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HEARTLESS BUREAUCRACY TO PUNISH BLIND VENDOR

MANY PEOPLE THINK the state bureaucracy has a collective heart the size of a seed.

Wrong. It's smaller than that.

It may, in fact, take an electron microscope to locate a bleeding, beating bit of compassion amid the bureaucratic maze.

Bob Van Patten is 68, nearly blind and runs the newsstand in the Mahoney State Office Building on Court Street. He'll run it for the next couple of days, anyway.

Van Patten is about to get the boot for an inexcusable transgression: He was out sick for two days.

"The doctor says it's this virus that's going around," said Van Patten, who was on the job Wednesday even though feeling "as weak as a kitten."

Van Patten's problem, other than a 102-degree fever that sidelined him Monday and Tuesday, is he didn't line up a replacement. We're not sure how many other sick state employees have to line up a replacement, but we hope the practice doesn't spill into the private sector.

The local office of the Commission for the Blind gave him phone numbers of replacements when he called in sick Monday.

But, said Van Patten, "I thought it would just be a one-day thing. Then when I woke up Tuesday, I was so burning with fever, I didn't care about anything. The (office) called me Tuesday and told me they were taking away the stand."

Melvin Davis of the Commission for the Blind's Buffalo office confirmed Van Patten "could possibly" be fired. He then -- why are we not surprised? -- referred all questions to the central office in Albany, which didn't return repeat calls Wednesday afternoon.

According to Van Patten, the state owns the stand and -- as required by federal law -- provides it to him rent-free. He buys pop, candy, pocket combs and other items wholesale, pocketing the profits. It amounts to about $11,000 a year.

"With that, plus my Social Security pension, I get by," said Van Patten, a man of medium build who, on Wednesday, wore polyester pants and a knit sweater that has seen too many Buffalo winters.

The man is no chronic malcontent. Nearly blinded by an optic nerve problem at 17, he has supported himself with odd jobs and factory work. He lives alone in the modest South Buffalo home he bought in 1956. He gets up at 6 every week day, catches a bus and is at work by 7:15.

He is, basically, every person with a disability who refused to let it detour them to the side road of life. A man who chose to mix in the working world, rather than hole up in his room.

He took over the stand more than two years ago. In that time, he said he took two five-day vacations and two personal days to attend funerals. And, oh yes, there was "one day when I played hooky to see a baseball game."

State workers in the building confirmed his near-perfect attendance.

Despite that, the state wants to toss him on the street. Gotta keep that snack stand hummin'.

Granted, had he played strictly by the rules, he would've lined up a replacement -- even if he had to crawl to the phone.

It would, of course, be more efficient if whoever called Van Patten with the names of substitutes had simply phoned one of them. But that would've violated the cardinal rules of a bureaucracy -- no bending of any rule, simplifying any process or eliminating any middleman.

Among those outraged are the people supposedly inconvenienced by his battle with the flu.

A petition of support being passed through the Mahoney building got 80 signatures in less than a day.

"We love him," said Helen Milliken of the State Insurance Department. "This is no way to treat an employee."

"It stinks," said Brenda McGillicuddy of the Department of Law and Consumer Fraud. "I can't figure out why we have to lose him. We weren't upset the stand was closed, just concerned that he must be really sick not to come to in."

Van Patten appreciates the support.

"Honest to Pete, it gives me such a warm feeling," he said. "The way people are coming to bat for me is very gratifying."

Van Patten isn't completely blind. He recognizes people once they get within 10 feet. And Wednesday, he greeted a handful of midday customers by name.

Said one, "Good luck, I hope everything works out for you."

And if it doesn't?

"I don't know," said Van Patten. "I get a Social Security pension, but probably not enough to live on."

Score one for the state. And its beating seed of a heart.

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