Man is caught in tangled web

Dan Rodricks

July 19, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Up front, you need to know that Abernathy is not the real name of the subject of this story.

I won't name the place where he used to work, nor will I name the place where he works now. I am not going to name the place at which he applied for a new job, either.

You'll understand why as the story unfolds, as we attempt to untangle the web in which our man Abernathy finds himself, a web of his own making.

You might come to understand why Abernathy feels trapped, why this dispirited man of 36 years often asks himself the bleak question: "Am I going to be a security guard all my life?" And, after hearing the sordid details, you might see the paradox: A man who despairs over being a security guard actually would be very grateful for the job.

Let's begin in 1989.

Our man Abernathy works security in a complex of offices in downtown Baltimore. There have been problems with after-hours thievery in one of the offices. The overnight cleaning crew is suspected.

Management baits the office with an envelope containing $20 and a roll of stamps. They set up a hidden camera to record any skulduggery.

One night, Abernathy is on patrol, sees the envelope and takes it. Management sees this on videotape and immediately fires Abernathy. Charged with theft, he goes to District Court a month later, pleads guilty, gets 18 months on probation and pays a $500 fine.

Abernathy feels stupid.

Stupid and unemployed.

He applies for a new security job at another business in downtown Baltimore. At the time of the application, his prospective employer does not request -- nor does Abernathy volunteer -- any information on his criminal record. "They really needed someone for the job fast," Abernathy explains.

The job pays $8 an hour. Abernathy feels lucky to have it.

Still, he wants something better.

"What I did was stupid, I know that," he tells me. "But I want to get on with life. I wanted something better than a security job."

After about a year at his new job, Abernathy starts looking around. He applies for a job in, shall we say, "a downtown agency." It is not a security job, but it is a job that requires a personal background check.

"Going into it, I knew I had to be honest," Abernathy says. "When I was interviewed for the job, I told the people at the meeting, right up front, about the theft conviction. I asked them right from the start: 'Is this a waste of my time?' I told them that I would quit my present job if they offered me a new one, but I needed to know if the conviction was going to keep me from getting the job. . . . All they said was, 'If we find out there's more on your record [than the one conviction], you're in trouble.' "

So Abernathy leaves the interview with the impression that his honesty will pay off.

Several months later, he gets the job with the downtown agency. He is hired on condition that he serve the first three months of his employment as a probationary period.

Abernathy reports for work three weeks later, having quit the security job he had had, at this point, for nearly two years. The new job pays about 95 cents an hour more than the previous one. Abernathy is a happy man. He trains on the job for about six weeks.

Then, his supervisors call him to a meeting.

"You are being dropped," he is told.

"Why?" Abernathy wants to know.

"Because of your criminal record."

Our man is furious. He had been up front about the theft conviction. He had spelled it all out in his written application. Why hadn't the agency told him a clean record was required for the job? "They led me on because they were in a rush to fill the vacancy," Abernathy says. "It's not right. I was up front with them and they brought me on the job, then they dropped me."

And so, once again, our man Abernathy finds himself unemployed. "I spend a lot of time asking myself, 'Am I going to be a security guard all my life?' "

Still, Abernathy wants his old job back. In fact, he'll be very grateful for it.

But something's sticky.

You'll recall that, when Abernathy applied for the second security job, he never reported the petty theft that got him fired from his first job. And the truth about the theft led directly to his dismissal from the third job.

Now Abernathy wants the second job back, and the boss might want to know why. As I said, it's a tangled web.

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