vodka and Chanel 19

Women working, people who follow this blog, know that on Saturdays and Sundays I try to post pictures of, well, women working. I failed to do so this past weekend because I was preparing for a new job of my own (gotta pay the bills!). I don’t know if I’ll eventually write about it, but it occurred to me that some of you might be interested in what I did before this blog. Well, this is it. 


May, 2012

Tonight on may way home from a bar on 2nd Avenue, after downing two small and pricey vodkas, I stuck my finger in my mouth and tasted the Chanel 19 I had put on in the morning and realized I hadn’t washed my hands all day because I hadn’t peed, eaten or done anything else but work.

Welcome to the world of human services.

The perfume tasted good, and reminded me that I had a life outside of the “residence” where I work. The place I work is dirty. From the outside it looks like all of the other red-brick mid-rise apartment buildings in Hell’s Kitchen — the kind of New York buildings newly graduated kids from Michigan long to afford apartments in.

Inside it looks like a building someone might go into to look around and see if it could be cleaned up enough to house human beings. There are little slopes of dirt in the corners, where the floor meets the baseboard.

Little hillocks that have been diligently worked into the corner, pushed in, mopped over, waxed over, seemingly shellacked into the corner. You couldn’t remove the hillocks with a hammer and chisel.

The air in the building is enhanced by little puffs of “citrus” scent that’s periodically shot out of small plastic boxes strategically placed throughout the building.

In the bathrooms the scent is concentrated and intense, a full tilt whiff of cheap perfume like you get when a sluttish lady who shops at Wallmart passes you. The scent can only be described as cheap, really cheap. There’s nothing citrus about it. It’s heavy and greasy. It’s a depressing scent.

I would so much rather smell: the stale smoke, the sweat, the pee and, occasionally, feces that also hover in the air.

The combination of the two scents, citrus and human being, is like a metaphor floating in the air. When I figure out what that metaphor is I’ll write it down. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that “natural” is always better; but in this case, to me, it would be. The smell of human beings is at least recognizable.

The smell of citrus crap is just crap. Like the crap we give new “residents” in our “program” when they become our “clients.” The blankets are made out of that cheap, non-flammable plastic material. After one washing the blanket begins to look and feel like weird, pea-soup green Styrofoam. It can’t be folded, it has to be bent.

You could then use it to exfoliate the bottoms of your feet.

The blankets are only vaguely worthy of the term blanket for what seems like exactly one wash. They don’t last. They become nothing quickly. They’re shapeless pieces of nothing after one wash.

Nothing in the building lasts. The only thing that lasts, and which I imagine living on after the building is raised, is that god-awful scent. Nothing lasts in our building. There’s no time. There’s no time to do anything.

There’s no time to do anything well.

And that’s my big problem with the whole place and the people who work in it. Welcome to the world of human services. Where those of us with crippled souls serve other crippled souls for cheap money. Crippled souls and little education, no ambition and few skills can be bought cheap. Cheap things don’t last.




  • I think this is possibly one of my favourite posts of yours.

    The way you’ve written about your old job – it’s so evocative – you’ve shared so much in a very clever way, without actually needing to describe the job itself.

    Please do write about what you’re doing now, I’m intrigued!

    With love from London,

    Esther xx

    • Anita Irlen says:


      The post is quite different from most of the others, I know. Somehow I felt compelled to write it. It does go with one of my “themes.” I would like to write about my new job but it may be a little bit difficult, a conflict of interests. For now at least. xx

  • Carolann says:

    Well, that was very powerful indeed. I felt as if I was almost there with you. That blanket…ugh..sounds wretched. I’m so interested to hear more!

    • Anita Irlen says:


      Thanks for the comment. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the work. The mentally ill I was working with were wonderful, fascinating, and brave. It’s the state of our social services system that drove/drives me crazy. It has essentially become a big business, and I don’t think that serves anybody.

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