To date the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent $20 million to set up a catfish office without inspecting a single catfish. I’m not making that up.
Senator John McCain, remarks on Senate floor in opposition to the Trans-Pacific trade bill, Wall Street Journal
As I gazed out the window of my office in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Catfish Inspection Office, a little internal voice that I recognized as my conscience told me that I probably shouldn’t spend the whole morning looking out at the Lake of the Ozarks just above Bagnell Dam. After all, I needed something to do in the afternoon, after I came back from my two-hour lunch at Catfish Larry’s. If I spent the first three hours of my day admiring the water–so beautiful and placid, like my girlfriend Verna Lee–I might be too bored to waste time looking at it in the afternoon.
No, things weren’t like they used to be at the USDA, ever since Senator John McCain got a bee in his bonnet about catfish inspectors actually–inspecting catfish. How naïve could he be? The Viet Cong must have fried his brain during his five and a half years in captivity, otherwise he’d realize that soldiers like him fought and died so bureaucrats like me could goof off.
The word “fried” made my mouth water thinking about the catfish basket at Catfish Larry’s. It comes with cole slaw and fries, so it’s a balanced diet of grease, carbs, more grease and artery-clogging mayo. I stood up, put on my USDA Catfish Inspector hat so I’d get priority seating (“Law enforcement–step aside!”) when I heard a buzz and saw my receptionist’s extension number on the screen of my phone.
“Catfish Inspector Dillard speaking,” I said. You have to keep the menial GS-0318’s in their place, otherwise they’ll start bitching that they’re “professionals” and don’t have to go on coffee runs anymore.
“There’s a school of fish out here that wants to talk to you.”
I gulped involuntarily. “Did you tell them I was here?”
“I don’t get paid enough to lie. For that you need to be at least a Cabinet Secretary, or a . . .”
“Enough with your cheap cynicism about our federal government!” I snapped. “Do you think I could duck out the back?”
“There’s a truck back there flipping the dumpster–you’re blocked in.”
Damn the Ozark Mountains, I thought to myself. Everything’s so hilly here its nearly impossible to find a good parking lot, like they have in, like Kansas, or . . .
“Are you coming out or not?”
I knew I was trapped. “All right,” I said. “You’ve got the Federal Marshalls on speed-dial, right?”
You know you want it.
I heard a snort through the earpiece. “You think you’re Abraham Lincoln or something?”
I’d had about enough of the punching-up backtalk from the receptionist, so I decided to face the music and dance. The sooner I got over talking to catfish, the sooner I could eat one. Or six.
I hitched up my pants, hesitated for a moment, then stepped into the reception area trying to look as cool as a cucumber–but I felt like I was lying in the sun at an outdoor produce stand, and so technically was sort of a hot cucumber.
“What can I do for you all?” I said in my most ingratiating federal bureaucrat voice.
The fish slithered across the floor to the point where I was standing. Their slimy whiskers flipped back and forth across my “rough-out” suede cowboy boots. Have to remember to write-up a claim for expense reimbursement after lunch.
“He followed me home–can I keep him?”
“We’re here to stop government waste and abuse,” one of the smaller fry said. Looked like the kind of fish who files his taxes a month early.
“Yeah–we want to be inspected!” another said. I started looking around for the 60 Minutes “gotcha” camera crew, but the fish had apparently come without human assistance.
“Now hold on, just a minute everybody.” Just what I needed–a bunch of gill-breathing escapees from a Tea Party caucus. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working hard . . .”
“You mean hardly working,” one of the fish said, and they all broke out laughing.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been mocked by a bunch of catfish, but it’s not pleasant. I have to take a lot of bullhockey in my job, but at least it comes from the mouths of distinguished assholes, like congresspeople and citizens complaining about why I didn’t catch the latest e-coli or salmonella outbreak. Hey–I was taking a personal day!
“This is why it’s so hard to get people to go into public service,” I remonstrated, and that shut the fish up. I don’t think they’d ever even seen a remonstrator before. I got it on cable TV, and it came with a battery-powered nose-hair clipper.
“We pay your salary, fat boy,” one of the more aggressive males snapped. How do I know he was male, you ask? He had a receding whisker-line.
“Folks, if you want to step into the conference room, I can receive your complaint in complete confidence.” A lot of guys couldn’t pull off that high level of aplomb, but I got a Class 2 Plombers license after I got out of high school, and it comes in handy at times like this.
“This appears to be some sort of chicken.”
I opened the door and the fish began to slither in, one by one. “Would anybody like something to eat?” Stupid negotiating trick: Give some loser a free cup of coffee and subconsciously he feels he owes you something. Which–if you’ve ever tasted the coffee in a federal agency break room–he most assuredly does not.
The fish looked at each other, making little moues with their wide mouths as if to say “What the hell, if he’s gonna offer, I’m gonna grab some!”
“I’ll have a couple hundred crappie,” one said.
“I’ll have a two-by-four and a tire,” said another. Sheesh–I knew they were bottom-feeding trash fish, but I had no idea they were that disgusting.
“Okay, let me get Velma Jean in here to take orders,” I said, and after the receptionist had taken their lunch requests, we sat down for some serious negotiating.
“I understand your frustration,” I said in a low, considerate voice once the door was closed. “I know you’re upset that after spending twenty million dollars on catfish inspection we still haven’t inspected any catfish. But you’ve got to understand–there are almost three hundred and twenty million people in the United States.”
“We’re not people,” one of them said.
“Fair enough. I walked right into that one. On the other hand I’m a people . . .”
“A people who needs people?”
“No, I’m a people who works for the federal government, so I’d rather not have anything to do with people. But catfish–that’s another story.”
I saw just a glimmer of approbation in their eyes.
“We’ve never had a catfish office in the history of the United States. I’m going to be at the helm when we open up the first one. Think about that. I’m going to be the George Washington of catfish.”
The Millard Fillmore of catfish
“Wow,” one of them said. I didn’t think they were supposed to be too smart.
“So I’m only gonna get one chance in my life–America’s only got one chance. I’m gonna get this right no matter how many million dollars it takes–okay?”
If they’d had feet, they would have been up on them, cheering me on. What’s the old expression? Patriotism is the last refuge of the catfish? Something like that.
“When you put it that way,” one of the smart-aleckier ones said, “I’m behind you 100%.”
“No you’re not, you’re in front of me–right there!” I said as I poked him in his big, soft, white underbelly.
I had them eating out of my hand by then, so it was a good thing the receptionist was back with lunch. “Let’s see, did you order the tuna?” I asked one.
“No–I had a dead dog. And a Cooper Mini.”
“Right, right,” I said as I passed around napkins, salt and those little coffee stirrer things–as an appetizer.
“What did you get?” one of them asked as I started to peel back the wax paper on my order.
“Oh, nothing you’d like,” I said as I discreetly dribbled ketchup on the fried delight who, for all I knew, was a relative of theirs.
“C’mon, lemme see,” another said, and then, after he’d raised his ugly head to take a peek, recoiled in horror.
“You . . . bastard!” he hissed through whiskers that wiggled like those strips of paper they put on room air conditioners in appliance stores.
“What?” one of the fish asked.
The offended fish looked around the room with utter contempt. “You won’t believe it!”
“How bad could it be?”
“He got fries–and we didn’t!”