Musings essential & frivolous

Ichbin Boycotting Benicia

By Dave Badtke

Published on 9/28/2010 by Benicia.Patch.com

I'm thinking it's a cry for help or my dogs barking -- my alarm system screaming? -- as I struggle to sit up in my bed, my sore back pulling me back down, finally realizing it's the phone. Pissed, of course. I was in the middle of that dream where all the bankers and CEOs and auto execs and . . . 

"It's me, Ichbin."

. . . and all the raccoons, too, those damn raccoons that cause my dogs to go nuts in the night. All of them are lined up. Cate Blanchett is there helping me load.

"Hat pin?" I say, drifting away from Cate, looking sexy as can be, like Philippa Paccard, the terrorist in "Heaven," helping me load my Umarex Steel Storm tactical BB gun while I fire away at the bankers and CEOs and auto execs and raccoons who're yelping and bumping up against each other in my back yard.

"What? This some kind of joke?" I say, rubbing my eyes, searching for my clock's red glow. "You're selling hat pins at two in the morning?"

"Ichbin Überwältigt," the plaintive, distant voice says.

"Hat pins goober vaulting what?" I say, certain that I registered for that thing, that thing that's supposed to keep messages like this away forever. Once again Obama's letting me down.

"I-C-H ..." The voice starts spelling a name and suddenly I can picture Icky the last time I saw him on his boat, sailing out of the Benicia marina off to Hawaii to escape technological hell, his family, the financial meltdown. But then low tide got the better of him. (For the history, see my old BeniciaNews.com column included as a pdf.)

"Why didn't you just say it was you, Icky? You know I don't speak German. Out of the blue I hear from you after how many years?"

"May 13, 2002," Icky says, its preciseness giving the day weight. "It's the day I got stuck in the mud and had my epiphany, like Laurel in your column last week. It's when I decided not to think hateful thoughts."

"Which is more than 10 years ago."

Icky corrects me. "Eight."

"It seems like 10 because it's two o'clock in the middle of the" -- I suck my expletive back -- "night. What time is it there, in Germany?"

I hear a sigh. "I'm not there, I'm here, in Benicia."

"So it's in the middle of the night for you, too? Epiphany or no, this better be good. Somebody better be dead."

Now I'm sitting straighter and my mind is starting to clear. Actually, I'm happy to know that Icky's not the one who's dead. He's a good sort, but excitable, the kind of guy who gets himself all worked up, screaming at the T.V. as if it's real life, as if cable news with its air-head commentators is like a heavy-weather forecast by know-something meteorologists. "Anyway, it's good to hear from you. So you liked my column last week?"

"Well ..." Icky says, drifting through dead air like a man lost in purgatory. "Maybe I got a little confused in parts. When I tried using echolalia in a sentence, people looked at me kind of funny. But I liked Laurel's epiphany, her decision to be nice. I want to be nice, too."

 When someone you haven't seen in eight years calls you in the middle of the night to tell you that he wants to be nice, you know you're in for it. "Are you in trouble? I'm short on cash right now," I say, thinking that he's a flight risk and I'll lose whatever I give him. "I don't know if I have enough to bail you out. Why did they arrest you?"

"No, no," Icky says quickly. "It's nothing like that. It's more what I think I'll do. That's why I called you."

"Is it trouble with your family again?"

"No, they're as fine as I can expect. Sammy graduated from Cal and is trying to sell GM cars while he looks for a journalism job. Debby is doing a little better. After graduating from Davis she was offered a job as a Target floor manager, specializing in bath soaps. And Bobby's studying Mandarin and electrical engineering at Cal Tech. His future's the brightest."

"That's an odd mix," I say, realizing I might sound rude. "I mean, Cal Tech is fantastic, but Chinese?"

"I know, I know," Icky says, sadness in his voice. "I told him to polish up his German, that Germany still makes quality products, but his mind was made up. 'Dad,' he said, 'China makes everything. Just look around your house. Made in China is everywhere.' "

"That's not right," I say. "What about Silicon Valley? What about the Research Triangle? What about -- "

"I told him exactly that. But he said, 'Dad, get real. A few thousand Ph.D.s sitting in cubicles isn't making things.' He wants to get his hands dirty. He wants to be a part of making products that people use, like everything in my kitchen."

"Made in China?" I say.

"Everything's made in China," Icky says.

"Is that why you're calling, because of Bobby and Debby and Sammy? How's your wife? How's Rosy?"

"She's fine, though she's still watching cable news and complaining too much. I suppose I should be thankful that her complaints have moved on from major appliances to politics"

I'm thinking to myself that this is exactly what the pot calling the kettle black means, but say instead, "That's tough, Icky," but can't suppress my giggle. "Are you going to try to sail to Hawaii again?"

Icky's voice drops to a whisper as though someone is listening in on our conversation. "No, I called you because I'm going to boycott Benicia."

"Boycott Benicia? How are you going to do that? You live here."

A sorrowful sigh escapes from the connection as though all of life's burdens are pushing Icky into the dirt. "Exactly the problem," he says. "I'm mad as hell and don't want to take it anymore after reading J.B. Davis' article about Benicia's city manager in Benicia.Patch.com."

"Yeah," I say. "That was a good one, too, but it seems as though his pay is about what you'd expect for a city manager with a refinery. If you want quality, you've got to pay for it."

"Give me a break," Icky says, the whisper vanishing on a wave of outrage. "The city of Benicia doesn't make a thing and in 2009 there were 90 Benicia employees making over $100,000 a year. Some are making much more than that. That's more than a third of the full-time people working for the city. Can you believe that?"

"Are you sure about your numbers?" I say, comparing my salary to Icky's numbers and not feeling so great.

"I'll send you an e-mail right now with the numbers, so you can see for yourself. You're not going to believe it." (I've included the plot Icky sent me as a pdf.)

"But government is about lower salaries," I say, "about security and a pension. How could they get that high?"

"A year at a time," Icky says. "And I'm so angry that I've decided to boycott Benicia."

"Boycott the businesses? You want to do that in the middle of a recession?"

"No, no, no," Icky says. "I want to boycott the city, not the businesses."

"What the hell does that mean, Icky? How can you boycott a city government?"

"That's why I'm calling you," Icky says. "You need to help me figure that out."

I shake my head in disbelief. "At two in the morning?"

To be continued next week . . .

Benicia City Employee Pay Distribution
Previous column in BeniciaNews.com, Overwhelmed, Ichbin Sails Away
Dave Badtke, who teaches English at Solano College, can be contacted at Dave@Badtke.com. Find his blog at Badtke.com and copies of this and older columns at QCounty.com.