The truth is, it is almost impossible to see either: slaughterhouses no longer offer tours and politics has become too obtuse to watch. It didn’t use to be that way. I remember an era when politics was as open and unsanitized as garbage on the curb. It was so distasteful that most people would rather tour a slaughterhouses than a city-council chamber but as bad as it was, at least you knew what was going on and why.
My first taste of local politics came after my $50 car lost a $55 tie-rod to a pothole. Admittedly it was my fault. The pothole had been there forever but my thoughts had wandered. I was in love and it cost me a tie-rod. Things didn’t work out with the girl but then I didn’t get the tie-rod replaced either. Instead I developed a passion for old-time politics.
When I called Public Works and told the secretary what the pothole did to my $55 tie-rod, she asked, “Is it a new pothole?”
“No,” I said, “it’s been there forever.”
After a long bored silence, she asked, “So what’s the problem?”
I told her the pothole was the problem and as a tax-payer, I demanded action.
She sighed a long sigh, like a mother preparing to potty train her ninth child. “If you give me your address, I will tell you who to talk to.”
I gave her my address.
“Talk to Rudy,” she said and hung up.
I did not have to ask who Rudy was. Everyone in the state knew the cigar-chomping, back-slapping, flamboyant politician known simply as Rudy. The name was so well known that Minnesota elected a U.S. Senator and a Governor who had the good luck to share the name. The Senator, Rudy Boswitch, simply put one word, RUDY, on billboards and won by a landslide. But that is another story. In this story, I talked to our Rudy.
I found him behind a screen of blue cigar-smoke in the back booth of O’Gara’s bar. He was a big man in many senses of the word. He towered over his cronies who crowded the booth. His hat cast a long shadow across the table and his hands were large enough to hide what he was eating – but when he spoke, he spoke softly, so softly, his cronies leaned in to hear him. It is how he controlled the conversation.
I approached the table and as soon as I opened my mouth , I realized my mistake. Rudy’s cronies turned on me like a pack of ravenous dogs. Apparently, one did not approach the big man directly. But Rudy waved them off.
“You the kid who lost a tie-rod on Dayton Ave at the intersection of Milton?” he asked.
I couldn’t speak. Rudy went on. He knew everything about me. He knew the plumbing outfit my dad worked for. He knew my mother’s maiden name. He even knew I had inhaled frequently despite my denials.
“So you want the pothole fixed?” he asked.
“Okay, I’ll look into that,” he said, “but before I do anything, answer this, what have you done for me?”
The raw political power of the question jarred me harder than the pothole. “I-I-I pay taxes,” I said meekly.
“The kid pays taxes,” Rudy told his cronies. They busted up laughing. Then with a stroke of his hand, Rudy waved them into silence. Reaching up, he put a big paw on my shoulder and drew me into the booth.
“You look like a smart kid,” he said, “so I’ll tell you three things about politics, each more valuable than a fixed pothole.”
Out of his beefy fist, he raised his index finger. “First, there are potholes everywhere in this city, most bigger than yours. Everybody wants theirs fixed. Not only that – but teachers want a raise, librarians want a pension, businesses want a stadium to attract people downtown. Everyone wants something. Kid, there is no end to human desire and everyone thinks that if they get what they want, they will be happy.”
Another finger rose out of his fist. “Second, there is nothing in politics that makes people happy. You fix a pothole, give a raise, grant a pension and build a stadium and what? People will remember you did that all the way to next week. BUT you piss them off once and they will never forget nor forgive. Kid, nothing pisses people off more than someone else getting what they want. So if I fix your pothole, I lose the people who didn’t get theirs fixed and that cost me.”
He laid his hand flat on the table to signal the end of the conversation.
“I thought you said there were three things,” I said.
“Kid,” Rudy roared at me, “I have business with these guys right here,” he said gesturing toward his cronies, “and I took time away from them so I could explain politics to you. So tell me, you ungrateful little snot, what have you done for me?”
“I just thought there were three things,” I repeated.
A third finger shot out of his fist. “Oh yeah,” he said, “that third thing. In politics, everything costs. You have to give something to get something.”
I must have looked confused.
“Talk to Leo here,” Rudy said, pointing to one of his cronies. “He will give you some campaign literature and show you what doors to knock on. When you have done that for me, you come back and we can talk some more.”