Monday, April 24, 2000

Elian Doesn't Live Here Anymore

In Miami on Saturday, the law enforcement community had its most exciting morning since the last Krispy Kreme grand opening, executing their three minute drill to pull off The Elian Grab (or whatever the latest cable news graphic calls it).

When the feds burst into the house, they found Elian being held by the fisherman (every family should keep an ace angler around for just such an occasion). He was trying to hide the boy in the closet. The closet. So, in addition to the fear of federal agents storming through the house, Elian had to deal with a bunch of hangers sticking him in the back of the neck. Great. But let’s move on to a more important point.

Hello, Dr. Obvious! Hiding in the closet when the cops come into the house is about as useless as keeping your extra cash in your sock drawer or putting your wallet in your sneaker at the beach. You’re dealing with pros here, so that’s the first place they look! This was the most foreshadowed closet extraction since that next door neighbor in “American Beauty.”

Naturally, The Grab set off a slew of demonstrations all over Miami -- and even in Union City, New Jersey, where several people lay themselves down in the road at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel.

I’d never make a good protester. It’s not that there aren’t things that I’m willing to raise my voice in opposition to (as any listener of my show knows). It’s just that I never got the memo that explains the logic behind the modern methods of airing grievances.

I don’t get the connection between anger at the federal government and blocking a Greyhound bus twelve hundred miles away. I could see the outrage if the bus company changed its slogan to “Leave the driving to Fidel.” Otherwise, what’s the point? All you’ve done is reset the road rage meter for a bunch of already angry commuters.

The drive to work in Miami, meanwhile, was a little easier today. That’s because tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans held a work strike. They didn't necessarily stay home, but they didn't go to their jobs.

Many of the Cuban immigrants own their own businesses, but kept their doors closed. Pardon my naivete, but if you close your own business, who are you hurting but yourself? “If the people I’m opposed to don’t change their minds, then I may never open the store again. Then I won’t have any income. Then I’ll go bankrupt. That will teach Janet Reno a lesson she’ll not soon forget!”

On the baseball field, four Cuban-American members of the Florida Marlins protested by refusing to play tonight. The way attendance has been at Marlins home games, the team would be better off if these guys put on street clothes and sat in the stands -- that would double their average crowd (on some nights, it was not unusual for there to be more people outside the Gonzalez house than at Protest, ahem, Pro Player Stadium). But how does their not playing send a message to the Justice Department?

It’s the same logic, I suppose, that drives the street protests. This is where I’d feel terribly left out, because I don’t have any extra tires to burn. If someone were to start a bonfire in the middle of my street, I wouldn’t have a single tire to roll down the street and toss in the flames to join in the demonstration. Sure, it sounds like hours of family fun, but I don’t even know what kind of tire burns best. Does it have to be a radial? Do those new run-flat tires make cool colors when they burn? Is it politically incorrect to only use whitewalls? If it’s a cold-weather protest, should my sacrificial tire have studs?

In every protest march, there must be a hearty round of slogan shouting, and the crowd outside the Gonzalez home for the last five months kept the tradition alive. For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, I can report that the English translation of their chant was roughly, “Hell, no, we won’t go!”

What’s the problem with that? It’s stale. We haven’t had a good new protest chant for about two generations. Anthropologists will verify that “Hell, no, we won’t go” was first shouted in the same era that brought us “let’s light our lighters until the band comes back on for an encore.”

The other ancient and overused protest chant is “What do we want? (insert phrase for your cause here) When do we want it? Now!” This chant works much better with a crowd under 40. Once over that age, the marchers’ answer to “What do we want?” usually is “A bathroom!”

My point is, protestors need new slogans -- as long as they’re not just for the sake of being current and trendy. We don’t need an angry mob chanting “Drop the chalupa!” or, even worse, “Whasssuppp?”

Wednesday, April 05, 2000

Come To Your Census

Let me tell you about my newest close personal friend, Ken Prewitt. Kenny and I have been corresponding by mail for a few weeks now.

Kenny is the director of the Bureau of the Census. He started our pen pal relationship when he dropped me a note to alert me that very soon he’d be sending me a list of questions that he’d like me to answer. I was busy that week, so I didn’t have a chance to get back to him telling him how much I was looking forward to revealing myself to him.

Nevertheless, seven days later I got a packet with Ken’s return address on it, and wow, am I excited -- even if he does insist on calling me by my showbiz name, “Resident.” I’m sitting down right now to put pen to paper to answer Kenny’s questions, and I’m a little surprised that they’re so personal.

I know that the Constitution mandates that every decade there be a count of how many of us there are in America and where we live. But I just checked my home version of the Constitution, and nowhere in there does it say that I have to report how many toilets I have. What makes that information vital to the operation of the republic? What, do they think I snuck in one of those Canadian models that really gives a good solid flush while they weren’t looking? Do I count the one that keeps overflowing ever since my daughter tried to flush an entire roll of Cottonelle, and the one that mysteriously refills its own tank every few nights, scaring the hell out of the guinea pigs?

Let’s move on to more of this important info Kenny needs. He wants to know what time I leave for work and how long it takes me to get there. I suppose that’s so the burglary division of the bureau knows what the best time is to begin the break-in procedure at my place. It can be so difficult burglarizing a whole neighborhood, so you really have to coordinate the chronology carefully.

The government argues that they need all this data so they can plan for things like highway expansion in heavily traveled areas. Now, they’ve been asking these kinds of questions on the census for many decades. Have you ever seen them widen the roads before the crush of cars got bad? Of course not. If they were really concerned with that, they would just ask some local leaders and developers in each area to keep an eye on suburban sprawl and then strategize accordingly. But this census info isn’t collated and analyzed for four to five years, by which time the information is so outdated that it’s useless to any urban planner. And as soon as they release the results, they go right back to work coming up with the questions for the next census!

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem telling them how many people live here -- let’s see, there’s me, my wife, my daughter, my adopted Cuban son Elian, and my ex-wife Darva -- and our ages, genders, marital status (I put down “fluid” for Darva) and favorite flavors of frozen custard.

I don’t even recoil at the race question, although I bet Johnnie Cochran doesn’t answer that one.

Speaking of race, whatever happened to “Caucasian”? The majestic history of the people of the great nation of Caucasia has been tossed aside for some reason, replaced only in the racial designation box by “White.” Meanwhile, the next option is what looks to be a field entry, “Black/African-American/Negro.” Then there are several other choices, including “American Indian,” “Alaska Native,” and “Chamorro,” which is only to be marked by that dog in the Taco Bell commercials.

I notice there’s no space to write in the correct answer: “human.”

It doesn’t say anywhere on the form what happens if you don’t fill it out and send it back, but the reality is that the government has hired a half-million people – that’s 500,000 people who want to work but don’t have the skills to get a job making fries at McDonald’s -- who will simultaneously knock on your door and ring your bell until you spew forth the information they want. If you still won’t answer, they can fine you $100. And if that’s not bad enough, they also keep asking, “Is that your final answer?” until you run into the street admitting that you’re not Guamanian and you don’t live with the McCaughey septuplets.

Here’s where it gets curious, though. If you answer the questions falsely, you can be fined up to $500. But, if they know your answer is false, that means they already know the correct answer. So then why did they have to ask you in the first place? Because they want to catch you in rhetorical hell -- like when the state trooper pulls you over and asks, “Do you know how fast you were going?” Forget it, you’re screwed.

Today there was a report that the national census return rate is only 49%, again begging the question, “How do they know?” If they already know how many of us there are, what’s with all the paperwork?

It’s all about paperwork and redundancy and bureaucracy and redundancy.

“Has this person ever served on active duty in the US Armed Forces?” Gee, I’m pretty sure that information is already available in a tiny unmarked federal building -- The Pentagon! Why not put someone in a car at the census bureau and have them drive over to Arlington to get that information on a zip disk?

While they’re at it, what’s with the questions about income? Don’t we already provide that info to the government on another set of forms at this time of year? Okay, stop number two for the car is the IRS building to pick up some more data. C’mon, boys and girls, you can share, can’t you?

Stop number three is going to be the Labor Department, which can provide some answers to the next set of queries, which asks whether each of us worked last week, when we last worked, when we last vacationed, what brand of sunscreen we used, whether we consider watching spring break on MTV to be a vacation or just a soft-core thrill, and would we like some information on a lovely beachfront time share in Key West.

“Do you have a telephone?” Yes, but I only use it to accept calls at dinnertime from telemarketers, many of whom already have the information you’re making me provide to you -- I wonder where they got it?

“Do you have a kitchen?” Yes, but in college I illegally used a hot plate in my dorm room and I hope you won’t hold that against me. Then again, if college violations were punishable retroactively, we’d all be sharing a cell with Robert Downey Jr., wouldn’t we?

“Do you know where the first aid kit is? Because that looks like a nasty paper cut.”

Okay, done. Now, I’ll send this off to my personal pal, Kenny Prewitt. I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear from me. But I bet I don’t hear from him again for about ten years.