Suddenly the Doorbell Ring Sounds Different

About the author: Larry Teller joined EPA’s Philadelphia office in its early months and has worked in environmental assessment, state and congressional liaison, enforcement, and communications. His 28 years with the U.S. Air Force, most as a reservist, give him a different look at government service.

My doorbell rarely rings. Invited guests, whom we called “company” as kids—we knew company was coming when Mom wouldn’t let us touch any treats for a couple of days, lest there not be enough left—usually knock, or I see them coming up the steps and beat them to the door. But a number of those rare rings each year are by people, typically college students, who ask me to sign a petition for worthy causes such as improved right-to-know laws, broader access to wind power, restricted pesticide use, and setting aside undeveloped land for wildlife habitat. I’m usually a sucker for these ringers and, please don’t tell anyone, shell out a double sawbuck when money is requested.

I always enjoy the short discussions that precede the requests. What’s changed since January, very noticeably, is the petitioners’ reaction when, if the conversation goes that way, I reveal my EPA affiliation. Although it makes no sense to bad-mouth or bad-look someone’s employer when you’re trying to get a donation from him, many of the doorway students in recent years showed their distaste for EPA, either with a proud derogatory comment or a telling smirk. It’s as if they couldn’t help themselves, despite the donation- or signature-seeking purpose of their visit.

Any of us who have worked for EPA for many years have seen the public’s view of how we’re doing turn from admiration to doubt to distaste to gratitude and to everywhere in between. And there have been times when, despite my insider’s (lifer’s?) belief that what we do is good—“Tikkun olam,” repairing the earth—we’ve all at times been, let’s say, less-than-inspired by what’s said, or not, from the top. (But don’t get me started.)

Twice in recent weeks, including yesterday, my EPA doorway confession yielded something novel for this decade: earnest inquiries about job opportunities. I know times are tough for job seekers (my older daughter is graduating from college next month and is ISO a job with health coverage), but I wonder with a slight grin if there’s another explanation for the different reaction to the mention of my favorite government agency.