Off the Back Burner, part 1

So…it’s been awhile. Understatement? Understatement. Chalk it up to the Bureaucrat being put on the back burner. To make it up to you, here is part 1 in what could become a series of stories about a completely made up bureaucrat living the DC young professional life.

If there’s interest, parts 2 through 20 will be forthcoming. If not, we can always blame it on some other agency.


Off the Back Burner, part 1

“America,” yells the man with the bullhorn, “you are the greatest nation in the history of the universe. But for how long, America?”

The Secret Service officers posted on Pennsylvania Avenue pay him no heed. In theory this nut stands less than a thousand yards from the President. In reality he is further from the Oval Office than a third party candidate who never goes to church.

“Wake up, America. You are asleep, America,” he proclaims, pacing frenetically in front of Lafayette Square.

The leader of a group of Chinese tourists cuts a wide swath around the man so her flock might better hear the informative shouting she is doing over her own amplified device. Follow her they do, because they have only been allotted ten minutes for their requisite photo opportunity in front of the White House, but not before taking a few snapshots of the crazy American to show their friends back home.

Competing for their attention is another man, this one clad in an American flag track suit. On the ground beside him is a portable amplifier connected to a microphone. “God is watching down on you,” he croons karaoke style. “Jesus is your light. Let him shine, let him shine, into your heart.”

As he sings he rides a wooden stick on which is mounted a cloth horse’s head. He gallops a few feet over – just as far as the tether of the electric cable will allow – to pose for a picture. Mid-chorus he holds the microphone out to the woman giving the peace sign in front of him while her husband frames the shot. She freezes, and for a few measures it’s nothing but background music and a mop horse caught mid-stride.

“Hello?” she finally whispers into the mic, then scurries back to the safety of the group.

“Hallelujah! Praise the lord!” says the man in the track suit. He rides back to his amplifier and launches into the next verse.

A few feet over albeit unaffiliated, three quiet, polite-looking people wearing suits stand behind three neatly printed signs, one in English, one in Spanish, and one in Chinese. “What does the Bible really teach us?” ask the titles. In their hands are pamphlets that undoubtedly explain. These they proffer to passersby with a smile and an invitation to talk more some time.

Further east towards the Treasury a woman wrapped in an Israeli flag prays quietly while another man with a megaphone sings snatches of Jewish folk songs. He typically makes it through more or less the first line, skips to the chorus, forgets what comes next, then starts in on the next song. The megaphone keeps cutting out every few seconds, prompting the praying woman to pause and ask him if he’s sure he’s holding down the button.

In a circle a short distance away, a group of people cough and writhe in a re-enactment of a chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Their signage blames the President, calling on him to make it stop.

Next to them another group with another flag blames the President for something else. It is unclear what that is or who they are, but they are angry. Their leader tells them why, in the form of a series of slogans, which they chant after him in the great American tradition of call and response.

The people who live and work in the city ignore them all. For residents the White House mainly represents the fastest way across town during rush hour. The alternative, if coming from New York Ave, is to hike up to H, battle two blocks west on the narrow sidewalk crowded with tourists consulting maps and grouchy locals wondering where the hell the X2 is, then walk all the way back down to G.

For bikers the shortcut is even more of a godsend, because it’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk, and H St is one-way going the wrong way if like most you’re headed west. On a good day, you can save ten minutes versus riding up to I and getting trapped in traffic behind a bus trying to turn while pedestrians pour from the McPherson Square metro.
The savior of commuters unfortunately also happens to be the seat of power. And power takes precedence, especially when you’re late for your nine o’clock call.

On a bad day, the powerless will approach only to meet with yellow caution tape and Secret Service agents announcing, “Closed! Go around!” This they do whenever anybody plans to drive into or out of the White House, blocking throughput and tourism, kicking out everyone with a mop horse or a megaphone, and crowding them all onto H St to stand and wait. All because the Vice-President is giving a speech at some think tank.

Today is a bad day. Today is the sort of day where the weather forecast says there is a twenty percent chance of rain and that translates to a chilly, windy downpour beginning the moment you set out for work having rolled the dice and eschewed an umbrella. The kind of day where you jump to avoid a puddle only to land in a deeper puddle that seeps over your shoelaces, soaking your socks, after you left your gym bag containing a spare set of clothes at home. The kind of day where you wake up feeling suspiciously refreshed, and you can’t believe it because you went to bed so late last night, what a nice feeling to wake up before your alarm, to have time to lounge about and prepare yourself to face the day, maybe even brew coffee at home, only to check the clock and realize you overslept by an hour.

Harried and uncaffeinated, Bureaucrat #84723128J is very nearly possibly almost just about maybe by a tenth of a second going to make it to that nine o’clock call on time. That is, until the final cut across the White House. Up ahead he can sense activity, preparations for someone important. He speeds up, pumping his legs as hard as he dares given the slick road conditions and the sting of cold rain drops on his face and the fog condensing on the lenses of his eyeglasses, which he has to wipe clear at every light.
Too late. Tantalizingly close to the bollards at the boundary, a Secret Service agent holds up a hand to signal “stop.” #84723127J makes a U turn and tries to cut up the west side of the square to save himself from having to backtrack all the way to 15th. That way, too, is denied by another agent with another hand held up in the stop position, forcing an additional block of backtracking.

With time so tight, just this once #84723127J does not dismount at H St. An indignant older lady walking the other way snarls at him, “Not on the sidewalk!”

He knows! He knows! If only there were time to stop and explain, but he is already past her and late, and so from now until the rest of time she will think of him as just another asshole biker.

A church bell rings out over Washington, playing the full melody as it does on the hour, and Bureaucrat #84723127J does not need to count the peals to know that there are nine. His spirit steps into a chilly puddle of its own. His brain begins to work out an excuse.
To say he had a flat would be to lie. To say he overslept would be to admit fault. His best bet is to walk swiftly but apologetically into the conference room where they are taking the call, sliding into his seat relieved and out of breath. When their end is on mute he can say he thought that they were in the other room. That, technically speaking, is true. He has no idea which room they are in; therefore, he is free to think that they are in whichever room they aren’t.

The room they are in, when at 9:13 he arrives swiftly but apologetically, relieved and out of breath, they also aren’t. Manager GS-15 is not there ignoring the call while he reviews his meeting schedule for the day on his device. Sub-Manager GS-13 is not there showing his importance by interrupting to ask questions to which he would have known the answer had he read the pre-meeting materials. Nobody else who should be in the room is, nor is anybody who should not.

Typically at least one person who should not be there is. If such a somebody runs into a participant in the hallway within the 15 minute danger window before the meeting, the risk is grave of getting invited to join because “it will be good for you to sit-in.”

Meetings, like planets, exert their own gravity, accreting matter, and copious amount of anti-matter, until they have expanded to the status of a weekly scheduled occurrence just to “touch base.”

“Touch base,” as the term is defined in the Encyclopedia Servus Publica of Acronyms, Abbreviations, Initialisms, and Idioms (“ESPAAII”) (United States Government Printing Office), derives from the sport of baseball, in which players must “touch” each “base” to ensure that their situation is safe. To leave a “base” is to invite unmitigated risk and should be avoided whenever possible. Managers will often signal for their players to “touch base” to ensure they are all “on the same page” (see: “same page, on the”).

#84723127J and the rest of the team are not on the same page. Was it not page M-3018 from 9-10 a.m. as specified in the calendar invite forwarded by Sub-Manager GS-13? #84723127J quadruple checks the information on his device and finds it accurate. He composes a message to GS-13 asking in what room they are, then returns to his desk to await a reply.

A/S-2 has provided comments on the proposed draft letter of invitation to the roundtable panel discussion on public-private partnerships for information management. Most are grammatical in nature, involving the relocation of adverbs to the position following the verb. In paragraph three, A/S-2 has indicated in bold, capital letters with exclamation points, “NO!!! DELETE!” in the margin next to a sentence on public disclosure. The sentence is one that A/S-2 himself added to the document in the previous round of edits.
#84723127J opens an earlier draft of the letter and copies back in the original language. A ping on his device alerts him to an incoming message. The sender is Sub-Manager GS-13. The message reads: “Rescheduled. Didn’t I forward you the updated meeting invite? Will swing by later to touch base.”

“Swing by” does not appear in the ESPAAII, as it is neither an acronym, abbreviation, initialism, nor idiom (according to the ESPAAII). In mid-level drafts it appeared under the heading of idioms, but during the review process got cut for being “common knowledge” by someone assigned to provide comments who needed to propose changes in order to feel he had contributed value added.

“Common knowledge” also does not appear in the document, because its definition is common knowledge.

#84723127J finishes performing the requested edits and sends the updated document to Manager GS-15 for review.

“Have you run this by Gregory?” he will reply later that afternoon. #84723127J will send the updated document to GS-13 for review.

“Are you sure you reviewed carefully all comments?” GS-13 will reply, alarmed by the alacrity with which the changes were made.

“Yes,” #84723127J will start to respond, but then he will think better of it and consult the ESPAAII for a more suitable synonym. Deleting “yes,” he will replace it with “I’ll take another crack at it,” and then prepare a second message containing the identical updated version of the document, which he will program to delay being sent until close of business three days hence.

“Looks good,” GS-13 will later respond, “go ahead and run this by Octavio,” by which, of course, he will mean Manager GS-15, who also will eventually approve the draft without suggesting any further edits.

In the meantime, Bureaucrat #84723127J will be asleep.

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