CARLSBAD — Like Dear Abby, they hear a lot of problems. Problems with Social Security. With fire hazards. With getting into the military. With getting out of the military.
"You really need a sense of humor to work here," Candy Mezzanatto, 58, said as she struggled to push a 10-pound package--containing the medical records of just one person--under her desk.
Unlike the columnist who dispenses advice, workers at Rep. Ron Packard's district office here also "get lots of calls from people expressing their opinions," Marjorie Lemak, 64, said.
"We put it all down on a constituent opinion form. Then it goes off to Washington. They'll get a reply, too. It won't be a case of their opinion ending up in somebody's wastebasket." Lemak is a volunteer senior citizen intern, a program for people over age 55. She describes the work in Packard's office here--he has others in Mission Viejo and, of course, Washington--as "fascinating. One of the most interesting things I've ever done."
"This office is an ombudsman type of service. To help constituents if they're having problems with any department of the federal government," Lemak said. "To help with the complexities of modern life."
There are about 40 senior interns who work, intermittently, for Packard. Most are between 60 and 70, and retired. They come from all walks of life. Kay Conway, 72, who worked for the Social Security Administration, echoes the comments of many of the interns when she says:
"I joined because it keeps me in touch with what's going on. It keeps my mind alert. And I feel like I'm doing something useful. At least I hope I'm being useful!"
"When I was on active (duty), I considered congressmen meddlers," admitted Hugh Guthrie, 74, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel. "But you see a different side of the picture when you work in a congressman's office. You see what he has to face--because the intern takes most of the calls."
On a recent Friday, silver balloons, a parting gift from college intern Louise Melbourne, bobbled from the desks of Lemak and the four permanent staff members. The blue of the carpet matched the blue of the American flag standing against one wall.
"There's a light atmosphere here--but a lot of the cases that come in are heavy," Yvonne Murchison, district coordinator, said as she paused by Lemak's desk.
As Lemak was passing a letter to Mezzanatto--from a handicapped woman who says she "can't keep crying herself to sleep every night"--the phone at her elbow rang. A constituent with strong views about the tax reform bill.
Lemak listened, scribbling frantically, murmuring a series of "uh-huhs" and "um-hmms."
"We don't comment at all. We're trained to be noncommittal," she explained as she hung up. "It's their views we're interested in. And you can't comment on a congressman's stand on a bill that hasn't passed. It might be changed several times in passage."
Being noncommittal does not come naturally to Lemak. A retired real estate broker, she is a brisk, buoyant woman. As well as being an intern, she is a swimming teacher for handicapped children in the Special Olympics. Both she and her husband, Steve, are learning to be literacy tutors.
"I was a little startled," she said, "when a recent irate caller concluded his conversation--after about my 20th 'um-hmmm'--by telling me I was the most bland person he'd ever spoken to!"
The easiest calls, Lemak said, are those in which the caller wants to order an American flag that has been hoisted over the Capitol. "All I have to do is tell them to send in a check."
Six phone lines, reverberating all over the office, suddenly began clamoring for attention. Melbourne's typewriter beat a staccato clatter above the din. A United Parcel Service man hovered in the doorway.
"We don't get many naps here," Tom Beals said as he dashed past, clutching a pile of reference books.
Beals, 59, a retired California Highway Patrol officer, was one of the first senior interns to join the program when it began in January, 1984. He enjoyed it so much that he stayed on to become one of the staff.
"They bring such a wealth of diverse experience with them," said Murchison, 40. "We've got retired executives . . . firemen . . . hospital administrators. At least two of them--Lew Baldwin, who was an industrial relations manager, and Howard Volgenau, who was with the Foreign Service--have lived on every continent in the world."
Because of the high caliber of the people drawn to the work, Murchison said, they have never had to turn a volunteer down.
"Although some of them turn us down when they find out how much time is involved," she said, smiling. "After the initial six weeks, they may come in only once a week. Or once a month. Whatever suits them. But for that first six weeks it's 20 hours a week for all six weeks. A definite commitment."