Fear of politics

BusWhen Washington State’s King County’s Metro Transit System invited its riders to an open house and hearing by a County Council committee on transportation, I decided it was time to Make A Difference and Get Involved!

The topic was a big service reduction planned for 2014 in response to loss of state funding.  I’m a heavy bus rider.  It’s not that I make my side of the bus sink down until the wheels rub against the undercarriage when I take a seat.  I just can’t see well enough to drive.  I can’t see well enough to ride a bike in traffic either.  It’s amazing that they let me run around loose at all.  So Metro is my wheels.  I had something at stake here; and since I’m full of great ideas, and also am retired with nothing better to do, I decided to go in front of the microphone on this one.

I figured that I could trust other people to demand that the state, county or city governments give Metro more money in a way that doesn’t affect them personally.  And that I could trust other people to tell Metro to cut its expenses in a way that doesn’t affect them personally.  So, I decided on a different approach.  Just in case Metro can’t get more money or cut its expenses without upsetting people, I would draw on my 60+ years of patronizing Metro and its predecessors to offer some constructive ideas for increasing revenue and being more efficient.  They’ll be bowled over by my novelty and inventiveness.  And maybe they’ll end up doing something I suggested.  Even if it’s just a coincidence, I can pretend that maybe it was thanks to me.

In my working days, I’d figured out how to write reports that managers like.  They like short lists of bullet points with key words in bold, and with a visual aid such as a simple graph.  Technicians provide alternatives; managers pick them.  That’s why managers are paid more!  So, I wrote up five ideas for increasing revenue, and five more for being more efficient (“Cutting costs” is such a turn-off concept for bureaucrats).  In case I ran out of time in front of the mike, or somebody wanted to review my brilliance later, I made my notes look very nice and brought two crisp copies along.

I arrived at Metro’s HQ half an hour before the hearing (by bus, of course).  A woman with a white cane got off the bus ahead of me.  I was ready to offer her my arm to cross the intersection; but she charged out confidently when the light changed.  So I just drafted off her, using her as protective cover from cars making right turns.  We crossed the second street the same way; this was working out well for me.  She shot familiarly across the Metro HQ’s entrance plaza.  Maybe she worked there?  I trailed behind.  She disappeared into a phalanx of political activists that were guarding the door.  I followed her, and they closed around me like piranhas.  I learned that it wasn’t possible to enter the building without accepting a campaign sticker and a protest sign.

Now I found myself in a huge barrel-ceilinged lobby, with skylights, ornate pillars and a mosaic floor of old-fashioned hexagonal tiles.  Metro’s HQ is a restored train station.  One of the features of the original station that they’ve retained is that it’s extremely difficult to find anything.  In search of the men’s bathroom, I stumbled into a side office where a kindly receptionist gave me directions.  When I emerged from this mission, I saw people milling around easels that displayed maps of bus routes.  Various colors on the maps showed the parts that would be affected by the funding cuts.  I spotted an authoritative-looking woman wearing a Metro name tag, and joined the cluster around her to ask what to do to testify.  She talked to a couple of other people for a long time and, when I stepped up, muttered something and dashed away.Union Station

An old man came over and looked up at me hopefully.  “It’s just terrible that you’ve lost this funding,” he said.  “What are you going to do about it?”  He was wearing baggy pants, a long-sleeved flannel shirt despite the warm weather, and a beard worthy of Santa in scale if not in grooming.  Am I looking at my future self?  I explained that I was just a visitor and I didn’t know any more about it than he did.  I realized afterward that the campaign sticker I’d pasted to my shirt might have looked like a name tag to him.

I looked around until I found a very tall man wearing a Metro name tag.  I joined the cluster around him to ask what to do to testify.  He talked to a couple of other people for a long time, and then he turned to me.  He directed me to an unmarked table with lines in front of it; here one signs up to testify and is given a number, rather like a shoe repair shop.

I got in line.  The people in the lines kept changing lines sideways until I lost track of the lady I’d picked out to follow.  When I reached the table, a clerk gave me a form to fill in and told me that I would be speaker #92.  Calculating that, if each speaker spoke for five minutes, it would be four hours before my turn at the mike came up, I declined #92 and asked if I could submit written testimony instead.  “Certainly.  But you still have to fill out the form; just check ‘No’ on the question about whether you want to testify.  Also, you need to fill out another form to attach to your written testimony.  I’ll try to come up with a way to attach it.”

I filled out the forms.  I happened to have some return address stickers in my bus bag, so I used one of them to glue a form to my testimony.  Mission accomplished, I sat down and waited for the hearing to start.  I would just sit in the back and listen for a while to see how it was going, and then slip out.

I sat on one of the enormous, reasonably comfortable waiting-room pews that have curved wooden backs that are six feet tall.  After a while a different woman with a white cane sat next to me.  “What’s going on?  Has the hearing started?” she asked me.

“I haven’t seen or heard anything about the hearing yet.  It should have started half an hour ago.” I told her.  She thought about this for a moment, then got up and left without another word.

I decided to stroll around and see if I was missing anything.  People were still milling around the route maps, though not as many as before.  Some straight-backed chairs had been set up rather randomly in the middle of the room, but not enough for a meeting; and only a few of them were in use.  Then I saw a plate glass window in a corner, half-covered by a big sign that said something like “Save our busses!”  A very crowded little unmarked room was within.  Here I saw speakers at a podium, rows of filled folding chairs, and people standing all around the edge.  Found it!

I’d need a running start just to get into that room, and if I did that people would probably squirt out the windows.  So I threw in the towel and went home.  At least I’d handed my ideas in writing to a real Metro clerk.

Memo to aspiring public speakers:

  1. Arrive early–VERY early–and case the joint, bathrooms first.
  2. Or, you could just put on an official-looking name tag and have some fun with it.
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