Normally I don’t take cases like this. But what’s normal about a geek named John Q. Public who has 1.7 kids, 2.2 cars and is between the ages of 18 and 35? When I arrived that morning he was already wearing out what was left of the carpet in the lobby.
My secretary had the day off — in fact, given our recent dispute about the constitutionality of the minimum wage, she had the rest of her life off — so after the introductions I let him into the office myself and sat him down in one of the two beautifully appointed folding chairs. Demographer’s dream or not, he was shaking like a paint mixer, except that there were no metallic clamps holding his five-gallon, flat enamel head in place. Suddenly tears and words came pouring out of him in a rush of pent-up emotion.
“I don’t know if I can take it any more, Mr. Freeman,” he sobbed.
“Call me Mike,” I said, “and you don’t have to take it, whatever ‘it’ is.” I reached into the bottom desk drawer and offered him a well-preserved quart of Old Granddad. But neither of us could unscrew the lid from the specimen jar, and the sight of Old Granddad’s gaze following us around the room from behind 32 ounces of formaldehyde was pretty creepy, so I put the jar back.
“I think I’m going nuts,” he said. “Either that or there’s a secret government conspiracy to drive me nuts. But that sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”
“Not in my book.” I handed him a copy of my book and helped him find the index entry for “Nuts, government trying to drive you.”
“I seem to have split into two disparate personalities,” he continued.
“No crime there, unless neither of your personalities can afford $200 a day, plus expenses.” He grinned.
“Nothing like that. You see, according to every newspaper editorial writer in the country, when I go into a polling place, I’m a philosopher king.”
“So?” I lit up a menthol Philosopher King and blew a smoke ring at the miniature plastic hula girl holding down the loose papers on my desk.
“So in an election year, they always say I combine the practical wisdom of Aristotle with the democratic idealism of Thomas Jefferson. Plus they assume I’ve read more history than Arnold Toynbee, I question everything, I’m familiar with all the issues, I’ve written my own position papers, I can recite the party platforms backwards, and I’ve taken the time to get to know each of the candidates personally. Naturally, I assume the same about them.”
“Naturally. Aside from your almost crippling sense of self-effacement, however, what’s the problem?”
“It’s what happens when I leave the voting booth and walk into the supermarket, Mike. According to these same editorial writers, as soon as I stop voting for politicians and start voting with my wallet, I instantly lose 100 IQ points. My mind goes blank. My will withers away. I shuffle like an extra from Night of the Living Dead, helplessly controlled by whatever blatantly commercial propaganda flashes in front me. A cartoon dromedary can cause me to inhale poisoned narcotic air. An action movie merchandising tie-in can convince me that a shooting spree is the best way to resolve all conflicts. The richest man in the world can get me to give him more of my money in exchange for a software package that barely works. In short, I become a drooling idiot with no moral center.”
“That is a problem, unless you are by profession a newspaper editorial writer,” I said. He shook his head sadly.
“I’m just a humble marriage broker. Although I’ve just bought a controlling interest in Larry King,” he added with a touch of pride.
“Let’s leave the sordid details of your job out of this and concentrate on the relevant facts, Mr. Public. As a citizen and voter, it appears you are proud, brilliant and independent — what was your phrase? — a philosopher king straight out of Plato’s Cave.”
“That’s right…if you believe all the newspaper editorial writers.”
“Like gospel. Yet these same infallible moral lighthouses say that as a consumer, you are a blind cave salamander, a quivering worm, a helpless, ignorant moron incapable of choosing a breakfast cereal without the aid of a corrupt, inefficient, multi-billion-dollar bureaucracy.”
“That’s it in a nutshell, Mike. Can you solve this one?”
“It’s not a one, it’s a two,” I said.
“A dichotomy. There’s no mystery here. You suffer from Bipolar Buying-Voting Dementia, like every good American. When you vote, you’re a genius and whatever you decide is always the best of all possible worlds. When you buy, you’re a low-grade numskull who must be protected from himself at all costs. Oddly enough, that makes you two completely separate individuals who live in the same body yet have nothing to do with each other — unless you happen to be buying votes. Then you are still a genius, but an evil genius.”
“Sounds awful. What can I do?”
“Simple. Take this handy portable voting booth that I keep around the office for emergencies just like yours. Strap it to your back, carry it with you at all times, and you’ll always be a voter imbued with the wisdom of the ages, not a consumer imbued with the imbecility of the marketplace. And you’ll never feel like a bumbling, incompetent yahoo again … until you get married.”
“That’s very generous of you, Mike, but are you sure you won’t be needing this yourself?” I chuckled softly.
“You forget this is Chicago, Mr. Public. You have to be dead 20 years before they’ll let you vote. By my count I’ve still got 14 years to go. Anyway, I gave up voting when I realized it was worse for my health than smoking Cuban cigars, drinking Everclear and playing Russian roulette.”
“You mean I’ve got to wear this thing for two whole decades?” he yelped. “But when do I get to pull the lever?”
“If that’s all that’s troubling you, I suggest you take the next flight to Las Vegas. They’ll let you pull all the levers you want. It’s almost exactly like voting, except the odds are better, they take less of your money and at least you get a few laughs along the way.”
He looked as happy as Nick Nolte’s dealer.
“Gosh, Mike, how can I ever repay you?”
“I prefer bright shiny new Krugerands, but I’ll settle for some old-fashioned silver dollars,” I replied.