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Troubled Teens Mock Social Worker's Car

CHICAGO—Despite facing socioeconomic inequities that put them at a lifelong disadvantage, troubled inner-city teens at Marcus Garvey High School are fond of openly mocking their social worker's "shitty car," sources reported Monday.

Rogowski and the 1990 Subaru mocked by Stefano (top) and Banks (bottom).

Social worker Gary Rogowski, 32, works with disadvantaged youths on Chicago's South Side through the neighborhood Second Start program. His car, a 1990 Subaru Loyale station wagon that, as Rogowski puts it, "has seen better days," is a constant source of derision among the teens he has dedicated his professional life to helping.

"Last week, Mr. Rogowski was all up in my face about how I got to go to the job center," said Manny Acevedo, 18, who has struggled with substance abuse for more than three years. "I told him I didn't have no ride, so he says he'll drive me himself, and about an hour later, he shows up in the sorriest car I ever seen. Me and my sisters, we was laughing our asses off as he pull up. I was like, 'Why don't you go to the job center, Mr. Career Advice Man? 'Cause with that car, it's pretty obvious you ain't getting paid.'"

"Mr. Rogowski drive one seriously ugly-ass car," agreed Tyquan Banks, 18, another Second Start program member.

Rogowski said he purchased the Subaru in 1997 "just to use as a winter beater" after his previous car was stolen from outside his workplace at the Cook County Department of Social Services office. Though he planned to keep the car just long enough to last him through the winter months, budget cuts in Chicago's social-services programs resulted in a 15 percent salary cut, leaving him unable to trade in the vehicle.

"After the pay cut, I could no longer float the loan I'd been banking on that spring, so I had to put off getting a better car," Rogowski said. "I figured I'd just put it off for another year. I've been doing that for—how long?—I guess about five years now."

Continued Rogowski: "If that's not bad enough, these kids won't let me hear the end of it."

During a trip to the Cook County Courthouse for a preliminary parental-fitness hearing in April, single mother of two Mary Carver, 17, told Rogowski, "We should make a quick stop first—at the dump, where this piece of garbage you're driving belongs." She then pointed at him and laughed.

Rogowski suffered more good-natured ribbing from Louis Stefano, 15, who asked the social worker if he should borrow money from his mother's welfare check "to pay a truck to come haul away that piece-of-shit car of yours."

According to experts, such exchanges are not uncommon between troubled teens and the drastically underpaid civil servants who are assigned to help them.

"These kids live under tremendous social pressure to achieve status in a visible, immediately recognizable way—designer clothes, flashy cars, jewelry—even if it means turning to crime," said sociologist Dr. Jeremy Gottlieb, author of The Bling-Bling Factor: How Society Teaches Disadvantaged Kids To Value Instant Gratification Over Substantive Values. "Music videos and magazines teach them that to get respect, you have to be a 'playa.' So you have to admit, it's ridiculous to expect them to respect an ostensible 'authority figure' whose annual salary is less than what their average neighborhood drug dealer makes in a month."

"I mean, have you seen what these social workers have to drive?" added Gottlieb, stifling a laugh. "Man, talk about shitboxes on wheels."

For his part, Rogowski said he tries to view the teasing as just another occupational hazard.

"I try to let it roll off my back," he said. "I realize these are kids who, in most cases, are dealing with intense personal issues of low self-esteem and poor self-image, and that this is just a defense mechanism to compensate for their own insecurities. They are, by and large, traumatized children who live every day in the shadow of drugs, poverty, and violence. So I'm sympathetic to their situation."

Added Rogowski: "On the other hand, I certainly wouldn't mind if someday the city decided to pay me enough money to afford a car that doesn't need a half-gallon of oil poured under the hood every three days just to keep the fucking thing running."

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