His crisp white shirt stands out against the putrid gray fog as he walks with an air of self-importance and all the signs of a politician—shoulders pushed back, chest thrust forward, sporting a prominent campaign button in patriotic colors. A glorified bureaucrat. Nothing special really, but few venture into these parts nowadays, far from the high-priced coffee shops tucked between soaring reflective glass.
Judging from her appearance, the woman accompanying this elected official is his assistant, still at the bottom of the ladder with clean clothes but no access to power that would help her iron out all the wrinkles. She is frustrated by their lack of progress—he insists on slowing down whenever the road takes a new turn. He likes to admire the view behind them– monolithic structures that pierce the sky– though his frequent stops and starts are making life difficult for the poor souls stuck in their wake.
She doesn’t know how to urge him on, she feels a little lost separated from the neat piles of paperwork waiting on her desk. Her boss was not eager to make this trip; he was only convinced of the necessity by an esteemed advisor, who’d learned from an associate, who’d gotten it from an intern who’d done the research, scavenged public records, collected documentation, surveyed emails, overheard phone conversations, read the tabloids, and verified the statistics, that the politician’s popularity had sunk to unprecedented levels. His image could not be quickly shored up by a simple shift in priorities, the crisis went beyond the color tie he wore or his rumored dislike of cauliflower. They could no longer ignore the greater truth: the polls proved that the majority of citizens questioned the party’s direction. They were agitated and might soon demand an entirely new course.
The bureaucrat had asked her to direct him to a place where “the majority” would be represented, and she had proposed they leave the center to investigate the less affluent areas of town. When they finally reached a decaying row of dark and hollow storefronts, she decided they’d gone far enough and urged him to find a place to park. He worried about vandalism to his shiny sedan as he locked the doors and set the alarm. Before walking away, he checked the locks again.
They are passing a forlorn gas station. Across the street, the small library is empty, the new reduced hours posted on a handwritten sign, but the liquor store on the corner is open, sporting bottles of Jack. The two approach a low slung brick building, unattractive yet serviceable, where a crowd of people is slowly gathering, some carrying cardboard cups of coffee, a few with twisted newspapers under their arms. They are waiting for the unemployment office to open.
The sight unnerves the bureaucrat. “Good lord,” he says, “why aren’t they out looking for work instead of standing around?” He glances, once again, at the skyscrapers in the distance—a reassuring testament to industry and power. The assistant wishes the press had not made such a fuss over the rising gas prices and lingering recession, then all these people would have just stayed home under the comforting blue light of their television screens until the bureaucrat and his higher-ups got everything back under control.
The government official is trying to remember what he came to say. He rocks on the balls of his feet and stares into the cast iron sky before reaching into his finely pressed pants and jingling the change in his pocket. The politician loves the security he finds in small change. He begins to speak, articulating every word, hoping to capture the attention of the people on the sidewalk. As he raises his arm in a sweeping gesture, a few dollars find their way to the borders of his pocket. The dollar is not as strong as it once was, and in its frail state manages to slip away easily and float free, aimlessly fluttering about. One by one the bystanders take notice until the entire crowd is watching the bills circle the politician. His eyes are glazed, he is on a roll, but it is the money, not his speech that captivates. The bills rise, escaping like the promise of a living wage, away from the assistant, and out of reach of the masses. The longing grows so thick it could be cut with a blowtorch—if gas were available to light one.
And what of the assistant? Accustomed to the free flow of capital, the woman is indifferent to the disappearance of the funds from the bureaucrat’s pockets. Like many of her generation, the assistant was raised in a service economy, but as she stares at the people gathered and feels their intense yearning, she realizes she has not given much thought lately to what it means to serve.
The bureaucrat drones on, continuing to rattle his change. The assistant steps back. She knows her boss firmly believes he is fulfilling his duty. He will gesticulate for hours, trying to give shape to the revelations in his head but eventually, when he can find nothing more to say, he will turn benevolently to his left and smile, then offer a brief nod to his right before he proceeds back down toward the center. She scans the faces searching for clarity and a broader outlook away from the bureaucrat’s bluster. The crowd is confounded—the majority lost in their longings and limited view—but she notices that a few, scattered along the edges, scratch their heads and stretch on tiptoes, hoping to see into the distance.