In any large society there are always those individuals who have a difficult time in understanding the way things work. The short cut is anathema to them, and if there is a clearly outlined and longer way to do things, they are sure to find it. Their childhood is marked by inordinate honesty and smug self satisfaction in being stubbornly adherent to the ‘Right way’. Getting on a bus, one young member of this group found a dollar bill lying on a seat. “Anyone lose a dollar?” “Yeah, kid it’s mine, Thanks.” And the young man is satisfied. Had he kept it himself a rising feeling of guilt would have ensued — because it didn’t belong to him.
There is almost a glowing halo of piousness which surrounds these people. Everybody knows they can be trusted and nobody really likes them. They are tolerated but never become members of the ‘in’ group. They have a great ability to make people around them feel uncomfortable and can always be counted on to cast a dissenting vote. ‘Going along’ is not their cup of tea, and their stubborness is legion. Five boys stand on a corner deciding where to go that night. Four want to split a couple of pizza pies at Don’s bar and grill, the fifth doesn’t want to. Four end up having pizza, followed by ice cream sodas at Pat’s Parlour and the fifth goes home and vomits in his bathroom. He’ll be back with the group — always voting for his own way.
Everybody knows that a certain person is best qualified to do a job. He’s smart, he has two legs, two arms, two eyes . . . just like everyone else . . . But something is missing. They all listen carefully to what he says at club meetings — sure he’s right — but he never gets elected to office. He’d rather be right than popular. Having a knack of twinging the conscience of those with whom he congregates, everybody listens to him, agrees with his views, and promptly do as they please. Not the least deterred, he persists in expressing his views, self satisfied after stating what is morally correct, — but somehow his views are accepted and never acted upon.
In a club meeting he is always the one knows Robert’s Rules of Order — rising to shout out an appropriate ‘ point of order’ or noting that a vital amendment wasn’t approved by the seconder. He is a thorn in the side of progress.
In a free society there are those individuals who aren’t making it. Always investing in a stock market at a peak, or buying a used car that had been totaled three weeks previously. These poor souls have a need to complain. Writing their congressman usually brings a standard formal response. They need a champion. The ‘good government’ advocate, the consumer protector, — our young man, described above, who will rant and rave at the system and take up the cudgel for those who can’t get along within it.
He plays an important role, and in dealing with him those in power are sure to let him have his way just enough times to serve as a safety valve, — blowing off enough steam from time to time to keep the pot from boiling over. Working in a small office, usually in Washington, wearing suits bought off plain pipe racks, – usually on sale – he has the ear of congress, the press, administrators, and businessmen, who listen, admire, agree, but never seem to act on his ideas.
If he ever ran for congress his most ardent advocates wouldn’t vote for him. After all the people may complain about government insensitivity, but when alone in the voting booth they are sure to choose the men who can work with the system and get things done. It’s one thing to complain about contamination of tuna fish, but quite another to let someone close the canning factory and do away with your job.
Within the system the businessman, who is after all the epitome of the free institutions and the focus of real admiration, learns not only to tolerate our protector but in many instances to use him to good advantage. But that’s the way it’s supposed to work — isn’t it?
The Consumer’s Good Angel
Vinnie Serrano grew up in a shaded residential area of the city, free from the hum of busy streets, subways and crowded stores. He was the second of four children, loved for his curly black hair, languid brown eyes, and quiet disposition. He seemed never to complain, but studied, ate and slept without a whine or whimper according to the household rules.
His father was a studious man with a degree in biochemistry and a rank of assistant professor at a local community college. His greatest ambition was to gather the knowledge, publications and accompanying plaudits that would allow him to rise to the rank of full professor. Then he needn’t contend with appearing before classes of dummies any more, but could spend his time writing obscure memos and attending national meetings. Tenure was a wonderful goal.
At the age of twelve a major crisis arose in Vinnie’s life. His friend, Alfred, was the first to notice. It was a Friday after lunch when Vinnie appeared to be limping while leaving the cafeteria.
“What’s up Vinnie? You break a leg or something?”
“No, forget it.”
The weekend passed quietly but on Monday afternoon Alfred noticed that Vinnie was stooping somewhat when he walked. It was eight days later when Vinnie confided in his buddy.
“It’s that Puglia bastard. He thinks I’ve been eyeing his sister or something. Anyway, he doesn’t like me. Every day for a week he’s been waiting for me on the way to school on Sample Avenue. When I pass, he hauls off and smacks me in the stomach.”
“For cryin’ out loud. He’s too big to fight you. Why don’t you tell your father?”
“I ain’t givin’ in. I didn’t do anything wrong and I’ve got as much right to be on Sample Avenue as he has.”
“Look Vinnie, cut across old man Dougherty’s lot. Nobody uses it and you’ll end up near the school. Puglia’ll never know, it’s way out of the way for him.”
“No way. I didn’t do nothin’ wrong. Besides that’d be trespassing.”
“What=re you talking about? Old man Dougherty doesn’t care who walks on his lot. He likes kids.”
“No way — he can’t keep me from using the street. I’m entitled as much as him.”
“He’ll kill ya.”
Mrs. Serrano was upset. “Tony you’ve got to talk to Vinnie.”
“It’s Vinnie. Something’s wrong. He doesn’t eat anymore.”
Vinnie’s mother was an Americanized Italian, first generation, which meant ideas, desires and emotions she found hard to reconcile with what she found herself doing most of the time. She wasn’t part of the credit card corps of women who had special parking spaces at all of the malls in the area. Having lunch in town with her friends was an activity she denied herself, in spite of her wishes, blaming the small income commensurate with her husband’s salary, but secretly yearning to break away, admiring the new outfits and mod appearances of her neighbors. She found solace in raising her four children, settling for family allegiance, and the comfortable feeling of belonging, constantly suppressing thoughts which rose to the surface each time she dressed and looked at her still youthful body.
She stood at the butcher block cutting board, dicing and preparing the evening meal. Two large pots boiled busily on the stove and the oven was turned on — awaiting the introduction of the sliced veal.
Her husband looked at her through the kitchen doorway, not stepping over the threshold he responded: “What? What’s going on?”
“I’m telling you, Tony, he’s either sick or something’s wrong. Please talk to him. Maybe he’s worried about something.”
” Sure, okay. Vinnie! Come here for a minute.”
Within the hour Theresa Sorrano heard her husband’s footsteps crossing into the kitchen. He stepped quietly toward the kitchen table, pulled a squeaky chair out, and sat down, his chin resting in his palm. “Theresa, you won’t believe this . . . you won’t believe it for a minute.”
“What’s wrong, what is it?”
“I can’t believe it myself.”
“What Tony, what?”
“Some big kid’s been waiting for Vinnie on the way to school every day. When he passes by, the kid winds up and smacks Vinnie in the stomach.”
“Oh Tony, why didn’t he tell you before?”
“He won’t let me interfere. He says he knows his rights, and he’s entitled to the same streets the other kid is.”
“Tony — you’ve got to do something — he could be hurt.”
“I know, but he won’t let me see the kid. I’ll tell you something else you won’t believe.”
” I told him to go to school another way, like crossing the Dougherty property. He’d bypass the kid and end up near the school.”
“So — what did he say?”
“He won’t walk on Dougherty’s grass!”
“Oh my God — I don’t believe it.”
“Listen Theresa, I spent an hour talking to Vinnie and I’ve come to one conclusion.”
“Either that big gets tired of hitting him in the stomach, — or Vinnie’s going to starve to death!”
Years later Vinnie remembered the Puglia episode as he stepped into the elevator of the large public building. He pressed the button for the seventh floor. He had won out by stubborn persistence. Puglia tired of the whole affair as suddenly as it had started. Determination had won after all. Doing the right thing became a fetish and won the admiration of his friends and later his colleagues. That’s what people needed — a model — someone to show them the right way — to stand up to the short cuts. His rule was clear, he would protect them from their own inadequacies.
His office was simply furnished. His secretary, Mrs. Amy Pratt sat in a small anteroom at a brown wooden desk that gave the appearance of teak, but was actually a less expensive veneer. A computer lay at the corner of the desk with the screen angled so she could easily see it. A keyboard was directly in front of her and a telephone, large rolodex and a dictating machine on a clear plastic pad were strategically placed for easy access. The printer and fax machine sat on separate stands, and two large vertical metal files stood like guards along the wall. There was only room for one chair in addition to the one occupied by Mrs. Pratt.
Vinnie’s office was only slightly larger. In addition to the usual computer, phone and printer, he hung his college degree, laminated in Walnut along with several posters announcing the openings of Giselle and Swan Lake which he adored.
His desk was clearly purchased at the same clearance sale as Mrs. Pratt’s.
Vinnie had arrived in Washington several years earlier as an assistant to a major consumer advocate who subsequenly died at 3 A.M. one Thursday in the arms of his secretary and whose wife insisted that he often worked late. The only problem was explaining why there was no computer in the motel room where he was found.
Vinnie, with six years experience took over, of course with a new secretary carefully selected by his mother, the now venerable Theresa. His files were teeming with frauds, secret price fixings, rotten meat, infected eggs and many other risks to society. Now he was working on the auto industry.
With the help of a series of carefully orchestrated press conferences he could apply significant pressure, or at least a modicum of embarrassment on the congress. The press loved a juicy story and Vinnie supplied them regularly.
The major entrepreneurs in the nation had to consider Vinnie’s reaction to a new product as a part of the cost of doing business. Naturally they looked forward to beating him.
One day, Mrs. Pratt rushed into his office. A messenger had delivered a note for Vinnie. It was from Miles Devlin executive vice president of the largest auto producer in the U.S. It read:
“Dear Mr. Serrano,
I am personally requesting that you visit our offices. We wish to discuss any problems that may arise in our new models. I believe that your recent criticism may be worth discussing. I hope that this will not be an inconvenience.
Vinnie was impressed. The meeting was set up by Mrs. Pratt and Devlin’s secretary.
Devlin’s company had their own building in New York. It was a massive structure of 96 floors containing not only offices, but also a large private restaurant, a hall for affairs such as large dinners for the President, weddings or other special occasions, a gym and an indoor driving range.
Devlin had arranged for Vinnie to be picked up and flown to New York on the company’s private jet. Vinnie, however, took a taxi to National Airport and the shuttle.
As he exited the elevators on the 74th floor he entered through the large glass doors, approaching a huge desk. A lovely young girl pressed the button on the intercom.
“Mr. Vincent G. Serrano, sir.” she announced
“Yes, of course.”
A slightly built, dapper man greeted him. Devlin himself. Vinnie observed the fine cut of his dark blue pinstripe suit as he was led through a doorway into a larger room.
“Mr. Serrano, a pleasure to see you. Please take a seat here. May I get you a drink or a smoke?”
“No, I don’t do either.” Vinnie had pictured the office in his mind many times. He almost thought he could recognize each particle of furniture, the lithographs on the walls, the small statues. Only the exact identifying features needed to be filled in. The furniture was teak, — the lithographs were impressionist.
“Please make yourself comfortable. I realize this meeting is a bit awkward — but I thought it be valuable if we had a meeting of the minds — if perhaps I could indicate some of the factors affecting our point of view.”
“Three people were killed last week, Mr. Devlin.”
“I understand, Mr. Serrano. We don’t know whether the accidents precipitated the deaths directly or whether the hood locks . . .”
“Mr. Devlin, we need to be more direct. We both know that the hood on your car is defective. The problem exists in each of your models on the road today. You can’t seriously deny it.”
“I realize your point of view tends to be somewhat dramatic — of necessity, of course. You must be in a position to influence the Press. And of course, big business is the bad guy. I accept that, Mr. Serrano, we’re each entitled to our own corner. I hoped you would consider some other points that are involved.”
“We represent over six million employees,” he continued, ” You know our problems with the congress. We are committed to clean air – anti pollution devices that must be in every model within two years. The cost is astounding. The automobile industry at full employment will be operating at a dead loss for the next two years just to pay for the changeovers. If we announce a recall of six hundred thousand automobiles now to repair the hood lock, it would mean a loss of confidence that could cost us several hundred thousand sales next year. Coupled with our design commitments, a loss of two million jobs is inevitable. Please understand!”
“Mr. Devlin, you must forgive me for being dense. When your cars are impacted at ten miles per hour, the hood flies up and crashes through the front windshield. We have tested models over and over and the findings are inescapable. There’s a defect in the hood lock. Many people . . . ”
“I know, I know, and I understand your position as a consumer advocate. But in life we frequently have to balance many things — often to reach a compromise…”
“Mr. Devlin, if you know me, you know that compromise . . .”
“Mr. Serrano,” Devlin was quick to break in, ” please consider an alternative. We have been after congress to postpone the requirements for the anti-pollution devices for an additional two years. This would enable us to complete a recall, repair all the hoods, and buffer our profits until the inevitable clean air standards are met. We would also avoid having the unemployment attributed to your . . . any organization.”
“I’m not in favor of dirty air, Mr. Devlin.”
” I understand. But think of it this way. Instead of unemployment versus a possible highway death, it’s unemployment versus two more years of mild contamination. Certainly that’s not as likely to make a significant health impact — as might large scale unemployment.”
Vinnie quieted down. He thought a moment. Add up the pluses and minuses. He would get credit for the recall. Many lives would be saved. He couldn’t be a hero when jobs were at stake, especially if his organization might get blamed.
“You drive a hard compromise. I won’t take an active part in any of this, you know.”
“Right, Mr. Serrano, right! Just take the pressure off your congressional colleagues — that’s all. We’ll take care of the rest. Don’t make any comments either way. We’ll fix the hoods, you get the credit, and we save jobs.”
“Good day, Mr. Devlin. It was a pleasure meeting you.”
A secretary appeared to guide Vinnie out of the elaborate office and then returned.
“This Mr. Serrano,” she asked, “is he as obstinate as his reputation says?”
“Even more, my dear . . . even more.”
It was seven p.m. when the guests began arriving. The long oak conference table could not be recognized for it was covered with a white lace table cloth. Bowls of ice and mounds of beaded caviar with the usual accompaniments of blinis, sour crean, chopped eggs and onions were placed carefully about. Champagne bottles, imported iced vodka and scotch lined the side boards. Two dozen finely dressed men milled about, shaking hands.
“A toast to Miles!”
A loud hum and then muted applause.
“Thank you gentlemen, thank you.”
“Devlin you did a fantastic job. How did you work it out?”
“Trade secrets, Stevens — we can’t give them all away.”
“But he’s such an ass.”
“Tch, tch, Stevens, don’t criticize our benefactor in such a callous way.”
“How much do we save?”
“Over two billion the first year. With the two year delay that’s quite a bundle.”
“Devlin, old fellow, — mind telling us what the next battle is on this? Congress wants to hold off, but they need a reason. How do we go from here?”
“Have no fear, sir, have no fear. by the time the clean air bill comes up again we’ll be up to our next model changeover. We’ve already completed the plans for the new design. It’s excellent. You must see the construction of the left front door – – guaranteed to swing open on impact.”
“Yes. We will be prepared for our next appointment with the avenger.”