Jay had been sitting in the middle of my stack of files for several weeks, below the hot prospects who had agreed to interview appointments, above those that had proved to be dead-ends, all contact information bad. Her phone had been disconnected from the first time I called but her address hadn’t been explored. (We found out at the end of the study that the Department of Social and Health Services had fucked up, providing us with months-old information for a largely transient population, and oh my god was that the only information they had? How were they reaching their clients to provide services?)
Once I had several addresses prove to be the only means of contact for multiple respondents, I made a trip down I-5 for a series of drive-bys, an unscheduled, unannounced pop-in. The best-case scenario for a drive-by was gaining access to the respondent and completing the interview. Often times drive-bys led down a rabbit hole, as the respondent no longer lived there, or wasn’t crashing there anymore, or the place was vacant. This time I was headed to a suburb south of a city, not far from a joint Army and Air Force base. Lots of stripmalls, lots of hourly rate motels, the overall impression of low-rent squalor shaded by massive, densely growing Evergreen trees.
A person who looked like me had to approach in an unassuming, non-threatening manner or risk suspicion and dismissal. You couldn’t just stride up to a door with an air of authority, because many of our respondents were living below the government radar, and if you presented like The Man, you were getting nowhere. We needed our data, and if they said no one day, you had to go back another and ask again. It was best to get it all worked out and done in the first shot.
I pulled off the freeway onto a two-lane road hemmed in by towering dark green pines, ditches full of tall, dry grass. Not a residence or business in sight. Garmin had me turn left at a stop sign, where several yards away a series of low-rise apartment buildings emerged from the demi-forest. I squinted at the addresses until Garmin chimed in, “arriving at destination”. Pulling into a parking lot I saw a group of a dozen or so twenty- to thirty-something men of various sizes from lithe to obese standing in a loose circle, smoking various forms of tobacco and drinking from large bottles and cans of beer. They were talking, laughing, some bouncing around, others standing stock still, together in a huddle at three p.m. on a Wednesday. Several trained their suspicious eyes on me as I pulled in, and I sensed I would need to check in with this pack before I made any moves to find Jay’s apartment. I was an outsider, and I understood I needed to announce my presence to the group in order to respectfully and safely gain access to the apartment complex. I gathered my laptop bag and plastic box which held my case files and walked toward the men, smiling and returning their gazes.
“Hi, I’m wondering if you know where Jay’s apartment is. I’m here to do an interview with her.” You were never allowed to tell anyone more than that, lest you violate the respondent’s confidentiality. The men regarded me quietly, with seeming surprise at my straightforwardness. Before anyone could speak, a short, lean figure in basketball shorts and an undershirt emerged from the center of the group. Initially, the figure’s gender wasn’t clear. I could have been speaking to a nineteen year-old man or a twenty-six year-old woman. A bandana covered short, tight rows of braids. “Yeah, I’m Jay. Who are you?” she asked, leveling a scrutinizing stare in my general direction. I explained myself again and asked if we might speak at her apartment. It was up to her to violate her own confidentiality at this point. I wasn’t going to breathe a word of “CPS” unless she demanded full disclosure in front of her crew. She readily agreed and the group of large men parted, allowing us access into a courtyard, which gave to the entrance of Jay’s one-bedroom apartment.
Jay showed me to her bedroom, where she invited me to sit on the bed with her for our conversation. I sat. She bobbed and weaved all over the room, touching this, picking up that, examining another. She’d perch next to me for a moment, leg moving up and down in rapid jerks, eyes darting, her whole being in motion. The interview was to take up to 60 minutes, and most had concluded around that mark, if not ten minutes earlier. This time it took a half hour just to do the consent form, Jay only half-listening, not responding to my questions about her understanding of the study and her rights as a participant. There was no way I was going to launch into an interview with someone who seemed not to have heard, and certainly wasn’t going to pause to read the consent agreement. I asked her politely to tell me if she understood and to please sign if she was willing to be interviewed. Her cell phone rang and she took the call. Sigh.
Form signed and placed in my files, I fired up the laptop and handed Jay the laminated response card, a legal-sized sheet with various scales, letters and numbers corresponding to interview question sections. Each answer had a number next to it in case the respondent didn’t wish to use words in case, say, a judgemental family member was looking on during the interview. Jay leaped off the bed again when her phone rang, to take another call. I sat quietly, my fingers hovering over the keyboard, wondering if we would ever get started.
At last Jay sat and began to answer my questions in rapid succession, seeming never to pause for consideration or clarification. She knew her own mind. She hopped up again about a quarter of the way through the questions about types of social services offered her by DSHS: which were she utilizing, had her social worker made the referrals or been of any help, really? Jay returned to the bed with a Swisher Sweet and glass jar of marijuana buds. “I’m about to roll a blunt,” she announced, slitting open the cigar and emptying it of tobacco. She removed the lid of the jar, shaking buds onto the response card, which apparently was going to serve as a preparation surface.
My heart began to beat with more insistence as I realized I was entering a “decision zone”. I understood that many parents with active CPS cases were under drug testing scrutiny with the juvenile court, and that use of any illegal drugs was forbidden during a child abuse or neglect investigation. I also knew from her file that her young child was currently living in the home with her, having not been removed by court order. From a professional standpoint, I knew allowing a respondent to use the response card for blunt rolling wasn’t ideal. Ethically, I felt compromised about watching a six year-old watch her mother get high, though I understood this wouldn’t be the first time. Adding additional confusion was my utter hypocrisy as Jay’s fellow pothead, a chronic, daily user for more than a decade. A humorous layer of irony thinly covered the scene.
I decided to go for harm reduction and make it about using the response card. “Um, Jay, you can’t be rolling a blunt on the response card,” I ventured as she produced a grinder, reducing buds to piles of shake, sprinkling it into the cigar wrapper, the most focused she’d been since I walked in. She continued as though she hadn’t heard me. “OK, seriously, Jay. You have to stop. You can’t do that right now.” She paused, squinting up at me. “Man, you are so fucking white!” she exclaimed.
She was watching me intently, eagerly awaiting my response to her declaration. I wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction of escalated conflict. I needed her to treat me like a person, or we were never going to get through this interview. From the time I entered her apartment I had felt like furniture at best, sitting in silent witness as she went about her afternoon. We were going to have to connect on some level. Even so, I was intensely aware of the importance of staying as neutral as possible, a smooth surface that reflected only the respondent’s views and intentions, lest I bias the interview and render the data useless. I sensed we were at a critical juncture in the interpersonal process, where her trust and my ability to complete the interview hung in the balance. “Yes, I am white.” I said dryly, pursing my lips and raising my eyebrows. I got up and stood next to her doorless closet, absently looking in at her things. Your move, Jay.
To be continued Thursday…