Saturday, September 6, 2008

Do They Still Make Hush Puppies?

After re-reading Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers for the first time in at least 20 years, I was bowled over by how well Tom Wolfe captured bureaucrats, like this #2 official of the San Francisco Office of Economic Opportunity:

But he doesn't have to open his mouth. All you have to do is look at him and you get the picture. The man's a lifer. He's stone civil service. He has it all down from the wheatcolor Hush Puppies to the wash'n'dry semi-tab-collar shortsleeves white shirt. Those wheatcolor Hush Puppies must be like some kind of fraternal garb among the civil-service employees, because they all wear them. They cost about $4.99, and the second time you move your toes, the seams split and the tops come away from the soles. But they all wear them. The man's shirt looks like he bought it at the August end-of-summer sale at the White Front. It is one of those shirts with pockets on both sides. Sticking out of the pockets and running across his chest he has a lineup of ball-point pens, felt nibs, lead pencils, wax markers, such as you wouldn't believe, Paper-mates, Pentels, Scriptos, Eberhard Faber Mongol 482's, Dri-Marks, Bic PM-29's, everything. They are lined up across his chest like campaign ribbons.

And then it dawns on you, and you wonder why it took so long for you to realize it. This man is the flak catcher. His job is to catch the flak for the No. 1 man. He's like the professional mourners you can hire in Chinatown. They have certified wailers, professional mourners, in Chinatown, and when your loved one dies, you can hire the professional mourners to wail at the funeral and show what a great loss to the community the departed is. In the same way this lifer is ready to catch whatever flak you're sending up. It doesn't matter what bureau they put him in. It's all the same. Poverty, Japanese imports, valley fever, tomato-crop parity, partial disability, home loans, second-probate accounting, the Interstate 90 detour change order, lockouts, secondary boycotts, G.I. alimony, the Pakistani quota, cinch mites, the Tularemic Loa loa, veterans' dental benefits, workmen's compensation, suspended excise rebates -- whatever you're angry about, it doesn't matter, he's there to catch the flak. He's a lifer.

And this nugget about the skill of office malingering:

The jobs themselves were nothing. They were supposed to be for teenagers from poor families. It was an O.E.O. program, and you got $1.35 an hour and ended up as a file clerk or stock-room boy in some federal office or some foundation -- hell, they didn't even need one half the people they already had working for them, and so all you learned was how to make work, fake work, and malinger out by the Xerox machine. It is true that you learned those skills from experts in the field, but it was a depressing field to be in.

Truly, Tom Wolfe is the Marcel Proust of modern American life. The next chance I get, I'm going to go shopping for semi-tab collar shirts and Hush Puppies.


Steve Sailer said...

You might also like this part from the end of Mau-Mauing th Flak Catchers about what it's like to work at City Hall in San Francisco:

The lobby is officially known as the great central court, and it's like some Central American opera house, marble, arches, domes, acanthus leaves and Indian sandstone, quirks and galleries, and gilt filigrees, like Bourbon Louis culicues of gold in every corner, along every molding, every flute, every cusp, every water-leaf and cartouche, a veritable angel's choir of gold, a veritable obsession of gold ... and all kept polished as if for the commemoration of the Generalissimo's birthday ... and busts of great and glorious mayors of San Francisco, perched on top of pedestals in their business suits with their bald marble skulls reflecting the lacy gold of the place ... Angelo Rossi ... James Rolph ... cenotaphs, pediments, baroque balusters, and everywhere marble, marble, marble, gold, gold, gold ... and through this Golden Whore's Dream of Paradise rush the children of the Youth of the Future.

... There are those who may think that the bureaucrats and functionaries of City Hall are merely time servers, with no other lookout than filling out their forms, drawing their pay, keeping the boat form rocking and dreaming of their pension like the lid on an orderly life. But bureaucrats, especially in City Halls, have a hidden heart, a hidden well of joy, a low-dosage euphoria that courses through their bodies like thyroxin ... Because they have a secret: each, in his own way, is hooked into The Power. The Government is the Power, and they are the Government, and the symbol of the Government is the golden dome of City Hall, and the greatest glory of City Hall is the gold-and-marble lobby, gleaming and serene, cool and massive, studded with the glistening busts of bald-headed men now as anonymous as themselves but touched and blessed forever by The Power ... And in an age of torrid sensations, of lust, gluttony, stroke-house movies, fellatio-lipped young buds jiggling down the street with their hard little nipples doing the new boogaloo through their translucent nylong jerseys, an age of marijuana, LSD, TCH, MDA, cocaine, methedrine, and motels where the electric ozone of the central ozone of the central air conditioning mixes with the sickly sweet secretions oozing from every aperture--in the midst of such cheap thrills and vibrating nerve ends, who is left o record the secret, tender, subtle and ineffable joys of the line bureaucrat savoring the satin cushion of City Hall? Who else is left to understand the secret bliss of the coffee break at 10:30 a.m., the walk with one's fellows through the majesty of the gold-and-marble lobby and out across the grass and the great white walkways of City Hall Plaza, past the Ionic columns and Italian Renaissance facade of the Public Library on the opposite side and down McAllister Street a few steps to the cafeteria, where you say hello to Jerry as he flips the white enamel handle on the urn and pours you a smoking china mug of coffee and you sit down at a Formica table and let coffee and cigarette smoke seep through you amid the Spanish burble of the bus boys, knowing that it is all set and cushioned, soolid and yet lined with velvet, all waiting for you, as long as you want it, somewhere below your consciousness, the Bourbon Louis baroque hulk and the golden dome of City Hall, waiting for you on the walk back, through the Plaza and up the steps and into the great central court, and you stop and talk with your good buddy by the door to the Registrar's or by the bust of Mayor Angelo Rossi, both of you in your shirtsleeves bit with your ties held down smoothly by a small-bar tie clip, rocking back on the heels of your Hush Puppies, talking with an insider's chuckles of how that crazy messenger, the one with the glass eye, got caught trying to run football-pool cards of the Xerox machine because he couldn't see the Viper standing there on his blind side for five minutes with his arms folded, just watching him ... while your eyes play over the lobby and all the hopeless wondering mendicants who wander in off the street looking this way and that for some sign of where the Assessor's office is, or the Board of Supervisors', or the Tax Collecotr's, probably taking their first plunge into the endless intricate mysteries of The Power, which they no more understand than they could understand the comradely majesty of this place, this temple, this nave and crossing of the euphoria of The Power...

TSB said...

I love that part. I didn't appreciate it in my pre-Civil Service days when I first read it, but now I do. I just wish I worked in such a Temple of Democracy today, rather than a shoddy-but-honest annex in Rosslyn, Virginia.