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The Cartographer’s Assistant

I’ve never had a sense of direction. Each new place appears like an island. There’s a seahorse of memory and navigation tucked in the brain’s bed. But, for me, north is straight up in the sky and a cold climate. South below. Only on a beach can I find east with confidence, sun rising. West, by sunset. Hippocampus cells in the seahorse misfired or unborn.

Hippos is horses, kampos sea monsters. In Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina of 1539, sea monsters take up two-thirds of the map. The Sea Monster Key identifies a red sea snake 40 feet long. Horned creature whose eye is 20 feet around. Polypus, a lobster big as Norway. Sea unicorn. A green-backed monster imitates an island. Unaware, doomed sailors anchor there and appear in her body, like bones in an X-ray. Monsters like mountains all on attack. When a place was unexplored, maps warned, Here Be Monsters. Here Be Dragons. The first map of America looks like a womb. As if a map is a body.

In seventh grade, my geography teacher sent us outside to measure the Florida sky. Assigned each of us a partner one afternoon. Unsmiling, with his flower-petal mouth and dark, angled bangs, my teacher looked like a sturdier Jackson Browne. Too severely pretty to approach and explain I’d been deserted by my partner. Left staring at concrete, a sharp edge. Sky bright blue. Measureless.

Another student, Frank Eidson, a boy in a blond corduroy jacket that matched his hair, took pity. Frank pointed, said a few words, compass points of kindness. The only geography I learned was plate tectonics, which felt solid, knowable. The ground beneath my feet. When in fact it was what moved, shifted. How the world is remade again and again. I need to know how to get around above ground. The key unlocks the meaning of the map. The legend implies something that has to be read, a story.

One fall, I was out of work. No phone. Regular eviction notices scotch-taped to the peeling blood-red door of my $385-a-month apartment. Panel of yellow migraine light overhead. Roach-colored kitchen cabinets. Pilled gray carpet.

That semester, I’d taught a creative class at the university across the street, one night a week, $400 a month. Stretched my unemployment. One month, I received a food stamp card. December and classes over. That winter, my unemployment ended. I snuck into the English Department to call a temp agency. Instead of temp work, I could have taught a couple of composition classes as an adjunct. But the ones I was offered were mid-day, during the work week. How would I get another job around those hours? Teaching two classes meant I’d only make $200 a week for the semester.

Jodie, a graduate student, had been my assistant at a bookstore. She’d done temp work. How bad could it be? I called, made an appointment. A series of tests, the employees all women in neat pastel suits. Triangle collars of lightweight button-downs peek over blazers.

During the computer program tests, I guessed a lot. Aimed to answer everything. I didn’t understand electronic file folders. Or Excel. Had no real computer of my own, just a clunky old PC the size of an oven that had belonged to my brother’s kids. They’d used it to play games. It came with a dot matrix printer that printed ghost-like type on paper with perforated margins. I mainly used an electric typewriter. But on the temp agency’s computer tests, I scored high enough to be assigned a several-week-long job at the bus company. Did the job pay $8 an hour? $7?

The agency hadn’t told me anything about my actual job, just the computer skills I’d need. Drove downtown to the bus company tower. A bright voiced woman had given me an address. Long-termshe chirped. Several weeks. You’ll get to use your Excel skills. Worried about finding the place. Luckily, the building was very tall.

The logo was a four-toed fuchsia paw print. Thick, round-edged toes, more mitt and Flintstone phalanges than claw and talon, ungula. Office tower the Disney-blue of Cinderella’s Castle at night. Punched the button for a parking ticket, the white gate lifted like a hand. Jagged teeth underneath and a sign warned “Don’t Back Up.” I knew to keep moving forward. Across the parking lot was a man-made pool where the water flung itself down in celebration. I spent my lunch breaks here breathing the un-airconditioned air.

Inside the tower, I signed in at reception. You’ll get to use your Excel skills. I don’t remember my guide, just our walk between rows and rows of cubicles, a field of them in the open space of our high floor. In one, a man bent over a miniature city as if playing. But his face was serious, concentrated. Shouldn’t a man who can build a city have an office? We were all separated by our half and full walls. Everyone’s cubicle missing a door.

We walked toward the far wall. To the left, all glass. To the right, offices. The guide said, We’re here. The plate on the door: “Mapping Department.” Inside a woman with shiny blond hair sat behind a desk. A lemon colored suit. Pink lipstick. Not too much. She stood, Hello. At ease with herself. Powdered and poreless and seamless. Like a Tic Tac.

The guide evaporated and my boss, who ran the Mapping Department, walked me to my cubicle. Inside, the gray carpeted walls were thumbtacked with maps of Orlando and surrounding areas. My boss explained my job. I was to help people moving from welfare to work. Find them on a map. Their house. Their place of employment. Then, weigh their transportation options, select the best, and get each person transported to work and back home. It was just before the turn of the century. Pre-GPS, Google maps. But, I had a computer with a special program to help me find them.

The wall maps surrounding me were dizzying. At my cubicle desk, the phone rang. A man said he needed a ride to work. I typed his name and address into my special program. The list of options to try included bus, carpool, shared van. The last option was a cab. But he didn’t live near the bus line or near another client or on the van route. I called him a cab.

Why don’t we just buy each person a car? I asked my boss. I’d bought cars for $500, but I don’t think she had.

That’s interesting, my boss said in a coffee philosophy way. My idea went nowhere. Not part of this federal grant funded plan. Each person allotted $800 transportation dollars. It was often $40 to take a round-trip cab to get to job at McDonald’s or Trader Vic’s. The day’s work probably didn’t pay that or much more. When the $800 were used up, then what?

In my cubicle, I felt a level of boredom I’ve never felt before. The air conditioner hummed like a cold hive. Cubicle silence unchanging. Drag drag drag of time. My boss sat in her office wearing new outfits. She said she bought new clothes each season. What did she do with the old clothes? Her laugh flung out like a filmy scarf when one of the other male managers stopped by her office. I didn’t know what she did in there. Mappingher door said. A cartographer.

She never looked at me directly, a temp. I was seen as a kind of temporary human being. The Cartographer’s gaze above my head, or glancing by my cheek. There was a cost to not being seen for hours, days, weeks on end–as if I were another species–the others around me seen, recognized. I began to feel less human, less real.


Years before, I’d once tried to ride the bus while living in Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando. Car broken down, I had to get to work. Stood on the wrong side of the road for an hour, watched my bus pass by. Crossed the street, sweating through my blouse. Another hour in the heat. No bus. The main routes are downtown, not here on the outskirts. Dirty white glare, exhaust charcoaling my skin, lining my lungs. Blurred yells from passing drivers. Waiting waiting waiting.

When the bus company brought me in, they’d recently received funding to help implement the welfare-to-work program. Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). It promoted short-term help and work by doling out block grants to the states. Replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). States were encouraged to be creative in their welfare reform efforts.

Sometimes, the Cartographer handed me a manila folder of documents to photocopy. The path to the copy machine was through the expanse of mostly empty cubicles to a vast corner of carpet. Glass wall at the opposite end, Cinderella Castle blue outside, Disney gleam. I thought of pitching myself through it. Crashing the glass into the un-airconditioned air where I would just float, unreal as I am. Cloudy and bloody, full of sharp things.

Instead, I walked on carpet cushy as a giant slipper to the machine where I placed paper on glass. Press Copy. Sometimes another person waited nearby for me to finish, hushed.

But people still needed to get to work, and it was my job to find them. Find their workplace, find the best mode of transportation to get them there. Open my computer map, type in a street address. Voila. Here is a person. Here is McDonald’s.

In a few weeks, my temp job will end as I’ll be offered a full-time job at the Orlando Opera, to make $21,000 a year. Frank Eidson, who I haven’t seen since seventh grade, will have a  wife who will sign up to come to a dress rehearsal for Of Mice & Men at the Bob Carr. I’ll be in charge of greeting her and other donors. Too shy to ever say I went to school with Frank, and he’d been kind to me. A rich, private school my parents sent me to one year because they thought I was too young and sheltered for junior high in public school. A world I crashed, my own self never quite real among them. Frank’s wife blonde and nice, polite as the Cartographer. Frank had become a lawyer for accident claims.

I wonder why so many people going off welfare worked at Trader Vic’s restaurant. Home of the Original Mai Tai. They had a Tiki Bar. The car pooling options I tried never worked for anyone. Rarely, van pooling panned out. No one lived near anyone else. Or near the bus lines. It was almost always a cab I called for a round trip. Almost always $40. I didn’t tell the caller I was worried. Didn’t ask how much a person could make in a day at McDonald’s. Trader Vic’s. But how much did I make there at my temp job in an eight-hour day? $56 a day before taxes? $64? How would anyone get to work when the transportation dollars ran out? No one worked eight hours at the restaurants, shifts shorter.

Clinton was President when they dreamed up the welfare to work program. Seeking re-election, he promised to lower welfare rolls. With Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) taking the place of AFDC, recipients had to be employed within two years of receiving assistance. A lifetime cap on funds. It was popular. Even Democrats who didn’t agree with the TANF changes kept quiet because they wanted Bill back in office.

Peter Edelman, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services resigned in protest when the welfare reform bill was signed into law. Now 6 million people have incomes composed only of food stamps. Today, Edelman says that the problem is low-wage jobs. That half the country’s jobs pay less than $34,000. And a quarter don’t pay even up to the poverty line for a family of four, $23,000. And Edelman notes that from 2009 to 2011, the income of the top 1 percent went up by 11 percent.

Many of the people who called me were dealing with spatial mismatch. Geographers first described it in the 1950s–people didn’t live near employment and services. When PRWORA was implemented, emphasizing “work first,” it was estimated that 93 percent of TANF participants didn’t own a car. But they weren’t near the bus line either. This is the same year the U.S. Census Bureau estimates nearly 37 million people or 14 percent of the population live below the poverty level. What about those who needed day care, were caretakers of elderly parents, were disabled, or cared for someone disabled?

In 1997, Edelman said that TANF wasn’t welfare reform, that it didn’t promote work effectively, and that the bill would move 2.6 million people, including 1.1 million children, into poverty. The month I received food stamps, I didn’t know that there’d been another cut limiting food stamps to three months out of every three years for unemployed adults under age fifty who are not raising children.

I never saw any of the people who called me, just voices on the phone. Pick up, drop off.

Each time I called a cab, I felt another $40 fall away. Twenty round trips. That’s what $800 bought.

I learned to find each person on the map like a ring I’d lost, scouring square inches. With no sense of direction, I got everybody home. On my carpet walls were the suburbs of Casselberry, Altamonte Springs, Ocala forest, rural Chuluota, Christmas, Sanford, Oviedo. Orlando was blue with lakes and springs and creeks. Narcissus Ave and Hughey Street, Red Bug, and Snow Hill, Sand Lake, West Lester, Belle Isle, Pine Castle, Conway. Each voice on the phone was somewhere on a yellow street. I looked closer. Saw how one thing could hide another. Behind that electronic push pin was the electronic drawing of a house in Florida. Inside, it was December 1999, and a woman needed a ride to work. My voice a flicker on a wire. True north is the direction across the earth, to the North Pole. Polaris, the brightest star in Ursa Minor is the closest star to the North Pole. The Guiding Star. The magnet in a compass is drawn to the North Pole, so with a compass, you can always find North. Maybe my geography teacher should have given us a compass. The earth’s magnetic field calls the magnet in the needle. The needle has no choice.

Just before my temp job ended, a flyer arrived in my cubicle announcing that the bus company was hiring. The opening was a full-time position for the job I’d been doing. The Cartographer said, You could apply. Salary, benefits. I didn’t apply, but I’d learned to find other people, the places they needed to go. Just spin me around twice, I thought. Ask me to point north. I’ll be free.


Kelle Groom’s memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster), is a Barnes & Noble Discover selection, New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and a Library Journal Best Memoir. She is an NEA Fellow, and her work has appeared in AGNI, The New Yorker, and Ploughshares.