And during those drifting years, when the peaks were low and the valleys were deep, my futility found a particular nadir during my stint on Capitol Hill, where I briefly worked for a United States Senator. I believed in government in those days, and in politicians, and in myself and other young people, and—well, you’ve heard this story before. Young idealist goes to Washington, loses ideals. Ho hum.
This is not that story.
Not exactly, anyway. I could say that this story raises some deep issues about personal identity, origins, and longing for the unattainable, the unrecoverable. I could say it’s about the permanent absence we all hold within us, from the moment we leave the womb to the walk across the high school gym floor to receive our diploma…
I could say that, but we don’t need to be that pompous about it. This is a story about fitting in and not fitting in. That’s it.
(Eh, who am I kidding? I wish it was only that. The truth is that’s it’s a story about more than that. The truth is something much worse.)
The Senator I worked for was from Wisconsin. My home state, except in those days (which lasted years, to be honest) I wasn’t sure what that meant. I was born there, had grown up there, had in fact barely left there in my first eighteen years. I was a Wisconsin boy, through and through, because there was really nothing else for me to be. My parents had both been born there too. My siblings and cousins. All my friends. Everyone, that is, that I could be close enough to actually model myself after (the Beatles and Michael Jordan did not count).
And now, a lucky break! A job with a Senator, and not just any Senator, but this Senator, who sought to reform D.C. in exactly the same ways I would have. The Senator who pointed out that the practice of giving gifts to members of Congress and their Staff, which seemed de minimis to most Senators from most states, was not in fact de minimis. I agreed! A steak dinner at a fancy restaurant? With expensive bottles of wine? If that happened in Wisconsin we’d talk about it for months. It damn well could unduly influence even the best of us. So when the Senator fought for—and managed to get passed—a gift ban, I was on board. Our democracy was cleaned up, in a small way. Campaign finance reform, here we come!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I should tell you about the six-year period between the end of my formative Wisconsin years and my just-as-formative floundering career years. These were the lost years, the Great Wanderlust Gap. I’d left Wisconsin for college in Chicago and Italy, and eventually a year in Taiwan, and a year backpacking through Asia and Africa and Europe. D.C. came at the end of this, when I was trying to figure out how one person could stand so still (at first) and move so much (eventually) and still be the same person. Maybe one couldn’t.
So now I was a little confused. I was still basically the same person, but undeniably I had some different ingredients. How was I supposed to advertise myself? Was I still a Wisconsin product, or did my wrapper need some new label?
After my interview I came home to my girlfriend somewhat surprised that the Senator’s chief of staff had been so excited to take me.
“An unpaid press intern?” my girlfriend said. “You’re surprised that they’ll let you work for free?”
“I get a stipend,” I said, somewhat defensively, though we both knew I was doing this for the experience and The Chance To Make A Difference. “No, I’m not surprised I got a job, just at how excited they were. I wasn’t sure they’d see me as one of their own.”
“Of course they do! You’re a Wisconsin boy. Your mind might still be in Tibet. But your heart’s in Wisconsin.”
I was quiet. My secret was that my heart was still in Tibet too. Not just because it was the most incredible place I’d ever experienced, and I’d felt more alive there than I ever had before. But because of the freedom I’d felt in leaving behind America, and my former self. I had shed something significant. A layer of my soul. The scar tissue had flaked off and something raw and real had been exposed to air. I was not certain if something existed there: was it the real me? Or just an emptiness? Maybe I had scraped away the only thing that made me who I was?
And now this. An unpaid press intern. Surrounded by several dozen Wisconsin dreamers my age, who had maybe made it this far, but had not quite left Wisconsin the way I had. Something big and important about myself seemed up for grabs.
Ron, the guy I was assigned to work with, was a little different. He was in his fifties, formerly a reporter for a small-town newspaper in Wisconsin, brought in now to write speeches for the Senator. He was not slick like the handful of D.C. political operatives who were in senior staff positions. But he could write in the Senator’s voice, in a way that resonated with the Wisconsin audiences. He was authentic.
What was I? What did I bring? Authenticity? Eighteen years of it, I guessed.
On the other hand, after I joined the Staff the Senator wanted to meet me, which I was told was rare. And it was not because of those eighteen years in Wisconsin, which were normal in his circles, but the six years that were not. Not in Wisconsin, and not normal.
I set about doing my tasks trying to read those around me. Could they tell I was different? Did they treat me as the same?
My job is somewhat comical in today’s context, but it felt important at the time. Those were the earliest days of the Internet, when email barely existed, retrieving Internet articles were slow, and the fax was still the king of effective and slightly exotic telecommunications technology. My job was to go through a dozen or so newspapers each day, cut out articles of interest (cut out literally, with a pair of long scissors), photocopy them onto 8.5 x 11 paper, and distribute them by hand around the office.
In the afternoons I responded to constituent emails, and now and then I drafted part of a speech or a letter to an editor. Within months I’d probably be writing speeches themselves and someone new would be doing the clips. But for now the bulk of my job was to locate, cut, arrange, copy, and hand out the articles, so I did it with gusto—and like all good interns everywhere, I enjoyed exploring the world that my intern pass provided me access to. I gave my friends tours of the Capitol building and the Senate gallery. I took them on the train between the Capitol and the back offices, and up and down the private elevators.
For lunch I ate in the Senate cafeteria, which presented a dilemma. My stipend barely covered my Metro cost and left little for my lunch. If I bought a hamburger and fries, and nothing else all day, I could run a small surplus. That forty cents extra felt great: not because it was some great amount, but because it meant I was actually making money on the day. But if I opted for anything else—like the fish sandwich, which was sixty cents more than the burger—my razor thin margin disappeared and I had to dip into my own cash, which felt terrible: I was paying to work! Only later did it occur to me that everyone around me at that cafeteria was in the middle of authorizing deficit spending that literally ran in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And I was sitting there among them, dipping my fries in tartar sauce and agonizing over my own deficit spend of twenty cents.
Naturally I had to supplement my internship with two days of temping in order to pay for rent and groceries, and none of this was sustainable. But for now, I could hardly believe my luck: this was a great first step to some kind of career, and I could be proud of my devotion to public service. I was helping the Senator ban gifts and reform campaign finance laws! How could he properly do those things if he didn’t know what was in the news each day?
Of course I also believed that the entire staff needed the news, but really, the highlight was when I dropped off the articles in the Senator’s mailbox, or if that was too full and no one was around, directly on his desk.
After a couple of weeks of this I learned that because nobody working on Capitol Hill makes any money, power has replaced money as the currency of choice. I guess I had known that about presidents and senators. But that was when I learned that it went all the way down to the staffers, even my idealistic brethren.
“What are you doing?” a guy named Caleb said to me one day after I dropped off the articles.
“This is my job,” I said. “I copy these and distribute them.”
“You don’t give those to the Senator,” said Caleb. “You give them to me. We can’t have unpaid interns bothering the Senator.”
“But he’s not even here.”
“Then his mailbox is his person.”
I didn’t understand what that meant. Caleb didn’t want me to bother a mailbox? It did not help that I had never spoken to Caleb before and had no idea what his job was. “How will the Senator get the articles?” I asked. “Are you going to fax them to him?”
“I will put them in his mailbox.”
The next day I handed two packets to Caleb, who was sitting in his cubicle watching C-Span on a small black-and-white television. “This is the batch for you. And these are for the Senator,” I said. He grunted at me, and as soon as I was gone he jumped up and strode briskly to the Senator’s office, where he dropped off the articles. Nobody was around. Nobody saw him. It didn’t matter. He had defeated me on some imaginary scale.
A few days later I saw him sourly giving the Senator’s articles that I had given him to another guy named Timothy, who apparently outranked Caleb. Pointless bureacracy was forming before my very eyes, like fungus in a petri dish.
This and other similar incidents gnawed at me. I had a growing feeling that I didn’t fit in. Not just because my mind (and secretly my heart) was half in Tibet, or because I had left the state and those around me barely had. (Their coming to Capitol Hill didn’t count: like an embassy, the Senator’s office was basically still Wisconsin territory.)
No, it was more than that: it was that I was not playing the game they were. I believed in the mission, in the cause, in the crusade, not these petty little problems. What did I care if I handed articles to the Senator. We were banning gifts! Reforming campaign finance laws! Taking a broom to the system! Shining light on cockroaches and rats! Disinfecting the place! Draining the swamp!
Others around me noticed this difference, I sensed. They knew I was not an outsider. I was not powerful, so that made me inconsequential, but on the other hand my refusal to care about what they cared about turned out to be a source of strength. I could act freely without worrying about the ticky-tack stuff like my own position on the ladder of delivering articles.
As a threat, I became a pariah. The longer I stayed—as the weeks turned into months—the more it became true, and obvious to me.
At first, I had been welcomed with smiles and invitations to events. As time passed, I stopped receiving them. As I sat in my cubicle, in my cocoon of idealism and self-regard, I heard others talking about happy hours I had not been invited to. Hookups happened. Gossip, chatter, news from home—none of it involved me. In the spring a softball team formed, and I, formerly a varsity baseball player (second team all-conference just six years before!) was not invited to join.
One day the entire staff congregated to take a photo with the Senator. Of course it happened without me.
From my cubicle I could see the photo being staged: several dozen people crowding into the Senator’s office, laughing, having an ostensibly good time. I sat in place, staring at them, amazed that I had not been invited.
Never had my special status as an outsider been more clear. I must truly be a threat to them, I thought. I must have enemies who recognize me as someone different, someone special. Who had organized this? Who had left me out?
I decided not to care. I was planning to apply to graduate school. I would be leaving D.C. altogether, and I would go on to bigger things. My colleagues here could stay in their world of petty grievances and cramped one-upsmanship. I would make them pay—or at least regret not being closer to me when they had the chance.
I would get my revenge—but against who? Who had left me off the list? Others were in there getting their picture taken. Otehrs who were less talented, less important. I alone had been left out. I alone was the threat.
Or maybe they just did not want me there. They knew I was not one of them. They had rejected me, as I had suspected might happen. Well then, screw them. I had my past in Tibet and my future with its as-yet-to-be-determined success. I was different, and they all knew it! Let them fester in their own toxic little stew of petty grievances and meaningless assertions of power. Enjoy your photo op, suckers. I’m outta here.
It felt good to be right. And to hate.
Typically I drifted around feeling bad about myself. My natural tendency was to feel unworthy—not even toward anything in particular, just generally unworthy. Unworthy to do anything. To exist as part of the cosmos.
But now I felt empowered. I was different. Because I was special! They rejected me because they sensed this. I had left, I had shaken off my chains, chains they still wore, under the mistaken belief that they were jewelry.
That night I told my girlfriend how glad I was to be leaving them all behind. I told her how they had hated me for weeks, and how I was happy to return their hatred, because it made me feel alive.
“Okay,” she said in her most patient voice, “I think you’re exaggerating this.”
“The old me would have thought so!” I roared. “But there’s no getting around it. I’m right, I’m sure I’m right. There’s no other explanation.”
“Really? They hate you? They care that much?”
I told her about the photo with the senator. “And the other day, they had a birthday cake for one of the legislative interns, Heidi.
Everyone stood up at the same time—everyone—like it was all prearranged, beause of course it must have been. They all went to a conference room and had cake.
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? I hadn’t been invited. So I sat at my desk, looking through my papers and clipping articles.”
“Of course!” I cried. “I could hear their singing and laughter. Their joy.”
My girlfriend bit her upper lip, thinking. “Didn’t they think you were strange? The oddball who just sits at his desk while everyone else has cake and sings happy birthday?”
I stared at her. She just wasn’t getting it. “I should think they’d have found it stranger had I crashed their party,” I said hotly. “for all I know, Heidi was the one who didn’t invite me!”
My girlfriend’s eyes widened and I could tell she was involuntarily mirroring my own expression. I must have been getting agitated.
“You think I’m paranoid but you haven’t been there,” I said. “I have. And I know. I’m surrounded by enemies! Haters! Well, I can hate as well as they can.”
“You’re a very good hater.” She looked like she was trying not to laugh.
“The best,” I muttered.
The next day I told the chief of staff that I was leaving for a new opportunity in another state. He gave me some spiel about appreciating my efforts and wishing me well and a lot of other garbage.
“Oh, and make sure you give us a forwarding address,” he said. “A permanent one, to make sure you can receive mail from us.”
“Right,” I said. “For my last stipend check?”
“I meant for our fundraising list,” he said. “But yeah. If there’s a stipend check we’ll send that too.”
We smiled at each other awkwardly.
“Oh, and we’ll probably be reusing your email account,” he continued. “Remind me of your password again?”
I felt like someone had just hit me in the face with a flagpole. “Email account?”
“Yes. We’ll just reassign it. It will be easier if I just log in as you and change the password.”
“I have an email account?” I said dumbly. “Here?”
“You’re intern5,” he said. He looked at me curiously for a moment, then glanced down at my file. “Oh, wait, nevermind, I’ve got it right here. The password is just the same thing, intern5. You never changed it, did you?”
“I did not,” I said. My voice was clogged in my throat.
He handed me some papers, and I drifted from the round table back to my work station. My enemies ignored me. Because they were busy. With their jobs.
My edge was gone, the rousing anger no longer as easy to summon. The colors of the room seemed duller, and the outline of all the shapes crisper. I realized I had been seeing through a filter of rage that had heightened colors and blurred edges, as if my eyes had been suffused with hateful energy that had distorted my vision.
My heart was kicking at the back of my throat. My mouth tasted vaguely like cheese.
At my cubicle, I logged on to my computer and double-clicked my email program. Which I had never done before. Prompted for a username and password, I typed in intern5, because that was who I was, and intern5 again, because that was apparently my key to accessing who I was. My self, with its insecure password.
The inbox was empty for a half a second. Then it flooded with unread messages.
They were all emails to me: invitations to happy hours, birthday parties, and photo opportunities. Jokes. Inside info. Politics. News of the Senator’s appearances. Gratitude for the clippings. Questions for me.
All messages I had not received. All messages that I had unwittingly ignored.
I felt like an idiot, of course, but mostly I was overwhelmed by regret. There was an invitation to Heidi’s birthday party, and a followup email from Heidi, asking if she and I had gotten off on the wrong foot somehow. Enemy? She was the sweetest person alive, and I had sat there brooding, hurting her feelings! Her birthday had been marred by my stupid body sitting at the cubicle, which made her feel that she might have somehow offended me.
I’m sorry if I did, she wrote. I always thought you were a cool person. I heard you were in Tibet—that’s so awesome!—and I’ve always wanted to ask you about that. We have something else in common, too. Did you know my cousin’s from Cadbridge? And I think you and I might have met once at a student counsel retreat, but I was younger and was afraid to talk to you then…
It went on. I couldn’t bear to read more. I clicked my way through other emails. An entirely different experience stretched out before me, a path I had not taken. In my mind, the people I had grown to see as enemies morphed into something else altogether: friends, confidantes, colleagues, fellow travelers.
My people, welcoming me home. And I had ignored them all.
I sat frozen in my chair, stunned by the alternate reality I had suddenly glimpsed. When I finally came to, the office was dark. I logged out of my computer and destroyed the current manifestation of intern5. What a hideous run he’d had.
Who was I supposed to hate now? Intern5? He seemed like an obvious choice.
And so I boarded the Metro for the last time, aware that I was pretty much back where I was when I had begun. My moment of clarity had come and gone: I could no longer hate and be right. I was not a good hater at all. I was as bad at that as anything else.
The train rolled forward, clattering its way out of D.C. And I had the same raw, exposed feeling I’d had when I arrived, as if my soul were made of nothing but emptiness. Ho hum. Except this time there was something new there. Now I had the memories of my brief period of idealism and self-regard, and the conviction that those qualities had once taken up room inside me but were lost to me forever. Now I was not the same person I had been when I arrived in D.C. Now my emptiness had holes.
Oh boy. Another work story, much like The Blood Cake (office birthday parties are becoming a theme), and The Mugs (workplace futility: another theme!), and The Rope (Wisconsin-boy confusion: yet another theme!). This one kind of reminds me of The Sweater as well, with its dark ending. Oh well. Sometimes a little darkness makes the world better. It’s why I can’t stand paradises like Palo Alto or Orange County until nighttime, when they turn into something a little more mysterious and wild. All the Objects can be found on the main page. Has anyone made their way through all of them yet? I suspect a few of you have. Others might still be stuck somewhere in the teens. Read at your own pace, my friends!
And of course, this one has a huge similarity with my book The Race, still priced at the holiday discount of under a dollar for the e-book version and ALWAYS under five bucks for the paperback. That one is about a Wisconsin governor, not a senator, and the narrator is a hack attorney and quasi-biographer, not a Capitol Hill staffer. But I think you know me well enough by know to guess the themes will be similar. Probably no birthday cakes, in other words, but probably a lot of failure, misplaced optimism, confused idealism, and deadpan humor. And a whole lotta hate. Hey, I need something to cling to! Nothing gets my storytelling motor going like failure and hatred, for some reason. It’s like espionage to Le Carre or injustice to Zola or childlike wonder to…well, I’m not going to name names. An author who wins prizes; that’s all I’ll say about that.
I have a lot planned for the new year. Check out yesterday’s Tao Te Beatles for a taste. And thank you so much for sticking with me, dear readers! We’ll have a good year together—or at least I promise to do everything I can to make it so! And here’s a little onward and upward as a down payment (make sure you stay for Prince, destroying the world with his guitar):