The building was oddly opulent and provincially palatial for a government building. It wasn’t white marble gray granite conspicuous consumption like Washington DC built on tax revenue or Vatican City built on indulgences and slave labor, but brassy casino opulent, the kind of wealth built on honest and forthright criminality from games where people volunteer to be conned for their own entertainment, not the sublime kind that pretends to virtue. It is the honest prostitute to the gold-digging trophy wife, where you pay for a show and you get a show. The scorch marks on the pavement from the accidentally focused light from the mirrored windows and chrome around the building left black stains on the pavement in front of the building and was a cause of car accidents in the busy downtown during certain times of the year depending upon the declination of the sun. This was a river city along the banks of the Ohio River, but the building reminded me of the Mafioso grande casino in Atlantic City where I grew up, where the windows shot accidental laser beams of light onto the boardwalk, only they had to fix it because it set the boardwalk on fire in places which were bad optics—in more ways than one. I was an engineer and former naval officer, knew how to shoot a sun line, and my trusty sextant told me this was one of those times of the year. I had written up a report and suggested the change, but it had been ignored. I was told I wasn’t an architect. I was told to “stay in my lane.” So today I timed my lunch hour to sit in front of the building and watch the fun, as cars blundered into others. I had my phone at the ready in case I got one YouTube-worthy. Motion is lotion. I spent my lunch hours and many breaks walking through the downtown, people watching, as I didn’t have near enough to do and was often in trouble with my co-workers for working too much, and making them look bad. I used to do push-ups in the smoker’s area where I was now sitting on a bench provided for smokers, out in front of the building. Smokers complained about me, that I was working out on company time. I asked why they could take a break fifteen minutes of every hour to smoke, but I couldn’t do push-ups for less time than that a couple times a day. I was told to stop being such a trouble maker. Walking is how I get rid of my energy, my bias towards action, in a place where action is not encouraged. When I was counseled for my exercising on company time, I was told a story of the only person in the last decade who had ever been successfully fired. They had been fired because they had run an online store from their workstation using their company email, on company time, stealing time just like me doing push-ups. It was a really good employee who did great work and was well respected, but she was frog matched out of the building. I asked why they didn’t promote her and give her more to do instead? I was counseled for my joking and not taking my job seriously. I wasn’t joking, but I pretended to look dejected and let it go. I learned to let things go. Like for example, when I sit in the smoker's area I had planned my revenge and had this hobby shop candle that smelled like death I was going to sit next to me to keep the smokers away like a mosquito candle for annoying humans, but I let it go.
So I sat in my own version of NASCAR fandom, watching people driving too fast and hoping for a wreck so I could get a chuckle and maybe some followers on YouTube, as it was the only thing I could do about it without being fired. It brought back memories of my youth. As a teenager, I used to sit on the railing on the boardwalk in front of the Harrah’s casino on the boardwalk in Atlantic City watching the beautiful slightly drunk, scantily clad tourist women in their spike high heels come out onto the boardwalk for some fresh air and to see the ocean. I wasn’t watching completely for the normal hormonal teenage boy reasons, but watching for good crashes. The spiked heels fit perfectly in the gaps between the boards on the boardwalk and got stuck there. It was usually about 4 steps before a vaudevillian avalanche of pretty lady would happen. The epic ones were where the lady was a little drunk and would not realize the true problem and get up and do it again, with curse words I wouldn’t hear again until I was in the navy.
I was hired to implement best practices for capital planning. I had just facilitated a meeting of upper-level managers to come up with a project ranking system that included a measure of the risk of the infrastructure failing, and how much it would hurt us if it failed. All of the managers in the meeting were two rungs on the hierarchy above me. I had trouble with two strong-willed managers, Tim and Alph, who despised each other and had their own pet projects. They would alternate being at meetings and push things in opposite directions. I needed them there together to get consensus. Alph wasn’t there. Before starting, I called Alph on his cellphone.
“Sir, the meeting is getting ready to start.”
“How did you get this number? Why are you calling me? Do you know who I am?”
“Yes sir. It’s a company cell phone so its in the directory. You had accepted the meeting two weeks ago and I need you at the meeting to express your concerns so we can move forward.”
“Don’t ever call me. I am a SENIOR manager. You don’t tell me what to do.”
“Sir, I am not telling you what to do, I am just trying to have a productive meeting and don’t want to waste the time of all the other senior managers and the CEO of the Infrastructure department…”
“Is the CEO there?”
“No, not yet, but I think he will be soon.” Often the CEO came into the meetings late, and left early, checking the box in his head that he was engaged. More often he was a no show. He never accepted or declined meetings, so one never knew. It was a weak attempt to get Alph to attend when I said I thought he would be there soon. Alph proceeded to “rip me a new one,” “dress me down,” pick your favorite euphemism.
“If I am not there its because I have a good reason! I am stuck in traffic and had a family emergency. You are out of your lane! You will not call me”
I have something of a hard head.
“So we should go on without you?” The next thing I heard was an illicit barrage of language reminiscent of a rich lady taking a boardwalk pratfall. I was told to never hold up a meeting for him. The CEO never showed up. I had an ersatz productive meeting, with Tim throwing his weight around and getting the room full of yes men to reverse everything where they had sided with Alph in the prior meeting, in about step ten of the infinite loop of worthless meetings. I felt I was made of ink and trapped in a Dilbert comic strip.
I got back to my work station. We had an open office environment, so I had a cubicle with two other people in it, close enough to smell my armpits. Did I shower last night? I don’t remember. “How did it go? Why so glum?” Said Randy. “I just got chewed out again, this time by Alph, not Tim. He was mad he had a personal emergency and I bothered him about this meeting.” Randy looked incredulous. “You mean that’s you he was talking to?” Alph had been sitting in the break room reading the newspaper and eating doughnuts when he was yelling at me. Randy laughed and recounted some of the things Alph had said to me in a great Alph imitation, but with actual detail so I know he wasn’t pulling my leg. The motion is lotion. I went for a walk and found myself watching the traffic and hoping for an epic crash. Motion isn’t action, but its lotion for the lack of action and keeps me sane. It’s better than drinking. There is not enough beer in the world if you know what I mean.
Across the street, people were carrying signs and protesting. They were singing songs from the 1960’s civil rights era. “We will overcome,” “We shall not be moved,” and “This little light of mine.” It was beautiful. The first time I had seen them I had been moved, which is the opposite of what the song says, which I find troubling in a pedantic engineering literalist kind of way. It was moving there were Caucasian’s among them. The first time I saw them they were protesting a tavern for low wages. Then they were protesting a retail store. I had assumed they were workers, but they looked like the same people. Many of them were African American, so I castigated myself for falling into the racist trope “they all look alike.” Then I learned the truth. They were the same people. They were professional protestors. They were paid to go protest at various businesses downtown. As much as I enjoyed a show, it was time to walk down to the Mayor’s office and be chewed out by the Mayor. I had my ass chewed by the best, I was in the United States Navy for five years. There was a technique to it. You looked at your shoes. You listened to say sir in the right places. You thought about something sad so that you didn’t laugh. Laughing is the absolute worst thing, and the most natural thing when someone is chewing you out and says something like “You think I am a total idiot don’t you?” Or “There is nothing funny about humor Mister!”
I had never been chewed out by the Mayor before, but Tim was better at ass-chewing than Alph. All of them were bush league compared to the navy, where I was a professional a chew toy. On the five minute walk to the Mayor’s office in the Courthouse, I thought about my last dressing down from Tim.
“Conference room, NOW.” He had to chew me out in the conference room because only the CEO had a private office. I was in trouble with Tim for not completing a project for the Mayor’s office. I had volunteered to complete it when I was turned down for a job promotion by Alph because I had not used my professional engineer stamp on any plans, and there was an opportunity. Alph was not a PE and had never stamped plans and he was saying I was not qualified to do his job because I hadn’t stamped plans. I was also an MBA with many other qualifications I had and they didn’t. Tim was not a PE. Tim had promised the Mayor publicly in the newspaper the project would be completed 6 months before it was assigned to me, and had chewed me out the day after I volunteered to do it for being 6 months behind. I was ready to go accept the plans were sitting on the CEO’s desk. As the months went by, the CEO never got to them. Every time I passed him in the hall he was too busy. I had loitered by the copy area on a stakeout of the CEO’s office. When. He opened the door I pounced. He told me he was busy but I had my elevator speech prepared to ask what problems if any he had with the project. I had bought his assistant a candy bar and knew he was free right now. I followed him around with him trying to ignore me. Finally, he turned back bustled past me, and went into the restroom and hid in a stall. He called Jim from his cellphone in the stall as he probably figured I was staking out the restroom now. I guess stalking an overly introverted and ineffective senior boss to make a decision is "frowned upon." I didn't follow him into the bathroom toilet stall, I am not a stalker. I just hung around outside and went in to wash my hands a couple of times.
The Mayor’s ass-chewing was tame, as it was at a press conference. He appeared very statesman-like. He was silver of tongue to my engineer’s technical and unintelligible detail. He called me into his office.
“Hey, don’t take that too seriously. You did your job. You took it well. I don’t want this stupid project, but I need to appear to, you get me? Your job is safe. Trust me, I would never tell a lie.” Somehow, I wasn’t encouraged. We had no relationship for him to share with me as if we were buddies, and he had just lied to the world in a press conference while making me look like Johnny English’s handsome American cousin.
“You don’t know what I have to deal with son,” he said. “I want an engineering opinion on something. You’re an engineer, right? You can be objective? Like a robot?” He snickered. “I feel like Jack Nicholson. You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth,” he dramatically play-acted. He drank from his coffee mug, and I began to wonder if it was coffee as it seemed to enliven him more than caffeine. “The truth is the project would be great if it were just straight-up engineering and not social engineering."
The controversial project was to change a business process where everyone in the city got a substantial raise, financed by the ending of the cushy government retirement plans. Part of the payback was the hidden costs. It was an old saying that you would have to murder someone on live video to be fired from a government job. Every time someone with tenure was disciplined, it begets a lawsuit. The lawsuit was tied to denial of seniority and retirement benefits. The person usually kept working until it was resolved, which took years and more money than it was worth, so the government usually caved. The infrastructure department alone had twelve active lawsuits, with the people to be fired still working. Curiously, the lady who had been terminated for the side gig wasn’t one of them. She had turned her side gig into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. She spoke of gratitude at being fired. The Mayor spoke. “You are so cute. What a brilliant blue sky idea that will never work. We had hundreds of investigations of police officers underway. We can’t do anything with any of them.”
“Because it would hurt your re-election chances?” I said. “I can’t change stuff unless I am here!” Shouted the Mayor. “How many folks do you think are going to support my doing away with the nice, safe government job? How many?”
I have come to believe that there are no criminal masterminds in the world, no boogeymen stirring up the crowd. That is just the thing of movies. I wonder if one of the city's many active employee lawsuits was the police officer caught on video murdering someone, the one with the ten previous complaints. I wonder if it wasn’t systematic racism but systematic government incompetence, the same government that brought us pandemics and lock-downs.
When I left the Mayor’s office I made arrangements to stop my sanity walks throughout the day. I signed up to be a paid protestor. It didn’t pay much, but it was all gravy as I did it during working hours. I liked singing the songs, and pretending I was making a difference. I didn't really care what we were protesting that day, I just wanted to get out and be with people. There was a sick part of me that hoped I would be caught. Would they fire me for protesting? That might not play well in the later lawsuit. I really like the songs and moving. It made me feel like I was making a difference like my movement was action. The motion is lotion.