When I decided to look for a new part time job I had several criteria: the job had to pay at least fifteen dollars an hour and it had to be flexible. After a few weeks of searching and applying I got a call from the HR department of a private investigation firm – which I will from here on refer to as: Marley and Marley.
The woman on the other line asked me a few questions about myself and seemed interested in the fact that I was a writer; the job would include a lot of writing and strong people and writing skills were a requirement.
“In fact,” she said. “Our other claims investigator is a writer too – she writes romance novels!”
I sat on my bed and stared at my pills and medications sitting on my bedside table as she asked me a few questions. She was calling from the California branch; if I got the job I would be the first claims investigator at their new branch in Portland.
I asked the woman for a basic description of the job. It boiled down to this: when worker’s comp insurance companies are unsure about certain claims they hire Marley and Marley to investigate, sometimes surveilling the claimant’s home and activities to make sure they were truly as injured as they claimed or, in my case, to call the claimants and ask them background questions, “Like if they are filing for bankruptcy, or something,” the HR woman explained.
“So I need to find out other reasons they might be filing the claim,” I said. “I mean, obviously besides the injury itself. What if people lie?”
“Well, we can only ask the claimants the questions and if they lie to us, that’s not our problem,” she said. “Of course,” and here she snickered, “we want to save our clients money.”
At the time I took this at face value. I figured, as a claims investigator, I needed to pay attention to detail. I was good at that. It made sense to me. I hypothesized – if the claimant, for example, had previously injured their wrist in a snowboarding accident, or if their house was currently going into foreclosure, I would be responsible for recording this information. I knew next to nothing about this side of the insurance company, and I tried to paint a “big picture” formation in my head as quickly as possible.
The HR woman, on the other hand, seemed only interested in whether I was able to perform the basic functions of the job: talking to strangers, asking them potentially invasive questions and writing up accurate, grammatically correct reports in a timely matter.
I felt a little flattered actually, that my writing skills would be valued in this new job. I lack discipline and willpower and have never been good at making money from my writing. Since I’d decided to stop teaching, I’ve found there are few other guaranteed ways to make money writing – at least ones that I have any interest in. Sure, you can pitch articles and book ideas and all the rest but like I said, I lack discipline and have accepted the fact that I will probably never make the majority of my income from my writing.
That spring I just needed a job that would pay me decently while I studied to get my real estate license and get into business with my mom, so after my interview with “Josh”, the manager of the firm’s Portland branch, a week later in a high rise in downtown Portland, I said yes to my position as a the first claims investigator for Marley and Marley in the Pacific Northwest.
“Now you’ll have to go down to Salem to take the PI exam,” said Josh when he called me after the interview.
“PI? You mean private investigator? Like a private eye?”
“Yeah, but don’t worry about it” he said, noting the hesitation in my voice, “It’s an open book test and it really doesn’t have anything to do with what you’ll be doing anyway. You’ll just be calling claimants up, interviewing them about their claims and writing up reports. The PI license is just a formality.”
Josh told me that he would take care of scheduling the exam for me. “We’ll get you down there, you’ll take the test, and you should be up and running in the next few weeks,” he said.
But as it turned out that the next test date in Salem, at the Department of Public Safety and Standards, the same institution that trains our cops, wasn’t for another month. In the meantime, Josh told me, I could do a few “ride-alongs” with him to interview some claimants. His main job was surveillance, not taking statements, and he was looking forward to getting the claimant statements “off his plate. So just get your application packet together so everything will be ready once it’s time for you to take the test. I’ll call you when I get a claim in and you can come along for some training.”
So I went about getting the paperwork done. I had to get bonded, and have my fingerprints and a passport-quality photo taken. I ended up getting this done at a run-down old house on 82nd in SE Portland. I could have gotten it done at a police station but their hours were weird and it was expensive.
It was a hot muggy June day when I arrived; my hair stuck to my neck and I wiped sweat from my forehead as I parked my car around the corner and walked through a gravel lot up to the big yellow house.
As I approached, a woman walked out the front door with a little boy in her arms and a stack of papers in her hand, “Are you going in there?” She pointed with her head to the house.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Worst customer service ever!” She walked down the steps, struggling with her squirming son.
“Oh really?” I frowned. I had looked on the internet for places to get my fingerprints taken and this was the cheapest and most convenient location I’d found, but I figured I would indulge this woman since she seemed so upset. Plus given her attitude, it seemed rude to just shrug her off and keep walking.
The woman put her son down next to her car and showed me the papers in her hand. “I just needed to get my fingerprints taken for my nursing job and that LADY in there was just so RUDE to me.”
The woman’s son started climbing onto the back of the car, scrambling up the bumper and onto the back window. I asked her what happened.
“There was a dog in there, behind a gate, and I have a very well-behaved child. He just wanted to say hi. That lady YELLED at him: Stay away from the dog! So rude.” While she talked, her son started jumping up and down on the trunk of her car. “He wasn’t even doing anything!”
I wondered if she was trying to talk me out of going into the business. “I’m sorry,” I said. Her son starting screaming and jumping up and down with his hands in the air. He certainly didn’t fit my definition of well-behaved. “Worst customer service I’ve EVER had,” she repeated.
“Well,” I said. “Sorry about that… Have a nice day!” And I walked into the house. I’d come this far, and beside rude people were just rude. Her warning wasn’t enough to make me change my plans.
Once inside, I saw a grumpy-looking chow behind a gate in the house’s kitchen. A woman looked up from a large computer screen where it looked like she was gambling. “Fingerprints?” she asked with an air of annoyance.
There was another desk against the corner and the rest of the small front room was filled with Chinese herbs, calendars and small knick-knacks for sale. The woman had me fill out some paperwork, notarized some papers and took my picture. Another man walked in while she was taking my fingerprints; she said nothing to him, only motioned with her head for him to sit in one of the cheap office chairs against the wall.
The whole thing was simple and only cost me fifteen dollars. I paid her in cash. The woman wrote me a receipt and walked into another room and retrieved my photo from the printer. She stapled it onto my fingerprint sheet, stuck it into a plastic sleeve and then into a manila envelope and handed it to me. Without so much as a “have a nice day” she beckoned the waiting man to the fingerprint table.
In my car, I rolled down the window while I waited for the air conditioner to start working. Before driving away, I pulled the fingerprint sheet out of the manila envelope and looked at the photo. Sure enough, the camera had been placed a little below eye level and my weak chin looked non-existent, plus I wasn’t smiling, plus my bangs were plastered to my forehead with sweat, plus the medical alert dog tag I have to wear, ever since my adrenalectomy several years ago, hung down and out of the shot as if I had a booking number around my neck. I looked like a serial murderer. I looked like Charlize Theron from that movie Monster.
I started telling my friends that I was going to be a private investigator and without fail everyone was impressed and intrigued. I will admit that I thought it was pretty cool too. At the same time though I knew that it wasn’t going to be a glamorous job. Also, because of all the medical bureaucracy I’ve had to deal with in my own life, I wondered if I really wanted to be working for insurance companies. But I reminded myself that the job fit all my basic requirements and that it was important to keep an open mind. I hadn’t started yet - how did I know what the job would be like?
A week or so later, Josh called me to go on a ride-along with him the next day to a small town southeast of Portland to interview a claimant. This would be the first interview I would be a part of and I wanted to look professional.
I searched my wardrobe in dismay. It turned out that I’d worn my only presentable shirt to the interview. I couldn’t wear that again. Plus it was so tight in the shoulders that it dug into my armpits and made me sweat uncontrollably. And every “nice” dress I owned seemed to show an inappropriate amount of cleavage. I realized that my love affair with my cleavage must have begun several years earlier after recovering from the worst of my Cushing’s disease. In the process of being sick, I’d gained a considerable amount of weight, going from about 130 pounds to my heaviest at 200 pounds. I was only down to 180 now, but at least I had boobs. Real boobs. But apparently having boobs at thirty after not wearing a bra for most of my life seemed to have gone to my head. I was embarrassed standing there in front of my closet; I had enough outfits to go on thirty internet dates, but nothing to wear for my first day on the job as a private investigator. There was hardly anything wearable that wouldn’t be too hot. I settled on a slightly low-cut sleeveless dress.
I met Josh at the Marley and Marley office the next day. There was nothing much to be said about the office except that there was no sign outside the door or any identifying markers, it was in the basement of a large house that had been converted to office space, and it smelled overwhelmingly of air freshener. Each low-ceilinged and windowless room was host to a different shocking and chemical scent. I felt my eyes begin to water.
Josh introduced me to my other co-worker, Randy, a very grumpy, chubby young man who wore almost exclusively purple polo shirts and brought his pug Sheila to work with him every day. Randy was the head of “operations” and spent most of his day in front of the computer, doing computer shit - like burning CDs of surveillance footage, emailing things and putting files together. Randy had been working for Marley and Marley for a few years. But he appeared to hate his job, didn’t much like moving here from California and didn’t like the traffic or the rain. At the same time, after only a few minutes of conversation, I could tell that he was the type of person who would probably find something to complain about wherever he went and that he probably knew this about himself and this is why he stayed.
We got into Josh’s SUV, a fancy one with a computer in the dash, and he plugged in the address to the diner where we were meeting the claimant – a “resident aide” at a nursing home, who had hurt her back. On the way Josh and I talked about our lives. I told him how I’d just broken up with my boyfriend a few days earlier. It was a guy I met on okcupid and Josh shared with me that he also used the site, but had had bad luck. He told me about his childhood in the Midwest, how he got into doing PI work in the first place, how he liked Portland and all the live music there is to see in the area. I found out Josh loved his dog Bart and that he was the same age as me. Josh not his dog. He told me his plans to hire another office person to assist Randy, and his plans to bring another surveillance guy up from California. “My plan is to retire in fifteen years or so,” Josh said. “And spend the rest of my days golfing.”
For my part, I told Josh how I was studying to get my real estate license and briefly about my Cushing’s disease, why I wore the medical alert tag, all my medications and how I’d applied for federal disability because I’d been unable to have a full time job for the last five years or so. I’d worked in food service for ages and couldn’t do that kind of work anymore with my chronic pain. “You’re not going to hold that against me are you?” I joked.
Josh shook his head and rolled his eyes as if I’d just said something ridiculous.
When we arrived at the diner, Josh parked his car at the edge of the parking lot, stating that he always liked to park away from the door and to arrive and leave out of sight of the claimant; if he had to follow or surveil the claimant later he wanted to make sure they didn’t know what kind of car he was driving.
The claimant was a squirrelly little woman who seemed to be about forty-five. She was quite thin and her hair was died purple. She met us at the diner in what looked like her teenage daughter’s pajamas, and to be perfectly honest, I thought she looked like someone who had at one time been addicted to meth. The waitress sat us at an oversized booth and we all ordered coffee. This annoyed the waitress, but no one else seemed to notice. Josh got out the interview form, a digital recorder and a pen, and the claimant put her fuzzy leopard-print purse on the table and plunked down her green rabbit’s foot key chain on top of the huge laminated menu.
Josh began by reading a small prepared statement at the beginning of the interview, stating that, among other things, he was recording her, asked her for her permission to do so and if she was under the influence of any drugs or alcohol which may have impaired her ability to answer the questions, that he was a “representative of” the insurance company that had sent us the assignment and that it was important that she answer the questions truthfully.
The woman answered in the affirmative, and as we began the interview, began to rock back and forth ever so slightly on the brown vinyl diner bench.
The basic interview format is as follows: You ask the claimant personal details about themselves like their address, email, phone number etc. Also, if they’ve ever been in the armed services or been arrested. Also, if they’ve had any recent financial difficulties such as bankruptcies, foreclosures or back taxes. Then you move on to ask them about their current position at whatever job they’ve injured themselves on – how long they’ve worked there, who their managers and co-workers are that work with them on a daily basis, and if it’s okay to contact them regarding their injury. And then you ask them for a basic description of their job. After that portion is done, you ask them to describe how they injured themselves, what they were doing at the time of the injury and if anyone witnessed it. Then you ask what kind of medical treatment they sought, what doctors they saw and for any follow up information.
To wrap up the interview you ask them if they have had positive performance reviews and if they have ever had any conflict with coworkers or management.
Then, you read another statement at the end, state the time and date of the interview and turn off the recorder.
During the interview that day at the diner, I was surprised at how forthcoming the claimant was; she claimed that other resident aides at the nursing home were out to get her, that she was asked to leave on her last day (she had already put in her two week notice at the time of the accident and was about to start a new job,) because she said the manager said it “would be better for everyone, if she left” and that she had no idea what he meant by that. She said that she really needed the worker’s comp reimbursement to kick in because she was out of a job now because of her chronic back pain and needed the money. She also claimed that when she told the supervising nurse that she’d injured her back, he’d told her that it was fine and to go back to work.
When we got into the car, Josh reminded me that we were also going over to the nursing home to interview the nurse who had reportedly said this to the claimant.
But first we got lunch. We decided on a quaint little café and we both ordered the clam chowder. Josh told me about going back to the Midwest for a family wedding soon and more about the job in general. He said that most of my interviews would be over the phone, but for more involved cases our clients, the insurance companies, might send us to do in-person interviews. “And that’s great,” he said. “Because it means more money for us.” He told me I could charge for my travel time and mileage.
We met the nurse in an office at the nursing home. He reported that the claimant in question had been a “problem employee” and that he had asked her to leave on her last day because she was gossiping and “making it a negative work environment.” He denied ever having told her that she was fine and to go back to work. He denied every having been informed that she was injured at all. “In fact,” he said, looking back and forth at each of us. “I’m personally offended that anyone would make the claim that I had said something like that. I’m a nurse. I would never tell someone to go back to work if they were injured.”
Throughout the brief interview the male nurse kept looking somewhat nervously at me and then back to Josh. Josh had already explained that I was in training and would only be observing; I’d said next to nothing during both interviews and wondered why, unlike the claimant, the nurse kept staring at me. I wondered if my dress was unprofessional. Later, when I got home, I concluded that he was probably staring at me because I was staring at him.
As we left Josh, wondered out loud whether the nurse was lying. I could see no reason why the nurse would lie, but maybe he had been told to lie by the nursing home’s administrators. However the claimant seemed sketchy to me. “Well, you never know. We just take the reports and send them in,” Josh sighed. And we moved on to other topics.
Josh talked again about his experience with okcupid. In the year that he had been in Portland, he’d had a hard time finding time to date and finding the right kind of woman. “I want a girl who is spontaneous. I like to go camping on the weekends. I want to be able to just call a girl on Friday and say – hey you want to go camping with me tomorrow? And then we can just fill up my car with some beer and my dog and head to the woods.”
I had a hard time imagining doing something like that. I usually have plans every weekend and dropping them at a moment’s notice seemed like a pain in the ass. When I thought about it, the last time I dropped everything to go to the beach with a guy I was dating was over ten years ago when I was twenty three; me and this guy from the meat department went to the beach at seven at night one summer, got a shitty motel room, smoked in bed, and had bad sex; the condom came off inside me and he stopped and asked me if I wanted him to “fish it out.” I have come to suspect that he also damaged the clutch on my car while driving it. We spent maybe an hour on the beach, ate bad Chinese food and then got a speeding ticket on the way home. He was three hours late for his shift the next day. He did end up helping me pay for the ticket, but only because, as he told me, his mom told him it was the right thing to do.
“You’re looking for a young girl,” I told Josh and laughed.
He laughed courteously and went on to tell me that he has a hard time trusting women. “I have a lot of female friends. That’s never been a problem. It’s just being in a relationship – I haven’t ever been able to make a relationship work for very long.” When I asked him why, he told me that when he was in high school his girlfriend had cheated on him and that everyone found out about it before he did.
“It was humiliating,” he said. “Ever since then, I just can’t seem to get close to a girl.”
He went on to tell me how he’d been on a few dates with a woman recently from okcupid but that he couldn't tell if she liked him. “I mean, she says she likes me and that she’s not seeing other men. But how do I know if that’s true?” Josh sighed and looked silently out the window. “I don’t know, maybe I need therapy,” he muttered.
I couldn’t imagine how one bad experience in high school could turn a man against women forever. Josh seemed like a pretty nice dude to me. He’d also already told me that he moved here with a girlfriend and that after their seemingly amicable break-up, they’d remained friends and shared “custody” of his dog.
“You know, that experience sounds awful,” I said. “But have you ever thought that maybe the reason that you think women are lying to you is that your whole job involves following people around trying to catch them in a lie? I mean, you may be dealing with a skewed perspective here.”
Josh just nodded. “Yeah, maybe,” he said.
I told Josh about my friend who worked for a women’s crisis line and how she had to eventually quit the job because listening to stories of rape and abuse all day made her distrustful of all men and afraid to sleep alone at night. Then I stuttered and stopped – it sounded like I was trying to talk my boss into quitting his job. I changed the subject.
As we pulled off the freeway into Portland, I wondered if this was why all private eyes in movies and books are always portrayed as cynical and world-weary; they were always dealing with the dark side of humanity. I certainly didn’t want to become that way.
Josh asked me whether I liked to go see live music.
I couldn't tell if he was asking me out on a date, so I just answered honestly. “I used to go a lot. But not lately really – I don’t have the time and I’m usually too tired to stay up that late.”
A few weeks later I went on another ride-along. The claimant was another nursing home worker who’d injured her back, and it was an in-person interview. But there was nothing controversial about the case. No he said/ she said. From what I could tell, there was no reason why the insurance company had sent us out to the middle of nowhere to conduct the interview. When we got back to the office, Josh showed me how to write up the report.
“It’s kind of tedious,” he said. “But you get the general point.”
Since there was nothing that I could see that was suspicious about the case, I wondered why the insurance company would spend so much money hiring us to drive for over an hour and interview this claimant.
“What’s the cost benefit analysis on sending us to interview these people?” I asked Josh. “I mean, it just doesn't make sense to me that they would spend so much money for us to interview folks.”
“A lot of times, these adjusters just don’t have the time,” Josh answered “They are swamped with work and they just want to get it done.”
This answer still didn’t satisfy me; something about Josh’s response seemed evasive. I knew this much – businesses exist to generate profit. I saw what we charged the clients for our services and I knew what I made as a wage. The insurance companies must’ve done the math at some point; it couldn’t just be about expediency. Then again, what did I know? Maybe the individual adjusters did have control over how certain funds were spent. Maybe they could choose to spend some of that on delegating tasks to PI firms. No matter how I twisted it though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was fishy.
On the way home that day, I thought: Josh isn’t as smart as me. That’s what it was. He doesn’t really understand what is going on here. If he did, why wouldn’t he just answer my questions? Was he just naturally incurious?
I didn’t see Josh or talk to him again until I went down to Salem to take the PI exam. I didn’t study – I had been assured by Josh that I would pass with flying colors and that there would be a short class beforehand to prep me for the test.
When I arrived, me and the other people taking the test were signed in and directed to a classroom upstairs. The woman leading the class had us all go around and introduce ourselves and tell why we were getting our PI license. Out of the twenty or so people in the room, only me and one other woman weren’t ex law-enforcement or a claims investigator renewing their pre-existing license. To make matters worse, it turned out that the short class had nothing to do with the test. It was just about who to call if we had problems with the licensing board.
We were given a handout to fill out while listening to the teacher talk. We were to fill it in as we followed along. On the first page, next to a cheesy clip art puzzle with the words “Core Values” printed on it, we filled in: Character, Honesty, Striving for Justice, Public Trust, Respect for the laws and constitution of this state and nation. Then we filled in some administrator’s names and titles on the PI board.
The class leader excused us to take a twenty-minute break before the exam. On my way out of the classroom I noticed a bookshelf near the door filled with copies of “Please Understand Me” the Myers Briggs Personality test book. This book is like my bible, and I often force people I’m dating to take the test. My type is the INFP, or “Idealist”. My current boyfriend is an ENFP. I snapped a picture of the books for my instagram feed and wondered what they used them for. I bet that most people in here, the cops anyway, were ISTJs or ESTJs, I thought, they tend to be the law and order types.
After drinking some coffee and eating an apple and string cheese and spending a few minutes of staring at the burned and mangled pieces of the pentagon from nine eleven displayed in the lobby, I walked back upstairs to take the test.
I was in for another surprise: the “open book” was a five hundred or so page binder of Oregon law material. The proctor passed out the binder and the score sheet. I was already getting nervous. The test involved so much legal jargon that my eyes started to cross. Also, although I was confident that the answers were in the book, finding them turned into a quite a challenge. I had to find out what the legal definition of harassment was and then where in the book it was. I found myself flipping endlessly through the different sections, scanning the table of contents for each. Multiply that by two hundred and you get an idea of the tedium of the test.
An hour later, after I was done, I looked up and everyone was still reading and searching away. But hey, I was a smart person right? I had a master’s degree, right? But still I didn’t want to be the first person done with the exam. I waited until the one other woman, the woman who was taking the test cold - to become a claims adjuster like me, stood up and handed in her answer sheet. And then I did the same.
A couple days later I got an email from DPSST; I had failed the test by one question. I was immediately tearful. What was I going to tell Josh? I knew how frustrated he was that we had already had to wait so long for me to take the test in the first place and how eager he was to get the statements off his plate so he could focus on growing the business. And to top it off…I felt like an idiot. Who fails an open-book test? I’d always been a good student and it made me feel very inadequate.
I called my new boyfriend and told him I failed the test. I was so disappointed, but by the end of the conversation he had me laughing about it. So I took a deep breath, summoned up the courage to call Josh and left a message on his voicemail. “Look Josh,” I said. “I failed the PI exam. I understand if you want to hire a new claims adjuster. I’m very embarrassed and disappointed.”
He called me back twenty minutes later.
“I got your message,” he said, his voice very kind, but tired-sounding. He sighed. “Look, don’t worry about it. I don’t want to go through the whole hiring process again. We’ll just get you scheduled again and do it as soon as we can.”
I went about getting the exam re-scheduled for two weeks later. Then two days later DPSST sent my fingerprints back telling me the fingerprints were of low quality and I had to get them done again. I called the place where I’d gotten them taken and told the woman there that I needed to get my fingerprints re-done and would she do it for free.
“Yes, but only one more time. After that you go somewhere else.”
“Well, do you know why they would reject them like this?” I asked her out of curiosity.
“All you nurses wash your hands too much and wash your fingerprints off, and then we can’t get a good print off of you!” She shouted into the phone.
“Uhuh…” I said. “Okay.”
It was a hot day in early July when I arrived at DPSST once again. I’d been nervous all morning. Actually I’d had diarrhea already several times by the time I got into my little blue Honda and headed back down to Salem. But my boyfriend had fed me eggs and sausage for breakfast and given me the pep talk of a lifetime. And besides, with one go-round under my belt, I just knew that I had to systematically look up every term until I found the exact right answer in the book. No more relying on my generally astute intuition.
When I pulled into the parking lot there were about fifteen cops and some instructors doing physical drills in the blistering heat. I walked by them, feeling a little cagey, as is usual for me around law enforcement. I took the test in a small, windowless room on the first floor.
I had to wait for half an hour for my results. The woman at the front desk smiled as she approached the glass separating the reception desk from the lobby. “Congratulations,” she said. “You passed the test!”
“Woohoo!” I exclaimed. “What a relief!” I sat down at the chair next to a small side window. She passed several papers for me to sign through the window and gave me a paper copy of my temporary PI license and my certificate of completion.
“How many questions did I miss?” I asked out of curiosity.
“You only missed two.”
The woman frowned. “I’m sorry, I’m not permitted to say.”
I nodded. That made sense. I took the license and slid my cell phone through the window. “Hey, do you mind taking my picture?”
She laughed. “No problem!” And while I held my certificate next to my face, she took several photos of me.
(I posted the photo on Facebook and Instagram. By the end of the day 160 people would “like” the photo and thirty people would congratulate me and tell me how awesome I was.)
“Thanks so much!” I said and walked outside to call Josh and text my boyfriend. Josh told me that he knew I would pass the test and to come into the office that Monday.
I got in my car and rolled down the windows. The cops were still jogging in the summer heat as I pulled out of the parking lot and headed out onto the highway. Not very far down the road is the Oregon State Prison. The exercise yard faces the highway and I could see fifty or so inmates jogging with their shirts off around the track. As I passed, as if on cue, they all slowed momentarily and watched my car drive by, their heads turning in unison, their eyes distracted by my long blonde hair flapping out the open window.
The next week I was thrown into the job with four or five cases. There was a lot to learn. The drill about calling claimants was that you had to keep track of each time that you called them and which number that you used. Marley and Marley used a separate data- gathering service to track down possible phone numbers and addresses for claimants. It was up to me to try every plausible number on the report and write down all the pertinent details. And there were a lot of details: claim numbers, employers, dates, injuries.
Plus there were all the emails from the claims adjusters. The adjusters often wanted to know specific details: was it possible the claimant injured themselves while hiking? They told their managers they liked to hike. Why had it taken so long for them to file their claim?
And then there were other seemingly irrelevant details like single line emails informing me that the claimant had been arrested for domestic abuse or had a DUI on their record. This made me uncomfortable, as if the adjusters were trying to get me to come to negative conclusions about the claimant before I’d even interviewed them. A standard question on my interview form was about arrests and incarcerations. I wondered what that had to do with whether a claimant had been injured on the job. In the minds of the insurance companies, I suppose a criminal record made them more likely to commit fraud? I didn’t know if I agreed. Other emails from the claims adjusters were more vaguely accusatory. They would write something like: this claimant is avoiding me, tell her if she does not comply we’ll serve her with a mandatory compliance order. Or, this claimant is a real piece of work. Ask her what her BMI is.
I started taking extra doses of my steroids to cope with the stress.
But the most important thing to learn was how to put on an air of respectability and authority. It was true that yes, I had a PI license and that I was a proxy for the insurance companies. But in reality I was just a message on someone’s voicemail. They didn’t know me and often didn’t know the name of their employer’s worker’s comp insurance company or TPA (third party administrator, a supposedly unbiased entity that denies or approves claims.) And to make matters worse, I was calling from my personal cell phone. I wasn’t a claims adjuster, I was a hired snooper, and my call to a claimant technically meant that they were now under investigation, a fact Josh encouraged me to avoid as much as possible. That I was a private investigator was never to be mentioned; I was instructed to introduce myself by name and as a representative of the insurance company or TPA, which was not a lie, but not exactly the whole truth either.
I learned this truth the hard way on my first phone interview. The claimant was from Washington State and had injured his foot while working at a restaurant. I’d already left a few messages on his voicemail asking him if he could call me back so I could make an appointment to interview him about his claim.
He called me in the morning. “Now, who are you?” he asked. “How do I know that you’re not just some random person trying to get my personal information? You’re calling from an Oregon area code. Is this your cell phone?”
He’d caught me off guard, I’d answered my phone while over at my sister’s house visiting her. I walked quickly inside, away from the brunch we were having outside on her picnic table. “I’m a representative of your employer’s insurance company,” I said into the phone, realizing immediately that this sounded way sketchy, what with my siblings’ laughter and traffic noise in the background.
“Yeah, but how do I know that? Who do you work for?”
I felt my stomach turn over. Ten seconds into my first professional interview and the gig was already up. I walked upstairs, into my sister’s bedroom and shut the door behind me. “I work for a company called Marley and Marley,” I knew it wasn’t kosher to reveal the name of my employer, but I left out the word “investigations,” in their title. This immediately felt deceptive.
I continued. “My only job is just to do this interview. I know nothing about your claim, you, or your injury. My only function is just to take this interview, write a report and send to your claims adjuster.” That was true. That was all true. I was after all, just a cog in a machine. An impartial, unbiased cog.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. I could feel my heart pounding inside my chest as I stared at the white quilt on my sister’s bed. I was a rudderless, morally bankrupt robot and this guy could see right through me.
“Everything inside of me is telling me that it’s a really bad idea to talk to you,” the man said. Although, I could hear the hesitation in his voice, a hesitation that told me that he just needed more assurance from me. I learned this from selling cheese. Sometimes people just need you to tell them that the cheese is in fact delicious.
“Look,” I went on. “You don’t have to do this interview, you don’t have to answer any questions you feel uncomfortable with. If it would make you feel more comfortable, I can have my boss, Josh, call you.”
The man sighed. “Okay. No, that’s fine. Let’s just get this over with.”
“Right now? Can we schedule a time to do the interview? It takes about an hour.” I was in the middle of brunch after all, I didn’t want to drop everything.
“Look, we either do it now or we don’t do it. How’s that?”
“Okay,” I said. “Let me just get my computer out and get your files out.”
“Where are you? You’re not at your office?”
“I don’t have an office,” I stuttered. “I’m a part-time employee, I have to do these interviews wherever I happen to be.”
The man grumbled something under his breath as I struggled to get his file pulled up on my work computer and get the digital recorder out.
I began the interview. The man was forty-nine years old and lived in a small Washington town that I’d never heard of. He declined to give me his email, home address or social security number. He told me he had no hobbies. He told me he was single and lived alone. He told me he had an eighth grade education.
He told me that he was wrongfully fired by his ex-employer at the restaurant, “Jeff,” and that this had been decided by some Washington state governmental body which I’d never heard of. “It’s a fact,” he said. He was annoyed that I had to ask him to explain this further. He was annoyed and impatient at nearly all of my questions and kept asking me why I needed to know. I explained that I was just following a form – that I was just asking and he was welcome to not answer. It was totally up to him. I asked him if he used drugs or alcohol and he told me that he used to, but not anymore. I asked him to give me a basic description of his job.
“I’m a pantry chef. You don’t know what that means? These are stupid questions.”
I asked him who is supervisor was and how long they had been the claimant’s supervisor.
“What? That question makes no sense. How do I know how long Jeff has been the manager?”
“I mean, how long has he been your supervisor?” I asked again.
“I DON’T KNOW. Since I started working there? This is so stupid. I’m sorry but I really hate stupid questions.”
“Okay,” I said. I asked him to describe how he injured himself.
“I was breaking down boxes and I hurt my foot.”
“And how did that happen?”
“Weeelll,” he said as if he were talking to a child. “I was going into the garbage area and I was breaking down boxes… do you know what that means?”
“And I kicked one of the boxes with my foot and I felt something snap.”
“Okay, so did anyone witness your injury?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you tell anyone about your injury?”
“No! It’s a kitchen. I work ten, twelve-hour days. You work when there is work to do, and when there’s no more work to do you go home. Have you ever worked in a restaurant?”
“Yes, actually I have,” I said. “Okay. So you didn’t tell anyone?”
“No,” the man sighed.
I asked the man if he had ever been arrested.
“That’s a matter of public record.”
“Have you ever been incarcerated?”
“Like I said, that’s a matter of public record.”
I asked him where he was currently working. “I’m working at Sandy’s.”
“It’s a convenience store. Like a seven eleven.”
“How long have you been working there?”
“Well Monica was nice enough to give me a job there after Jeff fired me at the restaurant. I used to work at Sandy’s before the restaurant. And that is what makes this whole thing so horrible, I thought I was going to have a job there, at the restaurant, you know, for the rest of my life.”
I felt my stomach drop again. Here was a man with a criminal record and an eighth grade education and he was working at a convenience store; what kind of future could he possibly have now?
“That sucks,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
After the interview I called Josh to talk about how it went. I paced back and forth in my sister’s now-empty backyard. “Hey Josh, I just wanted to check in with you. This guy was really suspicious and did not want to answer my questions.”
“Yeah, some people just like being hostile and argumentative. They just want to give you a hard time. You’re gonna run into that.”
I thought briefly that if I were this guy, who’d obviously had a very hard life, I wouldn’t have wanted to talk to me either.
I told Josh what I’d told the claimant, that he was free to not answer questions he was uncomfortable with.
“That’s fine. That’s a good idea, just don’t use the word investigation.”
“Okay,” I said. I felt sick to my stomach. I hung up the phone, went into my sister’s bathroom and had diarrhea.
There’s something I haven’t told you. A couple of years ago I applied for federal disability; I had been unable to work in food service anymore, and the realization that I might never be able to have a normal life was starting to dawn on me. I would get weak after only a few hours of work. If I didn’t get a good night’s rest my whole body hurt. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and hypopituitarism on top of my Addison’s Disease. I didn’t want to see myself as disabled and I certainly didn’t want to consign myself to a life of poverty. Nevertheless, I filled out the necessary documentation and got a lawyer when my case was denied a year later. I figured if things didn’t work out with my current plan (to become a real estate agent) then I could use federal disability as a back up.
In May, after I was hired at Marley and Marley, but before I took the state PI exam, I got a notice in the mail that my hearing before a disability judge would take place on June third. Strangely, even though I wanted the chance to plead my case before a judge and potentially be given the federal designation of disabled, I was afraid. I was afraid because there’s this thing that happens when you’re sick: people don’t believe you. I can’t tell you how many times I have faced disbelief, dismissal and downright contempt from people who don’t want to believe that the seemingly healthy person in front of them is actually incapable of holding down a full-time job.
Also, because facing the fact that I have a chronically debilitating condition is emotionally painful, I tend to avoid it. Over the years I have found myself downplaying my illness, making light of it, cracking jokes at my own expense and generally trying to pretend that I wasn't as sick as I really was. Hey, it’s no fun being sick. Why can’t I do what other people do? Why can’t I take my health and freedom for granted as healthy people do? It just wasn’t fair. I found myself dropping the hearing notice in a pile of unsorted receipts and trying to forget about it.
But then as the date approached, I had to ask myself why I hadn’t called my lawyer yet. Wasn’t this what I wanted? Wouldn’t getting the disability status be totally redemptive? I realized that the whole reason I didn’t want to appear before a judge was because if he said “no”, then it would totally demoralize me. Going before the judge meant I had to tell my story, and like I said earlier, telling your story is exhausting; being met with skepticism totally crushes you. It’s like a punch in the gut. It’s like being called a liar or delusional. When you are chronically ill, you realize why people don’t report rape or other violent crimes, why people don’t go before a court as a witness, why adult children of abuse let their abusers walk free; telling your story becomes painful the more times you are questioned, doubted and made to feel like a faker. Telling your story feels like you’re dramatizing or being hysterical. Often your story makes no sense to you yourself. You find yourself asking: Did this really happen to me,? It sure doesn’t seem real to me. It doesn’t seem to fit within the narrative of what I always thought my life was supposed to look like. Telling my story, really telling it, often feels like I’m enacting a masochistic theatre of victimization. I thought, if I tell the judge how bad it’s really been for me then it also means I have to tell myself too. I didn’t know if I wanted to hear that story again.
But I thought about it. I lost sleep over it. I cried about it with friends and my mother. And I decided that if I relinquished my right to a hearing I would regret it the rest of my life. It was time to be brave. It was time to fucking suck it up.
The only thing that was tricky was that recently, I had begun to feel better. In January, after almost collapsing at an Indian restaurant in southeast Portland, I’d realized that my total daily medication dose, of the steroids I need to live, was too low. So I had upped my dose and noticed marked improvements. I still hadn’t taken on full time work, and I still doubted that I ever could, but it felt wrong to give up on the chance to make a middle class wage as a realtor if in fact, I was able to do it.
I decided that I would approach my lawyer with this plan: I wanted to apply for back pay for my disability. That meant I would forgo an ongoing monthly payment but argue that for a period of time I was disabled and therefore deserved back pay, or a lump sum. I talked to his receptionist about my plan and she made an appointment with my lawyer for the week preceding the hearing.
A week later, I walked into the Lake Oswego office and waited in the small waiting room. It was a shabby kind of place and it looked shabbier than I remembered – from my last meeting with my lawyer more than a year ago. It was obvious there wasn’t much money in helping disabled people.
When my lawyer called me into his office, I remembered that he was a kind man, full of empathy and considerations. He thanked me for coming in and gestured to a chair opposite my desk. We went over my medical history again as he took notes. I was relieved to hear that he supported my plan to file for back-pay. He told me that if I thought I might be able to take on work, even if it was part-time, it was better than “sitting around the house getting depressed.” He thought I had a good case and he told me it looked impressive that I had worked a bit over the last few years. “The judges like to see that people are making an effort,” he said.
After we were done with my medical history and the particulars of what we would say to the judge, he leaned back in his chair. “So what are you doing for work these days?” he asked.
I’d been hoping he wouldn’t ask me that. “Well, I’ve been cleaning houses mostly. I can’t do it that much because it’s too hard on my body, so I recently got a part-time job as a claims investigator. You know, for worker’s comp claims.”
There is no other way to describe it, other than that a dark cloud passed over my lawyer’s face. He said nothing.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” I stammered. “I haven’t started it yet. I just hope that it doesn’t turn out to be shitty working for the insurance companies.”
“That is a horrible industry,” my lawyer said shaking his head. “Do you know what they do to people? I mean, those ‘doctors’ they hire to evaluate people’s medical conditions…they purposefully put their offices on the second story and you know, there will be no elevator. So people have to climb the stairs! So then, they use that against them later. They say, ‘Well you were well enough to climb the stairs!’ Even though the people were required to go these doctors and they didn’t think they had a choice but to climb the stairs!”
I grimaced. “Well, yeah. I know,” Although I didn’t know. I continued. “Um, I think though that I’m going to wait and see though. I mean, I haven’t started yet, plus it doesn’t involve any physical work and I can use my writing skills. I needed something flexible to work around my health issues.”
As I tried to explain myself my lawyer just got this very sad look on his face and changed the subject. He thanked me for my time and told me he would see me a week later at my hearing. I left his office feeling as if I’d just disappointed my grandpa.