Pop. Politics. Sex. So On.


Gummint Work: Pushing Paper from Here to Retirement

During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college I worked for the New York City Department of Transportation measuring newsstands. That was my second summer at the DOT. My first stint, just out of high school, involved the less glamorous task of standing around under bridges. Officially I was an Engineering Technology Trainee—an unlikely title for someone who just weeks earlier had to pay $5 for the answers to his final exam in mechanical drafting. Indeed I had no interest in engineering whatsoever (the course in drafting was required at my high school, a vestige of some earlier era in which students were expected to receive a well-rounded education). I got the DOT job through family connections, and kept it because it paid nearly $10 an hour—a salary well beyond any other available to me at the time.

Besides, I never did figure out what the job had to do with engineering. I was assigned, that first summer, to assist in an inventory of unused DOT property. Essentially, the department owned various small pieces of land which had only ever been identified on paper. No one knew what was actually there. With a partner (I forget his name — Norman, maybe), I would have to locate the plots in question and make a note of their condition. They were never more than 25 yards square or so, and usually turned out to be vacant lots underneath bridges or overpasses. Norman and I would look around for a few minutes and then write down, "Lot No. 127: Vacant lot underneath Kosciusko Bridge. Much graffiti. One overturned garbage can." Then we'd move on to the next site. Occasionally our target was an area of sidewalk measuring two feet square or less. We would solemnly record, "Lot No. 202: section of sidewalk. Small crack," and then go and collect our paychecks.

I had no qualms about earning such outrageous money for the job I was performing, partly because I was under the impression that once our inventory was complete, the DOT planned to sell off any land it deemed unnecessary, thus making a profit for the city despite extravagant spending along the way. I don't remember if I had any reason, at the time, to believe that there was a burgeoning market for random patches of sidewalk. Perhaps the Jets wanted to build hundreds of very small stadiums.

I also knew that as much money as I was making, it was nothing compared to George Foster Mapping Unit. That's what the plaque on his desk said, and we never referred to him by anything less than this full name. Norman and I held George Foster Mapping Unit in the highest respect—he was the living embodiment of the ideal city employee.

When Norman and I were not poking around under bridges we frequently spent time studying maps of the city on the floor where George Foster Mapping Unit worked. Or rather where he sat, since no matter how carefully we watched him, we never once caught George Foster Mapping Unit engaging in any activity that could be considered work. The authoritative plaque was the only thing on his desk, except for the occasional coffee mug or copy of Sports Illustrated. He looked as if he'd been approaching mandatory retirement age for the past ten years, and had nothing pressing to get done before it came around. He sat motionless at his desk for hours at a stretch, breaking only for an occasional conversation with a co-worker, or to get a fresh cup of coffee. We were in awe.

One day, in a giddy mood towards the end of the summer, Norman and I dialed George Foster Mapping Unit's extension from our phone upstairs. "I'm calling from the employment service," I lied. "I understand you're looking for work."

George Foster Mapping Unit sounded confused. "No sir, I have a job."
"You do? That's very strange. I wonder how you got on our list." Then I went in for the kill. "So, uh, what is it that you do?"

There was a pause. "I'm in mapping," he said.

"You make maps?" I tried.

"No sir," George Foster Mapping Unit explained. "I'm in mapping. I'm not looking for work."

Of course I had to come back the following summer. This time I was teamed up with an old friend named Lev, who had gotten the job through the same beneficent connection as me. Shortly before we arrived, it turned out, a minor political crisis had erupted in the city. Residents of certain ritzy neighborhoods in Manhattan—neighborhoods that provided crucial support to Mayor Ed Koch, who was up for re-election the next year—had decided that their sidewalks were becoming too cluttered with newsstands. They're too big, too messy, too hard to get by, the residents complained. Aren't there any regulations?

There were, in fact, but nobody quite knew who was supposed to enforce them. By default it was decided that evaluating the newsstand situation would be the responsibility of the Department of Transportation. Specifically, the DOT's Office of Land Use Management, where Lev and I ended up. It was a typical City government outfit. All the secretaries had tall blond hair and thick accents, and all the senior staff were named Frank.

Lev and I were provided with a list of regulations governing newsstands: No more than ten feet tall, five feet wide, must be at least nine feet from the property line, etc. We were also given laminated ID cards, a tape measurer, and a Polaroid camera. The camera was a particular source of glee around the Office of Land Use Management. The Franks took turns capturing their staff with surprised expressions on their faces and marveling at the instant development process. Why not? They had requisitioned several cases of film.

There were nearly 300 newsstands in Manhattan, and Lev and I set out to measure and photograph them one at a time. Flashing our ID cards at the news vendors in a friendly yet authoritative manner elicited many different responses, from bored curiosity to outright agitation. Although we explained repeatedly that we were merely conducting a survey and not assessing fines or preparing to tear down anyone's source of livelihood, we were often viewed with deep suspicion. Occasionally a vendor yelled at us and threatened to call either the police or a cousin who worked at another newsstand nearby. More often there was a flurry of activity as the vendor shifted piles of newspapers from one side of the stand to another or turned off or on air conditioners, presumably in a desperate attempt to comply with some regulation that he knew better than we did.

Only once were we offered a bribe, by an over-friendly vendor who insisted that we help ourselves to a soda or some candy while repeatedly pointing out that he had not done anything wrong. When we refused graciously, he began to look very worried. We assured him that we had no interest in giving anyone a fine. Using the F-word, of course, only made him more nervous. Finally, just to calm him down—and maybe because the temperature was hovering around 90 degrees—Lev and I agreed to accept a couple of sodas. We then promised our friend again that a fine was out of the question. He seemed to believe us.

The only time the peculiarity of this job struck me was when I found myself trying to explain what I was doing to a curious passerby. Saying that we were conducting a survey of newsstands for the Department of Transportation only led to more questions, inevitably leading to the one for which I had no good answer: Why? Eventually I found myself telling people that the newsstand was going to be used in an upcoming episode of The Equalizer, a popular television show at the time, and that we were measuring so that they could coordinate the stunts. This was far more plausible to people. One woman got very excited and begged me to tell her when the episode was going to be on. I told her to call the network.

Midway through the summer, Lev and I presented the Franks with a progress report, and showed them how we had maximized our efficiency by designing a universal newsstand schematic for recording our data (Lev's drafting skills were better than mine). The Franks were so impressed with our hard and intelligent work, that they rewarded us in the time-honored city government fashion: we were promoted to a position in which we would have to do virtually no work at all.

We were appointed heads of our own newsstand task force, made up of other Engineering Technical Trainees who would go out and acquire data which they would then bring back to us. We were given a spare office, which we decorated in the mandatory bureaucra-chic style: with Xeroxed signs that said, "One of these days I've got to get organizized," and "You don't have to be crazy to work here—but it helps." We spent long hours drinking coffee, reading Sports Illustrated and conversing idly with our fellow city employees.

When we got bored we devised new entertainments, the best of which was swivel-chair basketball. Our office was small, but if we pushed the desk all the way to one side there was enough room for a game of one-on-one. We used a Nerf ball and a net attached to the top of a bulletin board otherwise festooned with photos of our favorite newsstands. The only rule was that we could not get out of our rolling city-issue chairs, which we propelled with great force around the room, ricocheting off the walls and each other in attempts to sink a basket. We were in the middle of a game one day when the door opened suddenly. It was one of the Franks, following the trail of an electrical cord that led from the main office and plugged into an outlet in ours. I had never noticed the cord before, and certainly didn't notice it when my hurtling chair dislodged it. Frank looked at the disconnected cable, at the desk up against the wall, and at the basket. "Um, the computers seem to have gone off," he said, more in confusion than anger.

By the end the summer, the great newsstand survey was nearly complete. A few months later, I received in the mail a copy of the official DOT report on the status of newsstands in Manhattan. It was very nicely bound, and, I knew, destined to be filed away where it would never be looked at again.

That report was to be the only physical evidence of my summer job. Not a single newsstand was removed or rebuilt. The mayor lost the election. And when the new mayor came in, he brought in his own people, sending my family friend at the DOT into exile. The next summer, I worked at a bookstore for minimum wage. —Daniel Radosh

This story originally appeared in The New York Press, 1994