Saturday, December 10, 2011

Chapter 4 - Message and Meaning


For the first couple of days stuck in bed, when not sleeping, Art scanned the news networks incessantly, even the National News, for mention of the evacuation and/or decommissioning and repair of the San Onofre nuclear plant. There was none. One local news station jokingly put a "Nuclear Index" next to the solar radiation index and the smog index, in its regular weather report. The pundits on the National News insisted the leak had been fully repaired, without quoting anybody in any position in the government or the nuclear company; commenters on the National News tended to quote mainly other pundits. Apparently there were some demonstrations in downtown San Diego, at the company's offices -- Art only learned this because the National News commenters spent a few minutes belittling the protesters' hygiene -- but soon the pundits on that channel started using the incident as "proof" that the nuclear plant was safe because it responded so quickly to a malfunction.

The internet was up long enough for Art to go online to find out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had tapped into Nuclear Regulatory Commission funds and the local aid for nuclear "incidents" like these was flowing fairly freely. Art found the lengths to which these government agencies were going in order to smooth over the public reaction a little creepy. The agencies had co-operated and budgeted seven whole days of sick leave for victims like Art, which was unusual given that Art worked for the City and not the Feds. Art was looking down the barrel of another five days as a shut-in, enjoying scintillating conversations with Mom, and he was already going a little stir-crazy.

Soon he got tired of flipping through the news programs. The econo-speak had settled in again, and every news story was carefully managed and presented as if it were already compartmentalized and the twin elixirs of good business practices and scientific progress were already being applied. "Private competition invigorates natural gas market" meant that the County public gas utility which most people still relied on, facing legal and illegal competition from the black market, was another step closer to bankruptcy. "Surge in healthy food product sales" meant the couch-bound populace, like Art, was still getting fatter. "Breakthroughs in anti-viral research" tended to be necessary only after some gawdawful Superbug developed resistance to another new vaccine.

Translating message into meaning got boring fairly quickly, and Art's downloaded movie collection was already getting stale before the nuclear incident. Art was preening the tags on his electronic music collection when he was interrupted by a plaintive voice calling, "Hello? Hello? Anyone home? Hello? Hello?". The sound filtered through his basement window from outside the iron gate. The interloper was quite persistent and didn't sound like they were going anywhere, despite a total lack of response from the house. Standing on his desk chair, Art caught a glimpse of the head and shoulders of a young-looking guy and a girl, both neatly dressed.

Despite a little residual soreness and nausea, Art climbed the wooden stairs and hopped out the door to answer the calls from the gate.

"Can I help you?" Art wheezed.

"Yes, sir," the boy began, and then launched into what seemed like a memorized spiel at about twice normal conversational speed. "I was wondering if you had considered the recreational opportunities for young people in this neighborhood after school hours and the effects of recent City budget cuts on the purchase and regular maintenance of equipment..."

Art put the pieces together as the youth's female counterpart opened her backpack to begin offering a case of chocolate bars. Another charity pitch. Well, at least it had gotten him out of bed. And y'know, he was running a little low on chocolate anyway... "Okay, okay, hold it, whoa there," he interrupted, as the young man tried to talk past him. "I give. I don't have any cash on me, but --" he was about to say 'wait here', then he reconsidered. "Why don't you come inside for a minute and I'll give you a couple of different donations."

The two kids looked at each other a little hesitantly, but obviously they hadn't had much luck on Art's street. "Very good, sir, we don't want to take up your time," the young lady said, "but we're glad you want to support the neighborhood's schools!"

They followed Art through the opened iron gate and Art chuckled to himself. Just having visitors, any visitors, in Mom's living room was almost an act of defiance. Mom was embarrassed about the piles of unread newspapers, the boxes of bargain-bin cups, the plethora of children's' toys intended as Christmas gifts for Art's nieces, and the bolts of garish fabric piled in all the rooms... she was mortified anytime Art wanted to bring anyone by the house, and she flat-out refused most of the time. Plus Art had some clutter of his own, and the kids' request for donations had suggested to him a use for some of it. "Wait right in here," he told them as they hesitantly approached the door, so he entered ahead of them and they sat down in the disorganized living room, eyes flitting from one pile of junk to another. "I'll get my checkbook."

Art huffed down the stairs, grabbed his checkbook from the dresser drawer, and then dug an old, flat, but intact basketball from his closet. He couldn't even remember the last time he used it, and he certainly wasn't going to start practicing with it again this week. He returned up the stairs with it, holding it out like a prize. Their eyes widened, but not in a good way. "I'm sorry, sir --" the young man began, and his classmate finished for him, "We're not allowed to take items in trade or donation. Just subscriptions." Art had to admit that the girl's backpack was too small to accept a basketball from every house she canvassed, and the boy wasn't carrying anything but a clipboard.

"Subscriptions for what?" Art wondered. "I thought you were just going to sell me a box of candy. Is it another magazine drive?"

"Edward Hoover Middle School is offering candy subscriptions," the boy explained. "Sign up now and we'll bring you a box of these high-quality pure Columbian chocolate bars, with finely baked almond morsels, once a month. You'll be billed as you go, or we can leave you envelopes to continue your subscription by mail."

Geez, these schools are really getting desperate, Art thought, looking at the chocolate bars wrapped with custom labels and a picture of the school. Education is getting to be like a pyramid scheme. He was about to refuse with a protest, but he reconsidered. He liked the dark chocolate, and he liked the almond morsels. Plus the regular visits from schoolkids would probably annoy Mom, since she would normally be the one home to receive them while Art tried to work. But it was something she was unlikely to flat-out refuse; it would make her look uncaring. "I'll try it out for awhile," Art responded, brightening.

That was how Art began to entertain himself that week. Of course door-to-door petitioners of one sort or another had been calling since Grandma was a maiden, but Art, like everybody else, had ignored or dismissed them. Now at least, the strange times the nation was going through had bred some more entertaining callers. Sure, the next two callers were relatively straightforward and boring, a Jehova's Witness and a limo service to be specific. But the look on Mom's face when she came into the living room muddy from weeding the backyard garden -- surprised, of course, because she'd been listening to the National News on headphones -- made even these mundane callers entertaining. And then there was the oddly dressed young man -- a Hispanic boy, maybe twenty, bedecked in a serape and dripping with feathers, necklaces and bracelets that had miniature skulls for beads -- who claimed to be an apprentice of the local "brujo", who wanted to know if Art needed any love magic spells cast for him (for a price), or spells for success in business, or for the master brujo to intercede with any of the Catholic saints. Mom wasn't even around for that visitor, but Art tactfully left some of his colorful brochures on a pile of Mom's newspapers, and Mom could hardly fail to notice the bracelet with a phylactery of El Santo Muerte which Art nailed to his basement room's wall for decoration.

On Thursday the caller was an enthusiastic young volunteer for the Governor's re-election campaign. He was a college kid, in a new shirt and coat, with sharp features and the smiling vigor of idealism which had not yet been ground to dust between the gears of life's clockwork mechanism. "Our Mayor our Governor are both a bit worried," Todd explained to Art at the gate, "that support on this block is not quite as strong as it could be." He carried a clip-board with colored maps that appeared to indicate, statistically, block-by-block what the general political leaning was. A fairly decent bit of demography, Art thought, having some familiarity with geographic information systems himself; I thought they couldn't get that information more specifically than for each ZIP code. "So may I ask if you were planning to vote in the next election?" Todd continued.

"Oh, I hadn't really made up my mind," Art replied, figuring the incumbent politicians were still treating the 'undecided' as the Holy Grail of politics.

“Well I wanted to bring you the news that Richardson has personally endorsed Governor Zaragosa this week.”

“Richardson, who?” Art asked meekly.

“Richardson, as in the President of the United States?” Todd replied condescendingly, almost losing his professional demeanor.

“Oh yeeeaaaahh,” Art began nodding with a pleased expression. “Now I remember where I heard about him. He's the guy whose campaign took that Madison Avenue ad award away from the previous President last year. Is Richardson running again?”

“Yes, he did that,” Todd almost growled with frustration, “...after also serving as Vice President too. Look, mister, its hard work out here. I don't need guys like you having fun with me.”

Art dialed back the sarcasm a bit. "Oh no, it's not like that at all. I don't pay attention to politics much, but my Mom subscribes to Forbes. I remember reading about the ad contest there. I'd love to hear how he's advertising this time around!”

Todd the volunteer gave Art a sideways look, still unsure how seriously Art was taking him. “Now, of course we're from the same party, but I'm here on behalf of Governor Zaragosa.”

Art had already figured this out, of course, but like most local government employees, he had a bit of a love-hate relationship with both the Mayor and the Governor. “Aha. Well I hear your man is moving Right these days.”

“Well, Governor Zaragosa is proud of his privatization plans, but he's still the same guy the voters elected in 2012.”

“Do you want to come inside?” Art asked politely. This one ought to really cheeze Mom off, he thought. Governor Zaragosa, as Art knew from the past few days' research, was regarded by the National News team as a communist who wanted to drive all legitimate businesses out of the State. A few strategically placed flyers about his utility privatization plan might offer Art the comic spectacle of Mom bending over backwards to explain how a communist was so friendly to private business.

Todd sat in the living room and spread out a couple of leaflets as Art stepped into the kitchen and offered him coffee. Returning with two cups, Art offered one to Todd and then skimmed a couple of the flyers. What he saw almost made him spit out the bitter mouthful.

“Wait, he wants to privatize the water utilities too?” Art sputtered. “I thought he was only talking about electricity and gas!”

“The water is the centerpiece,” Todd tried to persuade Art. “Did you know that the County Water Department has gone almost 300% over budget in the last year? A little private competition is sure to introduce some savings into the system on behalf of consumers.”

Art bit back a growl as he questioned Todd further. “But the Governor's the one who asked for those expenditures in the first place! You mean to tell me he's demanding over-budget expenditures from the County Water Board and then running on a platform of budget austerity just to replace them?”

Todd looked nonplussed. “It's not just the Governor's office, everybody agrees that our run-down water delivery system could use some fresh new investment. If the public utilities can't respond efficiently, then they're part of the problem, not the solution. Look, practically everybody in charge of Water for the whole Southern California region has signed off on this privatization plan. Take a look,” Todd ruffled through a stack and offered Art a flyer.

Somehow Art knew what he was going to find before his eyes even alighted on the list of endorsements. Tucked into the middle in fine print was the tiny text, “A. Chupke, P.E., Assistant City Wastewater Engineer for Los Angeles.” Nobody else from City Water had signed.

“But that's...” Art stammered. “But that...” Oh man, he berated himself, I really should have looked harder at that meeting sign-in sheet. Or maybe they got me when I initialed the meeting minutes. Well, either way, this'll be a collector's item for Mom...!

“You certainly look like you're knowledgeable about the utility issues,” Todd was saying as Art began paying attention to the young man again. “I'm sure you'll see that the Governor's plan is best. His opponent just wants to auction off our public works to the highest bidder. At least with Governor Zaragosa, the public is getting some value for its investment. This is progress!”

Art mumbled an excuse as he grabbed a few fliers in his hands. “Well you've given me a lot to think about, Todd.” He stood and Todd took it as a dismissal. “Just read some of the fliers,” Todd requested. “Oh, I'll read them,” responded Art. Well, in either case, so would Mom.

Next Chapter

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