Sunday, February 14, 2010

Life Lessons in Democracy

Written (saved on Word anyway) 7 November 2008

I have started Gombrowicz's Diary and again relate to his prickly discomfort when he senses the absurdity of the collective will and struggles (usually in vain) to keep his observations to himself. He bridles, for example, at expectations that he represent Polish literature. "I am not eager in the least to represent anything beyond my own person," he writes. "Nevertheless, the world imposes these representative functions upon us against our will."

My experiences are not nearly as lofty and self-mythologized as his. All I can think of was a particularly bad morning when I worked for the city.

I was a staff planner assigned to a community board in the East Bronx, many of whose neighborhoods had a modest small town feel. Market forces were spurring rampant new development. Diminutive capes with tidy front lawns were demolished to give way to behemoth multi-family houses with concrete parking pads instead of flower pots. Jimmy, the district manager of the community board was apoplectic about the state of affairs in his beleaguered board, and never lost a chance to vent his frustration with me. "My people are unhappy. I get calls every day. What are you going to do about it? Is [name of agency] doing anything about it?" I was just a staffer, no power, all I could do was to absorb his unhappiness and the complaints of other residents, and to make vague assurances - "we're taking a look at it."

Jimmy (who eyed higher political office) got fed up and insisted that my boss, P, tour the neighborhood with him. P, a Lady Macbeth of a boss who could teach Machiavelli a thing or two, preferrred to travel with an entourage. She brought along not only me, but her deputy K, and another staffer N. We met at the community district office and piled into Jimmy's mid-size car. Jimmy drove, and P sat in front - the queen being taken on tour. K, the dopey bully of a deputy, me, and N piled in back. It was hot and stuffy in the car, Jimmy V was going on and on about the appalling state of affairs in his district. P was saying over and over "we're taking a look at it." I was squeezed in between K, who contributed nothing and stared out the window with her mouth hanging open (the usual position of her face at rest, which made her look like a stoner). N was a conspiracy theory enthusiast and, perhaps as a result, a sneak. I'm not sure why he was on the field visit at all.

We drove around the neighborhood, touring block after block. "Look at that! Horrible!" Jimmy barked. I felt increasingly miserable. I had heard all of Jimmy's complaints before. I had relayed them back to the office. Everyone was well aware. I was quite sympathetic to the neighborhood's problems and had made observations myself.

I was stuck in the car with two people I despised, one who annoyed me, and one I had no use for. It is really horrible to be stuck in the car - in the jump seat in back without a seat belt no less, with a bunch of people you can't stand.

Jimmy was going on and on about the ugliness of the new development. There were aspects of it that our agency could do something about - reducing the allowable scale, requiring front yards. But other aspects - use of building materials, fenestration, were judged to be "aesthetic" elements and out of bounds.
"Can't you do something about that crappy yellow brick they're using these days?," Jimmy asked. Actually, I don't remember exactly what he said, but it had to do with "aesthetic" concerns that I well knew the agency doesn't touch with a ten foot pole.
"Don't even go there," I said from the back seat. "The agency is allergic to aesthetics."

Well. I don't think Jimmy noticed, but instantly I knew I had made an irreversible strategic mistake and that P had me now. Her thick black hair fairly bristled with outrage.

It is not a stretch to imagine someone like her being a henchman in a third world country that has no regard for human rights. If she could have, she would have had me arrested, thrown into prison, tortured, maimed, only to be hauled out to be shot before a firing squad with the sun in my eyes, but not before being kicked and screamed at first.

But this was a city agency, not a banana republic or Abu Ghraib for that matter. She wasted no time writing up the "incident." It wasn't long after that I was looking at a "First Warning Letter" that spoke of my "badmouthing the agency." A guardian angel had tipped me off. The stoner deputy K didn't log off in a public computer room and I happened to be there when the incoming email from Personnel flashed across the screen "Re: Draft Warning Letter."

My blurting out the comment was not a good moment for me, but I was feeling quite desperate when I said it. Really, the worst thing about my remark was the use of the usually innocuous word "allergic." I was telling Jimmy something he already knew - the agency can't do anything about facade colors or window shapes. I was written up because the antipathy between me and the horrible P and K was obvious and P was looking for ways to get rid of me. (Not before I finished my duties rezoning another neighborhood though - which as soon as I did, I quit.)

Anyway, Gombrowicz.

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