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Thursday, April 12, 2007 01:39 am

The last word on ethics

When political appointees cash in, guess who gets hurt?

Untitled Document The Tillerman is gone, but more on that subject later. I write stories. Some are published. One reward of publication is meeting new people. Strange people. E-mail people. They tell me information I’d otherwise not know. For example, after I wrote that God would come to Earth in June and declare ballroom dancing the One True Religion, two e-mails informed me that I’d rot in hell forever. The usual story generates three to four e-mails. Then I wrote about the revised state ethics test — a tale of state bosses, chauffeurs, and possible sexual harassment [“Revised ethics testing,” March 8]. Five weeks later, I’m still getting “ethics” e-mails — from public folks you know, from hardworking state employees, from Springfield, from Chicago — from Wisconsin! I stopped counting at 50. All of the e-mails thanked me; all said the same thing, using different words: You’ve found a niche. Keep the pressure on. Expose “them.” Don’t let up. 
Of course I’ll not “niche,” or pressure, or expose. That territory belongs to professional reporters who believe in facts, not a man who believes in old sneakers and strange e-mails. And so, after a few last observations, I’ll leave the ethics topic to the experts. • I was reading a book about Warren Buffett when I wrote the ethics story. Warren Buffet has $52 billion. He could buy the state of Illinois and give it to a busboy for a tip. Mr. Buffett has no chauffeur. • The director of the many-chauffeured agency I cited, not to be outdone by her subordinate’s $70,000 chauffeur, employed a $84,000 chauffeur of her own, her rationale being that she works as she travels back and forth from her Chicago home and Springfield. Warren Buffett lives in Omaha, Neb., because that’s where his job is located. • Newspapers told us that the $100,000 boss with the $70,000 chauffeur was reassigned. One e-mail told me that she received an $8,000 raise in pay — during her sexual-harassment “deposition time.” Punishment enough! Let her drink wine!
And then we heard no more on the matter, because Britney Spears flashed her ass and all the professional reporters went to cover “every angle” of the story. What about the Tillerman? He and I were fellow “ginger-walkers” — guys with bad backs, we bend over and sometimes stay that way. We walk gingerly to avoid putting weight on a step as bone rubs bone. And yet the doctors tell us to walk — and so we do. We ginger-walk a short distance, we sit down, we rest.
Although the Tillerman and I walked on different paths, we ended up resting near the same pond. Now and then he’d pick up the stale bread others had tossed about to feed the ducks, study it, then put it back from whence it came. “If I had $1,000, I’d buy a farm.”
“Be a mighty small farm for a grand,” I said. “Thousand acres,” he said, “I’d till it, plant bread seeds, be a duck-feed farmer — it’s what I pray for.” He showed me a trick: He laced string between his fingers and, with a flick of his wrist, pulled a teabag attached to the string from his shirt pocket. A child’s trick. He drank his tea from a can. He told me he wanted to put ducks on his head in the winter. “Don’t we all!” I said. “And while we’re at it, friend, you here alone? You got somebody to help you?” He told me that the social-worker lady came on Mondays. “On Mondays,” I thought, was six days a week too few for the Tillerman.
The next day, he told me that he lived in a room with walls! He was very old, quite insane, physically broken, and probably a drunk before he was bent in half — a life full of rain, a life with no sunshine. My back pain immediately turned minimal; his pain stayed maximal. “Sinful,” I think, that the chauffeured bosses run the state agency charged with caring for folks with every one of his problems. Where is the everyday social worker? Where is the money to unbend him? Where is the help for the Tillerman? All used up in chauffeur salaries and a $70,000 salary increase for the senator’s wife, I think.
I never saw the Tillerman again. He’s dead, no doubt; he was only holding on to life by a thin string and a prayer when we last talked. I’d write an obituary for him, had not Cat Stevens already written it. I’ll just paraphrase, liberally.  
Bring tea for the Tillerman 
Bread from the sun Wine for the women who made his rain come. Duck birds sing your heart away While the sinners sin, the child-man prays Oh Lord how he prays and prays
Today’s e-mail: A state employee tells me that they’ll soon suffer another inapposite ethics test. I picture a question about Britney Spears’ ass on the test. I do not picture the Tillerman — I’ve forgotten all about him. Perhaps the way-back e-mail was true: I will rot in hell forever. I’ll not be alone.

Contact Doug Bybee Sr. at dougbybee@sbcglobal.net.