The big cheese where I work is an elected official, so of course he likes to see his name all over the place. Give him monogrammed cufflinks for Christmas, and he’ll probably tell you how nice it would be to have enough for everybody in the office to wear them. He's not the first politician I've worked for, and take my word for it, they’re all the same. Hear or see their name, anywhere, anytime, it's like they're being goosed.
Every now and then folks come at me trying to get me to vote for this one or that one. You never heard such crap. Their candidate's a regular guy, they tell me, or a real thinker. Has a background like a saint. Uh huh, sure. I've even had them tell me how modest they think their guy is. Bull. The day you come across a politician who’s modest, you're looking at a loser. The winner's the guy who sees a telephone pole without his name on it and takes it as a personal affront.
Come on -- what we’re talking about is folks who'll do anything to get what they're after. Just look at the shameless way they ask everybody for money, worse than any beggar on the street.
Take our office. Every time what they call a reception comes along, everybody here has to cough up at least a hundred and fifty bucks. Right down to the guys working for peanuts in the mailroom.
Reception, my hind end. Fundraiser is what it is, to pay for the boss's next campaign or the bills that are still left from the last one. And if you're one of the higher-ups and earn bigger bucks, you even get socked for fundraisers for the boss's buddies down at the State Capitol in Springfield.
I was running my mouth like this at home the other night, and Rose cut me short, said I should thank my stars I've got a job. Think of poor Lester, she says. Remember Black Wednesday.
Rose keeps me in line, and so does our daughter Missy, though it frosts my ass when I'm trying to set Missy straight about something and she tells me to get a life. She picks that kind of talk up from her friends, and she can use it around them if she wants to, but damn it, I'm her father. Don't want to hear any “F” word from her either, and I hate it when she says things suck. What kind of word is that for a decent girl to use?
But you know how it is. One day they're little kids carrying on real cute about the hair on your ears, and next thing you know, you've got a teenager on your hands, saying God knows what and telling you to get a life.
As if the life I've got doesn't revolve around Rose and Missy, and as if I don't worry myself sick about what's ahead for Missy, the way the world’s getting. Just look at the goddamned news.
But Rose is right. There are worse things than being a printer in a government shop, union scale, and having to pop for a fund-raiser now and then. I could be doing a hell of a lot worse. I could be in the shape Les is in.
It's hard for me to talk about that. Les goes back a long way with Rose and me, and he's Missy's godfather. We met up back when we were working for the city, and then when I switched to the state, I always let him know about jobs that opened up. It's hindsight now, but Les would probably be better off today if I hadn't done him any favors.
Not that working for the city is any bed of roses either. Hell, we’re talking about Chicago.
But for a guy like Les, going to the state was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. I should have seen that. Rose says Les is an adult and I'm not responsible for what happened, but I can't help feeling bad. We're coming up on a year now since Black Wednesday. Les still hasn't found work, and his unemployment checks went belly up after six months. There's been talk about the state tagging on another 13 weeks, but talk is all that is. In government, somebody's always saying something. Half the time it doesn't mean squat.
Anyway, what Les needs is a goddamned job.
He would have got the axe anyway after what happened. They didn't need any Black Wednesday to send him packing. That was just a convenient excuse. When the news about the cutbacks came, all of us were worried, but for Les it was the handwriting on the wall.
I've been through cutbacks three times now. Knock wood. It's the same damned thing every time. The Gov tells everybody to trim the budget -- five percent, seven percent, whatever -- and what they always end up cutting is people. Head count is all they know. You could cut a hell of a lot more than any seven percent on all kinds of stuff -- wasted trips, say, or a lot of the stuff that goes through my shop, to tell you the truth. But sure as shit, what happens is people get canned.
As if the Gov or anybody else has a clue what's going on.
Did you catch the circus on the tube last time around when they were trying to raise taxes on us? Straight out of the Marx Brothers. All these senators flapping their gums about the budget crisis. No money for this, no money for that. Zilch for schools. Hospitals are going to fold cause there's not enough for Medicaid. Blah blah blah, on and on. Then, when it's time for them to close down and go home, and they know damned well a tax increase just plain isn’t going to fly, one after another they all change their tune. All of a sudden, it's magic money time. Son of a gun if there wasn't more in the road fund than we thought! A windfall in revenue from the state fair, too -- that's always a good one. Didn't realize it until now, just kind of snuck up on us, thank the Lord. And lookee here -- damned if that new state prison isn't coming in way under budget.
One minute they're broke, and the next minute they're like a bunch of old ladies finding money tucked away all over the place in boxes and jars.
And they wonder why people squawk about taxes.
Maybe Les's downfall -- and I've given this a lot of thought -- was thinking his job was different from all the crap and corruption. He could really get all wound up about what he was doing.
Face it -- the last thing most of us in government want to talk about after hours is work.
Not Les. He was always carrying on about his job. When he was with the city, he just pushed paper, but now by God he was Mister Consumer Advocate. Like he was making a real difference and people were finally getting something good out of their government.
I'm not knocking that, understand. But when you work for the government, you have to be realistic. And you better believe you have to be careful what you say.
By the time Les got the signal to keep his mouth shut about this car dealer, it was too late. He'd already said too much, and the whole thing was way out of control.
That's one thing I like about what I do. If anything out of my shop turns into a political liability, I only printed it, thank you. Go put the screws to somebody else.
It still doesn't make sense to me, though. If this car dealership, or the money behind it, was so politically connected, then how come nobody came crying sooner? I think Les told me he had over a hundred complaints, and for every one of them he would have sent the dealer a letter. Give them a chance to tell their side of the story. That's just normal routine, part of the job.
So we're talking about a hundred or so letters piling up at this car dealer's, and not a word back from them.
They didn't even squawk when Les started bad-mouthing them to potential customers, though maybe they never knew that was happening. That was just part of the job, too. If somebody calls in and asks if you've had any complaints about a place, you tell them. If it's just a few complaints, you say it's just a few and remind them that even God is going to get run down by somebody. But if it's a hundred goddamn complaints, that's a different story. You tell them maybe they'd better think twice. They’ve got a Latin term for it.
Les had sent a file on this outfit up to the attorneys, too. That's another routine, any time the number of complaints gets up to a certain level. The attorneys might want to look into filing a lawsuit -- class action, they call it, representing lots of people at one time. Not a bad thing for an elected official. It’s crossed my mind more than once that maybe Les took the bag for somebody higher up, somebody asleep at the wheel who should have jumped on the thing earlier. I mean, when something moves up to the attorneys and the office may be going to court, the political end of stuff should kick in automatically, wouldn't you figure?
Hey -- you know the difference between an attorney and a whore?
No? Well, what the hell -- I’m sure the difference isn’t enough to be worth worrying about.
Anyway, this fat and growing file of complaints was sitting on some attorney's desk, and nobody had said word one to Les about it. So whenever more folks called in to ask about this outfit, Les went right ahead and gave them the low-down.
Eventually what he was doing would have got back to the car dealer anyway. But the kiss of death for Les came when a call turned out to be from Channel 6. Evidently somebody -- a plain old citizen, you know, like you and me – had got in touch with Channel 6 after talking to Les. What's to stop anybody you talk to from passing along whatever you tell them? You think about it, it's pretty scary. I know I wouldn't want a press job. No way to stay on top of it.
There’s this whole rigmarole for screening calls throughout the office to be sure any reporters – the media, they’re called now --get bumped over to the press office. But even so, there's no guarantee that a transferred call won't get answered by some shit-for-brains college kid. Daddy came up with big bucks for the boss in the last campaign, you know, and now what have you got for a summer intern in the press office but his arrogant son with a frigging earring.
That's one way you get leaks. We had an episode a couple years ago where a kid told a reporter something he'd overheard two lawyers talking about in the crapper. The case they were talking about was still under investigation, but it showed up on the evening news.
People waiting for jobs to be finished in the print shop hang around and tell me everything. You wouldn't believe some of the stuff I hear. And of course people always act as if a screw-up in their area is the end of the world. Relax, I want to tell them, around this place we've got wall-to-wall screw-ups.
But for Les it really was the end of the world.
When Channel 6 finally placed a legit call to the press office, they weren't looking for information. They already had that. They were looking for somebody, hopefully the big cheese, to go on camera and explain what the hell we were doing about all these complaints.
It was a real shit situation. I'm glad I wasn't the one doing all the dancing our press secretary had to do.
From what I hear, the big cheese had appointments outside the building and skipped all of them for the rest of the day. Makes you wonder how important the appointments were to begin with. He just stayed in his office with the door closed, even though the official word was that he wasn't in. Didn't want to leave the building and get surprised by a camera crew. Didn't even want to step out into the hallway. Two things you don't tend to find in politicians -- one's modesty, like I say, and the other is balls, other than when it comes to asking for money.
Les made his biggest mistake that afternoon.
In all the hubbub, somebody talked to him about pretending there'd been a mistake. Like maybe a couple of files got mixed up during a phone call or something like that.
If Les had played along with that, or at least if he hadn't said he wouldn't, I think he might have survived. Shit -- he would never have had to follow through and actually do it anyway. They weren't really going to try a stunt like that, not when Channel 6 was probably talking to some of the same folks who'd filed complaints with us.
But Les just flat-out told them no. Said he wouldn't do it. Funny thing is, when Channel 6 ran their story, to the average person out there we didn't come off looking all that bad. Sure, they mentioned that nobody from our office was available for comment. But they weren't really out to fry us. They were out to fry the car dealer.
After that, I guess some strings got pulled. I wasn't privy to all the details, but I think the car dealer must have come to some sort of agreement. That's the way it usually plays out. You know, screw people and ignore them or tell them to go to hell if they complain -- and then if it looks like you're going to be sued or sent to prison, bend a little. Hell, from what I hear, the worst car dealer comes off looking pretty good compared to some of the stuff that's going on in home repairs.
I'm not privy to the political stuff either, but I don't think the car dealer had all that much reason to be mad at us. Had to know damned well that if he wasn't a big campaign donor, or some senator's cousin, or whatever in the hell he was, we'd have gone after him a lot sooner and probably hit him hard.
Everything pretty much blew over, but one thing didn't, and that was the way Les had stood up to them and said no.
Not that it ever got mentioned openly. Even on Black Wednesday.
When the son of a bitch who handles personnel called Les in to let him go, he didn't say a word about what had happened that afternoon. Just talked about the cuts, and he even had the crust to say maybe Les could come back somewhere down the line.
Bert's his name, and he's a dyed-in-the-wool political hack. Went to school with the boss, and if he didn't work for the boss, he'd be slinging hash in some dump on the west side.
Les was too rattled to say anything or raise any questions right then, I guess. You know how that is. Getting canned is kind of like being told you're dying. Even if you know it's coming, it knocks the stuffings out of you.
But he came back downtown to have lunch with some of us a few weeks later, and when he was heading back over to Union Station to catch the train home, who should he run into but Bert.
Les had downed a few drinks with us, and I guess he just kind of stopped dead on the sidewalk when he saw Bert.
Bert comes at him with his hand out, of course, like they're the best of friends. You should see this jerk work the crowd at a fundraiser. I don't know who's better at it, him or the boss.
And Les said Bert started right in giving him the old good-to-see-you, how's-it-going bullshit.
Les just waited him out and then looked at him and said, "I know why I got fired, Bert."
Bert just looks kind of puzzled at that and doesn't say anything. Must have really caught him by surprise. And then Les says, "I’m glad I did what I did. I bet I can feel better about myself than you can."
That was enough to bring out the asshole in Bert. He says, "And I'll bet your mother is real proud of you, Lester."
And Les comes right back with, "I reckon yours must turn over in her grave on a pretty regular basis."
Les doesn't usually say things like that. Me, I'm not much for turning the other cheek, but my kid's godfather is good that way. I guess he was just plain mad.
Anyway, Les said Bert screwed his face up at that. Kind of closed his eyes and looked like Les had hit him or something. And then he spit. Not in Les's face -- even a guy as crummy as Bert doesn't do that -- but so the spit landed right by Les's shoe. And with that, Bert just walked away.
Les called me that night, and when he finished telling me about it, he sounded better than he'd sounded in weeks. Like he'd settled something.
And me -- I was madder than hell. Had to get off the phone so I wouldn't upset him. Go get myself a cold beer. Still makes me mad every time I think about it.
But like Rose says, at least I can still put bread on the table.
David Curry has published short stories and poems in The American Review, Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, North American Review, Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah and elsewhere. His second book of poetry, Contending to be the Dream (New Rivers Press, 1979) received Special Distinction in the 1979 Elliston Book Awards for books of poetry from small, independent presses.
He received a writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979. For 10 years he edited and published the little magazine Apple from Springfield, Illinois.