Center of the Universe (19)
A Well-Respected Man about Town, Pt. II
’Cause he gets up in the morning,
And he goes to work at nine,
And he comes back home at five-thirty,
Gets the same train every time.
— The Kinks, “A Well-Respected Man”
Decade as a writer in New York City (when it was still a city — not a high-end mall), unaffiliated, rising at the crack of noon, commuting in PJs to a table in the corner of the bedroom, hooping and hollering all night with rockers, writers, drunks, druggies, demons, bartenders and Femi Omole, the Nigerian wee-hours sandwich man. The glamorous life. Sorta.
And now this.
Suit, tie, rush hour, early to bed, cranky to rise, and two bouncing ‘binos to feed. Workadaddy weekdays. And, on weekends, trying to recapture cool, in tattoo and shades, at kiddie soccer or Josey’s fake garage sale.
Not the same.
Anway, weekends end. And Mondays, there I’d be. Ordinary. Regular. Lumpen again. Another fading facelessness in the white, 21–34 crowd.
That is, until three earnest ladies — the three Magi of my would-be redemption — thought global, shopped local and, in scuffed sandals and naturally dyed cotton, tapped me to defend the honor of hippie Fairfax against yuppie San Anselmo, to stand for election to the Ross Valley School Board.
To run for rock star.
I embraced wholesomeness as wholeheartedly as I’d earlier — a day earlier — embraced sleaze. I knocked on doors. Huddled with ex-board members and local pols. Conferred with a Sacramento campaign consultant and a state assembly member, a friend of a friend who invited me to play with the electric train set that filled the garage of his East Bay tract home. Read books about K-8 and trending theories of education and drank in the buzzwords. Made the compelling case for me at teas in voters’ homes and parried thrusts on candidates nights in gyms. And got gently grilled by the editorial board of the county paper. I raised money, mostly by hitting up rich friends in NYC — sinister out-of-town cash, which I worried someone would bust me on. And if the money was less than what a big-time candidate spends on a haircut and blow-dry — couple grand, max — it was more than anyone else raised in our small-potatoes contest and enough to buy phone lists and mailing lists and, in the pre-digital gloaming, produce junk mail and lawn signs.
My junk mail took advantage of all the dark arts I’d acquired in advertising and included a folksy snapshot of me — in tie and shirtsleeves — frolicking with my photogenic little boy. And the signs that soon sprouted everywhere in Fairfax and San Anselmo — stuck in an unkempt merkin of lawn, propped in a store window, stapled to fences and telephone polls and taped to lampposts — were awesome:
A stop sign in reverse, red on white, featuring spazzy, childlike line-art of a smiling balloon-headed me, drawn by an actual child — my five-year-old daughter — spazziness dialed to maximum schmaltz by my creative director, Jerry, a dedicated advertising cynic.
Inauthentic? Manipulative? Gross? Whatever. On election night we smoked ’em all.
It was fun to watch the totals mount on the cable-access TV crawl. Surrounded in our tiny living room by friends and weird supporters, I cheered along, with solemn restraint, as my name ran up a 2,000 vote margin, out of 10,000, and was soon crowned with an asterisk, signifying one of the three winners.
To be honest, something in me resented the other two — one a nice, older corporate attorney, John, who lived in San Anselmo; the other, Mitch, a Fairfaxite around my age, with a bushy black beard, constant hiking boots and a big belly covered in lumberjack plaid. They didn’t work near as hard or spend near as much or win near as many votes. Why should they have the same position and privilege on the board?
I was corrupt before I started.
But most shameful was the rumor-mongering about Mitch. The guy had a dire mien and impatiently precise speech that put him somewhere between Woods Hole environmentalist and Harpers Ferry abolitionist. And when the three Magi of my candidacy confided he was under suspicion as a fundamentalist — the leading edge perhaps of a fundy wedge trying to take over local politics nationwide — I didn’t have a lot of trouble believing it. And it fed into the increasingly messianic nature of my own quest. But I didn’t pass along the innuendo, believing it was just that, unproven and unfair. Never passed it along — except once.
With all else failing in my efforts to persuade a popular former board member to back me, I finally reached for a bombshell. Nothing explicit. Just an oblique little smear: Hey, you know what I heard about Mitch?
So I got the prize that would surely have been mine even without betraying Mitch. And I deserved it.
Up on the dais with four fellow board members and the schools superintendent, tucked importantly behind my RVSD nametag for my triumphant first meeting, I did my damnedest not to act superior. First among the night’s supplicants was head of the new Substitute Teachers Union, who told a heartrending tale of dedication rewarded with deprivation, of parttime teachers unable to make rent, unable to make groceries. He was an eloquent gray-haired gent in tie and tweed jacket who looked and sounded more like a college professor than any stereotype of a clueless, feckless grade-school sub. Several of his colleagues — admittedly, more on the clueless/feckless end of the spectrum — followed with details of a sub’s woeful lot. But their union head had already won the day. How could a board member, how could a caring human being, resist? These essential people who constantly bail out the District when the flu hits were getting screwed. And all they were asking was a few measly bucks.
Later, in private session, when a majority was perfectly ready to vote the subs their hearts’ desire, our veteran superintendent, Frank Elliott, explained that these guys show up for the first meeting of every new school board, hoping to blow a fast one by.
But, oh, the humanity… I argued.
Whereupon Frank whipped out the spreadsheet and asked matter-of-factly: Who do you want to cut? If you vote to give these folks a raise, someone or something else has to go.
So it seems that my next step toward the full flower of adulthood was a lesson in political salesmanship and zero-sum budgeting.
Months later I saw the the subs’ union chief in the same tweed jacket, shitfaced, in the dive down the block from Sorellas (where later we would take the sisters to celebrate their 13th or 14th). And I got the distinct impression — starting with his Rudolph nose — that it wasn’t the first or last time.
But a raise for substitutes was only item #1 on that night’s agenda. And it turned out that every item, even the most anodyne, had a fervent constituency — often two, in fervent opposition — and every constituent arrived asshopping mad. And it was exacerbated by an ineradicable baseline antipathy between a mismatched pair of towns that had nonetheless decided, years ago, to save money by merging their districts.
Just before the halftime break — of a meeting that started at 7:30 and wouldn’t end until after midnight (on a school night!) — we voted to fund some worthy special project in a San Anselmo school. But sending slightly more money to San Anselmo immediately sent Fairfax into riot mode. And then when I stepped over to the snack table at break, one of my enthusiastic supporters, a leading Fairfax t-shirt entrepreneur, blocked my way and began spewing invective and spit.
“I VOTED FOR YOU!” his red face shouted into mine. “I VOTED FOR YOU! YOU BETRAYED ME! YOU BETRAYED US!”
And on and on. He was so agitated I actually worried — and desperately hoped — he would have a heart attack. Finally, our diplomatic superintendent guided him away and announced the meeting was resuming anyway. By which time, I was fully ready to renounce public life, and all other legitimate routes to fame, forever.
But there were two more hours, and four more years, to go.
We hadn’t yet heard from the actual religious nuts (it turned out Mitch wasn’t), the fire-and-brimstome contractor with the Sam Elliott moustache holding hands with his beatifically smilling bride who attended every meeting to ensure we didn’t put more sex or secularism into the curriculum. And we hadn’t heard from the anti-tax freaks, who regularly interrupted meetings, no matter the item, to divert discussion to the District’s deficit, no matter how modest, but mostly to rail against their arch-nemesis, the superintendent, aka Satan.
A few years later, to my astonishment, they flipped out when we ran a surplus: “More of Superintendent Elliott’s criminal mismanagement!”
Eventually, that first night, the Sherriff was called to usher the filibustering tax crazies off the premises. And I started to get afraid there might be a Ford’s Theater. And the role of Lincoln might be played by me.
It was nonstop that.
At home, I slumped on the couch, wondering what in the hell I’d gotten into. Forget lone gunmen, four years of meetings was enough to kill anyone. Would it really be so chickenshit to resign? I could say it was for health reasons, and it wouldn’t even be a lie. But as I pined for the easy sleazy days of yore, I noticed Roni was crying.
Turns out one of the tax crazies — the head crazy, the locally notorious and aptly named Sarah Nome — had called my home and assured my wife she would be suing us, brokeass Roni and me, for one million dollars. For “malfeasance” and “misappropriation of public funds.”
But you can get used to anything.
And in many ways those interminable first years on the school board — which conveniently overlapped the interminable first years of our advertising startup — not only shaped me, arguably for the better, but defined my relationship to the town and its people. And though, decades later, they may not remember me, I often see them — the parents and supporters and activists and assholes, more wrinkled and less agitated — as I make my way to the back room at the little joint in Fairfax where eventually you see everybody.