FROM AARDVARK TO ZYMURGY
Theo Ribaldi, deputy director of California’s Department of Transportation, stood on the second floor of the administrative building for the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza. He stared through the floor-to-ceiling windows at Tollbooth 4, where his boss was having one of his trademark hissy fits.
Leaning forward toward the window, Theo thumped his forehead against the glass. Once. Twice. Now like a metronome of solid thunks. This was not how today should go.
Theo and his boss, George, were there to take part in a momentous event: the opening of the new Bay Bridge. Gleaming white, spanning the Bay, a project that finished over schedule and over budget. George loved ceremonial events and loathed doing any actual work, so Theo picked up a lot of the slack. Today he was in no mood to deal with the gyrations of a man-child with political aspirations.
“How goes it?” said a concerned voice to Theo’s left. The chief of staff to the mayor of San Francisco, who understood managing difficult-to-manage tyrants.
“Oh. Not great.”
“He’s still barricaded in Tollbooth Four?”
“So what, exactly, happened?”
“That reporter from KPIX, the pretty one? She told him that his light gray suit had gravitas.”
“So he came in here and found a dictionary on one of the admin’s desks. He didn’t know what that word meant, so he looked it up.”
“Fat! She called me fat!”
Theo held his iPhone with one hand and the bridge of his nose with the other as he tried to talk down his boss, who had locked himself in a tollbooth with a dictionary and a pair of scissors. This wasn’t even an unusual day at work.
“George, no. Not at all. She meant an appropriate amount of seriousness. It was a compliment.”
“Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.”
“What about it?”
“‘Origin: From the Latin for gravity, weight, heaviness.’ See? She called me fat. I can’t go out there. I knew this light gray suit was a mistake.”
“Read definition one. That’s what she meant. Read it!”
“‘Formality in bearing and appearance.’”
“Right! C’mon, George, this is a big day. Don’t do this.”
“Do what, Theo? Say it! Say what I’m doing.”
“Look, we talked about this, remember? I agreed to stop calling . . . this . . . a ‘hissy fit’ and instead say ‘personal protest.’ So let’s not have a personal protest today. This is a very big day for the entire Bay Area.”
“I can’t do it; call it off.”
“The mayors of both San Francisco and Oakland are here. The camera crews are here, the bridge is closed to traffic, and a line of cars is waiting to be the first to cross the new bridge. This is great exposure. Photos and video with you front and center helping cut the ribbon and ushering in a new era. You get to say a few words, good sound bites for Twitter. This raises your visibility. People will know your name when they vote for state senator.”
“No!” George said and threw his phone, which bounced off the bulletproof glass and winged him in the ear.
Theo heard “oooowwwww!” and then the distinct sound of a foot stomping an iPhone to death. Then silence.
George stopped stomping and huffed a little, out of breath. He was right, he knew he was right. That young blonde reporter had called him fat, and this light gray suit was a mistake. He was going to have to stand next to that pretty boy mayor of San Francisco, with his perfect hair and slim-fit suit. No.
He turned back to the dictionary in his hands, flipping pages vigorously, looking for a better word. He ripped page 629, from intellect to intentional, from the book and taped it to the tollbooth window. This page had promise. Page 631, from interest to intermediary, was attacked with scissors, creating a cloud of words and paper bits in the air.
A small speaker inside the booth crackled. “George, let’s keep talking. Hold down the red button to respond. The ceremony starts in five minutes. You are strong and powerful. You have great ideas. You are a leader, and you need to take your rightful place in the center of the dignitaries like the important man you are.”
George spun his head around the booth, looking for the speaker. Dismayed at the words in his ears, he shouted “Nooooo” as loudly as possible, then shoved several decimated dictionary pages off the small work shelf in the booth. His eyes landed on the red “talk” button in the corner, and he pressed.
“No. The wind is too strong.”
“It will create an outline.”
“The wind will push the cloth of my suit against me. You’ll be able to see my outline. It won’t photograph well. Colby’s outline is better. Mayor CrossFit, they call him. Let’s do this when the wind dies down.”
“This is the Bay, George. The wind never dies down.”
He heard Theo sigh, then a crackling silence on the speaker.
Then, in a small voice, “Let me see what I can do.”
George had worked his way to page 1516, from zoom to zymurgy, creating a pile of detritus up to his ankles when Theo’s face suddenly appeared in a side window of Tollbooth 4.
“Sorry I startled you, George.”
“It’s okay. Sorry I screamed and stabbed the glass with my scissors.”
“Understandable. We’re all a little tense. Can you come out? We need to talk.”
“You need to come out. I have a solution.”
“Hang on.” Theo stepped away and George whirled in the booth trying to see where he was going. It was hard to see; the bulletproof glass was a little fogged from his heated attack on the English language.
Suddenly a cherubic face appeared at the glass. It was her, that reporter. Ugh.
“Director Selznick, Theo told me how upset you are. I assure you, I meant it as a compliment. In that light gray suit, you stand out in a good way. The camera will love you. Please. Come out and christen this beautiful new bridge. It’s your legacy.” She turned to look at Theo, who nodded; then she walked away.
“Okay?” Theo asked.
“What about the outline problem?”
“I have a solution. Can you trust me?”
George nodded, as though thinking it over. He kicked at the pile of words and paper. He looked out across the water, pondering his decision, and sighed. Resolved, he put down the scissors and unlocked the door.
“What’s your solution?”
“Made out of . . . ?”
George knitted his brows. “Come again?”
“I’ve rounded up all of the interns from your office and from the mayors of both San Francisco and Oakland. A few admins too. There are about forty people total. They are going to form a half circle around you when you speak. They will block the worst of the wind. I personally tested it. No outline, I promise. Can we just . . .”
“Let’s do this,” George said, shrugging back into his suit jacket, brushing off the paper bits, and walking with purpose toward the podium like it was his intent all along.
And on that day, George delivered an impassioned speech about unifying the Bay Area, the value of the new bridge in forwarding progress, and his vision for future roadways connecting California. Inspiring phrases were retweeted, racking up exponential numbers. Video clips were shared on YouTube. The Department of Transportation’s Facebook page collected three thousand new followers.
The intern-based windbreak had worked.
Once the speeches were over, the dignitaries were beckoned to a spot with great lighting for a photo to commemorate the day. The intern-based windbreak did not follow.
As the shutter opened, George had no visible cloth outline, but the wind caused his tie to flap up, covering his face. The mayor of San Francisco’s hair, held together as one unit by copious amounts of mousse and spray wax, lifted, awkwardly exposing clear signs that his luxurious hair was a weave. And a seagull veered wildly off course, bashing into the mayor of Oakland.
All captured, shared, tweeted, and beamed in viral fashion to all ends of the earth.
But it was better than a cloth outline.
Which is what Theo told his boss, who threw another personal protest a few hours later when using his new iPhone to log in to Twitter.