Throwing a plate of spaghetti against the wall

I have been thinking about Joseph Sliwa lately. A World War II vet, he received a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He could speak and write Polish. He loved gardening, taking pictures and traveling. He especially loved the Adirondacks. He was my daughter’s Godfather. He and his wife Helen were among the kindest people I have ever known.

Joe was my first boss at the Unemployment Insurance Division of the New York State Department of Labor. He hired me 39 years ago. Even though I was trained to address those who were older or in positions of authority with a courtesy title such as Mr., Joe insisted I call him Joe. None of his employees called him Mr. Sliwa. Most of the people he served called him Joe.

As an Employment Services Claims Trainee, I had to satisfactorily complete a year as a trainee before advancing to full title. Then I had to serve an additional probationary period of a year.

The office in Rome, N.Y. had not been fully staffed during the several months it took to canvass the civil service list, set up interviews and complete the paperwork for filling the vacant position. By the time I started, one of the senior clerks was taking her vacation. A longtime employee, she had four weeks coming and took them all at once. Three employees and a trainee were trying to service an office that had plenty of work for the five experienced permanent employees.

Lines were long because the local plants were having summer shutdowns. Because Rome was the site of Griffis Air Force Base we had a variety of interstate claims as well as claims for ex-servicemen and claims against the federal government.

Initially, I wasn’t much help. I was overwhelmed by the volume of activity and the inability to learn in an organized fashion. I didn’t like being useless while my co-workers were clearly deluged with work. Joe, a working supervisor, and the other examiner took late lunches or no lunches at all.

Joe put me out on the counter to learn the clerical work first. The work required attention to detail.

Something as simple as failing to initial a pay order could delay a claimant’s check. Luckily the remaining clerk was fast, accurate and kind to me. She checked over the pay orders and brought them back for me to initial.

“Don’t worry about it,” Joe said. “It takes at least six months for the clerical work, and at least a year to be good at claims.”

Then he said, “It’s like throwing a plate of spaghetti against the wall. Some of the spaghetti will stick and some won’t.”

Because Joe and I shared a Polish heritage, I once said that maybe I should go home and become a Polish housewife. That was part joke and part frustration. When Joe left me notes about how to fix my work, he usually started them “Dear P.H.”

I did finally learn what I was doing. I moved on in the state, but I kept in contact with Joe and Helen. When I moved back to Dunkirk that became more difficult. During Christmas time, I always got a card with a note in Joe’s distinctive handwriting. He’d write “Dear P.H.” tell me how he and Helen and his family were doing and end with Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in Polish.

Joe died in 2011. I miss him, but I remember his wisdom and humor. Thank goodness I told him how special he was to me years before he died.

I’m now the Lifestyles editor at the OBSERVER. There is much to learn and I want to be good at this job. I still don’t like making mistakes. While the learning process here is much less chaotic than a busy unemployment insurance office, the mental image of throwing a plate of spaghetti against a wall helps. It makes me smile and gives me hope that I can learn this job too.

Diane Chodan is Lifestyles editor at the OBSERVER. Send comments to dchodan@observertoday.com