My last blog was uncharacteristic of me. I’m more comfortable telling tall tales than doing political commentary but the extraordinary events surrounding the debt ceiling crisis put me over the edge. This week I revert back to the tales.
Some of you might have noticed in prior blogs and commentaries just a hint of disdain for certain political appointees whose qualifications and agendas are questionable. The excerpt from Confessions of a Government Man which follows is a tale about one of them. The setting is a topping out ceremony for a construction project. It has been abbreviated and cleaned up for family entertainment.
Representing the administrator was a woman I had heretofore never met. Her name was Hilda Gould, a (XXXXX) Administration retread who had been brought back to GSA for unknown reasons. To this day I had no idea what Hilda did at GSA other than get paid every two weeks.
I first received a call from one of the regional administrator’s lackeys directing me to be sure the region sent an emissary to greet Ms. Gould when she arrived at Penn Station. I then received a call from the region’s senior personnel officer, a man named “No Action” Jackson who said that “The administrator’s office wants the project executive to greet her at the train.”
That’s just great. I’m prepping for a noon high visibility ceremony and I have to play chauffeur. Jackson was not my boss and I didn’t take orders from him. I called Matty D, my direct boss who knew just about everyone in Washington.
“What! Hilda Gould is coming? She’s an embarrassment to this agency. Let her find her way down by herself. She’ll probably get lost anyway.”
Another call from Jackson. ”The administrator’s office wants this taken care of.”
I had more important things to do that morning than to argue with an idiot. Fortunately, one of my staffers, Mel Reed, a prince of a guy and the senior project manager, volunteered. According to Matty D, Hilda wouldn’t know the difference between the project executive and the head chef. The only redeeming benefit was that we were assured she would not speak. This was good, but then again, why come if you’re not saying a few gracious words on behalf of the administrator?
“Who am I looking for?” Mel had a right to know. He had no idea what she looked like but was assured that she would wait at the “main exit” from the trains. (Unlike Union Station in Washington, when you exit a train in Penn Station in New York, there are choices of exits.) Matty said to look for a woman who looked like J. Edgar Hoover in drag. Another senior person in the region said, “Look for a sixtyish, overweight, slow moving woman.” That narrowed it down a bit.
Mel decided that rather than risk using a government car, given the parking and traffic issues in midtown, he would take the subway to Penn and bring her back via taxi. Good choice.
Well, it would have been a good choice if he actually met her. At 10:30 Mel called. “I never saw so many fat grandmother types on one train. None answered to the name Hilda Gould.”
The administrator’s emissary was lost in transit on the mean streets of New York. Jackson was frantic. He screwed up his major project in life and now was busy thinking of how this could be pinned on someone else.
All’s well that ends well. As we were exiting 26 Federal Plaza a taxi pulled up on the Broadway side. Jackson recognized Hilda and was able to escort her to her designated place near the speaker’s platform and food table. Greenberg and Reed, who were responsible for execution of this project, stood way in the back with the construction crew.
Our distinguished central office representative wasn’t upset at not being met at Penn Station; however, the taxi unnerved her. The driver, when told to go to the Javits Building (26 Federal Plaza), drove her to the Javits Convention Center on the West Side. Then she remembered the little hint we give our out of town visitors. “Take me to the Immigration Building.” That got her downtown in a hurry, followed by a fast exit by her “undocumented immigrant” driver.
Hilda was not called upon to speak. When she was politely introduced, along with the other dignitaries, she had a plate of food in her hand and a full mouth and was oblivious to the courtesy she was accorded.
As a memento, the developer had distributed souvenir baseball caps to the attendees. Hilda’s mission then became to accumulate as many caps as possible, ostensibly for the people back in Washington but more likely for her grandchildren. She stuffed them into her tote bag. As a result, some of the construction crew did not get their hats until a new supply was ordered (which of course was charged back to the government).
When it was time for her to go, the boss asked me if I could escort her to Penn Station to make sure she gets there without incident and in the company of a sufficiently high staff member. I would have preferred to give her a subway token and point her to the “A” train.
On our trip back to midtown she got a real dose of New York culture. Taking the subway to Penn Station would have been logical, but this would have been a violation of protocol. Instead, I used a New York maneuver to ace out a tourist for a cab on lower Broadway. I knew we were in for some fun when I gave our Middle Eastern driver the destination, and he said, “Penn Station? That in New York?”
I said “Thirty-first and Eighth” and we were on the way. We cut off cars narrowly missing a few sideswipes, toured some run down sections of town, viewed a few hookers looking for business and listened to the steady sound of cabby’s horns before eventually pulling up at the Eighth Avenue side of Penn Station.
We were greeted by a regular Penn panhandling hustler anxious to needlessly open the cab door so we might toss a dollar bill. I shooed him away while trying to politely guide my overweight guest out of the cab. A bit upset at the loss of business, the greeter looked back at Hilda and said, “Be careful Mama. I just wanted to get you home safely.” Meanwhile, a taxi and a postal truck collided across the street, symbolically, right in front of the historic Main Post Office.
Hilda was oblivious to all of this. She just wanted to be sure she still had the tote filled with caps. I didn’t want to let her out of my sight until she was safely deposited on the Metroliner. Any slipup could have been a career altering move (although I’m not sure in which direction). She would have had to make an effort to get on the wrong train but I took no chances. I escorted her all the way to the PASSENGERS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT sign adjacent to Track Five.
I saw no EMS personnel in the next few minutes and heard no sirens so I assumed she descended without incident. I grabbed a can of beer at the convenience stand and caught my train home. That day was the first and last time in my career that I ever saw Hilda Gould.