“It gets down to how bad a person wants a job,” Novato’s Robert Thompson says, and he’s eminently qualified to do so. For five years, Thompson mailed out résumés and sought job interviews, with no success. Finally, something clicked. It was a position as a telerecruiter in Oakland and he jumped at it, even though it involved a long commute and Thompson doesn’t own—let alone drive—a car.
Why no car? And why no driving? Because Robert Thompson is blind.
“Novato is a lovely area,” he says after waving good-bye to his wife, Marilyn, and leaving his tidy apartment located across from the public library. Brutus, a mellow seven-year-old golden retriever, will guide Thompson on his 30-mile commute to the East Bay’s Rockridge district. The journey will involve a Golden Gate Transit District bus, BART, over a mile of walking and will take two and a half hours to complete.
Two hours into today’s trek—which Thompson, 57, makes four times a week—is when he makes his remark about “how bad a person wants a job.”
Thomson works for the American Red Cross, arranging appointments for blood donors. He’s been at it for three years. “I like a job like this because you feel you’re doing something that makes people’s lives better,” he says. Only one of Thompson’s 15 coworkers is visually impaired. And other than being able to “hear” his computer through a headset, he has no special equipment and receives no special treatment. “Every telerecruiter is expected to make 35 calls an hour,” says Thompson’s supervisor, Madelyn Taylor. “And each is asked to wind up with at least four appointments in that amount of time.” Of Thompson, Taylor says, “He has the most positive attitude I’ve ever seen; he does very well.”
“Darn,” Thompson mutters softly as a 14th call goes unanswered. “So far, this isn’t a good day.” It’s a Wednesday, in the middle of the afternoon, and there are five East Bay Red Cross blood banks—in Pleasanton, Mount Pleasant, Newark, San Jose and Oakland—where Thompson can direct donors. The work is computer-intense. Every call, every donor—and there are hundreds, maybe thousands of them—must be accounted for. Thompson’s fingers jump lightly over his keyboard. Watching him work, you’d never imagine he can’t see, nor has he ever seen, what a keyboard looks like.
“Hello, this is Robert with the American Red Cross Blood Services,” he says energetically when he finally hears a live voice on the line. “Could we possibly, just possibly, schedule you for a blood donation?” After checking open appointment slots at two blood banks and giving directions to both, he has scheduled a lady in Fremont to donate in Newark. The effort took nearly 20 minutes.
In reality, that was probably the easiest part of Thompson’s day. His commute is a challenge worthy of The Amazing Race. Every intersection is potential disaster zone. His life, quite literally, depends on Brutus’s sound judgment.
Here is how that trip begins: Once aboard the Novato bus bound for San Francisco’s Civic Center, Thompson straps on a headset and listens to a book-on-tape while Brutus curls up at his feet. After stopping at every Marin town along the 101 freeway, the bus glides over the Golden Gate, then down Lombard and up Van Ness. Nearly two hours later, as the turns intensify approaching Market Street, Thompson knows he needs to collect his things and prepare to disembark.
Now it’s time to cross busy Market Street and navigate the three-level Civic Center BART station. Thompson and Brutus calmly and confidently make their way as cars, motorcycles, bicycles and oblivious people whiz by on all sides. Two levels below the street, when a PA announcement, barely decipherable, is made—“a ten-car train for Pittsburg now arriving at platform number 2”—Thompson realizes it’s time to board BART. Somehow, so does Brutus. And on board the two settle in for the final leg of their trek. “Got it made now,” Thompson says, breaking into a smile that crinkles his entire face. Next comes a smooth BART ride under San Francisco Bay and up through Oakland’s industrial waterfront, then a five-block walk up College Avenue (including six intersections) to his American Red Cross office.
Then, after eight hours of telerecruiting, Thompson and Brutus will repeat the process in reverse and work their way back home to Novato. “Usually, because I start at 12:30 in the afternoon, I don’t make it home until almost midnight,” he says matter-of-factly. For his eight hours of work, Thompson receives $12.63 an hour (“I started at $9.45 per hour,” he says). Combining that with their Social Security Disability Insurance, he and Marilyn, who is partially sighted, “get along just fine.” Yet from the inflection in his voice it is clear Thompson would prefer a job closer to home. “That’s something I pray for every day,” Marilyn confides. “That would be nice,” is all Thompson will attest to.
“It gets down to how bad a person wants a job,” he says once more. And Robert Thompson is an inspiring example of that statement.