My biggest professional shame is when I chickened out on writing a story where I knew I was right.
It was in the ‘burbs, so it wasn’t a Chicago story, but the themes of friend-friend deals, smiles and handshakes and winks and timing on contracts that they don’t want anyone to put together are the same. This one just happened in bucolia, where people are smiling and happy and rich and THINGS LIKE THIS don’t happen here.
The county paid $50,000 for a consultant to pull together a plan in case they should decide to add roundabouts. The consultant donated thousands upon thousands to the county board chairman. They even hosted fundraisers for her.
I was the one who put it together. Not the experts. Not the board members. Not the other reporters who scraped and scrabbled for dirt around that community where THINGS LIKE THIS don’t happen. Little 25-year-old me. The boy genius without the guts to stand by his convictions. Mycroft Holmes.
The “plan” they provided for $50K was cut and pasted from previous plans the consultant gave out. I spent hours going line by line through all the plans they did for other clients, for other municipalities and counties, highlighting pages where the words were the same. I ended up just marking the beginnings and ends of identical passages because my highlighter was starting to dry up from overuse.
I called the state to ask about the consultant. I explained the identical plans sold over again. The woman on the phone chuckled darkly and said, “Oh, one of those.”
Then I had to get the chairman’s take on the situation. Balance, right? A chance to explain.
She organized a meeting, taking me into a back office with her, a stack of plans and the county transportation guy, a man I did and still do respect.
She berated me for an hour, variously cajoling and condescending to me that I got it wrong, that writing this story would damage the county for sensationalism. They wouldn’t show me any roundabout plan specific to the county – that wasn’t public, they said. She said she wasn’t involved in the selection process. She said it was all above board and I didn’t know what I was doing. This lasted, as I said, an hour.
Then she gave me a name of a guy within the county who she said was the one who selected the consultant. He did good work. I trusted him. His name carried weight with me, so I told them I wouldn’t write the story.
It was the look on the county transportation guy’s face as I left that back office, the look of embarrassment on my behalf and guilt on his, that I knew I had been had. He felt bad for how stupid I was.
We talked about these things at work this week, in our River North office by the constant construction. I didn’t tell of my suburban embarrassment. On a slow day at work, we told tales about Chicago.
My current boss told about when he moved to the city in the 1990s. He had to get his drivers license changed. He was moved to the front of the line because he was in a suit, tie and white skin. He protested, but was moved up anyway.
I told about an architect friend from my hometown. He tells a story about his first job in Chicago in the 1980s, and about the blank envelope after blank envelope he saw the developer toss into open drawers at the permitting department. They had their permits that week, the architect said.
I didn’t tell about a line cook friend of mine casually mentioning the new owner of her restaurant didn’t have the money to keep the health inspectors at bay.
I told about an old Lithuanian electrician the property management company sent over to an old apartment after I begged them for a week. He started swearing and yelling at the wiring. “Is stupid! Is stupid!” he kept yelling at the wiring. It had never been inspected. It was a fire hazard. I could have died.
Every one of my students who sent a FOIA to the City of Chicago for a project I assigned is now listed by name on the city website. The information the city is required by law to make public is not on the site.
A girl I once knew was assaulted by her drunk ex. He ran off. She called the police, who told her that before they found him, he had gotten jumped and beaten up. By someone not in blue, of course. This one I don’t mind.
I didn’t tell any of those.
We all know these injustices, these inequities. Some of us shrug them off as the way things are.
Some of us hate ourselves forever for being a trusting coward about roundabouts.
Even now, I’m a coward, my halfhearted desire to confess tempered by the fact I don’t have a company behind me to pay the legal bills should the nameless board chairman read this and sue. The transportation guy is still one of my LinkedIn contacts.
We want wolves in the world, people to shove these injustices in the faces of those who commit them and, like the end of an Agatha Christie novel, have the guilty scream “Yes, yes! It was me!” and get carted off to justice.
But we still keep the transportation guy on LinkedIn. We still jump to the front of the DMV line. We still work on the building project and we still darkly rejoice that the cops roughed up the abuser.
There are no shades of gray in the world, just black and white intermeshed so finely our brain makes us think it’s gray. It’s the only way we can process the world. It’s the only way we can forgive ourselves.
If we choose to do so.
Some of us never get around to forgiving ourselves for our culpability in these sins. We just go round and round in circles, looking for any way out.