'" Spencer says. "Once you got a hook on a car, they gotta pay me. That's a release on the spot. It's company policy. We don't have to give it to them. We could just take it to the yard." Spencer explained to the man that it would cost $120 to give him back the car on the spot; the man wasn't happy. "I said, 'I'm just doing my job. I cannot give you back your car. ... I'm sorry. It's the state rules.' Everything we do is through the (Louisiana State Police's)Towing and Recovery Unit, and that's what we have to follow. We don't make the rules, they do. They set the prices and everything."

  Then, Spencer says, the angry tow-ee told him he'd "smash" him, went around the corner and met a friend who gave him a gun, which he stuck in his pants. Spencer was watching in his rearview mirror. It's essential for a tow truck driver to have friends who are police officers, and Spencer has dozens he's acquired through his job towing cars. He called a Jefferson Parish officer who met him at the apartment complex where he was towing the car. The car owner shouted racial slurs at Spencer, but ran away when he saw the cop pull in, Spencer says.

  "He jumped over the gate, but he's a fat boy, so he can't really jump over the gate," he says. "He tried to jump over the gate and the cops caught him, so he went to jail."

  A few weeks earlier, as Spencer and another tow truck driver were picking up some cars in New Orleans, someone fired an AK-47 at them.

  "The thing is, he wasn't a good shot," Spencer says. "He was hitting every other car except us." At one apartment complex in New Orleans East, a resident watches for Spencer through her window and warns people the minute she sees him coming. "Y'all better move y'all's cars! The tow truck driver's here," he quoted her.

  Spencer shot someone six times in self-defense after a man whose car he had towed pulled a gun on him. The shooter recovered and was imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

  "When they told me that he died, I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm gonna go to jail, you know?" Spencer says. He wasn't prosecuted for the shooting.

Dr. Suzanne Fournier is a pediatric dentist who jokes that 90 percent of her job is psychology for both children and parents, and just 10 percent is actual dentistry. For someone with a hated job, she's tapped into how to be liked, despite spending her days pulling teeth and forbidding candy to the lollipop demographic.

click to enlarge cover_story-2.jpg

  "I have a lot of kids that are just really little," she says. "I have a lot of 1-, 2-, 3-year-olds who don't understand why their teeth are hurting and that I'm here to help them. Some of it is just age and a lack of understanding. I have other kids with learning disabilities or developmental delays, like autism, where they just can't understand (and) they will never be able to understand, why I need to go into their mouths and have loud noises going off." Fournier says the kids who are most afraid are often her favorite kinds of patients, not least because those are the ones she gets to win over with a careful song and dance she's spent the last eight years mastering.

  "I have other kids that are well-behaved, but the amount of work they need is daunting to a general dentist," she says. "When they only have 20 teeth in the mouth, and 18 of the teeth either need crowns or extractions — those are my general challenges."

  Fournier says every pediatric dentist has his or her own unique way of doing things, but most seek to establish trust early on. "These kids don't know you from anybody, and kids are kind of taught ... to always be a little weary of things," she says.

  To start out, she makes three promises each time her patients visit. She promises she will always let a kid see and feel (on their fingers and fingernails first) everything she is about to do in their mouth. Fournier also tells them she will always tell them the truth and will try her hardest to make them feel good.

  Despite using sayings and tactics, fear and loathing from patients are sometimes unavoidable. "My last patient, the one I just had, was not a good candidate for sedation, and his mom really did not want him to go under general anesthesia, which I totally understand, because that's a big risk," Fournier says. "We did eight extractions, six crowns, and he just turned five. ... He needed a lot of work. And probably a year and a half ago, he wouldn't come near the chair. He was running around the room screaming at the top of his lungs. He weighs about 120 pounds now; he is a big kid. I couldn't hold him down. We ended up using what we call 'protective stabilization.' I call it my car seat."

  Fournier handles these situations with so much tact that many kids can't help but comply. "I have been known to lose my voice singing too much Frozen," she says.

  The kind of rhetoric Fournier is required to use for her job is a reminder of what it takes to be liked in a profession that's easy to hate.

  "This little boy I had today was extremely fearful, and he even came [in] today crying," she says. "And when I calmed him down, I said, 'You have to use words. Why are you upset?' He said he thought I was going to have to extract another tooth, and I said 'No, that's not what we're doing. We're going to paint with squirt guns and I have a magic fairy godmother wand that I'll use today on your teeth.'" The child calmed down, Fournier says.

Jennifer Barkley is a former hostess at Cafe Degas, a small, popular restaurant with a tiny bar where customers spend a lot of time before being seated at a table.

  "Customers definitely got agitated with me" on extremely busy nights and during Jazz Fest, she says. "I would have to give a timeframe of how long it would take ... to get a table. You can't give an exact time frame for that, because you don't know how long the [group] already sitting is going to want to linger. Everyone's lingering, everyone's drinking and everyone's having a good time."

click to enlarge Former restaurant hostess Jennifer Barkley says she encountered a lot of hostility from customers waiting for tables at the popular restaurant where she worked, but says, "When you're waiting for a table, there's no one to be angry at." - PHOTO BY JEANIE RIESS
  • Photo by Jeanie Riess
  • Former restaurant hostess Jennifer Barkley says she encountered a lot of hostility from customers waiting for tables at the popular restaurant where she worked, but says, "When you're waiting for a table, there's no one to be angry at."

  Barkley used the old trick of over-estimating the wait, so that if she anticipated a table to be available in half an hour, she would say 45 minutes. "You try to say the longest amount of time, so 45 minutes to an hour," she says. "So people would wait that length of time because they'd be getting drinks at the bar, and so I was dealing with a lot of drunk people and also they're hungry at this point. They're 'hangry.' So it would be 50 minutes. And they'd come back to me and say, 'Ma'am, you told us an hour ago that we would be seated in 45 minutes, and now one hour has passed and it's nine o'clock.' And then they would ask for a manager.

  "But, when you're waiting for a table, there's no one to be angry at."

  Barkley says no matter what she did — from buying customers a round of drinks to making sure to look nice — she often could not appease a hungry crowd.

  That led to bribery.

  "People during Jazz Fest would slip me $50 bills," she says. "One time someone slipped me $75. I never accepted the money, ever. That's ridiculous. No matter where you are on the list, even the first table has like an hour wait. So it doesn't matter where you are on the list, even if I accepted your cash."

Gary Brown, a family law attorney in New Orleans, says family lawyers have more complaints filed against them with the Louisiana Bar Association than any other kind of legal practitioner. "Hate may be a strong word," he says, "but I'm sure there are people who are not happy with me, including my own clients."

  That's partly because clients often have unrealistic expectations of what a family lawyer can do, Brown says. "You're seeing clients when they're at their worst," he says. "There are children, and there's often times emotional investments that don't have anything to do with anybody's best interests."

  People involved in the dissolution of a marriage, for example, often are suffering emotionally, but Brown says it's not his job to play therapist. "I tell my clients, 'I'm your lawyer, OK?'" he says. "I know stuff about the law, but I don't know stuff about therapy and behavior and things like that. You'd be much better off seeking that advice somewhere else."

  Still, Brown says he does offer support and tries to make his clients comfortable by being friendly and accommodating. Eliminating tension and acting in the best interest of his client often means attempting to settle a dispute outside the courtroom.

"Settling a dispute outside the courtroom" means something different to Brown than it does to Spencer, for whom an irate customer with a gun is part of a day's work. But the tow-truck driver remains philosophical.

  "I don't like doing it, and I do like doing it," he says. "Some days it's good, some days it's OK. Sometimes people take their lick, and when I say 'take their lick,' I mean accept their fault. You parked in a handicap [disabled parking space]. Whose fault is that? That's your fault. I didn't park there. I'm just here to tow your car. Read your handbook with your driver's license. You'll get towed, man."

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