Like most people, fabulous wealth undoes me.
I sat in the oak paneled, west coast waiting room of Senator Helen Mitarksy and marveled at the 16 foot ceilings. The room was crowned with a massive interior cornice, studded with marble dentils, and a great glass eye in the center of the ceiling allowed a shaft of light to splay out across the dark wood and reveal burgundy gradients of dark grain. A silver coffee service sat on a desk next to me, and the Senator’s secretary looked imperial — something like a young Anne Bancroft. Why do these leggy, bosomy secretaries always seem to be standard issue for rooms like this?
It’s all intimidation, I told myself. This is a temple of democracy and the senator, who, by all rights, shouldn’t even be giving me a five minute audience, has cleared an hour of her day — and she has called me here. For the hundredth time, I was guessing her reasons for my presence, when her door opened abruptly and two densely-muscled security guys, dressed in golf casuals, (as though that would make them look less former black ops) asked me to stand up and endure inspection. I had already passed through a metal detector, two different sign-ins, and a thumb print. I’ve never had much patience for this, and I must have telegraphed that to one of the agents, because he chuckled and spoke my sentiments.
“It’s a bitch, isn’t it, Mr. Cokes?”
“Yes, well, I don’t even fly anymore,” I responded. “If that tells you anything.”
“Better just to surrender,” the one guy said. “We’ll be everywhere soon. Football games. Train stations. Random roadside stuff. It’s a regular growth industry.”
And then I was ushered into the senator’s presence. She’s at her desk, but she has to know the view behind her is one of paralyzing grandeur — big 12 foot windows looking out on the Pacific and the bridges and the clouds and the skyscrapers and the sort of immensity you can only really experience on the highest floor of a forty story building. I took a deep breath.
“You must love the taxpayers, ” I said.
The truth is, even though I hadn’t talked to the senator, directly, for a few decades, we came from a common political tribe. She was twenty-five years older, but I can remember my mother dragging me as a teenager to sparsely attended rallies and banquets and fundraisers — all before the senator had even been elected to county supervisor. Helen Mitarsky was a human torch, a fire-breathing daughter of liberty, an unabashed capitalist. She told stories about the iron curtain, about the framers, about the torture of political prisoners in China. She lamented the colossal waste of the Great Society, the injustice of progressive taxation, and she always wrapped it up with stirring references to God Almighty. Even I got a little misty, and I was a child of the seventies, with big hair and a heavy case of political apathy. If anyone woke me up, it was Helen Mitarsky.
But that was all years ago, before her ascension to the United States Senate. Watching her career was what we called, at home, “a compromise observed.” Within a few years of her journey to DC, she was bragging about how much federal money she was bringing back to California, how she had stood with her Democratic colleagues in asking for higher taxes, when it was politically unpopular, and the walls of her office — well the photographs were a sad testimony to all her new friends. The picture of her standing next to the retired Mikhail Gorbachev was always something that had made my parents wince. There she is: holding both his hands in hers, as though she were a freed slave thanking Lincoln. She had come full circle. Two legs were once bad. Now they were better. (She quoted Animal Farm a lot in the early days; now, not so much. Never, in fact.)
Well, whatever it was she wanted to see me about, I had made up my mind I would use this time to remind her how betrayed many of us felt, and I launched in. She was patient. She listened to me. I scolded her about her EPA bills, her minimum wage bills, her new love for federal revenue, and she kept nodding her head.
“It’s all true, Jack. Of course. I haven’t changed my mind, but that’s not why you’re here. ”
“Why am I here?” I asked.
“To see if you have any sense. To see if you want to join the club.”
“What club?” I asked.
She stood up, threw her arms out towards the Pacific, and the great castles of finance, towering up around the city. “This club,” she said.
And then she proceeded to make an invitation that was so outlandish, I’m still looking over my shoulder, and wondering, what will happen next…