The federal government shutdown, in one chart…

Screen shot 2013-10-17 at 8.44.02 AMBy Day 15 of the US government shutdown, all story lines had been exhausted.  We’d heard about indignant park rangers, shuttered memorials, and furloughed feds (and pre-schoolers), and seen hundreds of tiny outrages cataloged in social media among our so-called friends.  Hardships were documented, political tactics assessed, jeremiads delivered, your shutdown in 720 degrees.  All that remained was the end game, with haggard journos spying the Capitol dome for a puff of white smoke, the signal that, yes, a deal had been done.

But until then, new angles had to be found!  I guess that’s why I got an email from a well-connected friend of mine, last week, with the subject “Talking to the Post?”  I had just woken up and was a little bleary-eyed, but I gathered that a reporter was looking for federal contractors impacted affected by the shutdown. I thought, “Ha, the press!” and went to the bathroom.  But then I caught myself in the mirror – my hair was a-frazzle and I was wearing just boxers and an A-shirt.  The clock said 2 p.m.  Wait a minute… I’m a furloughed contractor!  Maybe the reporter and I should talk.  So I responded to the note – keywords New Zealand, Leave Without Pay – and in minutes I was on the phone chatting up a real-life Postie ON OFFICIAL BUSINESS.  My mother would die.

The reporter fired her questions away, her keyboard clacking like an abacus at fiscal-year end.  Had I changed my spending habits?  Were my savings at risk?  Would I list my spare room on Airbnb?  What an excellent idea!  But my answers were no, no, and no.  I mentioned how I was traveling to New England for the weekend and that, instead of flying, I intended to drive.  Because the first mile’s cheaper, you know?  The clacking subsided.  Was I eating in more?

“Oh yes, definitely.  I made chicken this week.” Or something like that.

And then the abacus stopped.  What’s the deal with New Zealand?

My precious!

Yes, New Zealand!  My true hardship!  Now you may have heard that federal employees will receive back pay for this furlough interlude, but it’s not the same for me.  I work on a time & materials contract, so if I’m not on-site at DHS doing the people’s work, I’m not billable and can’t get paid.  Unless I’m on “vacation.”  But where can I go when my vacation starts right now and might end at any moment?  (Hint: Not New Zealand.)  So I stayed home, refinished an old dining room table, and laundered guest towels as well as picnic blankets soiled during the Pleistocene.  Twice.  And here’s the tragedy: by going into vacation deficit now (as I have yet to earn this time off), I’m essentially pre-using a big chunk of next year’s paid leave.  Which means that, if I’m to go to New Zealand in January – when I turn 40 (!?!?) – I will probably have to take a long stretch of LWOP (Leave Without Pay).

And with this the reporter’s keystrokes surged again, accompanied by a faint dirge – from the cosmos? – reserved for entitled first-word malcontents.  But people needed to know.

My story emerges in the last couple of inches of the article, which ran on October 11 and is followed by reader comments which on occasion address the actual content.  Here are a couple of my favorites:

“And one of the guys has burned through his vacation (in less than 2 weeks–he is getting PAID!) and he has to **GASP!!** eat lunch at home?? Oh MY GAWD!!! WAKE UP YOU PEOPLE!!!” (sic)

“It’s hard to feel sorry for folks whining about forfeiting a New Zealand vacation (How cruel!), Cutting back eating out to 2 nights a week (How can they even Live like that!)” (sic)

My plight was a revelation, and not just to naysayers: a couple of days later, I received a call from Piers Morgan Tonight to discuss further.  Mine was the tale that would make the shutdown archive whole.  What had America become if childless, single professionals must suffer to make their vacation dreams come true?  I know what you’re thinking – Obama’s Amerika!  So true, so fucking true.

But, alas, I missed the Piers show’s call – I mistook their number for the thrice-daily come-ons I get from those relentless rainmakers at the DNC (I swear, you raise money for John Kerry just once…!) – and didn’t get back to them in time.  A real Sliding Doors kind of moment, I bet.  CNN!!  So that’s why I didn’t dither when I received an email, on Day 15, from a correspondent working for Czech TV. He said he was covering “various shutdown angles,” surely code for journalistic desperation.  I felt a strange sense of compassion when I finished his note, so I called him right away.

Would I be available for an on-camera interview today at 5 p.m.?  YES YES YES YES YES!!!!  I suggested we meet in Malcolm X Park, although for his benefit I referred to it by its given name, Meridian Hill.  I shaved for the first time in days.  We did some establishing shots: standing and talking, walking and talking, other simple motor movements and talking. I wasn’t mic’d so our chit chat felt like a dry run for the discussion to come.  “We’ve lost the art of the possible,” I said.  Had Czech ears ever heard such a thing?

Let’s do this.

Malcolm X Park – Shutdown siesta!

We sat on a bench near a dozing, boozy clutch of Park People.  Sure, we risked an untimely paroxysm or two, but this story was just too important.  C.T. (as he shall be known here) started in…

How long had you saved for your New Zealand holiday?  What’s it like spending that money on your furlough?  I stopped to clarify some basic points:  I’m technically getting paid, a small inheritance will finance the trip, etc.  C.T. looked puzzled.  Well, how do you think this crisis will end?  My inner pundit assembled a decade’s worth of lefty talking points, which poured freely in a complex, clause-heavy, run-on of a sentence punctuated with “What am I trying to say?”  Maybe they could edit it down.  C.T. looked at the camera man, who made a “tape-rolling” gesture, then back at me.

What have you been doing with your free time?  “Writing, working on new stage material.  You know, this summer I did my first one-man storytelling show…  It’s called No Sex, Please.  Actually, I’m remounting it this month in Wilmington, Delaware, October 30th through November 3rd. It’s gonna be great.”  Will you talk about your experience with the shutdown?  OMG – he’s right!  This whole saga is perfect story fodder – the tale practically writes itself!

After a few minutes, C.T. thanked me and promised to send a link to the finished story.  May we use performance video from your website?  Holy shit, yeah!  I mean, “Of course.”  Certainly this report would lead to a commercial for a Czech chewing gum.

But on Day 16, the real story gathered new momentum.  Around noon-time, the hour-by-hour reports from the Congressional sandbox switched from vacant speculation to the specifics of a bipartisan appropriations deal – white smoke from the Capitol dome!  The shutdown would end tonight.

Today is Day 1 for hundreds of new stories, most suited for the 24-hour churn of the global news cycle.  Tales like mine have returned to the fringe.  But before I can move on with the masses, I’ve got just one question:  Why hasn’t C.T. sent me that link?

Update, 10/19/2013: C.T. has delivered!  See my Czech TV debut here (at ~1:35)!!

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About Derek Hills

DEREK HILLS is a storyteller and playwright from Washington, DC. He's notched over 100 performances on several DC-area stages, including Story District, The Moth, and Better Said Than Done. He's also appeared in "e-Geaux (beta)" and "Apocalypse Picnic" at the Capital Fringe Festival, and debuted his full-length comedy, "Prison Break, Incorporated," in 2016. He contributes occasional freelance arts criticism and essays to the Washington City Paper and Washington Post and is now working on two new shows: a play called "Shopworn" and a one-person show called "Boy of the Year," both of which will premiere in 2018.
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