Friday, February 06, 2009

Ninety-Four, Part Eight: Wherein I Use The Phrase "Moustachey Karateness."

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. This is part 8; click here for a table of contents.

I didn't get to explore much that first full day in Washington. The city was too new, too weird, too exciting to do more than simply walk around and take pictures of everything that
I could, and try to figure out what everything was all about. Being in a new city is kind of like listening to an album for the first time; nothing sinks in. All the songs blend together and you can't really pick out the ones you like or don't like on the first listen, except for maybe the song that made you buy the album in the first place. It's not until you listen to the whole album a few times through that you can distinguish between songs and maybe start to like a couple of the other tracks, too.

So I had, on the first day, not much sink in at all. Instead, I just went around trying to see things. And trying to figure out who I was walking around with and what they did and how important they were, or were not. I had assumed that in Washington, I would regularly be running into the President, or various people I'd seen on the news like Senators and congresspeople, or the Secretary of Defense, or someone. I'd assumed that, especially, because I figured I'd be working at the State Department or the White House or perhaps the Supreme Court. Those seemed like good fits for me and also seemed like the natural place for a college junior whose work experience, to that point, consisted of a factory job, attendant at a gas station, and a lot of fast food restaurant work.

I did have a political job prior to going to Washington. Two political jobs, actually.

I had gotten hired by some sort of political action committee (I don't now remember the group's name) that had posted signs around town on kiosks and telephone poles that they were looking for canvassers. I didn't know what a "canvasser" was and I didn't realize, then, that the best companies typically do not post their job openings on telephone poles. What I did realize, at the time I applied for the job, was that I was vaguely interested in politics, and also that I had very little money. This was before the First Day of No Money, but it was pretty close to that Day, and I was desperate.

Not desperate enough for that job, though. It turned out that what we were supposed to do was go door-to-door and try to raise money for some cause or other, whatever cause it was they were espousing, and you can tell how much I believed in it by the fact that I no longer remember even the vaguest details about the cause, beyond the fact that it was a pretty out-there sort of cause.

I was, back then, pretty conservative, except when I was liberal, and I was mostly liberal when I was shamed into it. I was not as conservative as my brother Matt, who around that time had proposed a novel "tax the poor" plan that went like this:

The poor people are the ones that use all the resources, right? They get the welfare and they get the food stamps and they ... here, Matt had petered out trying to recall what other resources the poor get, but he'd continued, saying... they get the other government benefits. And we pay for those in taxes. That's where our tax money goes. So what we should do is instead, tax the poor, tax them on their benefits and then we wouldn't have to pay taxes, only the poor would, and they wouldn't mind paying them because they get the benefit of them.

Matt proposed that plan while we were at a football game at County Stadium in Milwaukee, and I didn't argue the merits, or lack thereof, with him because I was not only trying to keep warm but I was also more interested watching the game and not fighting with Matt, who had drunk at least three beers before coming up with that plan (and maybe more.0

I wasn't that conservative, but I was pretty conservative, at the time, having been for a while a staunch Republican, a stance that continued up until I was embarrassed into voting for Bill Clinton in 1992. I'd been embarrassed into voting for Bill Clinton by my coworkers at the University of Wisconsin Extension Center (UWEX) job I had.

The UWEX job was one I'd gotten through the "work-study" program of student aid, a program I didn't understand then and I don't understand now. I'm not sure what "work-study" is meant to be; I've always thought of it as jobs they give to students that pay a slightly higher wage than other jobs, and also maybe help prepare the student for a career more than other jobs might. But I'm not sure about that. I just know I could get a work-study job and that the UWEX job was one of the work-study jobs I got.

I also don't know, really, what I did for UWEX. I know what I didn't do, and what I didn't do was organize file cards.

I worked in the registration office for the UWEX, and as far as I could tell, what we registered people for were things like "continuing education" classes and seminars. People would come in or call us and we'd get information and a credit card payment and fill out a card, and that was about it. It was the single least-demanding job I've ever had. It was a complete sinecure and I loved it. I'd still do it, if there were work-study jobs available for 40-year-olds and if I could support my family on $7.50 per hour.

In between registering people, and checking people in, my main job was to go through these old files and cards and things and, I don't know, organize them. I know, now, 16 years later or so, that I was to do something with the cards, and I know, now, 16 years later, that I never did a single thing with those cards. I can still picture them, perfectly: Sitting in little cardboard filing-cabinet drawer-shaped boxes, set out by alphabet, on the metal shelves just to the left of the windows where people would come up to register and the left of the desk I would sit at when not standing at the window. The cards are probably still there, unless some work-study student who followed me was dumb/industrious enough to organize them or do whatever was supposed to be done with them.

I don't even know what the cards were.

Instead of organizing the cards, when I was not registering people, I did other things. Those other things were (a) make mix tapes on the dual-cassette boom box I was allowed to bring to work, (b) listen to talk radio shows and call in to argue with them, (c) read, (d) eat pineapple pizza and argue about Barney with my boss, and (e) secretly think "Rob" was a tool.

Some of those need explanation. "Rob" was another guy that worked in the office. He was an actual adult, full-time employee of the UWEX who, as far as I knew, did less than I did, even. I don't have any clue, now, what anybody did in that office. I don't think they did anything. Ever. I'm sure that part of it was because I was such a horrible employee, but I don't recall meetings, or assignments, or seeing anybody in the office go somewhere or come from somewhere or produce anything or critique anything. They must have done something, I tell myself, because it was an branch of the University of Wisconsin, but if they did something, then I never was able to deduce what it was.

"Rob" was a tool because, well, he was. He had a moustache, and who, in 1992, had a moustache? Especially a moustache like Rob had, one of those that is a little too bushy and a little too long down the edges of the mouth, like he was constantly on the verge of growing a Fu Manchu but his wife wouldn't let him.

I assumed then, and and I assume now, that "Rob" had an estranged-but-not-divorced wife. He struck me as the kind of guy whose wife would leave him for someone else but would not actually divorce him, and he would be living in a two-room apartment and she would come by to yell at him and demand he give her money, and he would but he would try to insist that they go to marriage counseling, and she would say she'd think about it, and tell him that he needs to trim his moustache, and then she'd leave and he would go to karate practice.

Of those assumptions, the karate practice part is true for sure: "Rob" did karate. He let everyone know he did karate, and I kept my mouth shut about how dumb I thought people who did karate were. There is something very sad/funny about nearly-middle-aged guys with moustaches putting on bathrobes and going to a storefront in a strip mall where they will spend the night punching towards each other and yelling things like Yes Sensei! Karate was never cool, but it was never less cool than when "Rob" talked about it.

Plus, I think "Rob" had hair plugs.

In between sitting around mentally making fun of Rob and wondering why he wouldn't just divorce his hypothetical estranged wife, I also argued about Barney and called talk radio shows, both of which were spurred on by my boss, David. He was the guy who first introduced me to pineapple on pizza. The high point of the week at the UWEX was always ordering pizza, which we did a lot, and David would get pineapple on his pizza, a topping I was skeptical of right up until I tried it and realized it was delicious. So it's not like I never got anything out of that job.

David had a thing about "Barney," the television show. I believe he had some young kids who watched "Barney" and he hated it. We had a little TV in the office, a black-and-white five inch TV that was the height of technology then, a radio-sized box with an antenna and a radio-and-TV tuner that could get broadcast channels and was portable, and I thought it was great. This was years and years before I'd be able to carry around a library of movies and TV shows on my iPod, of course, and thus years and years before I'd never be far away from watching Pineapple Express or Lost, the development of the video iPod being a major reason why I don't read as much as I used to back then.

Periodically, in between eating pineapple pizza, David would put on the TV and show me the "Barney" TV show and rant about how terrible it was, how inane, how... whatever it was. I don't know why he did this. It wasn't like I'd ever expressed a pro-Barney stance. I tried not to express anything in the office, because talking drew attention and if I drew attention to myself they might eventually notice that they were paying me $7.50 an hour to listen to the radio and read. But I listened and watched "Barney" and agreed with David that it was an inane show, and then tried to change the subject to something that I wanted to talk about, figuring that if I had to talk I might as well talk about something interesting.

What worked was to put on talk radio, because that made David more nuts than even "Barney" could. Milwaukee has a radio station, WISN, that featured "conservative talk," and I used to listen to that in those days. I could listen to it back then because, as I said, I was a little conservative, and also because that was before something in my personality switched on, or off, or otherwise changed, and I began to dislike people who expressed views I agreed with.

I don't know when that happened, exactly, but it did, and more and more I find myself alienated even from people who agree with me. I began to hear something smug, and annoying, in the voices of those who in better days I might have nodded along with and said, right, right.

It started with conservatives, who, lets face it, are a little smug and overbearing anyway. I began to notice that, and to be annoyed by it. Maybe it's because conservatives got too conservative, or too powerful, a combination of irritation that rose up because they were somehow finding conservative justifications for anything and everything, being in favor of smaller government but also in favor of invading countries for no reason and torturing people to get information and, eventually, investing trillions of government dollars into business at the same time as they were becoming opposed to, seemingly, everything: no gay marriage, tougher divorce laws, no abortion rights, no birth control, no sex education, no taxes, no spending, no limits on spending, no limits on taxes... it just kept piling up. Somewhere along those lines, somewhere between 1992 and 2009, I began to be irritated by conservatives merely by their existence, the way that Diablo Cody and Tina Fey irritate me simply by having physical presences. I'd be listening to talk radio and the host would say something that, philosophically, I agreed with, and yet my impulse was to at the same time shout no and look for a way to vote the exact opposite, because the way he or she was saying it annoyed me.

Not that liberals were better; they irritated me, too. But I digress. In Milwaukee, in 1992, the talk airwaves were dominated by conservatives and also by a guy whose show was called "That Jay" something-or-other, his last name, but I can't remember it, now. That Jay and the conservatives irritated David worse than a million Barneys ever could have. So I'd play the radio and get David all riled up.

"Call that guy," he'd tell me, "And argue with him." So I'd do that, calling up from the office phone and waiting on hold, at which point David and "Rob" and...

... and I should point something out here. I'm not putting "Rob" in quotes because it's a fake name. Rob was his real name. I'm putting it on quotes-- "Rob"-- because putting it in quotes emphasizes how ridiculous "Rob" seemed to me in his moustachey karateness...

David and "Rob" and the others would go into the other office and listen to me argue with the radio host about whatever it was I was arguing with him about. Once, my argument was so ill-conceived that the host actually called me a moron on the air. He said I was a moron and my argument was moronic. David was pretty pleased with me that day.

(That was not the only time one of my arguments would ever be publicly insulted. Once, in a trial, I made an argument in front of a federal judge who then told me that it was the dumbest argument he'd ever heard in all of his years on the bench. Then he overruled my objection. After the trial, when everyone including my client had left the courtroom, the judge was clearing something off his desk and I was packing up my papers. With nobody present but the two of us, he said I thought you did a fine job trying this case, Mr. Pagel. Just to be clear, that was off the record and in private. The dumbest argument comment? Preserved for a lifetime in the transcript.)

I had other duties at the UWEX, too, like being shamed into voting for Bill Clinton in 1992, when we were talking politics one day and everyone was talking about who they were going to vote for, and everyone in the room said they were voting for Bill Clinton. Then the girl that worked there, what's-her-name, said "Who are you voting for?" to me. I hesitated, and David said "You're not voting for Bush, are you?"

I'd been going to vote for Bush, right up until that moment, when I wanted to keep David and "Rob" and what's-her-name happy and not get into anything that might ultimately make me stop recording songs off the radio while I was at work, and so I instantly changed my mind and said "No, I'm voting for Clinton." Then, a few months later, when I went to vote, I was still going to vote for Bush, but before I could mark for him, I remembered that exchange, and I didn't want to be a liar. It seemed more important to me to tell the truth than to vote for the person I really wanted to vote for. So I voted for Clinton, simply so that the next day I could say, without lying, "Yeah, I voted for Clinton" when they asked -- which they would, I knew, and did -- and then could go on happily eating pineapple pizza and never ever doing anything resembling work.

That job got even easier in the summer, when there was little to do and I was out of school so I had more time to work, and I began working not just in the registration office but also working to register people into the classes when they came at night. If there was ever a job that was the exact opposite of work, the summer nights signing people in was it. I'd go to the building where classes were held, and set up a desk and sign-in sheet. Around twenty minutes before the class or seminar or whatever began, there would be a few people, never more than about 10, coming in and needing to sign in and be told what room the class or seminar or whatever was in. I'd give them a pen, watch them sign, say "Room 210," point them to the elevator, and that was it.

I'd then sit there until 6 or 7 or 8 when the class ended, shut off the lights, and go home.

In between, for two or three or four hours, my time was entirely my own. I wasn't a security guard, I wasn't a janitor. I have no idea why I was there, period. I don't know why they couldn't have me, or someone, put up signs showing them to the room and then have a clipboard for signing up in the room. I thought of that option the very first night I did that part of the job. But I wasn't about to suggest it and give up the greatest job I ever had. Instead, I spent most of the summer working at that "job," and in between the 10 minutes of work, I did whatever I wanted, which included

-- jumping rope in one of the empty classrooms, as a workout, for up to 45 minutes. (This was when I was in the process of losing weight, as opposed to what I do now, which is gain weight.) I did that usually about 2-3 nights per week.

-- Reading the great works of literature that I'd never actually read in my high school or college classes. I read Moby Dick and Anna Karenina, each in about a week. I found them both even more boring than I'd imagined they'd be. I can't understand why they're considered classics and something like John Irving's Until I Find You isn't. I rather read John Irving any day. If teachers wanted kids to be into reading, they'd push a lot less boring drivel like Moby Dick and Anna Karenina, and push a lot more John Irving. Anna Karenina, in particular, was stultifying. That book could've been about 98% shorter, and it didn't gain anything by length. I did like some of the phrases, though. I kept a piece of paper on it on which I wrote my favorite lines from the book; the process of finding memorable lines in Anna Karenina, though, was kind of like the process of finding gold by looking for fillings in a mountain of teeth. Also, I later lost that paper. I still have the copy of Anna Karenina but I don't have the quotes, so overall, I'd say I got absolutely nothing out of reading Anna Karenina.

-- And I tried to invent my own comic strip. It was called Marooned, and it featured a guy who was shipwrecked on a desert island with just a palm tree, and a supporting cast of a fish, a seagull, and a crab. Drawing a comic strip is a lot harder than you'd think, especially if you can't draw.

That was how I whiled away the summer, and the fact that I liked it so much lets you know what I didn't like the first political job I had, the canvasser job, because I had to go around and talk to people and convince them of stuff and achieve results, and there was pretty much nothing I liked about that. Getting dropped off into a south Milwaukee neighborhood to go door-to-door and try to convince people to spay their pets or something, and to convince them to give me money, was not how I wanted to spend my time, especially when my upbringing had taught me that most people were serial killers, so I really didn't want to be invited into anyone's house. Had anyone whose door I knocked on actually said sure, come in, I'd've run like hell. Nobody did, though, probably because I didn't particularly try. I just bummed around most of the only day I worked for them, smoking and looking around and trying not to do any actual canvassing. Then I got a ride back to the office, where we listened to a pep talk for the next day given by someone wearing glasses with too-thick frames, standing amidst mismatched plastic chairs, and I never went back.

My other political job was not much more taxing but paid less. I got a job as the sole volunteer for a congressional campaign run by a guy named Rob Day. Rob was running as a Republican, in Milwaukee County, which meant that Rob had no chance of winning. To give you an idea of how unlikely it was that a Republican would run for office in Milwaukee County in the '90s, let alone win, let me relate this to you:

In 1996, I went to work for the Office of the Governor's Legal Counsel here in Wisconsin as an intern while in law school. (My trend with political jobs continued, as at this job, too, I did very little and had no real idea what it was the Office did.) Our governor then was a Republican, and the Governor's Legal Counsel himself interviewed me and asked about my resume. This was how that went:

Legal Counsel: Who's this Rob Day you worked for in Milwaukee? A Democrat?

Me: No, no, he was a Republican.

Legal Counsel: In Milwaukee?

Me: Yes. He ran in the primary and was defeated.

... Time passes in the interview as other subjects are dealt with. Ten minutes or so later, Legal Counsel picks up the resume again, frowns:

Legal Counsel: He was actually a Democrat, this Day guy, right?

Me: Sigh.

I really did sigh, too. I tried to disguise it. In fairness, the Legal Counsel was a little thrown off by the fact that I claimed to be a conservative but had also interned at the ACLU for a while.

My job with Rob Day For Congress prepared me for my eventual political internship in ninety-four thusly: It gave me absolutely no responsibility, and involved walking a lot. I was one of three campaign workers, four if you count Rob, who I met once or twice. The other two were actual paid employees of the campaign. I didn't mind that they were paid, much, because I figured my route up the ladder was pretty short, what with being third in command already and all. The other two were a guy who I think was named "Kurt" and a girl whose name I can't remember and who I think Kurt really liked and who didn't like Kurt back. Thinking back, I can't help but wonder if Rob's campaign was doomed because it was run by a guy who was using it to try to get dates, and who had made the mistake of hiring a volunteer who really didn't want to do anything and was just using this to pad his resume.

I did campaign, though, following the rules I was given, which were: get people to sign the petition to put his name on the ballot, and if they ask about Rob's positions, give them this pamphlet and do not discuss the positions. I think Kurt was aware that in any conversation I was liable to shift my political beliefs abruptly based on whether or not doing so would protect me from ridicule/get me pineapple pizza. (I've since become aware that wanting pineapple pizza is not, in fact, a principle.) Kurt may also have been aware that I wasn't really willing to do anything to actually learn what Rob's positions on issues were, and might have been a little worried about me freelancing it.

If my political positions sound a bit shifty back then, that's because they were, in a sense. Nobody really believes anything when they're under 25. How could they? You don't know anything when you're under 25. It's ridiculous, really, that we expect people to graduate high school and then start their lives, one way or the other, beginning families and time in the service, and college, all without ever having experienced anything, ever. High school isn't experience. High school is a soap opera in which 98% of the people are extras. Even college isn't experience. College is just high school with less forced intergroup interaction and more free time. Under 25, people will believe any old thing you tell them: you can't get pregnant this way. Communism works. Your vote counts. Kids -- and anyone under 25 is essentially a kid-- are gullible because they've not lived long enough to be jaded.

If you're under 25 and reading this, or if you're over 25 and reading this and remembering when you were under 25, and are thinking that's not true. I'm not/wasn't gullible and/or I had principles, then all I have to say is: no, you didn't. You think you do, but you don't. You have beliefs that you absorbed through osmosis or picked up for all the wrong reasons. You have religious beliefs or political beliefs that you've come by because everyone in your social group -- parents, teachers, kids -- have soaked them into you, and then you form your opinions based on what the cool kids say, or on how much you want to irritate your parents, or on how much you liked that one teacher who always called you Pags in the hallway. It's not until you've lived and lived and lived that your beliefs begin to be based on more than that. At 40, I'm still not sure I'm there. If I was, I wouldn't occasionally find myself agreeing with The Boy's political arguments.

All of those experiences: reading Anna Karenina, jumping rope, getting people to sign petitions without giving away what the candidate's positions were, hoping that Kurt would ask that girl out and she'd turn him down and he'd fire her and I'd get promoted, all of it, adequately prepared me for my internship in Washington, an internship I'd learned I'd gotten when I got back to my dorm room that night after my expedition to the Old Post Office and the areas around it. There was a note to see someone about my job.

They'd found me one. It wasn't with the President, or the U.S. Supreme Court, or even with a Senator or Congressman. It wasn't in a cabinet department or US Agency or with the Foreign Service.

Instead, beginning the next day, I would ride the Metro every day to a station where I would get to ride up the second-longest escalator in the Metro area -- one that is seriously long, so long and tall and steep that it gave me vertigo sometimes - - then walk a block to go into this building:

where I would meet Dave, and Eden, and Frank, and Rene, and Ed, and a bunch of other people, and spend the next few months trying to figure out what they did. And how I could avoid doing any work for them, too.

I wouldn't, in that, be entirely successful. The company I would be interning at, working with Dave and Frank and the rest of them, was called "Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services." I eventually sort of figured out what it was they did, and I eventually sort of, too, did a little work for them.

1 comment:

lisapepin said...

I love reading about 1994 and am already dreading the day when you'll run out of anecdotes from that year. I love that you tried to write a comic strip! I don't suppose you saved any of those, or did they go the way of your Anna Kareninia quotes? By the way, I like Tina Fey and dislike pineapple pizza. Therefore, as someone who doesn't share your views and therefore doesn't annoy you, can we continue being friends?