In this week’s paper, we’re running a news brief about a letter President Pattenaude wrote to faculty and staff. It included a few paragraphs about TABOR and why he thought it would have dangerous effects for the university. This follows Pattenaude’s announcment a few weeks ago that USM already was about 2 million dollars in the hole. “So, this must be a year of decisive action,” said Pattenaude.

Rhetoric about budget cuts, shortfalls, and tightening the belt is so pervasive that it takes on a desensitized existence. Administrators, governors, and president’s often cite numbers and statistics, and insist that budget cuts must be made. But it wasn’t until last week that I was sharply reminded of what a budget cut looks like.

“Bob” comes through our door at 92 Bedford every weekday afternoon wearing a giant vacuum pack. It’s almost as big as he is, and strapped into it he looks like he’s ready to blast off. He stands at the top of our stairs and waits for his supervisor to plug him in so he can have at it. He’s quiet and unassuming, there to perform a task that he knows he can do well. He’s probably the most efficient worker that I’ve ever seen. He’s not interested in a cell phone; he doesn’t want to flirt with the girls on staff; and he never calls in sick because he’s hungover. He’s got one task in mind: vacuuming the office. Get out of the way, Bob’s plugged in.

The crew’s job coach, Jill, habitually follows in tow, Bob’s vacuum plug in hand and trash bags shoved under an arm. Her job is to integrate Bob into the work force and society. She is the bridge between Bob’s obstacles, and him overcoming those. She’s always got a mouthful for you. She sees a lot of USM, traveling daily down the row of old two story houses. Daily she reveals something she encountered in her travels, meant to shock and amaze.

“Yep, ‘Phil’s’ at the Pirate’s game tonight,” she told me one day as she mopped and I say at my computer, frenetically typing. She was talking about the third member of their crew, who worships the Portland hockey team and was absent. Phil is a paranoid schizophrenic, and a very quiet man. If you met him on the street, you might run. His face is still, his deep brown eyes focused with unflinching intensity. Recently Phil smiled an entire front row of teeth at me. It took both of us a little time and trust. As you get to know people, you realize that who they appear to be as a result of a category you put them in is the most dismissive and simplified way to see them.

They’ve become a staple in our daily routine. More importantly, this job has become a part of their daily routine. Bob’s lifestyle necessitates structure and order. He suffers from a mental disability which causes anxiety and confusion when that routine is disturbed. Bob and Phil work for Youth Alternatives, a company that helps people who have poor work histories, are foster kids, welfare cases, or have disabilities. They provide job coaching, development and placement support services. Clients like Bob and Phil are referred through the Bureau of Rehabilitation. Lee Forest, USM’s director of facilities management works with Youth Alternatives to place clients in jobs best suited to their capabilities and restrictions. It serves as a vehicle to move barriers in baby steps, giving their clients confidence as well as work history.

It was something to build on. It was integration at its best.

But budget cuts hit, and decisions had to be made. So our cleaning crew got the axe.

“‘Bob’ took it pretty hard,” said Anthony Taliento, vocational coordinator for Youth Alternatives. “He doesn’t quite understand these things.”

Bob showed up last Friday with his vacuum strapped on and waited for Jill to plug him in. I greeted him with “Hi, Bob! How are you?”

“[It’s my] last night,” he said, staring at the carpet. And that was all.

Budget cuts always sounded so bureaucratic and stale. The words floated by me and dissipated into air. But now, budget cuts are people I know. They’re Bob, as he stared at the carpet, sullen and still.

This week when I look at the ballot, I’m going to think hard about what checking off a box means. I’m definitely voting no on TABOR. Behind the phrase, budget cut, I see Bob and his vacuum. And I miss him.


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