When Government Feels Too Big

We’re in the middle of our most patriotic week. Retinas still burning from Monday’s rockets’ red glare, we’re hoarse from singing at sold-out baseball games, and the Eugene City Council has added the Pledge of Allegiance to next week’s meeting agenda. Apple pie sales are up.

So what fuels our desire to reduce government? After last Friday, I think I may have solved that mystery.

I got an email from the friend I was planning to meet for a workweek-ending libation at 4:30: “Can we meet a little early?” The sun had broken through. The weekend was begging to be stretched like county fair taffy. I replied, “Sure. Just one errand away. Meet me at 4:15.”

I parked near the downtown post office just before 4:00 and bounded up the stairs. I had been putting off standing in this line for almost two weeks. I had to sign for a certified letter being held for me — always a frightening thought. When I entered, fear and sadness collided.

The line of citizens snaked past the front door, an impromptu conga line, but without the music or fun. I’ve seen soup lines with more smiles. No wonder. They were choreographing themselves for an audience of two.

With only two clerks and no express lane, the line was disproportionately long for those of us with a 60-second task. At around 4:20, one of the two window clerks clocked out, doubling our wait times. Then the remaining clerk strolled off to get a woman’s held mail, disappearing for long enough to merit a milk carton mention.

Stoicism has its place, but there comes a time when you have to wonder whether you’re being civilized or being domesticated. Down to Earth is just a block away and I’m pretty sure they sell pitchforks.

There were two or three dozen of us in line. If we stormed the remaining open window to get a roll of stamps or file a change of address, we’d prevail unless reinforcements arrived. But reinforcements were just what we were so patiently waiting for, as if we expected to see a government-issued name tag that read “Godot.”

My turn came at 4:40. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” the lone remaining clerk conceded.

“Somebody somewhere ought to do something,” I countered.

He pushed toward me a stack of laminated cards with the post office’s 800 number on it. “Call this number and stay on the phone until you reach a person.”

He went to get my letter and I handed out the cards to everyone behind me in line. He returned before I reached the end of the line, so I hurried back to sign. What happened next came quickly, but the combination carried the insight.

I glanced at my watch. 4:41; 40 minutes to accomplish a 45-second task — my donation to the federal government’s belt-tightening. I opened the envelope as I exited. The state of Oregon was alerting me to an oversight that had been resolved by email a week earlier. The confirmation form had not included the detail that I could disregard the certified letter sent to me.

Then another surprise. My parked car had been festooned with a friendly note under my windshield from the city of Eugene. I had overstayed my welcome in a 30-minute parking space. It was as if federal, state and local governments had joined to pile on my weekend-lengthening plans.

Taken together, these experiences don’t prove that government has gotten too big. But they do show how citizens can feel too small in comparison.

If the postal clerk had added a little Les Schwab hurry to his gait or if his window-mate had simply acknowledged our misfortune when he walked away, the wait would have been more bearable. We want government to be unflappable, except when we’re flapping. When government workers shrug and tell us “there’s nothing I can do,” we know exactly how they feel.

I got to my Beer:30 appointment closer to 5:00, but my friend didn’t mind. Quiet moments have been rare for her since furlough days have been invoked to reduce expenses. She works for the government.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.