Issue 29: Summer 1992
Processed World #29
Table of Contents
collective editorial & introduction
from our readers
tale of toil: tutoring in the tenderloin, by mickey d.
Get The Message: Mercury Rising Has Risen!
interview with mercury rising collective (bike messenger 'zine), by chris carlsson
tale of exile by frog
A Briton In Exile
tale of exile by iguana mente
Where and Back Again
tale of exile by d.s. black
by john ross, ioanna-veronika, david fox, farouk asvat, alejandro murguia & clifton ross
Exiles in the Heartland
tale of exile by kwazee wabbitt
* paperslutting, by stella
* vdt law fails
* this is now, by tom athanasiou
excerpts from sabotage in the american workplace, edited by martin sprouse & lydia ely
Same Old, Same Old
fiction by summer brenner
Marriages of Inconvenience
tale of exile by marinus horn, as told to louis michaelson
tale of toil: selling blood, by faye manning
Commie To America
tale of exile by salvador ferret
* I'm Uprooted, Now I'm Home!
review of andrei codrescu's the disappearance of the outside, by med-o
* Ingenuity And Its Enemies
review of andrew ross' strange weather, and zerzan & carnes'
questioning technology, by chris carlsson
tale of toil: legislator's letter writer, by mark henkes
Koun Lok: Exile on Market Street
tale of toil: tutoring in the tenderloin, by mickey d.
THE DOORBELL ON THE CAST-IRON gate doesn't work, so Chuahan is yelling up to an open window on the third floor: "Phouthouloum Bounthoum! Beck!" A small head appears and darts back in. Within seconds the gate is pushed open by a crowd of excited children and we leave the sun-drenched sidewalk for the murky hallway.Hands tug our clothes as we're led into the interior.
Kids are climbing my legs, jumping on my back,swinging from my arms. The stink of urine-fetid clothing is overwhelming. Chuahan chastises them in Lao while they compete for our attention. One performs kung fu motions with his feet; another jumps an entire length of staircase, easily five times his height. The only hostility comes from a runny-nose kid who persistently takes aim at my crotch with his tiny fist.
Trying to balance the squirming, giggling arm-load of kids while twisting my waist to avoid the punches, I follow Chuahan up the stairwell, past the used condoms, burnt crack pipes and piles of uncollected garbage. Pubescent homeboys in hooded San Francisco Giants jackets scowl as we pass.
When we get to the fourth floor, I notice that none of the apartment doors are closed to the hallway and the children pass freely from one apartment to another. With the fragrance of herbs,spices and cow brains in the air, it seems as if a remote village has suddenly been transplanted to a sleazy skidrow hotel.
Chuahan shows me into a small studio and - after quick, unspoken introductions with a group of women sitting cross-legged around bowls of food - I try to settle inconspicuously in the corner on a six-inch-high kneeling stool. The room is sparsely furnished. One entire wall is taken up by a huge TV-CD-stereo-VCR console showing some kind of Khmer Benny Hill video; opposite it, a Theravada Buddhist shrine with burning candles; below it, a bed protruding legs and arms that contains sleeping men and babies.
A new group of kids from inside the room approaches and quietly stands eye-level around me, sizing me up. The oldest woman's eyes are questioning even as she offers me soup. Her name is Sepanerath and she wears a beautifully colored dress and tinkling jewelry. The other women are heavily made-up teenagers with luxurious hairdos.
Looking at Souvanna, Sepanerath points at me with one finger and with another simulates-fellatio? The teenagers giggle. It takes me a moment to realize that she's asking Chuahan if I'm gay, i.e. a pedophile, and am I after her kids? As if in answer, I open my bookbag and give the kids the notebooks and packages of paper that I stole from work. They accept them blankly. Sepanerath says to the children in Khmer for them to say "thank you" in English.
Then I produce a handful of magic markers and colored pens (more loot). I draw a cartoon face. "Draw Donatello," requests Nancy, an eight-year-old girl with just-shampooed hair. Before I understand that she isn't talking about the 16th century Italian painter, her younger brother shows me a picture of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. To their delight, I duplicate it; then I draw Bart Simpson. More cheers. My popularity is assured, and we spend the rest of the afternoon drawing pictures.
On the way home I feel happy in a way I've never felt before.
Chuahan was born in eastern Thailand when Ubon could still be called a village, but his earliest memories are of the airfield and the earth-rumbling routine of U.S. planes en route to bombing sorties over nearby Laos. Ubon was forever transformed by the U.S. military personnel and AID officials, the inevitable economies of drugs and prostitution, and the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from across the border. Traditionalists took it hard. Chuahan renounced his parent's religious fundamentalism and wholesale fabric business,shaved his head and made his way to an American university to study poetry.
When we met in San Francisco's financial district, we were both bearers of worthless degrees stuck in dead-end jobs. Desperate to escape our condition as servants to giant bureaucracies, we talked endlessly about ways of contributing meaningfully to the world while having fun. Chuahan seemed to have hit on the perfect combination when he landed ajob at the Head Start program, tutoring Lao and Cambodian pre-schoolers in the Tenderloin. A combat zone of illicit pleasures populated by transvestites, strippers, hookers, addicts, drifters, thieves, lost tourists and newly arrived Southeast-Asian refugees, the Tenderloin is about as far from the spirit of' the financial district as you can get-only a couple of blocks away, it exists in its shadow.
Witty, charming and compassionate, Chuahan was an immediate hit with the families in his program. An Indian subcontinental, his reputation is enhanced by a readiness to speak up on behalf of Laotians and Cambodians who resent the Vietnamese domination of the meager social services available to southeast Asians (the majority of the Vietnamese got here a decade earlier and are better established). Chuahan's ascent within the ranks of Tenderloin non-profits is rapid, and pays better than temping.
"It's not such a bad thing I do, helping poor women who can't speak English collect their welfare payments." Compared to what I do for a living, this sounds reasonable.
Recently adrift from an east coast suburb, my entire social horizons become enmeshed in the lives of people who less than five years ago were living in rural areas outside of Vientiane and Phnom Penh. Until now I have only thought of them in terms of emotional associations with concepts like "civil war," "imperialism" and "revolution" ("samsaravattam" is the closest word in Khmer to "revolution," though its meaning is closer to "transmigration").
For many Asian immigrants, children (who learn languages much more quickly) are indispensable to their parent's survival in the new country; they're interlocutors with the outside world: courts, landlords, immigration officials, etc. They become my translators as well.
Chuahan and I take the kids to places they've never been: the playground at Golden Gate Park, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Ocean Beach. On Halloween we take a taxi cab full of 3-4 year olds to a rich neighborhood. The idea of ringing the doorbell of an oak-doored mansion and receiving free candy is a happy novelty, but not nearly as exciting as the expanses oflawns: being able to run and fall on soft grass comes as a surprise.
The kids seem oblivious to most urban hazards. When playing tag, they move with frightening speed in and out of traffic. Scrawny Phouthouloum (a.k.a. "Rambd') possesses an acrobatic grace that is truly incredible: he can mount a newspaper vending rack, shimmy up a sign post, swing from his legs, and always land on his feet. In his hands, anything can be transformed into a toy weapon; baseball cards become stars, rolled up newspapers become numchucks.
"Gangsters" (older kids and thieves who prey on the more vulnerable) with whom the kids indifferently share the sidewalks during the day are ominous figures at night; several kids' families are routinely terrorized by break-ins. The cops are even greater objects of mistrust, a relation which fails to change despite innumerable "community relations" meetings.
Slang and style tastes are distinctively African-American. It takes me a while to realize that when these six-year-olds address one another as "nigga," it's learned from neighborhood blacks and as neutral a part of their vocabulary as anything in Lao or Khmer.
The kids show me a side of their neighborhood that was previously invisible: down a labyrinth of seedy alleys a rabbit sits in its cage, wedged between a dumpster and a pile of trash. In a remote attic corner some other kids show me a broken pigeon's egg, long abandoned in its nest. Anticipating its eventual birth, they've organized an extended family for it.
"Koun lok," announces Chanpheng, after a magpie-like bird known in Cambodia for its cry at sunset. In Khmer, it literally means "child of the world."According to legend, some young kids who were abandoned in the forest to beeaten by tigers transformed into these birds, achieving safety by being at home in the wilderness. Forever after, the cry "koun lok" serves as a reminder of the borders between the wild and the tamed, nature and human. Birthday parties for the children are community celebrations; every kid seems to have about twenty birthdays a year.
Sometimes more formal gatherings (particularly for the young and unattached) are arranged by Lao ethnic associations; gloomy warehouses like the Hungarian Hall (next to Sex Toys & Movies) are rented for an evening. These involve crystal-ball disco decor with a Lao rock band intermixing standard rock covers with more traditional numbers. They're fairly somber affairs, except for the appearance othree Lao transvestites, who are always a hit.
At one party I hear Mony reminiscing about the miserable, squalid conditions for the Cambodians in the U.N. refugee camps and the interminable waiting for visas in the Philippines. I ask Mony for more information about where he's from in Cambodia, how he ended up in the camps, what he thinks about what's going on there. Mony speaks with contempt of the arrogant Thais and the Filipinos, but turns the conversation to brighter subjects.
"Once we were just poor Cambodians. Treated like shit! Now, when we go back to Cambodia, we get respect," he explains, cocking his biceps into a Proud muscle. "Because we are Americans"
Nods of agreement among the men in the room.
I think: are you kidding? Your kids play in garbage, you work like a dog so you can live in the slums! Instead I say, "Look at what the U.S. did to Cambodia, though. They bombed it for years - they must have killed a quarter of a million people.
Silence. Then Mony says, "I heard about that. It was on TV. But they said they only killed the bad people."
The host produces a bottle of brandy and calls in the birthday girl, who models her crisp chiffon dress and pirouettes. A toast is made as shots are downed. Mony and his friends dismiss our talk as "politics," and the rest of the night is forgotten in alcohol.
Gambling is a way of life for the adults. It is pursued with unflagging fascination from early in the evening to late the next morning, several nights a week. Each night a different host's floor is crowded with sessions of poker, blackjack and an unfamiliar game played around a blanket with mysterious diagrams. The stakes are high: if you aren't willing to bet at least twenty dollars to get in, forget it. Sizeable fortunes can be made and lost, and nobody ever quits.
While playing poker with three old women one night, Souvanna hands me what looks like a tobacco leaf and instructs me to dip it into some Purple powder and chew it. I try not to lose my attention. Evidently, I'm supposed to chew the leaf and spit out the juice, not swallow it. When my head stops spinning, I realize that I'm a big loser at poker too.
Later Souvanna, recognizing my financial misfortune, lets me in on what he promises is a formula for making a fortune. Of a group of 12, everybody promises to contribute a hundred dollars a month; if you want to collect $1200 some month for any particular reason, it's yours with the stipulation that you pay an extra $100 that month. My math is bad, but Souvanna demonstrates to me that no matter what, since every month somebody collects, we all eventually come out $100 richer. In what is obviously an act of bad faith, I skeptically decline the invitation.
Most of these people work at low-wage jobs: washing dishes in Thai restaurants, day-labor construction, fish cleaning; many are dependent on welfare. So where do the rolls of large bills everybody seems to have for gambling come from? Maybe the sub-economy which they've invented is a way of rotating the riches that they'll likely never possess as individuals; maybe gambling is a way of facing fortune, a metaphor for fate or the randomness of the market. In any event, the intensity they bring to gambling shows something about luck and knowing when to make your move.
Chuahan and I are visiting Sepanerath and her children's new apartment in a new building behind the medical center. They only moved in a few days ago and most of their stuff is still in boxes. It's late, and the younger children are sleeping under a blanket on the carpet. It's more spacious and cleaner than their old place in the Tenderloin. Sepanerath's new boyfriend is paying for it; she doesn't want her oldest son, Bounari (already 11) to grow up to become a gangster like the other Cambodian kids. She tells us that this new environment (a mile or so away) will help keep him away from the influence of gangs.
Nancy, her only daughter, always wears new dresses and jewelry, and she's self-conscious of her looks as she serves us soup and fish balls. I notice Nancy's similarities to her mother by checking her against an enlarged photo framed on the wall of a younger Sepanerath smiling triumphantly, wearing a disco dress sparkling with gold.
Chuahan opens the bottle of wine we've brought as a house-warming present and pours everybody a glass, including five-year old Peter, who gulps it right away, defiantly.
Nancy and Bounari give me a tour of all (three) rooms. Sepanerath and her boyfriend (who's at work) have their own room now. Bounari turns on the jam-box I gave him ("Wild Thing). For a long time he kept asking me to get him batteries until he told me that his mother's boyfriend was using the electric cord to whip Peter. I feel guilty when I look at Peter, who's bouncing off the walls. They're excited because their mothers let them take the week off from school and they are up past their bed time.
While we draw pictures of monkeys, Buddhas, and race cars, I think about how Nancy can beparticularly vicious to her friend, Bounthoum, who has a mouth full ofjagged, mangled teeth and bad breath. "Bounthoum fucks her boyfriends! Bounthoum fucks -[every boy in earshot]." Bounthoum's clothes are always dirty and several sizes outgrown, not like Princess Nancy, who leads the other children in chants to upset a shaky Bounthoum.
Peter's bumping into me until he falls face-flat on the floor and begins snoring away. Nancy's telling me about her favorite teachers and classes. After a while it occurs to me that they haven't been to school because they don't know yet where their new school is; once again, they've ventured beyond the familiar and are waiting.
In all the months I've known Nancy, I've never once worried about her, even when she lived among rapists and murderers. She carries more adult responsibilities at eight years than most people do in a lifetime, and she seems to take it in stride. So I'm surprised that now, all of a sudden, seeing her in this safe, electrified condo, I detect something like a worried little girl in her voice. Driving home in his new sports car, Chuahan tells me that Sepanerath's a L'racist bitch" who just wants to be a white American. The social worker with the mastel's degree in English tells me that "they've turned their back on their culture!"
I don't see the kids anymore. Fun becomes work. Taking four rambunctious kids someplace on the bus can be entertaining; trying to keep twenty-five together can shave years off your life.
Chuahan got a job as director of a weekend activities program; I was his "assistant." Obnoxiously called "Super Saturday Plus," it was funded by a grant from the Embarcadero Corporation to St. Mark's Church--both large real-estate businesses in San Francisco. We were assured that we would have the freedom to let the kids do what they wanted-and there would be no religious proselytizing!
The kids' participation was entirely voluntary--there was no point to it unless they had fun. I thought it would be cool to have a place outside the playground-less Tenderloin for the kids to paint, learn baseball, play blackjack, whatever. They spent all week being bussed to a school at the Treasure Island military base.
The main area that St. Mark's allotted for the kids was a stuffy basement with pictures of the last hundred years of the Lutheran hierarchy on the wall. The outside "play area" was a dismal concrete plaza of the type that condo developers throw in for "public space" tax rebates. I took great satisfaction in seeing the kids reduce the place to a mess.
All went well until various administrative busybodies insisted on playing a more "active" role. One was a hefty-buttocked old hen who the kids called "the Ghost" because of her dull grey complexion and cop mentality. She invited the St. Mark's minister to make a Thanksgiving speech to the kids about "how they should be thankful for all that they've been given." That was too much. When the day came for his speech he left in a huff because the kids refused to settle down and listen to his bullshit. I remember the look he shot me as he headed for his car (I was in the parking lot with the basketball dissidents); in one hand he had his briefcase, in the other a plate full of turkey and mashed potatoes, but his eyes said it all. Subsequently, Chuahan informed me that I had been retroactively "not hired" and wouldn't receive the wages that had been promised me.
Chuahan, a true professional,couldn't quit as easily as me. He had a reputation to Protect among wealthy patrons of social workers. When Christmas came around he had to gather the kids together and take them to the Embarcadero plaza for the annual holiday lighting of those hideous slabs of office building (where I worked as a temp, as a matter of fact). The whole thing was a photo-opportunity for city big-shots and the next day on the cover of the newspaper was a soft-lens picture of Bounthoum holding a candle. The kids, in the generous gratitude of the event's wealthy sponsors, were each given a single McDonald's hamburger --no fries, no apple pie, no coke. Not even a cheeseburger!
tale of exile by frog
I DREAMT OF ESCAPING PARIS for five long years. While I finished "growing up," I went daily from place to place between rows of heavily armed cops. May'68 had failed and martial law was in effect.
May '68 had been a month of wildcat strikes and student demonstrations turning into a general strike. Imagine a whole country (50 million inhabitants) immobilized where business was concerned, but effervescent in political and social activities. Parisians met daily in the streets for discussions on the theme of the "quality of life."There was Viet-Nam, there were sit-ins, armed confrontations with the special national police trained for "riots" (Compagnie Republicaine de Securite aka CRS.) The walls bloomed with graffiti: "Culture is like jam, the less you have, the more you stretch it;" "Culture is a carnivorous plant;"."Plus je fais l'amour, plus je veux faire l'amour; plus je fais la revolution et plus je veux faire la revolution." Pardon my French: "The more I make love, the more I want to make love; The more I make revolution, the more..." Barricade building (thanks to abandoned street equipment) brought about the slogan: "Under the pavement you'll find the beach." (Sous les paves, la plage!) There were unauthorized street concerts, a piano was dragged from the dusty depths of La Sorbonne, there was spontaneous friendship, mutual support; generosity abounded. I was born to a larger reality after a sixteen-year sleep.
Then the sacrosanct Summer Vacation intervened. Paris exchanged its usual population every summer for tourists and a skeleton crew of miserably paid North Africans to keep the streets clean. Despite promises that "the summer would be hot" (L'ete sera chaud!), repression set in (I was thrown out of high school at the end of 1969 and spent my last high school year in a private school), people went back to work and the social scene got grim as the government tightened the screws.
Freedom of the press is not a "right" in France so the government succeeded in running underground presses out of existence. "Charlie Hebdo," my favorite weekly, was restricted when its front cover made fun of the then-recently dead De Gaulle. It could be sold at a magazine stand only if it was kept below the counter, shamefully out of sight. Meanwhile Playboy and its kin were blazing on center stage and people got 18 months jail-time for selling the ludicrous maoist rag La Cause du Peuple.
I left in 1971, at age 19, in pursuit of the dream of a sane society in which mutual aid was a reality. I had no concrete plan or methodology. I just hied out and struck north: aurora borealis, uncharted territories, wilderness a gogo... That got me stuck in Germany for two years, tramping one year and the next as a foreign language teacher in a high school. Germany wasn't terribly different from France. I was at home despite an ornery attitude towards the German language and history (they did kill my grandfather).
I experienced German racism in one unforgettable scene in 1972. At that time, foreigners were required to check in with the authorities at regular intervals. My two American roomies and I showed up one cold winter day in Biberachan-der-Eiiss to validate our papers. A minor bureaucrat was shoving papers at a bewildered Turkish "Gastarbeiter': "Kannst du kein Deutsch verstehen?! ! !?':("Can't you understand German ?")
I got angry and forgot the little German I thought I had, called the guy a Nazi (he looked like one, recycled) and more, in every language I could summon and demanded to see his "superior." The pathetic little man crumbled. He let go of the Turks, processed my American friends and me real fast and gentle, apologized to me personally and we left. I was shaken by the experience... but not enough to anticipate similar problems yet to come.
In 1973 I "emigrated" to the US of A. I put it in quotes marks because I didn't realize it at the time. I was just checking the place out. I had a lot of informed reservations about it. My emigration problems started in Stuttgart, then in West Germany, where I naively told the bureaucrats that I was going to work in the States (one has to eat, ya know). Despite the fact that a friend had pretended to need my specific services, I was refused a work visa. So I asked for a tourist visa, sufficient to investigate the place for a while and decide on further action. This visa was immediately refused on the grounds that I had given away my real motives: possible immigration.
Not a whit daunted, I drove to Munich and applied for a tourist visa, answering "NO!" to the question: "Have you ever applied for a tourist visa to the U.S. before?" For several hours, I watched tourists get their passports stamped with no problem. When my turn came, a flurry of activity preceded the arrival of a prim female army security officer who bade me accompany her for a special interview. Of course I thought Stuttgart had communicated to Munich that I was an undesirable fake tourist. Then I thought about my political activities in high school and on the Nanterre campus since 1968. I was freaked but had to face up.
To my relief, the big deal was that I was a French citizen going to the U.S. from Germany! Apparently a highly suspicious move. Why didn't I go from France? Because I happened to live in Germany. This was long before the concept of a Euro-community had made much inroad on public consciousness.
The next question was "why did I want to visit the States?" Naively I stated the truth. I had shared my digs with two Americans who had made visiting their country (the famed "bastion de la reaction") sound like an interesting proposition. Then she asked: "Are you going back with him?" Startled about the concept of "going back," I blurted "which him?" It came out that my "American" accent was too perfect for this uniformed woman to believe hat I had never been to the States before. I was most assuredly lying about previous visits indicating dark and possibly terroristic reasons for my "return." I managed to convince my interrogator that the only English-speaking country I had ever seen was Great Britain (several times) and that I had no hope of reproducing or even approximating their accent.
Relentlessly, she went on: "Do you plan to marry him?" The thought, at twenty-one, of being married at all, much less married to my current American lover was funny. I laughed ...too hard. This displeased my interviewer who saw nothing funny about marriage. (She was right.) I assured her I was way too young to consider marriage seriously, especially to an American. This did not amuse her much but she stamped my passport with a three month visa and released me to the July sunlight of Munich. What a relief! A month later, I was in Colorado, culture-shocked and bewildered about my decision. While passing the New York border guards, my visa was cut down to one month on monetary grounds, despite my explanation that the cash I carried ($300) was just pocket money. I was to live with a good Mormon family in Colorado and could wire home for more pocket money if needed. No go. "America is expensive" I was told as my French passport was inscribed with slashes and lots of red ink. That was OK though, since meanwhile my boyfriend had successfully smuggled some hashish past the whiskers of his border guard. We'd worry about my status later. The dope was safe! Also, he was the one who had suggested, after my failure to obtain a visa in Stuttgart, that Munich was the next option. So I believed he would come up with some solution. I was soon to taste the fruit of his solution: marriage.
One month passed in the blink of an eye. I hated the States with a will. Everything hurt, from the discovery that broccoli was not some form of pasta to taking a dislike to almost everyone I met. Were all Americans bigots, patriots and political dolts? One month was not enough time. The place was bewilderingly vast. You could drive nonstop for three days from Pennsylvania to California, yet the language , except for accents, did not change. And in America as in Germany aliens had to register once a year with la migra as to whereabouts and occupations. Every January, TV screens reminded whoever would listen that aliens were to be accounted for.
My "boifurendo" (boyfriend, for those who don't twig Japenglish) kept insisting that marriage would be painless, a mere formality that would solve my visa problems once and for all. My parents and almost all my friends' parents had divorced which made me very suspicious of the institution. A bit of research showed that it was a business contract designed to ensure that the woman's property (where she had any or even rights to it) and children would hence become the property of the husband. Divorce voided the bit about "'til Death do us part," except in the matter of property. There is no "parting" of the powerful from their property. Ask the world's impoverished female masses.
On September 10, 1973 I married the boyfriend. I wore jeans to the courthouse where I was handed a congratulatory "gift" for brides. Talk about poisoned apples: it contained mouthwash, douche packets, aspirin and many coupons for sanitary products to keep you fresh and sexy for your lawful hubby. No condoms, though. By November I knew I was pregnant. Decision making time. This kid felt real in more ways than one.. Despite misgivings about the status of my relationship with my husband, it was now or never. I did it. I gave birth to this wondrous new being and never regretted it despite the adventures to come. Giving birth is the greatest high one can experience. Trust me.The culture shock spread. Being married to an American was a desperate experience. Exchanging Paris for Fort Collins, CO, USA, was a bad idea. Let me give an example of cultural un-ease. As a teenager I had a bout with hypoglycemic perturbations. I passed out if I didn't watch the blood sugars. I passed out in the weirdest places and times: Demonstrations, history classes, trains, etc... People had always helped; Many knew the simple solution to this coma: sugar cubes in their paper wrappers, lifted from restaurants.
I passed out in downtown Fort Collins on December 24, 1973. Everyone was busy with last minute shopping for Xmas. No one stopped to offer help. I got looks which worried me: not at all the European looks I was used to but looks that threatened to be followed by cowboy boots grinding my face further into the snow.
Later, friends explained the "why" of this asocial behavior. I could have sued anyone who stopped to help, they said. I was horrified at the weirdness of the thought: In Europe, it is a crime not to assist persons in danger. Thus I was taught that survival in the USA has different parameters. This incident effected a cure. Hallelujah! (Or was it physical maturity?) When my daughter was born I'd wanted to call her Solitude. My husband nixed the name. I became a wife. I lost my name. I was X's mother and Y's wife. It threatened my identity and I became deeply depressed, even suicidal. I divorced instead of dying, both messy propositions. I was isolated, penniless and naive. I got screwed. Hubby got custody. I took the pro bone lawyer assigned to my case by Legal Services (later killed by Reagan's funding starvation of social services) all the way to the Supreme Court of Colorado for misrepresentation of the laws. His pudgy be-ringed little hand was slapped: He had been "ill-advised" to take money from the wrong party. Illegal? Maybe but I did not regain custody and am still in debt to boot.
From Mudhole to Lily Pad
I was divorced on my twenty-fifth birthday. March 10 has been a strange double celebration ever since. At last I could unfold my own wings again and resume my quest for the foreign grail.
I moved to Berkeley because the university had a better language program, especially Oriental languages, than Boulder U. could ever hope to develop. I wanted to go to China, armed with a smattering of mandarin and historical understanding.
Since '68, I had held the belief that the Chinese model might be a pointer to future societies: Share and Care, bro'! I had great admiration for the accomplishments of the Maoist revolution; it ain't easy to take a huge, backwards agricultural country into the age of information at a single bound. I believed the propaganda.
When "normalization" occurred in 1979 (keep in mind that France "recognized" China in 1958). I thought I should obtain an American passport to avoid a repeat of my Munich adventure on a larger scale. I filed for U.S. citizenship in'80. Due to changing immigration laws and the impending "pardon" granted to illegal aliens and their employers, it took a couple of years before I was notified by mail that I was to take a proficiency exam at the Immigration and Naturalization Office (INS where S is for Service--don't sneer) in San Francisco. No problem. I was getting to be less naive by then, but not enough. At the appointed time and place, I seemed to be the only white person fluent in the language and basic political organization which we all were to be quizzed on. I coached a couple of panicked South American women, was called to the bench" and promptly forgot you had two senaturds per state or whatever. Still I passed. A couple more years' wait ensued.
In 1984 a phone call woke me from slumber. A directive had been received at one of my old addresses which warranted the intervention of yet another lawyer. The pal sounding the warning was in the know: as a law student, he had a teacher specializing in immigration. I quickly visited her. She was as puzzled by the strange notice from INS as I was. We decided to go and see.
So on July 14, 1984, my daughter, lawyer and I dressed in unlikely skirts and headed for our rendezvous. That's where and when the shit hit the fan. First the INS lawyer ejected the kid from this meeting on the grounds of "hardship to the child." Then "my" lawyer declared that it was a Public meeting: he'd better state his reasons for ousting the kid. The guy explained that tough sex questions were to be asked. I laughed... Hard. The INS lawyer- flunky did not think it funny. He was right. The kid came back in and grabbed my hand, which she played with throughout my interrogation.
It was a humorless interlude. After two hours of questioning, it was obvious that a private letter of "denunciation" was at the root of my troubles. The INS lawyer flunky declined to state the identity of his informant but it was not necessary: Only my daughter's father could have done such a thing. I was accused of being "to the left of the French Communist Party" and of being a lesbian.
The U.S. of A. barred "known" leftists and homos from visiting this country until recently (The McCarran- Waiter Act was repealed in 1990), and certainly would not grant them citizenship. You don't want more commie gays voting, do you? There was no appeal to the INS decision. The truth is no defense. One private letter of denunciation was enough to bar me from citizenship. I am not inclined to try again. The lawyer, my daughter and I shared a "celebratory" toast after the INS session. Eight years old at the time, my daughter was upset and asked many questions. How to explain inequity to the innocent? We had an interesting discussion on the subject of "lying," its origins (authority), its uses (self-defense) and the possible neurosis, hypocrisy ascendant, which reliance on lies could bring.
In return she delighted us with the following story: "Mom, do you know what I was doing with your hand?" I did not know the meaning of her magical manipulations. So she demonstrated: folding four fingers of my hand against the palm, she left the middle finger upright and pointing at authority "avec emphase."
Talking with numerous exiles from different parts of the globe brought me to the conclusion that exporting oneself is hard work. You'll never fit snugly in any one culture again. The grass is never greener on the other side. Society's problems are global. One's interaction is perforce local. The locale is less important than the will to achieve the improbable: quality of life!
It is doubtful that I'll ever get to immerse myself in China. I could barely do it in the US. The effort to jump across one more pond and sever all ties to the known cultural universe is too much for me. I have accepted my limitations. Even though American friends will tell you that I have become an American, I am in fact just a Frog at Odds.
A Briton In Exile
tale of exile by iguana mente
I've always felt ambivalent about living in the U.S. Why on earth would a non-American leftist choose to live in the "Great Satan?" If you're born American that's unfortunate and you have little choice, but to come of your own volition seems perverse. It wasn't as if I could claim to be fleeing desperate economic conditions or political repression (at least not in the Third World sense). I came just because I had nothing better to do, so I feel unworthy of the term "immigrant."
It happened six years ago when a woman I'd met in Europe the previous summer and corresponded with suggested I come live with her in New York. i jumped at the chance, not only because I was infatuated with her, but because it sounded like an exciting and irresponsibly impulsive thing to do. I gave little thought to how long I would stay, consumed by the idea that for the first time I had a chance to do something larger than life. This was a new frontier--New York, the quintessential urban experience, and beyond that the vast expanse of America. I read Kerouac's On the Road as preparation.
It was with little regret that I gave up my Brighten bedsit with burns in the carpet and gaps in the window sashes through which the wind whistled, and my place among the ranks of the unemployed. Leaving family and friends was harder. In return I shared my American girlfriend's small one bedroom apartment in a dilapidated building that perpetually smelled of garbage and took a menial clerical job in an office where they were prepared to overlook my lack of working papers. Thatcher's Britain for Reagan's America. It was at best a sideways move.
My first sense of unease with my adopted country came in 1986 with the centennial celebrations of the Statue of Liberty which occurred shortly after my arrival. While the few Americans I knew --friends of my girlfriend--saw it as noth- ing more than good clean fun, I couldn't help but view it as an orgy of Nationalism, militarism, and self-congratulatory back-slapping--the like of which hadn't been seen since the Nuremburg rallies. Since I had yet to develop my own circle of friends, I didn't realize I was not alone with these opinions. I was unaware of the alternative "celebrations" and protests that were taking place. While my girlfriend shared some of my distaste, she thought I was taking things too far and being an incorrigible party-pooper. I was a minority of one. Had I come to America just to participate in a jingofest!
Feeling as I did, I was at a loss when asked - and I was asked frequently - the inevitable question, "So how do you like America!" I liked it, sure I did. Didn't I! After all, broke as I was, I could still afford the airfare back to England. If I was straight with myself, I would say that it was without doubt an interesting experience, but I couldn't in all honesty say I really liked it. I liked Americans and things American, but it was a long time before I felt comfortable with confessing to liking America, before its good points (more subtle than its bad ones) became known to me, and, more importantly, before I realized that my forrdness for and appreciation of it could be on my own terms: extremely qualified and very equivocal.
Whatever my initial reservations, it was exciting. For the first few months even my job--ferreting around in filing cabinets and repetitive data entry--seemed exotic. My coworkers had strange accents and an exuberance you scarcely find in England. While my new life in the New World was in many ways similar to my old life in the old one, the props were decidedly different. My senses were reawakened and I felt compelled to carry a notebook in which I would scribble my observations. Going to the store, riding the subway, walking down the street, everything was an adventure.
The fly in the ointment was, of course, money, or the lack of it. I had arrived with only $200 and the job barely paid the rent. My girlfriend was a student and worked in a bar at night. The solution to our economic woes seemed to be a green card, opening up (what seemed from the outside looking in) a world of opportunity thus far denied me. To this end we were married on the back lawn of a rather bemused-looking justice of the peace somewhere in upstate New York. An old school friend who was with us played chauffeur and drove us to Niagara Falls for the "honeymoon."
I felt total indifference to Marriage. naively failed to see why it should change things. It was a practical solution to a logistical problem. It was "real" in the sense that we had every intention of continuing to live together (till difference, if not death, do us part), but "arranged" in the sense that marriage would--at the ages of 22 and 24-never have crossed our minds had the green card not been an issue.
In the end, the labels of "husband" and "wife," and the changed expectations of others, who now saw us as a "responsible married couple" rather than happy-go-lucky single people, contributed to its demise two years later. By that time I'd built some kind of self-perpetuating life in the U.S. I also met my present partner, Frances (another American), so despite plans to return to England I remained in New York another two years.
In the spring of 1990, Fran and I left New York to travel throughout Central and South America. This was to be the final act of my American odyssey, after which we would "retire" to a more sedate and simple way of life in semi-rural England. We returned ten months later to New York enriched by the experience, but not knowing where to go or what to do next. The plausibility of a return to the old world quickly evaporated. When it came time to return I got cold feet. I realized it was not England I missed, but the idea of England. A combination of being away too long and watching too much Masterpiece Theatre, I'd created a myth of England that it could never live up to in reality.
Every year I would go to England sometimes for a month, usually just for a eek. I always had a great time and was sad to leave. But I knew that were I to move back, the euphoria could never be sustained. It's one thing to visit for a week and spend it drinking with old friends, another entirely to live there and have to worry about the mundanities of everyday life, like getting a job, a place to live, etc. In the end we decided against England--or at least deferred it for the time being--and came to San Francisco instead. Another new life, reassuringly like the old one with a similar cast of characters, but sufficiently different to feel challenging.
I used to feel that I had two lives, one in England, one in the States. The first could never be taken away from me--my birth-right, if you like. The second existed as long as I lived in America. At first I was anxious not to lose touch with England, to keep this first life very much alive. I read the Guardian Weekly, wrote to friends regularly, even listened to the BBC World Service. But in the last two years I've let things slip. England seems more and more like a distant memory, a foreign country to me. I have only a vague idea of what's going on there and have become painfully aware that I cannot expect the same level of intimacy from friends who, once an integral part of my life, I now see only once a year, and from whom I am a world apart. Parallel lives cannot be sustained indefinitely, ultimately I have to choose between one and the other.
I can always go back, there'll always be enough to build on. But were I to go back, I don't think I'd feel like that option were reversed. By staying here, not only do I preserve the idea of England which I have become so attached to and avoid the inevitable shattering of illusions, but I also keep my options open. Today America is no longer a travel adventure, just everyday life, the "general drama of pain." I am as assimilated as I'II ever be, speak fluent American and though I retain an accent, people rarely ask me any more how I like America, since I no longer look like a tourist. What keeps me here is what keeps anyone anywhere: inertia, the idea that it's harder to leave, for whatever reasons, than to stay. When I visit England I still call it "home," but I have come to terms with the fact that this is probably more out of nostalgia than anything else.
Exiles in the Heartland
Tale of exile in Malaysia by Kwazee Wabbitt
TO ME, MAIN STREET WAS NEVER more than a pathetic imitation of a gay bar, a fractured parody of the demimonde. The outdated disco music and the de rigueur mirrored ball that spun wearily over the dance' floor tried but failed to create an atmosphere of big city sophistication in that heart of southern, rural darkness. To others, however, Main Street was a glittering Oz, a fabled land of dreams come true, a taste of paradise.
The only gay bar for a radius of a hundred miles, it was the far flung outpost of Queer culture. Back home in Chicago, 350 miles north of the Ozarks, gay bars--there were over a hundred in the city-- specialized and had highly specific clienteles: leather bars, preppy bars (aka "S & M" or "Stand and Model" bars), "Gentlemen's" bars (i.e., for rich old daddies and young hustlers), cruise bars, etc. Not so in Carbondale, where it was one size fits all. Main Street hosted men and women, students from the University and locals, drag queens and hat boys, hicks and Internationals.
Khan Chang could usually be found on what I sometimes called the Flight Deck, because it was so often host to the Royal Malaysian Air Force. It was a raised wooden platform to the right of the bar; opposite it was another platform containing the pool table. (This was, obviously, the center of lesbian activity in the bar and was known as the "Dyke Deck.") It was only natural that Southern Illinois University, with its well-developed outreach to Moslem Asia and its world-class aviation and aviatronics departments, should train the entire Royal Malaysian Air Force. What was less natural-or at least less obvious--was that so many of the RMAF cadre should be queer.
The oligarchies of Moslem Asia are not famous for their open-mindedness in general,let alone on matters of sexuality. Indeed, part of the reason they sent their sons (daughters were kept at home) to bucolic Carbondale was its (relative) remoteness from corrupt, decadent, irreligious Western culture. On the one hand they needed the intellectual products of that dangerously secular civilization; on the other, they feared their offspring would be seduced by its siren call. This fear was well founded, and they took what measures they could to contain this threat.
Khan's family, like most others, had signed a contract with the Malaysian government to cover the cost of his degree. Big Brother would pay for the bulk of Khan's education as a mechanical engineer, tuition and some living expenses (generously supplemented by his obscenely wealthy family); in return, Khan would serve the government at the ratio of four years of work for each year of school. Thus, the average four year degree would commit him to 16 years of government service.
Alas, Khan had discovered: a) that he was queer; b) that he hated mechanical engineering, Islam, Malaysia, and his family (not necessarily in that order); and c) that his True Calling was to move to New York City and become a Famous Fashion Designer. These were not unrelated discoveries, but the bottom line was that if he welshed on the deal his parents had cut they would be stuck with the tab for his years at SIU and he would be persona non grata with his family and the Malaysian Government, both orthodox Moslem outfits with impressive grudge-holding skills.
For Khan this was such a good deal that he never looked back. "There's no 'gay life' in Malaysia," he explained to me. "Some dirty old men hanging out in parks. Yuck!" It wasn't just gay sex he wanted (though he wanted plenty of that, from all reports), it was a "Lifestyle."
"In Malaysia you have to have a family, a wife and kids. Your life is supposed to center around them. Family is everything." He shrugged. To him, family was nothing, now, not compared to the glamor of Main Street and the rumored grandness of fabled New York. But he was atypical in that regard. Most of his gay Malaysian friends were too well bound up with moral and financial obligations, and by family ties, to consider defecting. They were content with camping it up on Main Street for a few years, and then holding out for occasional business trips to the U.S. and its gay scene.
The Lure of the West
Carbondale's gay community was clearly a foreign element, an obvious import of urban perversity into the Heartland (as the local TV stations like to call it). It was grudgingly tolerated as an unpleasant but unavoidable byproduct of the University, like toxic waste from a job-producing heavy industry.
What the locals disliked most about this queer colonial enclave was its remarkable ability to encourage defection and conversion, no less from among the local, conservative Christian population than from the conservative Moslem Asian temporary residents. These converts usually soon departed C-dale for one of the Gay Urban Meccas (which by regional standards included Memphis and St. Louis, southern backwaters in my jaded opinion). Their families far preferred it that way; nothing could be more humiliating that an openly gay relative lacking the shame to either hide or flee.
The stridently militant, anti-closet proselytizing, nationalist attitude of big city Queers, which flavored the campus gay group, was considered derangedly political by the indigenous Queers who dominated Main Street and tended more towards a pre-Stonewall, Southern drag-queen culture. There was a feminist-separatist community, held over from the seventies, which avoided the campus group as sexist and the bar as promoting addiction. A local Metropolitan Community Church (a national gay ministry) advocated a fusion of fundamentalism and homosexuality--a fusion vociferously denounced from both sides--but, naturally, denounced the bar as sinful, the campus group as irreligious, and the separatists as pagans.The Pit was an example of the crazy contradictions governing the very limited queer and queer-safe space in Southern Illinois. It was a pit mine a dozen miles north of the campus, which had been abandoned when it struck a spring and flooded with water. Now it was the best swimming hole of the region, and all on private land owned by Nick, a prosperous fireworks salesman. Nick liked having nekkid women hanging around at his swimmin' hole, and gave highly coveted keys to selected gatekeepers of the local lesbian community. On a hot summer weekend the secluded park would overflow with dozens of nude lesbians, a few of their fag friends, and Nick himself, naked except for a big .38 strapped to his waist.
Nick was a blatant sexist, and often ran around taking pictures of the women's bare tits and asses. They didn't chastise him for objectifying them; they howled with glee and demanded copies. Besides, it was his pool and one of the few safe places for queers to gather. The bar was a target for fag-bashers, the local rest-stop cruisy area the prey of local cops, thugs, and occasional murderers (including a husband-and-wife team that chainsawed their victim into pieces, and only got caught because they used his credit cards at a local furniture store). If you wanted to be picky about the Political Correctness of your host, you'd be better off returning to your Gay Urban Mecca.
How I Got There
I wanted nothing more than to return to Civilization, but like Khan Chang and most other students I'd accepted Exile as the price of an affordable education. It was my determination to avoid working for a living that led me, naturally enough, to consider a career in academics, and ultimately to C-dale. I'd finished up my long-neglected bachelor's degree and finagled a slot in SIU's graduate program in Counseling Psychology. I gleefully gave short notice to my boss (see "Progressive Pretensions, PW 26), tucked the "Dr. K. Wabbit, Ph.D" plaque (a going away gift from my co-workers) under my arm, and set off for the South.
It was no small accomplishment to be accepted for such a cushy spot at all, and I was fully aware of how marginal a candidate I was for it, what with my long and checkered undergraduate career. I had the lowest grade point average of anyone ever accepted in the program, squeaking in despite my original ranking as "eighth alternate." In return for working 20 hours a week, at an hourly rate comparable to what I'd generally earned in the Real World, I got a tuition waiver (otherwise $4K per year), and training as both an academic and a shrink. Such a deal!
There was bound to be an "Ivory Tower" effect, I figured, to offset the otherwise bucolic nature of the region. After only four years of Exile, living cheap in the sultry south, I would metamorphose into a full-fledged, well-paid Professional doing Meaningful Work. I would be a Guppy (Gay Urban Professional) at last!
It didn't work out quite that way. But I still say school beats working for a living, nine times out of ten.
Everyone was an outcast in Carbondale; it was a place of universal exile. The majority of its population were aliens, isolated in a strange land, and even the natives seemed dislocated by the cultural-imperialist intrusion of The University. For most of us the Ivory Tower was in fact a tiny ghetto surrounded by a vast and hostile wilderness (and for most of the rest it was an invading, colonial enclave).
The student body was an interesting mix. SIU was at the bottom of the state's educational hierarchy. All the really top-notch students (who couldn't afford private schools, that is) went to the world-famous University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (or Shampoo-Banana, as we called it). Middle class whites with less obvious academic talent and the better-off blacks went to Northern Illinois University at DeKalb, just a couple hours outside the city; the hat boys could drive in for the weekends. Distant C-dale, 350 miles South of Chicago, got the leftovers; party animals (we had an outdated rep as a "party-hearty" school held over from the '60s), poor blacks from Chicago's South Side and from East St. Louis, where there was a branch campus, and assorted semi-rural low-brow Aggies and Techies from mid-state. Like so many American schools, SIU got its big boost after World War II, when any degree-granting institution could expand ten-fold on the glut of veteran's benefited students. Right after that came the "Sputnik" scare of the '50s, the fear that the Russkies were going to win the "race for the stars" because they got their rockets off the ground before we did (having snagged the better German rocket scientists, while we got Werner von Braun). Huge bucks were poured into the education system to offset this (imaginary) deficit; besides, they figured--correctly-- it'll keep kids off the streets and out of the job market.
Then there were the upheavals of the '60s, when many public schools adopted virtual open admissions standards. The tab, in those days not very steep, would be picked up by generous Federal financial aid, rounded out with low interest, government guaranteed loans.
This lovely gravy train, despite 35 years of momentum, was abruptly derailed with the advent of the Reagan/Bush regime. State schools all over the country felt the crunch, but SIU had hedged its bets cleverly. Led by a visionary president, the school had created and promoted special outreach programs to both foreign (officially "International") students and to disabled people.
Both groups paid premium tuition, about four times the standard for residents of Illinois. They flooded special programs, and required all sorts of expert services and tutoring, for which they paid top dollar (incidentally providing employment -- usually subsidized by Federal money--for other students). They were also more vulnerable to gouging by the locals than ordinary students, so the private sector got its share of the goodies. Unlike state residents, who stayed away from school in bad times, these lucrative constituencies held stable and even increased. C-dale's well-developed programs in agriculture and technology, sneered at by the more academically inclined upstate schools, were quite attractive to students from Third World countries.
The initial outlay wasn't too bad. The entire campus had to be made handicapped accessible, but there were lots of federal dollars for stuff like that, and it's great PR. We had a mobile wheelchair repair unit that could get anywhere on campus in 15 minutes. Catering to foreign students was even easier. The registrar developed a muscular and experienced visa department that specialized in pushing through the passport paperwork. SIU was often the only, or at least the easiest, place for foreign students to study in the U.S.
When I went there, C-dale had the second largest number of"international" students of any campus in the country. They were mostly from the less developed countries, but particularly from Moslem Asia, e.g., Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Indonesia. There were also lots of students from Africa. For them the only other choice, most of the time, was China, where African students live fifteen to a room in hovels without plumbing-and end up with cheesy degrees in obsolete technology. Attending SIU was the chance of a lifetime for them, an interesting contrast to the average lackadaisical hat boys, who drifted on a haze of beer for four years at SIU for lack of anything better to do.
The various exile communities lived peaceably side by side, mostly ignoring each other entirely. We didn't come there to socialize, after all, but rather in pursuit of some higher cause: Truth, or a lucrative career, or training in how to transform the world, or a few years of subsidized leisure away from nagging parents, or all of the above. After four years my term expired and classwork, thesis, and major exams completed, I departed to do my yearlong, paid clinical internship at the University of California at Irvine in Orange County. This is another tale of toil and Exile by itself. If I ever actually bother to do my dissertation--which is what I should be doing instead of writing subversive trash like this--I will officially be Dr. K. Wabbit, Ph.D.
Was it worth it, that long, painful and costly exile? Most of my cohorts feel so now, as they climb their way up out of the ranks of the junior faculty at various minor mid-western state schools. Rapid advancement depends largely upon a willingness to accept further exile in the form of "good" positions at out-of-theway institutions. I myself turned down a position in the Counseling Center at Northern Illinois University at DeKalb, because by that time I'd been diagnosed with AIDS and felt myself to be exiled to San Francisco by virtue of medical necessity. I can't think of any place I'd rather be exiled to, and anyway, my diagnosis rapidly eroded my lingering urge to merge with the mainstream via a "good"job.
The premise of graduate work is that it's a good deal in the long run, albeit merciless exploitation in the beginning. I found it a tolerable deal in the short run, by virtue of my superior skills at shirking, coasting, and ad-libbing, but clearly most others did not. They endured exile plus unreasonable work loads because it was one of very few paths upward.
As to how Khan ended up, I don't know, not having much information on the New York fashion design scene. I'll bet he's much happier than he would be back home working for the government, and it was obvious that his prospects as a Designer were far brighter than any he'd had as a mechanical engineer. Once again the lure of decadent Western culture and the unrestrained freedom of the Capitalist Market triumphed over traditional values and a Planned Economy. For Khan, as for me now, what started as Exile ended as finding Home.
-- Kwazee Wabbit
Temp worker Stella shares her experiences of sabotage on-the-job.
Skill sharing is the way of the future. This is probably not what Kropotkin envisioned when he wrote Mutual Aid, but I'm going to go ahead and share with you some of what I've learned on the job. I work as a temp, a word processor, a secretary, part of what the communists call the "paper proletariat," doing what this anarcha-feminist prefers to call "paperslutting." My agency (read: pimp) arranges the trick, and I meet the client. I dress and act appropriately, and I do whatever they tell me for the time specified. (If they are overly cruel, my agency/pimp will ostensibly protect me. The one time I did report a client for cruelty I found the agency very sympathetic, but they haven't gotten me a single assignment since then.)
For as long as I work the job, I get approximately 40% of what the client pays me hourly. The state gets something like 20%, and the agency takes the rest. On the training video, they showed me a pie chart detailing what they do with my earnings. According to the chart, my earnings go to pay their "rent, office supplies, salaries, profits, and other costs." Funny the way they order their words to make profit sound like an unavoidable expense.
So here's some advice from the vast stores of my desperate creativity. If work is a prison of measured time, it is only logical to begin with time. What do you do with time at work (other than watch it)? WASTE IT! I'm sure you can figure out how to do this on your own, but here are some of my favorite ways.
Be 5 minutes late for work. Get lost on your way there the first day (even if you don't, they can't expect you to find your way around their zoo very easily, at any rate). Get coffee or tea or water. One trick is to get half-cups, on the ostensible basis that you like it very hot; that doubles your coffee-getting time. Ask for a small tour of the worksite, if you think your genuine interest in their operations could be plausible. Write down everything they tell you. Ask several people to recommend places for lunch. Be 5 minutes late getting back from lunch. Whenever possible, don't use your best judgment. Wait until someone's off the phone to ask them how they want their letter typed if you have a question. If you're typing it in the computer, sure you could always change it later, but my motto on the job for the hourly wage is, "Why waste work when you can waste time?"
The most famous way to waste time at work is an old radical union trick, from the military too. It's referred to as working by the book. Literally, the rule book. They write the damn things, but if work actually were done by all the regulations, nothing would get done. Working by the book means doing exactly what procedure dictates and more but never less, no short-cuts, no rushing, check everything twice, get approval at every step, cut no corners, and, whatever you do, don't use your intelligence to streamline their processes.
At work, people break rules for two reasons: to benefit the goals of the corporation (for example, evading EPA regulations) or to work against the goals of the corporation. Which side are you on, after all?!?
Go to the bathroom a lot. (One temping friend tells me he takes small naps on the toilet, waking up when someone opens the door. I'm impressed but not that adept.) While you're in the bathroom, try out new hairdos. Wash your face. Pull up your stockings (as the case may be). Masturbate. Plan your evening. Do graffiti if it's possible not to have it linked to you.
Leave work five minutes early.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Be creative. Your creativity in this respect is only rivaled by the creativity of those who devise the thousands of stupid regulations set up to keep you passive in their workplace. Lest you feel frustrated with this approach-it may seem petty-bear in mind (and they have told me so in so many words) that your time is their money.
Be careful, but always keep alert for opportunities. You'd be surprised at how many apartments can be furnished with the seldom-missed surplus of the corporate world. If you have particular skills, you may be able to do large-scale damage to office machines that will be interpreted as due to breakdown rather than sabotage.
Maybe I've read too much Foucault, but in any case, I think the most damage you can do in an office setting is organizational. The whole idea of bureaucracy (rule by desks or offices) is to centralize information, to have at the fingertips of those who make decisions all the available facts about those they control, affect, observe, monitor, select, disregard, ignore, and forget, and about those by whom they are affected and limited and on whom they depend.
Thus they rely on computers, on elaborate filing systems, on steep but extensive hierarchies, and on principles of secrecy and mystification. Organization and structure are the backbone of the internal aspect of the corporation which I think is most interesting to the infiltrator: Bureaucracy.
Misfiling even a few documents can do a lot of damage. On the IBM, you can name files inscrutably and fail to label the floppies, so when you're gone they can't really derive the name of the file from the subject of the document. On the Mac, files can be stored in inappropriate folders and can likewise be labeled unintelligibly. When you leave, don't explain what you've done with things unless you have to.
Address labels can be riddled with misspellings and typos (no one has to approve them before they go out). You can answer the phone in a confusing way. Just do it the way you learned how; pick it up and say hello. Almost without fail, the person calling will think they have a wrong number.
I think it's good to do these things even when they have only a marginal effect in countering and undermining the evil and power of these companies because it keeps you critical. This kind of dual consciousness at work prevents slippage toward the conservative careerism that is what is so insidious about office work.
Without a critical consciousness at work, it's too easy to mingle your ego gratification with their corporate goals. They have it set up that way. You do a good job for them, and they pat you on your soft little head. Sabotage is resistance. And resistance is sabotage because their work order depends on the association of your personal fulfillment with their processes. When you resist, you fuck that up.
So go ahead, fuck shit up. I did. I do. I am. And you're reading it. It's fun, but it's not just a game, not just heroically pitting your mind against the enemy.
Sometimes way up on the 57th floor of their corporate headquarters, you find a wide-open window, and if you stick your head out, you might just see the sky. And if it makes you feel deadened or sick or frustrated or lonely or crazy or helpless or angry or just sad, remember, it doesn't have to be like this at all.
— by Stella
VDT Law Fails
Processed World on the overturning of a San Francisco ordinance brought in to protect VDT workers.
A San Francisco judge recently overturned the controversial VDT ordinance after it had been in effect for only three weeks. According to Michael Rubin, attorney for Service Employees International Union (SEIU — which helped draft the law): "Judge Lucy McCabe said CAL-OSHA expressly pre-empted San Francisco's VDT ordinance, and that no other entity has the power to regulate the workplace. She relied on language of the CAL-OSHA Act for her decision." The ruling essentially bans occupational legislation at the municipal level.
Supporters of the ordinance intend to appeal quickly, but expect that it will be at least another year before the issue is resolved.
"I'm confident it will be back in effect, unless we're able to get state legislation first," said Rubin. "It's Part of a coordinated effort involving collective bar gaining and attempts to pass statewide legislation."
The lawsuit overturning the ordinance was secretly subsidized by IBM, and looks to have been a good investment for the giant computer company. IBM, along with several other companies, financed two tiny plaintiffs in their quest to outlaw the few concessionr granted VDT workers. Neither the plaintiffs nor IBM would name other corporate backers, but did confirm their existence.
An IBM spokesman said that the company's backing does not mean it is opposing SFs law. "What we're interested in is having federal standards instead oflocal ones," he said, revealing a typical strategy of multinationals. In another recent case, not directly related to this one but similar in that it relies on an argument that a higher jurisdiction takes precedence over local efforts to regulate public policy, an arbitration panel of GATT (the Ceneral Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) ruled that U.S. attempts to require dolphin-safe tuna fishing violated international free trade agreements. SF's VDT ordinance would have required, over the next four years, that employers in SF provide VDT workers with adjustable chairs, desks and computers in order to reduce the incidence of repetitive strain injuries, and the installation of non-glare lighting to avoid vision problems. However, measures to reduce potential health injuries from the electromagnetic fields emanating from computers were thrown out in the negotiating process.
In exchange for accepting such a negotiating process, which included representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the City and SEIU, the ordinance was supposed to be lawsuitproof.
"We always knew there was a possibility that a renegade employer group might challenge it, but we were disappointed and upset that litigation was conducted in such a secretive manner, said Rubin of SEIU. "I don't know why corporations are hiding behind the screen of two tiny companies set up as a front." While the amount IBM spends on lawyers' fees pales next to the company's $2.8 billion loss last year, siding with the forces of regression shows the company has little acumen for the current technology industry. VDT industry watchers, such as Louis Slesin, editor of the New York-based VDT News, say they find IBM's position baffling when IBM could easily be making its products more ergonomically safe for users and marketing its low electromagnetic emission VDTs-resulting in more sales.
Although this is the first major lawsuit over a protective ordinance, at least 19 lawsuits representing hundreds of millions of dollars have been filed against computer companies over repetitive strain injuries in the past few years, according to Slesin. Apparently, IBM and others fail to see the logic in supporting protective legislation so workers don't get hurt and sue the hell out of them in the future.
"One wonders why IBM is going against what must be the recommetldations of their own ergonomists," said Slesin.
Slesin and others supporting protective legislation make the economic argument that Processed World readers love to hate: a protected VDT worker is a productive VDT worker.
"Major employers know there's no doubt that they get an investment in ergonomic equipment back in productivity gains," Slesin said.
Employees, on the other hand, are mostly interested in avoiding debilitating and disabling injuries. Some VDT workers have taken the stormy and faltering path of the protective legislation as a sign of things to come. "First they say the city can't regulate it; then they'll say the state can't regulate it, and we'll have to wait for the Fed to regulate it-and look at their record on worker protection," said a disgruntled office worker. "Maybe we need some direct action. A substandard VDT, once disabled, can't be
This is Now
Ecotech, a three-day conference recently held in Monterey was intended as a coming out party for "corporate environmentalism." The organizers were somewhat disappointed, as only about 20% of the attendees—including Chevron, PG&E, Apple, Arthur D. Little and Esprit—were corporados, and blamed the low turnout on the "recession." Others weren't so sure. Jay Harris, the publisher of MotherJones, noted that General Dynamics was nowhere to be found.
In the other corner were a flock of the usual suspects-Amory Lovins, nerd and techno-pragmatist par excellence, Stewart Brand, post-political green extraordinaire, Fritjof'I am a philosopher" Capra, Denis "Earth Day" Hayes, Chellis "Technology is the problem" Glendinning and a variety of other green luminaries of local and national fame. The middle ground was held by a mdlange of environmental consultants and wannabes, politicians, green-fund managers, entrepreneurs, middlemanagers, journalists and multi-media artists. It was a strange brew. Knocking around in it, I learned that even though "most of these corporations are green the way an apple is green, on the outside where you can see it," in the silver words ofJoel Hirshhorn, author of ProsPerity Without Pollution, there was something going on here that could not be reduced to the public-relations bullshit recently named greenwashing.
Corporate environmentalism is-just maybe-a real social movement. It's small, and far less important than its adherents believe. The bulk of them are painfully naive, and they spend hours bemoaning their lack of access to the "guys at the top" and the "real decision makers." But for all that, there they are- sincere, pragmatic and more than a little worried. They believe, as a woman from PG&E put it at one of the late-night "break out" sessions, that "the corporations have the talent, the resources, the R&D and the ability to make a difference," and that if they can't be brought "on board" there's no hope of reversing the environmental crisis in time.
On day two a nice lady from Hallmark Cards (a corporate feminist, by the way) took the stage to assure us that even in Hallmark there were a few sincere and determined people working hard to make a difference.
Again and again, the message came down from the stage. Peter Schwartz, bigtime corporate consultant and author of The Art of the Long View, summed it up well when he said that "corporate environmentalism can be a successful partnership between private initiative and social good" and that greens who are fixated on "blocking" corporations and pushing their "kneejerk views" of environmental problems do more harm than good by "delegitimating environmental regulation over time." Corporate environmentalism, on the other hand, "provides multiple payoffs" because "efficient and high-quality products reduce cost and environmental impact" and environmental regulation forces companies to take the long view.
A few hours later I cornered Schwartz by the buffet and asked him why, if environmentalism and efficiency and profitability all go hand in hand, the world was going to hell? He smiled, chewed and pronounced — "incompetence. It scares the hell out of me."
It scares the hell out of me too, but then again, so does competence.
Same Old, Same Old
fiction by summer brenner
AT THE OLD JOB SISSY hadn't been paid much, but it was close to where she lived. If one of the kids was sick, she could put him on a pallet on the floor of her office. Or run out on Thursdays to take her daughter to gymnastics class. No one complained if Sissy took extra time getting in or left a little early. The job was convenient, and that in itself made it an unusual and desirable situation. When Sissy first came to her old job, her boss was vice-president in charge of production. Short and tidy with cropped hair, she wore rumpled tweed jackets and boy's trousers, and always made a point of telling Sissy how great her legs were-- something men never said. This woman had lived with a female companion for over ten years, and they had had one child by artificial insemination.
At the old job Sissy managed to survive the tidal waves of cut-backs and lay-offs, even though she was officially laid off twice. The first time she stayed in her office tidying up, thinking that what was happening to everyone else wasn't really happening to her. The delusion worked because by closing time, they had found another position to offer her. She went from technical editor to telemarketer, or as Sissy put it, TEL-MAR-KETEER, sung to the Mouseketeer theme.
However, the vice-president in charge of production went bye-bye in this first round of lay-offs. The date happened to coincide with her fortieth birthday, and on the spot she told Sissy that she had made the final decision to have a sex change. All the way with hormones and surgery. She said she had always been a man trapped in a woman's body. When Sissy saw her a year later, she had a rough complexion, a deep voice, plentiful growths of hair on her arms, and a new executive job. Also, she was in the middle of a nasty divorce since her girlfriend didn't want to live with a man. Sissy realized she hadn't really been a lesbian after all. The former vice-pres in charge of production told Sissy that the greatest thing about her new life was going into the men's room and not having anyone look at you funny. It was always hard for Sissy to remember to call her "him."
The marketing manager was Sissy's new boss, and he decided that she should take the Southeast territory, meaning the last and worst choice. As far as everyone else was concerned, the South was the garbage can of sales, but Sissy was from Georgia and with her accent she left the other telemarketers with New York and Los Angeles accents in the dust. In fact, in the first month Sissy sold $25,000 worth of software on a cold call to Chattanooga.
The second time Sissy was laid off, she stuck around again. By closing, it turned out that someone in publications had upped and quit in disgust so she automatically got his job.
No one in the company wanted to lay Sissy off because of her kids. She needed the money and the health plan. But Sissy discovered that in the business world no matter how much anyone said they liked and wanted you, or how many times they told you what a good job you were doing, when it came to cuts, the word was always that it was out of their hands. Being a corporation meant you could always pass along the blame, and at lay-off time, it was the board of directors' decision, whom nobody had ever met. Sissy learned in her first experience with lay-offs that corporate life fundamentally depended on secrecy at the top.
When Sissy asked her co-workers if that was really how they wanted their world run, they always shook their heads, no, no, no. But when you came right down to it, everyone was scared in the pants about losing theirjob. In other words, no matter what you thought about the world or how unselfishly you tried to live your life, you were alwavs relieved when the other guy got it and you did not. That was how the system worked.
Basically Sissy continued to survive because everyone at the company thought she was smart. That was how she had gotten along at school too. Although she never did the best work, teachers assumed she could and rewarded her with A's.
Sissy's cousin, Ada Lynn, insisted their cross in life wasn't only looks but brains, too. Ada Lynn said that beauty plus intelligence was too much of a package for most men. And that's why they had the problems they did.
But Ada Lynn was being kind. She was definitely the one with the looks and was the cheerleader, homecoming queen, Miss Georgia Chick, etc. Since the seventh grade, Sissy had watched while boys and men responded to Ada Lynn, observing that if you were beautiful, it only served as an asset up to a point. After that point it was definitely a liability. If you were ugly, the process worked in reverse--first rejection, and then a lifetime of trust.
Part of what Ada Lynn said was true. Back then Sissy had been very smart. Now she wasn't so sure. She asked Ada Lynn how come if she were such a genius, she found herself supporting a couple kids from fathers who did nothing to help her pay the bills? That probably required the intelligence quotient of a turtle. Stupider than a turtle, she corrected. At least, a turtle left her eggs to fend for themselves.
She also wondered how, with her good looks and beauty trophies, Ada Lynn had ended up a young widow with three kids and bottomless debts.
One day the president of Sissy's company (and there were five in the last eighteen months of its existence) announced to Sissy that he had saved her job at the last board meeting. He had told them what great work she was doing, how many kids she had, what good grades they made in school, and how smart she was. Blah blah blah. Although Sissy was grateful, she understood that now she owed him something and it was a smarmy feeling at best.
A few days later, the president asked Sissy if she could possibly find time to help him pick out a pair of new dress shoes. He explained that he never made the right decisions when it came to clothes, and since his wife had left him, he needed a W-O-M-A-N to come along.
It only took Sissy a moment to recall a piece of her genetic inheritance--stone coldness, straight from her grandmother Olivia--and very effectively Sissy icily explained that surely the president must understand that as a single mother, blah, blah, her responsibilities outside the job were overwhelming. In other words, she could never in a million years and not if he were the last man on the planet.
This president prided himself on the efforts he made to be open and clear to his employees, with the expectation that each of them should tell him everything. This was the result of management training courses in sensitivity at Harvard Business school. "My door is always open," "don't think you can't come to me with anything," blah, blah, blah. "If you're having problems" or "if you see someone else having problems, etc.
Honestly, he did try to be communicative, and it was true that his door was always open. But it mostly served to let everyone hear the arguments he had with his ex-wife's lawyer. As president, this man functioned under the illusion that the company was a tribe planting the same seeds, reaping the same harvest. The difference was that he was making an annual $100,000 to dig for roots, while Sissy was making a crummy twenty-two.
A week after he asked Sissy to help him find a new pair of shoes, he must have noticed that she had stopped speaking to him. One morning as she slithered past his gaping door, he called out, uSissy, could you come in here for a moment? I'd like to speak to you." After asking her to sit down and shutting the two exterior doors, he invited her to express her feelings. Unless you've been asked to go shopping by your boss, it would be impossible for you to know how disgusting a request this was.
"Has something I've said offended you?" He inquired. "Has it anything to do with suggesting you go with me on an innocent trip to the mall?"
Sissy told him she hated to shop for other people's shoes and then she got frank. She said that she resented his friendliness and his assumptions. She probably would have lost her job on the next go-round, but he got canned a week later. She felt bad when she heard he didn't even know about it until he arrived at the board meeting.
At this company it was the joke that you couldn't get hired unless you were handicapped or aberrant. Sissy's claim to being strange was her mysterious past. Anyone could look in her face and see that. One of her incisors was gold and she had a crescent moon tattooed on the inside of her left forearm. She had lived in Guatemala and almost died when her appendix burst on a bus in Afghanistan. She had walked across Borneo and followed the sacred elephant with the Buddha's tooth through the mountains of Sri Lanka on the second full moon in August. Sissy's face showed stories which she never told anyone. Who would believe them after seeing the kind of ordinary problems she had now?
The last aberration to come on board before the company went under was a man whose voice was so high that it was reasonable to assume he had had a terrible accident in the vicinity of his private parts. However, once the company really started to roll downhill, his voice lowered two octaves, and he officially took over as comptroller.
Towards the end, Sissy unofficially changed her job title to Czarina of Sales because her territory in two years had expanded from the pitiful Southeast to the Eastern division of the entire United States and Canada. From educational and textbook distribution to international markets. In other words, she had the whole world, and it was all her vast but crumbling empire.
Sissy's greatest friend at the old company was a world renowned chef who had fallen on hard times. He came to fill in as a receptionist and stayed on. Not only was he a master cook, but he knew everything about opera. He explained to Sissy the difference between a Mozart and Verdi soprano and told her that Callas' greatness was her mortality. "When she sings," he said, "you can hear her burning up.
After the company closed down, he stayed on to help sort files, discovering that every company transaction had been documented dozens of times. He said the nightmare of the entire century lay by the ton in the dumpster out back, and in these times the only reason people had jobs was to create files that no one looked at or needed.
Although it wasn't loyalty that made Sissy stay, after so many internal troubles, financial vicissitudes, and a vicious lawsuit, loyalty was how it appeared. Sissy had stayed as the company declined from its original robust sixty to its pathetic finale of seven employees. When it was over, the last president commended her and the others for their doggedness over a bottle of expensive champagne.
Now Sissy had a new job. The duties were the same as the old job, but the new company was in Lafayette where she didn't have her own office, where she had to commute, where there wasn't a pool to swim in at lunch.
At the new job Sissy noticed right away that the place was full of weirdos, and it was nearly an identical set to the old place. There was a transsexual, man to woman, in customer service. And the technician who set up Sissy's computer was a soft spoken guy like her antimacho friend Roberto at the old company. Besides gentle manners and the same first name they both wore baggy purple pants and two tiny gold hoop earrings in the same ear.
In the cubicle next to Sissy's was another familiar face, a robust Irishman with a Dolby stereo voice. He brought in donuts, organized frisbee tag at Friday lunch, and obsessed about Women. He was a version of her fellow cheerleader and rival in the old telemarketing department.
On her second day at the new job, the Irishman cornered Sissy by the xerox machine and asked what kind of music she liked, where she went on weekends, if she liked to go out dancing, etc. A series of enthusiastic questions from him was followed by a round of listless responses from Sissy. Finally, after a few weeks he asked her what she thought a man should do who had a crush on a girl who never noticed. "Nothing," Sissy said. Absolutely nothing at all."
The two women who ran the art department at the new company were exactly like the two who had run it at the old. Thin, cheerful gals nearing forty, with neatly combed pony-tails, oversized glasses, and lipstick that never cracked. They wore outfits, meaning they shopped in department stores, and never cut or dyed their hair themselves.
The young man who supervised shipping at the new company was a version of the one who had run it at the old. Both were skinny shag blonds whose calf muscles bulged like rolled socks. They typically wore cut-offjeans, cropped Van Halen T-shirts, and drove four-wheel-drive trucks plastered with myiar decals.
At the new job there were two clerical gals who Sissy could have been friends with, but it would have taken five years. They were good looking black women whose large plastic earrings always matched their blouses. They did their job fine but they made relentless fun of the place. Something Sissy totally approved of. After all, they weren't being paid not to.
On the other hand, Sissy's new boss was being paid plenty to take everything very seriously, and he had the car to prove it. Sissy, however, liked him a lot. He was handsome, tall, foreign with an elegant wardrobe. Most of all, he was smart. He ran the company like the province that his family owned in the third world country of his origin. Nothing went out without his approval.
At the old job, coincidentally, the company's founder had also been tall, foreign, suave, and wore custom-made clothes from Hong Kong. And at both companies this sign hung by the coffee machine:
Nine World Religions In A Nutshell
Taoism: Shit happens.
Confucianism: Confucius say, "Shit happens.
Buddhism: If shit happens, it isn't really shit.
Zen: What is the sound of shit happening?
Hinduism: This shit happened before.
Islam: If shit happens, it is the will of Allah.
Protestantismt: Let shit happen to someone else.
Catholicism: If shit happened, you deserved it.
Judaism: Why does shit always happen to us?
They were all pretty good but Sissy liked the Protestant one best. It fit in with the feeling everyone had at lay-off time.
It didn't take long before the similarities between the old company and the new company had Sissy spooked. Multiplying coincidence times probability, she came up with a few slight variations and a bunch of uncanny resemblances. Something greater than weird.
Sissy tried to reason, tried tojoke, but the more she pushed the similarities out of her mind the more the new job appeared like a phantom clone of the old. Soon it wasn't funny. Maybe she had died one night on the freeway coming home from work and was instantly reincarnated as an office worker. That's why things were a little off. A classic case of bad karma.
Sissy had watched enough episodes of the Twilipht Zone with her kids, especially the 24-hour marathon when they all curled up in front of the television and ate popcorn for dinner, to know that people did get lost in time or space and did end up in places that seemed like somewhere else.
Sissy, in fact, went through the list of psychological maladies, family curses, and various religious beliefs, to try to figure out explanations for her circumstance. All around her, Sissy saw variations of the same people she had already met and worked with in another town at another place.
She called her cousin Ada Lynn to ask if she had ever considered her to be crazy.
"You know, like a nut," Sissy asked. "Like the kind of person that grows on trees in our family.
Ada Lynn told Sissy that the only time she ever thought she might be a little off was when she took up with the sax player who didn't have a real house and camped out in the woods. Ada Lynn said she thought that with all the troubles Sissy had keeping the kids together, she might have hooked up with someone a little more substantial. But it hadn't lasted long, and Ada Lynn assured her that except for that one little incident of romantic misguidance, she considered Sissy the sanest person she knew.
Sissy said that even though she might not be crazy, maybe she was having a nervous breakdown. Maybe the strings that had held her together while she made the money to go to the store to buy the things the kids needed were starting to wear out. Maybe she was losing it. Ada Lynn told her if she were having a nervous breakdown, she probably wouldn't know it. Her kids would know it, her boss would know it, but she wouldn't be calling up with an inquiry. That just didn't make sense.
Okay, so Sissy wasn't crazy, wasn't cracking up, then why did everything that was different look the same? Ada Lynn said she had had times when the world looked the same way to her, too. Ever since she was a teenager, Ada Lynn had always had more than one boyfriend. Even when she was married, she had someone on the side. Ada Lynn swore that from time to time something would happen where she couldn't tell the men in her life apart.
"Talk about horrible," she said. "I would go into a panic. I could not tell which was which, who was who and got so scared that I was going to get their names mixed up, I stopped seeing all of them. I moved out of the master bedroom and in with one of the kids for a week. Don't you think I thought I had some kind of disease?" Ada Lynn asked. "Sure as hell I did. Don't you think I drove myself to the neurologist in Atlanta as fast as I could. They took tests and gave me tranquilizers, but they always told me there was absolutely nothing wrong with my brain, Sissy, and that is what I am telling you.
"Then what is wrong?" Sissy cried.
Ada Lynn suggested that maybe there was another explanation. Maybe Sissy had already seen too much in her lifetime, traveling to Borneo and Sikkim like she had, having all those different colored lovers, living in a tepee in New Mexico, eating peyote and psychedelic mushrooms, etc. Ada Lynn said all that had soaked up Sissy's capacity, "saturates, was the word she used, to see the differences in things like office work. At that level it probably did look alike. Ada Lynn said maybe everything was starting to blend.
"But don't you think blending sufficient cause for alarm?" Sissy asked.
Sure, she did. "That's why you have got to quit your job," Ada Lynn told her.
Sissy knew that was the truth, but she didn't know how she could. She'd been working in an office and taking care of kids and doing laundry and washing dishes and paying bills for a long, long time. Bad habits are always harder to break than good ones.
"Quit," Ada Lynn said. "And do what you want for a while. See what happens. Things will work out.
Do what you want. Do what you want. Do what you want. For a week those words rolled around in Sissy's head like a sackful of marbles.
Then Sissy called Ada Lynn and told her that she had decided she didn't care if the kids ate popcorn for dinner. "It won't kill them. In fact, it's good for them. Good to see that motherhood isn't a crucifixion." Sissy said that she was turning in her resignation the next day.
In the morning Sissy shouted into the hall of the two-bedroom apartment. When the kids arrived at the dinette table, Sissy was standing at the stove flipping Swedish pancakes, a dish usually reserved for Sunday.
"Mama, how come you're making pancakes on Tuesday?"
"Mama, how come you're not dressed?"
"Mama, aren't you going to work today?"
"Mama, will you take me shopping?" "Mama, are you sick?"
"Mama, why aren't you going to work today?"
Why, why, why? The word bounced off the walls of the apartment a hundred times, as expressions of alarm passed along her children's faces.
"Because I want to do what I want to do for a while," Sissy said, low, slow and trembling.
That sounded good enough to the kids, for after all, they tried to do what they wanted to whenever they could get away with it. But as the sentence tumbled out of Sissy's mouth, it was terrible. Childish, unmotherly, irresponsible. Yet she made herself repeat it, until the words got louder and more cheerful and she was singing, "I Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More" like a crazy woman. Singing and flipping Swedish pancakes.
After the kids left for school, Sissy called her best friend and sang to her. Called her ex-husband and sang to him. Her cousin Ada Lynn and sang to her. Then she went to her boss, stopped into the unemployment agency. And all the time she was singing. And you could hear mortality in her voice. You could hear Sissy burning up. She sang she didn't want to work on Maggie's farm no more. Sang she wasn't going to work on Maggie's farm no more. Said she had had enough of working on Maggie's farm. And thanks to Bob Dylan, everybody knew what she meant.
Marriage of Inconvenience
tale of exile by marinus horn, as told to louis michaelson
In the anxious gasoline-rationed summer of 1974, 1 was awarded my Master's degree from a California State University. I awoke from thesis-and-orals trance to realize that my student visa was about to expire. I had come to the U.S. five years earlier as an under graduate and had moved straight from my B.A. at the University of California into grad school. Now I was going to have to go "home" -that is, back to the country of my birth, which I had been trying so hard to forget about. Like most Northern European nations, mine was in those days a pretty comafordable place, with a cradle-tograve welfare state, a low rate of violent crime, and the prospect of subsidized further education if I wanted it. It was also repressed. conformist, rainy in summer and icy in winter, and very dull. I decided to stay on in California-forget the rest of the country-by hookorbycrook.
Hook was out: I had not been trained as an aerospace engineer or a portfolio management specialist, so no company was going to write an affidavit claiming the irreplaceable uniqueness of my potential contribution to the American GNP. In fact. I had virtually no saleable skills other than fluent English, a knowledge of my chosen field of scholarship sufficient to get me a low-paid job in a junior technical college, and a certain talent for oral sex. I decided to try Crook: that is, find someone to marry.
Alison, my girlfriend of four years, was off the list. She was plausible enough, with an Ivy League B.A. and WASP credentials, but she was allergic to marriage after a messy divorce a few years back. Also, what if they found out she was a part-time dominatrix, or checked her criminal record and discovered the speeding tickets, the two prostitution busts, and the arrests for demonstrating in support of the Black Panthers! Then there was my ex-lover Naomi. She too was a somewhat shell-shocked veteran of the late 'sixties counterculture --a surrealist poet, on-and-off spiritual seeker, and anarchafeminist- but had managed to stay out of the official spotlight. Better yet, she was currently my housemate, living on welfare with a dazed alcoholic screenwriter in a big old North Oakland Victorian. We would even legitimately have the same address; and if Immigration gave us one of those notorious third-degree interviews about our personal habits, she would know just what I ate for breakfast and which side of the bed I slept on.
I'm not sure what combination of substances Naomi had ingested that day--she had a formidable appetite for all sorts of psychotropic agents-- but rather to my surprise she agreed to become my official spouse. What a pal. I thought. Sure enough, a week or two and a blood test later Naomi came with me in a thrift-shop dress and her one pair of nylons to the Alameda County Courthouse. We got hitched by a grey little Republican judge whose indifference to us was so complete that his face has smudged in my memory like a greasy thumbprint. Then we went home and drank tequila.
Next we had to go to the dismal chamber at the Immigration and Naturalization Service offices on Sansome Street where aspirants to the Promised Land filed Petitions for Permanent Resident Status. In those days one had to stand for four or five hours in a serpentine line defined by blue vinyl ropes. with no place to sit down, in order to reach a bored clerk who took the fee and stamped the papers. The long counter was adorned with eaglesealed official threats about falsifying information and with one of those posters showing a kitten dangling by its front claws from a bar and captioned "Hang in there. baby."
Alas. Naomi felt unable to heed this patronizing advice any further. Ten months later, one week before the interview at the INS, she got a Real Job with a Financial District company. Unmoved by all my pleading, she refused to come with me to Migra Central because the absence would look bad to her boss. Needless to say, despite my short haircut and new tweed jacket, my solo appearance before the crisp, Mormonoid young INS official lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Further detracting from my attractiveness as a Good Alien was a fat, dog-eared dossier on the agent's desk, whose title I read upsidedown with a ghastly feeling of sudden free fall. It was a copy of my FBI file, packed with fun facts from my days as a campus radical during the Let's-Crater-Cambodia Era, not to mention my more recent media-guerrilla hijinx. The Mormonoid smirked a bit as he said he would have to take my case under consideration.
Another long wait--about twenty-two months, actually. By this time I had moved in with Alison, while Naomi and her writer boyfriend Kevin were living downstairs from us in another apartment. During the interim I had gone to great lengths to make it appear that I was living with Naomi in their flat, in preparation for the inevitable visit from the INS investigator. I left my books in her shelves, my clothes (improbably labeled with my name) in the chest of drawers, and actually sat with ever-increasing awkwardness in a corner of her living room every evening from 5:30 to 7:00. prime time for La Migra. Kevin dis coursed amiably enough between chugs of Bud about the bit players in the Six-o'clock Movie, but Naomi stepped around me as if I were a cat-turd she hadn't yet had the stomach to scrape off the floor. Finally neither of us could stand it any more. So when the INS foreigner-finder showed up, I wasn't there. Naomi told him I was just upstairs visiting the neighbors-which in a sense was true. (What he made of Kevin, who had hair to his waist and smelled like the bottom of a keg-tub after a frat party, I'II never know.) He didn't stick around to find out if she was telling the truth, but left his card and said he'd be back. After I climbed down off the ceiling with the aid of half a pint of schnapps. visions of deportation jangling in my brain (ohdeargodthey'llmarchmeouttotheplaneinlegironsl"llnevergetbackherenever) l decided it was time to get an expensive lawyer.
I say expensive because I had already tried cheap Leftist lawyers and found them unsatisfactory. The first, a referral from the Lawyer's Guild, was a weedy, earnestly liberal fellow with a preppy manner that was about two sizes too large for him. He made sympathetic noises and advised me to fly home and start over. The next two I visited worked for Legal Assistance offices in Latino neighborhoods. They were brusque, cold, and utterly unhelpful. After all, they intimated, I was a gringo --an Aryan in fact--and middleclass, so my problems were trivial. But my new attorney was the goods, an immigration specialist for over thirty years. A large. rotund, owl-faced man in his early seventies with cigar ash down his vest, he pressed the tips of his fingers together and remarked in an undiluted Bronx accent that this was indeed "a matta of some deli-cussy." Calmly, he advised me to divorce Naomi and marry Alison. Then, he said, we could "draw a veil" over the previous marriage.
Luckily I had gotten a straight and quite lucrative job while waiting for the Sword of the State to drop, while Naomi was unemployed once more. I was able to ship her off to friends in Reno, where she established residency after two weeks and was able to run our marriage through the Nevada Divorce-o-Mat. Over the phone she complained bitterly of how bored she was with no Kevin, no drugs, and not even enough pocket money to go gambling, but she did it.
That was the easy part. Getting Alison to marry me was quite another matter. Her marriage allergy was intensified by the fact that our relationship was, as you Americans say, circling the drain. We had long since parted ways ideologically, she having turned into a New Age Joy-Junkie while I stuck to my anarcho-marxist guns. More important, she had been seeing another man, a charming if somewhat dissipated actor, two nights a week for about a year. From this fellow she had acquired herpes, the gift that keeps on giving. Of course, she vehemently asserted when we both got those nasty little blisters that I had given it to her. This was because, some three months earlier. I had finally, in exhausted retaliation, fallen in love with a wonderful Rebel Girl named Morgan --smart, sweet, and honorable. And (suitably rubbered) I was passionately entwined with Morgan whenever I got the chance, alternating lovemaking with pillow talk about Hegel and the Labor Theory of Value. But despite Morgan's unhesitating offer to marry me, and precisely because I adored her, I couldn't take her up on it. The whole thing was too new, and she was only twenty-one to my twenty-eight. Not only that, but I had almost finished paying for Alison's graduate training as -- what else --a Marriage, Family and Child Counselor, which made me imminently dispensable to her. To call our relationship "troubled" would be like describing Mike Tyson as "touchy."
Never one to let logic or equity stand in her way, moreover, Allson had become frantically jealous of Morgan. For some reason this green-eyed fury intensified when I, ironically equipped with a dozen red roses, popped the question. Finally, after cursing me almost continuously for three days, Allson sullenly agreed to tie the knot. We were married on her lunch hour.
The next day I had my lawyer file the petitions with the INS. He swept through Sansome's Inferno in a genial cigar-scented breeze, brushing aside bureaucrats like dry leaves: you could almost see them diving under the desks when he appeared.
Alison and I passed the ten months or so between petition and interview in alternate crockery smashing Armageddon and fake cheery mutual tolerance, humping our respective extramarital honeys on the agreed nights (though Allson, losing what shreds of cool she had left, took to calling me at Morgan's place at two in the morning and whining about being lonely). Still, we found out once again what had always held our seven-year struggle together: lust. Under these bizarre conditions we had sex that, while not involving sheep, rubber masks, baguettes. or Boy Scout uniforms, was emoiiona//y kinky and lurid in quite indescribable ways. This may be why on the day of the interview Alison put on her protoyuppiest outfit (over black lace Frederick's of Hollywood underwear; she couldn't do it completely straight), I slipped on my new Italian suit and red silk tie, and we sailed into the drab little office hand in hand in true ruling-class style.
I noticed right away that my file on the desk was slim as a televangelist's alibi and brand new. The examiner caught my glance and announced sheepishly that my original file had been "misplaced." (I've always like to think that Old Deli-Cussy had called in a favor and had had the file shredded accidently-on-purpose). Under these conditions, with both of us so clearly articulate, well--scrubbed, and gainfully employed members of the Master Race, the interview was scarcely more than a formality. The examiner shook my hand and welcomed me to the United States.
Not too long after that I came home unexpectedly early one afternoon to find Alison being buggered in our bed by one of the actor's buddies. This solidified my resolve to extricate myself as soon as possible and give myself over to Morgan and True Love. But I didn't dare pack my toothbrush, Goethe's Selected Works, and leather jockstrap until I got my Green Card. For all I knew they had found my old dossier again and determined to come get me at the earliest opportunity. I had to stay put with my lawfully wedded wife. Understandably, Morgan got tired of waiting and went off to Labor History grad school in Boston. Even more ominous, before she left she had met a handsome and charismatic young revolutionary closer to her age than mine and had taken quite a shine to him--while he had, with the painful obviousness of youth, fallen as hard for her as I did. We detested each other: if looks could kill, we would both have been shrinkwrapped in styrofoam trays.
At last the little plastic-coated, computer-coded card arrived in the mail. Terminally exasperated with Alison and frantic that I would lose Morgan, I moved out within a month. At this point, naturally, Alison decided that I was her One True Love. With my Smith 8 Wesson .38 she staged tearful suicide vigils which I was summoned to interrupt at all hours of the day and night. Then she threatened to turn me in to the INS and demanded hush money. In between these outbursts she radiated pheromones of such potency that (against what I laughingly call my betterjudgement) I more than once succumbed to her undoubted if neurotic charms. But I didn't move back in: and one morning I came over to find her voluptuously damp and disheveled and the editor of a local up-market glossy scurrying around in the Pendleton bathrobe she had shoplifted for me last birthday. My services, it seemed, were no longer required.
Then the roof fell in. Back in Boston, Morgan had yielded to her ardent young admirer, who had moved out there to be with her. I tried even/thing I could to detach her from him--impassioned declarations by phone, sheafs of love poems, broken pleading -- but after much agonizing back-and-forth she decided to stay with him. I was heartbroken. But I had my little green Ticket to Opportunity. I was a Legal Permanent Resident of the United States, at liberty, equipped with a Master's degree, a suit, and a functioning set of glands and erogenous zones. Now let me tell you about my next two marriages. . .
tale of toil: selling blood, by faye manning
I AWOKE JUST AFTER sunrise in order to Present myself to J-Mar Biologicals the minute their doors opened at 7:30. By 8:45 I walkedout with $10.00 in my wallet and a hole in my arm inside my elbow. Having done my duty to my family, I stopped to have $3.00 of gas put in the car. I stared at the ten-dollar bill in my hand, as if my gaze could somehow penetrate its mysteries. The bill was soft, velvety and limp. I wanted to fathom its depths and capture some elusive meaning from its inscrutable surface, since I had so blatantly exchanged something of myself for it;so soon to be handed over and lesser change to replace its meager measure.
So here we are. Within the first day, Lindsay dubbed this town "Spring-aleak-field, Oregon" and I am not only inclined to agree, I have championed the name. Springfield is the poor, shirt-tail relation to its hip and educated older cousin, Eugene, just minutes away across the (what rhymes with dammit? Willamette!) river. Eugene is a college town full of lushly shaded streetslined with sleepy little woodframe houses. Springfield is an industrial bedroom, full of unemployed loggers on welfare; the dumping ground for those who couldn't cut higher education.
Your eyes and nose cannot help but notice the Weyerhauser factory as you pass directly by it on the road to our rented duplex. (Try to imagine what it would smell like if pine trees could fart.) Not to worry, this olfactory nuisance is only bothersome when the wind is blowing south, which so far seems to be a very equitable 25 percent of the time, or less. Sadly, I have to admit that I've become accustomed to it, to the point that I simply "notice" the smell, and then tune it out.
In spite of having been here for over a month, I seem to have a last, inner resistance to settling in this exact place. In spite of the 22-foot truck and its two-ton overweight load of our Accumulated Things being emptied completely at our doorstep (make no mistake: we and Our Stuff aren't going any place else anytime soon), I've been plagued by a feeling--a nagging, irrational, unnamed, quasi-anxiety-that our life here is somehow "temporary." In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, I have held out inside my innermost heart that this duplex (with its avocado appliances, matted carpet, pitted linoleum, bathroom door hung backwards, huge though harmless twoand a half spiders... I could go on), that this job of Lindsay's (my intelligent, witty, talented husband pumping gas), that this financial wreckis really our life. We are still living suitcase-style three months after abandoning our tenuous toe-hold on normality in Los Angeles.
"WE DON'T WANT YOU BACK. They didn't say this, exactly, but that's what they meant, and I don't stick around where I'm not wanted. They'd have one helluva lawsuit on their hands were it not for one very fatal mistakeI made just before leaving to give birth. Thus am I repaid for all my dedication, (forexample, staying on the phone long distance for two hours while enduring first stage labor up to just before transition) .
"THEY DID ME A FAVOR." I didn't honestly have the guts to leave a colicky 8-week old infant with Lindsay and try to keep up my supply of breast milk while working ten-hour days and attempting to do the work of two or three people and failing dismally. Still, when I turned on PBS that evening to watch "The Computer, the KGB, and Me" and saw all those ten-inch magnetic tape reels and printers and CRTs, I felt a hole in my soul; a cavernous maw opening wider and wider; an expanding, terrifying emptiness. I turned the TV and VCR off, unable to continue watching.
Today, after living in this duplex for six weeks, I promised Lindsay that while he is gone doing laundry and donating plasma on his day off that I would put all the clothes away, so that when he returns home with the piles of clean clothes we can put those away too. I promised, but it feels empty, like I'm trying to force myself into admitting something I haven't conceptually grasped, even now.
At first, I found I was reluctant to admit that Lindsay and I are donating plasma to put food on the table. This is something wines do to buy their next bottle, not middle-class Mormon princesses who grew up with a washerand dryer in the basement and shoes from J.C. Penney. Still, my mother didn't sound surprised or shocked at all when I mentioned this to her, although this could have been studied nonchalance on her part.
I expect I would feel insufferably noble about my bi-weekly donations, werethey not dictated by sheer financial necessity. My first year in collegeI participated in a Red Cross blood drive. The nurse had to wiggle thisHUGE needle around in my arm for a couple YEARS before my blood would flow. NO FUN. In spire of many opportunities over the years, particularly at science fiction conventions, I have never offered myself up for that sort of experience again. (Can anyone blame me?) Until now, that is. When I was pregnant withmy firstborn, the obstetrician's nurse could not get any sort of blood sample,let alone the three and a half vials they wanted. She stuck me at leastfive times with NO RESULTS before she gave up and called in the doctor,who stuck the side of my wrist, over my thumb. It was so sore that no onecould take even the slightest hold of that wrist for three weeks. (I havenever felt so completely manhandled and mistreated by the medical establishmentas I felt from that office visit. There's just nothing to equal the experienceof meeting for the first time the person in whose hands you will place yourlife and life of our baby after freezing your butt off for twenty minutescompletely naked under nothing but a crummy sheet.)
Since that time my experience has given me cause to believe those technicianswere simply somewhat inept and doubtless inexperienced. Lab technicianswho stick people all day long for a living generally know what they're doing.
Notwithstanding, on my first visit to J-Mar the guy next to me had a verybad experience (complete with several exclamations of pain and blood onthe armrest) and the technician had to call over the (obvious) expert oftheir group. She had gone too far and had punctured his muscle tissue. Ikept my eyes on her the first time she stuck me, but it was prest-bingoand she said "Good Flow." So far I've had no repeat of my collegefreshman experience. Luckily, on my first visit I had the "expert,"and the man next to me went through this trauma after I was already hookedand going (not that even what I saw and heard would have deterred me thatfirst time). Just yesterday Lindsay had a painful experience similar tomy unfortunate first-time neighbor. He really earned that bonus, as I supposeI will take my lumps too, at some point.
Let no one mistake: there is not the slightest thing generous about this.It is a purely selfish act and my conscience is assuaged only by the knowledge that J-Mar is obviously making money off my body's ability to reproduce plasma, and the plasma I "donate" is clean and untainted by HIV or other infections. I'm sure they lose a lot of money from first-time donorswho are dishonest and subsequently rejected, not to mention those donors who are initially false negative and who are--eventually (we hope!)-caught through random testing. So at the very least I do get to be unabashedly honest as I respond to the same old questions every time, again and again.And it's not such a god-awful way to spend an hour or so. The techniciansare very friendly and I get to read without interruption.
I must confess the first several visits I found the sight of multiple reclining bodies hooked up to machines somewhat comical, reminding me of the movie A Boy and His Dog ("What God has joined let no man put asunder"). But just like the acrid stench from the local paper factory, I've become accustomed to the sight and now I don't find anything particularly odd, ironical, or otherwise notable about it, though I keep looking for the hidden meaning, as if it has only temporarily gone undercover and will re-emergeif I just stare long enough without blinking.
So here we are. We are surviving (just barely) and my self-esteem is slowly on the mend. I still have mixed feelings about being a plasma donor. There'sa sense of helplessness that flows out from my soul like water when I lookat a Pile of laundry in the corner. At $1.50 a load, it piles up fasterthan J-Mar can pay for it. Spend an hour or so hooked up to a machine, put a few dollars of gas in the car, buy a couple cans of tuna, a couple gallons of milk, do a load of diapers, a load of jeans, and then you're broke again. Lindsay got paid, and I have a wish list that includes baby powder, light-bulbs,and shoelaces....
NEVERTHELESS: in spite of everything...or maybe because of everything...ohwhat the hell. I think I will put those clothes away into drawers today, after all.
It started off badly. A painful stick and not a very good flow. Blood clots in the tubes. High pressure on the return cycle. Bruising of surrounding tissues. Burning sensation at the lightest touch. Bleeding under the skin:Hematoma. Give up on that one. Switch to other arm. More comfortable but needle clotted in short order. Try again a half-inch lower down on the vein. More bruising. Poor flow. Hematoma. If the red blood cells are not returned, donation is halted for eight weeks. I submit to one last stick, to get thered blood cells back. Manager uses smaller size vein on first arm. We mutually agree to a slow return due to the size of the vein. It works, with no damageto vein or surrounding tissues. Units donated equals 500 of 850.
I get paid, but I can't donate again until the bruise is three inches fromthe venal puncture site." Both my arms are screwed up. Lindsay still has one good arm. Tough times are ahead unless the computer support position from A-i Employment Service comes through.
I can't wait to get home and put ice on my wounds and generally fall apart. Both arms are VERY SORE. I am shaken by the experience. I feel small, vulnerable,fragile, and injured; betrayed by my own body. My confidence is quivering in the corner. I have curled up inside myself, and I long to curl up onmy bed and close my eyes and sleep.
-- Faye Manning
A tale of toil from a weary legislator's letter writer, by Mark Henkes.
Pigs grunt when they get excited, plunge their curious snouts into mounds of muddy slop, and run with the grace of an obese ex-athlete. I am not a pig. I wish I had the power to appear before a nationwide television audience and tell the nation, the world: I am not a pig. It is true that some of my co-workers whisper that I am a pig, yet I do not grunt. It is also true that I thrust my snout into mounds of slop, but it is never muddy slop. I work for the “people,” and, in a sense, the people work for me. I make $60,000 a year, and the people pay every dollar, dime and nickel of it. Note that I said I make $60,000 a year; I did not say I earn that much.
The taxpayers who give me a paycheck think politicians write their own letters. They think the legislators they elect actually have the ability to use sesquipedalian words, conduct their own research, investigate a problem. Legislators are incapable of all of these things. I am the letter writer.
I obtain the information. I make the phone calls. I am the mask legislators wear so they can get re-elected. It is my task to retain the almighty incumbents, so I must make them appear personable but at the same time unreachable. If a constituent wants an answer to a question and the answer to that question is simply “no,” I could easily write them a clearly-stated three-sentence response and give them an honest answer. But this is not the essence of politics.
The politician must not only appear informed and at least somewhat educated, but also possibly omniscient, even omnipotent, so I compose two full pages of meaningless history, phrases of sympathy or empathy, hope-filled scenarios and godly ideals employing occasional adjectives, powerful verbs, and a variegated array of other writing tricks until finally—finally—I gently inform them that the answer to their question is “no.” If the answer to their inquiry is “yes,” only one full page of the prescribed fluff is required. Many times I wonder if politicians read my letters before they sign them.
If a woman who failed her LVN exam complains to us that she was fired from her nursing position because she failed the test, I write to her that I feel the pain she feels, I understand her anguish and her frustration and even a little anger, and I wish she could continue her nursing career. In reality, she will have to re-take the exam when it is offered six months from now. In the meantime, she is unemployed.
Of course, the legislator who signs this letter is officially the one who feels the pain, who knows the anguish and even a little anger so that this sorry woman might be soothed enough to vote for him in November. Personally, I don't give a damn about her pain.
One day I received a well-written letter from a prisoner who was an unfortunate bystander during a prison riot and suffered a fractured vertebra, a fractured nose and a concussion. I endured a fractured vertebra when I was young and it annoyed me when I felt his pain. I thought I had grown immune to the pain. I cannot comprehend how this prisoner had the strength to stand upright in a food line with these injuries, waiting minute after minute for his meal, while others jostled him from side to side. There was nothing I could do for the guy except urge him to visit the prison doctor. Pitiful aching bonepile.
I place on our legislators the most erudite mask our office can offer. I don't need the skills of Locke, Rousseau, Aristotle, Plato or Montesquieu except when I quote them in one of my letters. All I need to support some patriotic political premise is a poignant quotation from Patton, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Churchill or one of the Roosevelts. People respect words they don't quite understand and quotations from famous individuals whose faces appear in their minds when they read the words.
“You calm people down, make them feel certain you will be able to help them,” a young employee said to me. “I wish I could write like that.”
"You will learn,” I replied. “As the years go by you will learn that in almost all cases the best thing to say in your letter is absolutely nothing. You can hint that anything is possible; you can tell them that the most respected constituents are those who are mature enough to be patient; you can assure them that their opinions will be taken into account when committee meetings begin; you can graciously thank them for offering their opinion, because without it proper representation would not be possible and democracy would not flourish; you can assert that their views are quite interesting, and such an intriguing, fresh approach that they may be related to the chairman of a certain committee who may even discuss the matter with the Majority Leader, the Speaker of the House or the President of the Senate. You can say all of these things, but you must say nothing."
What this new employee doesn't know is that I don't actually write letters anymore. Today I merely re-use the letters I wrote 10 to 20 years ago. I can write to constituents that their ideas are unique and fresh, but the truth is that their opinions are old and tedious. So I keep in my files thousands of letters I have written and merely place the appropriate floppy disc in my personal computer and produce a letter on my laser printer.
I have two major files, one for those who call themselves right-to-lifers and another for those who call themselves freedom-of-choicers. I consider all of these activists fabulously boring. They seem to thrive on tedium, so within each of these files I have developed subfiles. If a freedom-of-hoicer wants to discuss the importance of certain court decisions and each of the trimesters, I pull out an appropriate trimester letter and print it in an instant. If I am bothered by a choicer who wants to dionysiacally discuss the humiliating methods men have used to manipulate women from the time of Cicero to Ivanhoe and Ludwig van to Peter Pan, I retrieve the appropriate women-who-have-been-ruled-by-men screed. If a woman wants to discuss her personal life with me and generally feels sorry for herself, I pull from my file the suitable feeling-sorry-for-herself response.
I wrote one letter which I send to energize outraged right-to-lifers—I describe the crushed baby skulls of mainland China. If one of these easily-excited lifers wants to discuss Biblical passages, I retain various missives which quote this entertaining book—Old or New Testament—you want it, you got it. I have letters already prepared for socialists, gays, members of the KKK, members of gun clubs, neo-Nazis, constituents who suffer from triskaidekaphobia, any flotsam that wants to jaundice itself with some over-discussed topic.
“I don't think you give yourself enough credit,” this new employee said to me. “Those letters you showed me on the abortion issue, how can you tell me you said nothing?”
“I said absolutely nothing.”
“But you described the history of the problem in great detail."
“That I did.”
“And you sympathized with them, gave them all kinds of examples.”
“I did that.”
“And you informed them how the legislature is involved in this issue.”
“But I said nothing because I committed myself to nothing. I remained mute. My neutrality did not waver. I never attempt to guess how the legislature or even one legislator will treat an issue; I only tell them how the legislator COULD or MIGHT treat an issue because nobody can predict how the legislature will vote. In this way I cannot be accused of lying to or misleading a constituent. A legislator can be convinced he will vote against legislation on one day, but that vote can be changed with a hastily scribbled memo from the Governor, a phone call from the Speaker of the House, a snap of the finger of the Majority Leader, a look of disgust on the face of a committee chairman who needs one more vote in his favor. I am not in a position to explain the complexities of the legislative process to constituents because they would not understand, they would lose their enthusiasm, and they could possibly lose their respect for all of us. Consequently, I describe the situation in the simplest terms so that there remains a vibrant connection between my explanation and their needs. If there has been legislation introduced that would address their complaint, I imply that by the stroke of someone's magic signature their problem could be solved in a very, very short time—even by the following day—if I am clever enough to sufficiently excite them. I exclude the possibility of their problem never being solved; to achieve this, I do not mention this particular possibility.”
“And this is why you are the best letter writer in our office. You understand how the legislature works and you know how to convey this in simple terms for constituents.”
Because I live only two blocks from the Capitol Building, I occasionally go home for lunch and sleep for two hours. Most of the other writers in my office cannot afford the leisure of a two-hour lunch, but the fault is their own. They spend too much time with each assignment. They waste their time trying to find specific answers to some ridiculous questions asked by constituents who have nothing better to do than bother their legislator. These writers are still foolish and idealistic like I once was. They still feel the pain of the persons they attempt to soothe. When they learn the reality of politics, they will realize we do not write letters to help anyone; we write letters to keep constituents at least a snout's length away from the legislator. We comfort nosy taxpayers so they never again threaten the sanctity of the incumbent. We offer hopeless persons hope so they never again write a letter to the politician we are trying to re-elect. Of course, the hope we offer is mostly false hope. Very often there is little hope at all, but where there is little hope I magnify that hope until it is only hope the constituent experiences. I inflict incremental braindeath on the constituent.
I consider myself a swineherd and the public my swine. I call them my public piglets; my cute, roundbellied, enthusiastically grunting piglets. I inflict a Nembutal haze on them and they give me a paycheck. I soothe them so their lives are less painful. Sometimes I wish there existed one constituent who would not give up, someone who would write one letter and then augment that with another and then another and another, refusing my injection of braindeath, refusing to be pacified, then become so outraged they would march to the Capitol and find my obscure office and follow the labyrinthine path to my obscure cubicle and take me by the hair of my head and shake me until I publicly promised to sit at my desk and write them a personal response to their questions.
Sometimes I watch the door of my office and wait for this person to burst in. Then I laugh. It could never, ever happen.