Friday, January 14, 2005

This shouldn't happen before breakfast

The sight of a four-year old girl apparently channeling Aquinas makes for a distracting morning, even after you’ve woken. It’s bad for your shaving, too, which figures. You wouldn’t expect too many after-effects; however, the last few mornings have been surreal affairs at the Hive. The morning reports about the most recent State of the State address prompted more figmentary encounters before work.

This one started during a half-hearted shower. Outside the curtain I distinctly heard a curious phrase, immediately familiar: “There oughtta be a law!” I could never figure out if that actually was a popular thing to say in the ‘30s, ‘40s, or ‘50s, or if it was more a product of television shows set in those times, but I have the unshakeable image of a Jimmy Stewartesque Everyman, confronted with Potterism of the worst sort, shaking his finger and working himself up to finally speak up for all the little guys: “There oughtta be a law for something like this!” Whereupon he gets elected to Congress in a different movie and passes said law.

In either case it’s in the culture, and better heads than mine are at a loss on how to remove it, or even to curtail it. The spirit of this phrase is responsible for nearly as much mischief as “the Spirit of Vatican II.” Too many people use it to mean, “This ought to be illegal because I don’t like it.” That is not a reason. Mere danger is not a reason: for example, I don’t like wearing a bike helmet. It knocks off my headphones. If I get smushed by a beer truck because Hendrix, like, totally blows my mind, well, that’s my problem. Inconvenience and petty annoyance are not reasons either: it’s a drag to be stuck on line because someone has 43 items in the express lane, but I’m not in favor of (say) fines for such a thing.

But at the time I wasn’t thinking about Hendrix or Church councils or 43 tins of cat food. I was just curious to see who was in my bathroom, demanding new laws. I peered around the curtain. It was a man in a brown suit and fedora, facing away from me and towards a butcher’s counter. “That’s a big jump in the price,” he said to the butcher.

“I know, Bill,” said the butcher. “But even at 18¢ a pound, I’m barely even on the chops.” He shrugged – whaddya gonna do? – and began wrapping Bill’s order.

“There oughtta be a law, Frank,” said Bill, shaking his head ruefully.

Frank was already finished wrapping. He took a grease pencil and wrote quickly on the surface of the neat parcel, and had it across the counter before the pencil was back behind his ear. “See you at bowling on Thursday, Bill?”

“Sure thing, Frank.” He handed the parcel to his young son, whom I had just noticed. He had said nothing, taking in the whole exchange with the wide eyes of someone witnessing the Important Things for the first time. “Say hi to Betty for me,” Bill said, waving over his shoulder as they went through the bathroom door. Quite considerately, he remembered to re-lock it behind him.

I didn’t want to pop into Frank’s butcher shop with shampoo in my eyes. I finished quickly and snuck back down into my room, and found the man in the suit again, sitting at my desk, which was now part of a long lunch counter. He was older. I wasn’t the guy he was waiting for – the son, now grown, popped out of my closet and sat beside him. “Hi, Pop,” he said. “We should have gotten a booth.”

“Nah,” he said, implying that it would have been too much fuss. “You probably have to get back quick anyway. I don’t want you wasting my tax money on three-hour lunches.” He grinned at his son.

“Aw, come on,” he replied. “I hope you and Mom did better than that.” And that’s why he met his father once a week for these lunch deals, even if Pop didn’t live in his district. Which reminded him: “Hey, I’ve got news. You have to promise to keep it under your hat, though; everyone else has to wait for the evening papers.”

“What is it?”

“We got enough votes to get out of committee,” the son said proudly. “The price control bill. Probably enough votes to pass it in a full session, and it should sail through the Senate.”

Bill blinked at his beaming son. “Price control? How is the government going to control something like that?”

“Remember when I was boy and you’d take me to the shops downtown? I remember quite clearly, you and the butcher talking about how even raising the prices meant that he only just made ends meet.” He suddenly smiled. “Butchers making ends meet. Gosh, that’s horrible. Anyway, I remember you saying that there ought to be a law, and now there is.”

Bill took off his fedora and looked fondly and sadly at his son, in a way which suddenly made the man question his accomplishment – not that Pop wasn’t proud of him, in Congress and all. He always said just that, whenever he talked to other people about him: “In Congress and all,” as if it were his official title, where other people would put M.D. or Esq. He was always grateful for his father. The suit had been a gift at Christmas, the month after he was elected, though Pop had adamantly refused a newer style. The lapels were too wide, he said. And the hat was probably the very same he’d always seen as a child. He brushed it now against his leg, and the son saw that the brim was shiny on either end from many years of brushing; Pop’s universal expression of frustration. “Did you notice something else about that?” Bill asked his son. “The chops went up, so we got sausage that week.”

“Yeah, but now people won’t have to,” he replied, still smiling, but uncertain and trying to hide it.

And Bill thought, My boy, I love you dearly, and I’m proud of you, in Congress and all – but sometimes… And the next time he pops into the bathroom Frank will be gone.

The radio was on the whole time, but I think that I was the only one who noticed Richard Codey talking about the State of the State of New Jersey. They never heard him bemoan the expected four billion dollar budget deficit while simultaneously pledging $150 million for the stem-cell research center. Gov. Codey also called for the State to raise the minimum wage to $7.15 per hour, which is the price-control idea operating from the other end.

Bill’s son wasn’t real, but his well-meaning meddling is. The bottom line is that the State can write the checks, but it’s the taxpayers and businesses that wind up cashing them. Lining up at the back door of the Statehouse to beg for some of our money back is the wrong solution to the problem.

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