Woodrow Wilson’s League of Notions

There was a union steward at the Boston DO who would end almost every conversation by saying, “Let he who is not without sin cast the first stone.” That semi-Biblical prophecy actually came to pass one day when a nondescript black man strolled to the rear of the office – stopped – turned – and casually lobbed a rock out the window. At first we thought it was a sneak attack on some unsuspecting passerby, but it turned out to be a protest over what the rock-thrower called “fifty years of injustice” – to whom, he never specified.

His name was Woodrow Wilson he said as several of the SSA’s heftier employees hustled him out and introduced his nose to the corridor wall. After a decent interval they turned him over to the relevant authorities, and that seemed to be that. Just another wacky day at the Boston DO.

Until three weeks later, when Woodrow Wilson got even whackier. He once again waltzed through the outer office, this time with a ballpeen hammer tucked inside a folded newspaper. Claims Rep Jim Curran, reading as he walked back to his desk, promptly received several blows to the head with that day’s lead story in the Boston Globe.

Inside the manager’s office Woodrow Wilson asked, “Did I get the right guy? Did I get the HEW?”  (That was a reference to the Department of Health, Education & Welfare, which ran Social Security.) When a portly SSA employee responded by whacking him in the head, Wilson replied, “I’ve been clobbered all my life. It doesn’t bother me.”

Once again he was turned over to the relevant authorities. He was never charged with assault. As it turned out, he hadn’t gone before the court in the first incident either.

A couple of days later some claimant’s disgruntled brother took a swing at an SSA employee in the waiting room. Everyone began to think that working at a chicken- processing plant might be safer. It was time to call in the Management Experts.

* * * * * * *

   The next morning the Area Director of SSA Region II arrived at the Boston DO to reassure the troops that it was indeed safe to work for the federal government. He surveyed the roomful of anxious paper pushers and smiled quickly at us. “Let me start off by reminding you that we can’t provide total security from cradle to grave,” the AD said. That, of course, went over like the metric system. By way of explanation he added, “I can also tell you this: you get a more obstreperous claimant here because they live in this area.” In other words, geography is destiny.

Amazingly, the AD then proceeded to make the situation even worse. When pressed about safety concerns he responded, “If you don’t like the job, leave it.” So that meeting didn’t go well.

The following day the Area Director returned, this time accompanied by a lawyer from the Regional Attorney’s Office. We were being walked up the ladder – a sure sign that management had started to panic. Halfway through the presentation by the Regional Attorney’s attorney, in walked two Federal Protection Service officers, who said they would be happy to turn guys like Woodrow Wilson over to a Federal Magistrate, if only we would call them, which we didn’t know to do until then. Regardless, we were left with the impression that the whole thing was our fault.

Several days later government-approved workmen installed a gate in the waiting room, and the General Services Administration installed a security guard there. Over the next year the office hosted a number of different guards, all of whom earned nicknames like “Mad Dog” and “Dirty Harry.” The nicknames, of course, were a joke, much like the protection.

The guards and the gate at the DO were two side effects of l’affaire Wilson. Another was the birth of a weekly newspaper.

The Free Nameless News

The Free Nameless News started out as The Nameless News and cost 10¢ per issue.

Vol. 1, No. 1 included a detailed account of Woodrow Wilson’s first foray into the Boston DO; a breathless report of a fire in the building the same week; and miscellaneous items such as this one.

 (The redecorating crew’s lasting contribution to the DO was a genuine reproduction 18th century mural in the waiting room, which depicted either the Philadelphia or Boston waterfront. It included, from left to right: a young lad who looked like Tom Sawyer, a building in the Federalist style of architecture, a Greek revival building, an academic complex that vaguely resembled Harvard University, a fleet of ships flying the French tricolor, and what looked like a group of Colonial working girls waiting for the fleet to come in.)

The debut issue of The Nameless News also featured – predictably – a Name That News contest, which drew zero entries.

On top of that the Nameless News editors were firmly advised by management that we could not profit from a publication produced on public-sector time with public-sector resources. So the 10¢ was out. The Free Nameless News, we decided, was a natural for the new name.

The paper itself was less of a natural, since it was published inside what can only be described as a Soviet-style bureaucracy – so much so that the editors sought a nihil obstat from the Assistant District Manager every week.

No surprise, Vol. 1, No. 2. carried the paper’s first – but hardly last – apology.

On Valentine’s Day (Vol.1, No. 4) the News was printed on pink paper. On St. Patrick’s Day (Vol. 1, No. 8) the paper was green. In-season the News carried recaps of the games played by the Boston DO basketball and baseball teams (the SSADISTS and SSERFS, respectively, both of which waged fierce rivalries with the Lynn DO, for reasons largely unknown even at the time). There was also a regular feature called Edits & Rejects, a hodgepodge of gossip and inside jokes that are now largely incomprehensible. A sample:

The undisputed hallmark of The Free Nameless News, though, was its endless procession of contests, most of which were thoroughly ignored by the readers. In addition to the Name That News fiasco, the paper sponsored a Name That Team contest for the DO basketball squad, and, for the softball squad, another Name That Team contest, which included this note: “As your editor, I’m sick of people not leaving their responses on my desk, so this time you are invited not to leave them on Ed Fitzpatrick’s desk.” (Fitzpatrick later earned the Quote of the Week for asking, “Is that why Jesuits don’t eat pork?”)

At one point there was also a Mother of the Month feature, which included the following exhortation: “This is a new feature of the News. If you wish it to continue, you know what you have to do.” The Mother of the Month, needless to say, didn’t last long.

Like a dog walking on its hind legs, the remarkable thing about the paper was not that it was done well, but that it was done at all. Even so, reading The Free Nameless News 45 years later can only be described as a sobering experience. The paper contained a startling amount of god-awful writing, much – although not all – of it contributed by me. Especially egregious was my 10-part series “A Modest Analogy,” which took place at the Ideal DO, featured a large cast of characters whose names were anagrams of the bosses’ (Barfe Nigley was my favorite), and earned first-ballot entry to the Bad Prose Hall of Fame.

Despite all that, The Free Nameless News published 22 editions in three stuttering volumes over the course of a year. And it produced the highest compliment I’ve ever received: One Friday three dozen hardened federal bureaucrats stayed fifteen minutes after work to get that week’s edition of the News.

The following Monday, the Assistant District Manager shut the paper down.

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