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Mar 23

You Are the Shadow

For his ongoing project "I’m Not There," Barcelona-based photographer Pol Úbeda Hervàs creates composite photographs from multiple exposures.The invitation arrived only a week ago: ‘The Presence of your company is graciously requested,’ it began. Arriving by registered mail, it included three, one-hundred-dollar bills for ancillary expenses and one round trip airfare. Now, with the Sun about to rise, you are walking through a metal detector, about to board a bus with dozens of other people from your flight, complete strangers who, like you, are dressed for this special occasion. The bus is almost full. A woman wearing a too-large, fluffy blue gown has her dress spread across the two seats on either side of her. She looks at you with a discouraging frown as you approach. Her high heels are blue, too, and so tight they look like they are frowning as well. A man in a turban looks at you stone-faced as you walk to the back. You take a seat next to a pregnant woman. She wishes you good morning as the bus starts to leave. You reply the same, but, like everyone else, you and she ride in otherwise silence through the dim, quiet streets of Washington D.C. The bus is joined by other buses as you pass through the gates to the White House. Cellphones come out, and a few hasty pictures of the Sun rising over this iconic building are taken, by others. The buses drive around to the back of the White House.

Clutching a claim ticket for your cellphone, you and the others are escorted past sniffing dogs and through still more metal detectors, then into a theater. There must be two thousand people or more. Different ages, different skins, and very different ideas on how to dress for a meeting with the President. Two rows in front of you sit a young man in a hoodie next to a woman in a hijab. Off to the left is a lady with a flowery derby hat, and not far away is a short man in a ten-gallon hat. There are women wearing scarves and men wearing skullcaps. Hair styles are a mishmash of everything from ponytails to buzzcuts, and just as colorful as the hats. In the din, you hear Yiddish, Spanish, Southern drawls, New England twangs and other tongues you do not recognize. All, with light laughter and calm expressions. A virtual vegetable soup of people sits anxiously in this theater with you, awaiting the President. Your invitation did not say what the occasion was, did not say you would be meeting with so many others. You ask around you, but no one knows why they are here.

‘Thank you,’ President Trump says as he walks on stage. There is no applause. He is dressed in dark pants, white polo shirt, and his traditional red golf cap. He looks older and heavier in person. There is no podium. He stands on stage with the microphone in his hand and begins, ‘I want to thank all of you for being here today on such short, and vague, notice. For those of you who called, I’m sorry we could not give you any more information until now. It’s important, as you’ll see. But first, I want you to look around and see who else is here today. And as you do, let me explain why you are here.

‘Look around, and you’ll see some others who look like you, but you’ll see a lot more people you don’t have much in common with. In fact, as far as I know, you all have only three things in common, and it’s got nothing to do with politics or religion or what neighborhood you live in. First, you are all American citizens who have not had their voting privileges revoked. Second, you have all been living in your community for at least one year, and third, you all own smartphones.’

As the President speaks, ushers walk the aisles and distribute small, white boxes about the size of a pack of cigarettes. Embossed on the cover is an outline of the White House, the only color is the tiny American flag on top of it. ‘I’ve asked you here at this ungodly hour of seven a.m. because it’s the only way to avoid the press these days. They think I’m playing an early round of golf. I’ll tell them after I’ve told you.’

‘Here it is.

‘I am asking each of you to volunteer for one year of public service to your country, to your President. I’m calling it, “Volunteers of America.” Great name. Perfect name for this program.

‘Specifically, I am asking you to use the app that is being distributed now to shadow your congressmen and senators. On this app, you will be able to see what bills are coming up, and with it, you will be able to vote on those bills just like your representatives do. They won’t be able to escape their shadow now!

‘There are thirty-three people here from each state and territory of the United States. Each one of you represents three percent of your state’s population. At the end of each vote, the way you cast your vote will be compared to how your congressmen voted, and those results we will give to the media and everyone on Capitol Hill. Now, I know you have a hundred questions, but I already know what they are. Believe me, I thought this through. I thought it through more than any other program I thought through so far. Volunteers of America. Great name, isn’t it?’

The person next to you raises her hand and asks, ‘Isn’t that name already taken? The VoA has…’

‘We’re talking to them,’ Trump interrupts. ‘We’re talking to them. They may change their name to the Original Volunteers, or the Old Volunteers. You know, they’ve been around for over a hundred years. Great organization, does great things.’

But in your mind, you’re hearing Jefferson Airplane’s song Volunteers. The lyrics, their meaning, Woodstock, the trembling times of fifty years ago. You look around and see much apprehension on others, too. You open your box. In it is a flash drive and you are almost afraid to touch it. There is also a business card-size note signed by the President that reads, Thanks for volunteering to make America great again! Grace Slick wails in your mind, Look what’s happening out in the street.

The P.O.T.U.S. continues, ‘Your votes will not count towards the passing of any bills. That’s not legal. Your votes are not binding, but your lawmakers are going to see where they are out of sync with your votes, and you, and the world, are going to see where they are not in step with how they should be behaving on your behalf. You, the Volunteers, will have the results of both Volunteers’ vote and your representatives’ – in-real-time! As it happens, folks, so the media cannot fake the results. Not to you, anyway. If they report something different, you’re gonna report that. This is so beautiful, because not only are we going to hold Congress accountable, but the press, too!

‘You know, I once had an accountant tell me he could add up a column of numbers to say whatever I wanted it to say. I fired him, folks. I told him I don’t need a cook in the accounting office and fired him on the spot. That’s what they do! They add the column of numbers to say what they want! We gotta stop that. You, the Volunteers of America, are gonna stop that.’

Trump continues, but your mind drifted back to those bold headlines fifty years ago; Johnson, Nixon, party didn’t matter. You think, Slick had it right; This generation got no destination to hold.

Trump says, ‘This is so beautiful. Isn’t this beautiful? Actually, I didn’t think it up on my own, I had a little help from Ivanka and Jared. Isn’t she great? What a great daughter. Have you seen her Summer Collection? Great son-in-law, too. But back on script. Actually, as you can see, I’m not using a script. No teleprompter needed for this one. I’ve been ready for this one for a long, long time.

‘Remember, I promised to drain the swamp? Well, you are going to help me. With your help, we can force Congress to listen to your voices over the lobbyists. And then they are going to have to decide if they want to keep their jobs or continue to fill their pockets with…. Do you know; every single senator and congressman is a millionaire? Every single one! That’s why they want to keep their jobs – they want to be the Sous Chef of the accounting office!’

He shifts the mic to his other hand and continues in a calmer voice, ‘Now, this is strictly voluntary. You can leave here today and never download the app. That’s fine, too. You know why? Because there are millions of Americans just like you who don’t vote. And just as their silence goes without representation, so will three percent of your neighbors’ if you don’t. And that’s fine. That’s the American way, too.

‘Here’s what you won’t get, that your representatives do get. You will not get paid-in-full health insurance for you and your family for life. You will not get a $175,000 salary. In fact, you are not getting paid a dime. You don’t get an office with a dozen staff members, or a car or any travel reimbursement. You are not going to be invited to lavish dinner parties, or receive box seat tickets anonymously in the mail. But, like your senators and congressmen, you will only have to work 22 weeks a year. I guess that’s a perk. I’ve never taken that much time off from work. Ever. Hard to imagine any company staying in business if every employee took off six and half months a year. At $175,000 each. Just imagine. But that’s another story. Another problem I gotta fix. But not now.’

A man on the other side of the room asks, ‘Is this legal?’

Trump assures him it is. ‘Absolutely legal. One hundred percent legal. One hundred and ten percent!’

The man wearing the ten-gallon hat raises his hand and asks if their names and addresses will be published.

‘That’s nevva-gonna-happen, amigo,’ Trump shakes his head. ‘The only way anyone is going to know that you are a Volunteer of America is if you tell them. Which you are entitled to do. But WE are not going to reveal to the press or anyone else who you are. Even if you were to swear on a stack of bibles that you are part of this program, we will never admit it, or deny it. And one year from now, when your service is up, the app will be removed and someone else will have taken your place. The one thing you absolutely cannot do, the one thing that will get you booted out of the Volunteers in a heartbeat, is if you have any contact with any lobbyists while serving your country.’

The pregnant woman who sat next to you on the bus asks, ‘Are we going to be able to vote on what you do, too?’

The President hesitates. ‘That’s a good question.’ He covers the mic and consults with someone offstage. ‘No,’ the President says. ‘But that’s a good idea.’ He turns back to stage-left and says into the microphone, ‘Jared, make a note to include that in version-two.’

Someone in the audience shouts, ‘Supreme Court, too.’ A few applaud.

‘That’s good. That’s great, but no applause, please. There are no news cameras rolling. But this is great, folks. This is just what we want. Anybody else got any other good ideas?’

The woman whose gown took up two additional seats on the bus gets up and says very loudly, ‘I’m not gonna sit here and listen to any more of this man’s bull crap!’ She looks from the President to the others in the room. ‘Who’s with me?’ She takes a step to leave as others rise and choirs their agreement. The President says, ‘That’s fine. Walk out. But you’ll take millions of voters out with you.’

‘I never voted for you! I was one of the millions who protested against you!’ she shouts. ‘Get someone else to be your crony.’

‘No one in here asked to be here. No one! No one asks to be on jury duty, either, but if you’re called you must appear. It’s your constitutional duty. Think of this as jury duty. Now, all of you, sit down and hear me out. If not for yourself, then for the millions of protestors you will be abandoning! Or, don’t they deserve your vote?’

She stares long and hard at Trump, then sits back down and crosses her arms. Mumbled conversations creep throughout the theater until someone asks, ‘Why can’t we talk to lobbyists? Congressmen and Senators do all the time.’

‘Because that’s the swamp, my friend. Because that’s the swamp. If the Volunteers of America are going to have any value in the end, then you need to abide by that one rule. Just one rule. That’s all. If you choose to bring in other people, other voices, to help you decide, that’s up to you. Or not. It’s your call all the way.’ Trump asks stage-left for a chair so he can sit down.

After Jared brings it and he sits down, Trump continues in what sounds strangely like your father’s voice.

‘You see, you and me, we’re cut from the same cloth. We’re both above reproach because I love this country as much as you do. No lobbyist is going to bribe me! With what? A million dollars? Free golf for life? I’m untouchable. And so are you, as long as they don’t know who you are. What you are going to do – and what this program is going to do for years after you’ve helped pioneer it, with me –  what this is going to do is make congress great again. If only because they are under a glaring spotlight.’

Someone calls out, ‘Are you going to listen, too, Mr. President? Are you going to let that glaring spotlight shine on you?’

He doesn’t say anything at first, but his face turns as red as his hat. He says flatly, ‘I already answered that. Like I said; version two. But I’m not the problem. I’m above reproach, and everybody knows that. This program is run by you and run by you only. Vote, don’t vote; it all counts. And you want to know why this is so good? Why this is so great, actually? It’s great because everyone thinks the Electoral College is a bad idea. Maybe someday this will replace it. Think about this…. Just take a minute and think about this.’ He draws imaginary quotes over his head and says, ‘Volunteers of America Replaces Electoral College -Whadda headline that would make! Wouldn’t that make a great headline?’

Mumbled conversations fill the theater again. The person sitting next to you leans over and says, ‘Wow. This is a lot of responsibility. A lot of responsibility to walk away from, too. What are you going to do?’

You look at the embossed house on the box, the flag on top. Jefferson Airplane plays in your head, and you say…

 

What would you do?

  1. Would you believe the President? Or, would you be afraid of what’s really on the app?
  2. Would you walk away, knowing no one will ever know it was you who took away their voice?
  3. Would you volunteer? And if so, would you consult with your neighbors before voting, or would you just vote your conscience? Again, knowing no one will know who you are. It’s only for one year.

LMK, pls

-P

 

4 comments

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  1. Kelly Bixby

    Hi Phil. I once had the opportunity to represent students in my class and I did solicit their input. In the end, their wishes didn’t match mine, but I wasn’t in that position to represent my own interests. I shared theirs. Maybe that experience influenced me more than I realized. Now, I won’t stand for things I don’t really believe in.

  2. Barbara Pattee

    Interesting blog. Love the diversity of the people. The questions are a great way to involve your readers, but I’m still seriously debating what I’d do.

  3. Phil Rosette

    Yeah, but, what would you do?

  4. Yibbity

    You must have been happy to put this on paper and get it out of your head. A lot going on in the story. Sort of frightening was my thought, when I finished reading it.

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