There is a little town not far from here, a very prosperous town, one that people aspire to live in. Couples scrimp and save to build up a down payment on a house there, knowing their children will receive a good education in its schools, and their old friends will say “They must be doing well if they can afford to live in Swellsville.”
Another thing that people like about Swellsville; town officials are just as thrifty as the people who live there. They work hard to keep taxes low, for which they are justly praised. They know that if they slip up and spend too much money on storm drains or fire trucks or playground equipment, it can mean the end of a very good job for them, and they’ll end up at a less affluent town, at a lower salary.
One such town is Needsville, right next door to Swellsville. Town fathers and mothers in Swellsville keep an eye out for rising talent in the competitive crab bucket of municipal managers, and when they heard that Mike Macree had kept costs so low that Needsville’s bond rating had gone up, they made a discreet inquiry as to whether he’d like to make a switch to Swellsville.
“How much does it pay?” Mike asked, and when he was told, he said “That’s not enough for me to buy a house in Swellsville.”
“That’s okay,” they said. “One of the many advantages of our town is that the help can’t afford to live here.”
Mike thought about it for a while, and decided he would take the job after he was told that, as a town employee, his kids could attend Swellsville schools even if he didn’t live there.
Mike set to work with the high energy he’d brought to every job he’d ever had before, poking and probing for fat to be cut. He deferred some maintenance on street lights, cut a position at the Department of Public Works, and talked a principal into early retirement. He wasn’t ready to pat himself on the back, though. “I’ve just skimmed the surface,” he said one night as he made himself another cup of coffee for a final pass through the budget, determined to deliver the goods for his new employer.
As the clock ticked past seven and he began to get bleary-eyed, Mike’s energy flagged. “Maybe I should go home and start again tomorrow,” he said to himself, but he only had thirty-four more pages to go; best to soldier on, he thought, hoping to find some hidden pocket of waste, fraud or abuse the good government types are always confident can be eliminated to keep taxes low and the level of government services high.
Then, like a hidden figure in a children’s puzzle that suddenly stands out from the background, he found it: “Christmas lights–$50,000! Good gravy! I should be able to cut that by more than half!” And so he fired off an email to the head of Swellsville’s Department of Public Works. “No overtime for Christmas tree lighting this year. Put a string of lights on the tree in front of Town Hall, and call it a day.”
The next morning when town offices opened and the Director of the DPW turned on his computer, he was shocked and saddened. “So this is what we have come to,” he said, shaking his head. “They’re going to take Christmas away from the people of Swellsville, just to save a measly five figure sum!” He clicked “Reply” and typed “Will do—although I’m sure this will generate a lot of controversy among people who are opposed to merciless budget-cutting that kills the spirit of Christmas.” He sent a copy to himself, and when it popped up in his in-box, he sent it to every town employee and to the town’s listserv. First shock, then disbelief, then outrage radiated outwards across Swellsville, like rings from the spot where a rock hits the surface of a pond. “How could he?” wrote one. “How DARE he!” exclaimed another. “Who IS this Mike Macree guy?” asked a third.
Soon, the humble city manager became an object of scorn by all right-thinking residents of Swellsville. After it had been determined by universal acclamation that the man’s heart was as small and black as a Spanish olive, he passed into the realm of ridicule. Someone noticed that his initials were the same as “meanest man,” and he came to be called “Meanest Man Mike Macree.” Another noticed that he had not two but one eyebrow, and he was reviled as “Monobrow Mike Macree.” “In fact,” one person wrote in her blog on local affairs, “his eyebrows seem to form one big ‘M’ on his forehead, like a mark of the monomaniacal monster that he is!”
Thanksgiving passed, and all lamented the lack of lights on the town green and on Main Street, where in years past the little white bulbs had lent an air of homespun commercialism to the scene. “What are we going to do about this jerk?” one burgher—the owner of an upscale cheese shop–asked another.
“We need a grass-roots movement,” said the other, who owned a high-end jewelry shop. “The man is menace to society, and society should hold him accountable!”
And so a social media campaign began to speak truth to power, and a march was organized. With candles in hand, hordes of angry citizens descended upon Town Hall, where they demanded Mike Macree’s head, or at least his job if his head wasn’t available under the terms of his employment contract.
“WE WANT CHRISTMAS BACK!” they chanted, louder and louder. The town clerk, an elderly woman, slipped out the back door, not wanting to be associated with the executioner-style budget cutter who was in charge of things.
“WE WANT CHRISTMAS—NOW!” they screamed, and the bookkeeper in the assessor’s office decided to take a personal day to get in a little shopping.
“WE WANT OUR CHRISTMAS LIGHTS!” they shouted, loudly enough to wake the napping in their chairs at the town’s senior center.
Mike Macree looked up from his work and out the front window and exhaled deeply. “Well, it isn’t pleasant, but I guess it comes with the paycheck.” He took a last sip of soda, tossed the can into a blue recycling bin, and strode forth down the hall with the aspect of a man who has an unpleasant but necessary job to do, like a sheriff in a western movie who’s forced to confront a lynch mob, or a gang of outlaws—he wasn’t sure which.
As Macree stepped out onto the wide stone steps that led up to Town Hall, he was met with a crashing wave of obloquy the likes of which hadn’t been heard in Massachusetts since 1693, when the last witch was hanged in Salem. “WE DEMAND OUR CHRISTMAS LIGHTS BACK!” screamed one particularly obstreperous group of older women wearing red hats, which were designed to convey that they had unimpeachable moral authority—or something. One of them stepped forward and shook her finger in Macree’s face, saying “You’ve stolen our Christmas!”
Macree was taken aback by the vehemence of the angry people, but he collected himself. “Folks,” he said, “if you’d like to hear what I have to say, you’ll have to quiet down just a little, okay?”
An embarrassed silence descended upon the crowd—perhaps they had been a tad importunate.
“All right—go ahead. Speak,” said an elderly gentleman who’d been caught up in the madness of the crowd.
“Thank you,” Macree said to the man. “Folks, it’s like this. I was hired to do a job. Nobody likes it when their favorite program is cut, or eliminated, but we all have to make sacrifices. Like you,” he said, pointing to the head of the DPW.
“Me?” the man replied, with feigned innocence. “I was only trying to give the people a warm and wonderful Christmas feeling that they’d remember long after I’m gone.”
“And enjoying the pension, paid for by all the same folks, that grows larger each year with all the overtime you make—am I right?”
The DPW Director looked down at his feet, and shuffled them back and forth. “Well, there’s that too.”
“We could be spending that money on our schools—right? Maybe hire another kindergarten teacher?”
The DPW Director was silent for a moment, then was recalled to the train of his argument by an irrelevant whistle of a non sequitur he heard in his mind’s ear: “But–it’s the spirit of the thing that’s important!”
“Yes, the Christmas spirit!” someone shouted, and Macree turned to address her.
“Great—Christmas spirit!” he said. “Who could possibly object to that—unless one of the many Hindus and Muslims and Jews and atheists and agnostics who live among us?”
“They’re just . . . lights,” the woman said.
“If you believe that, you should probably go home and get in bed.”
“Because Santa won’t come down the chimney until you’re asleep.”
A collective gasp escaped from the lips of the crowd. “There’s no need to be sarcastic!” a man snapped.
“You’re right,” Macree said. “This is a serious matter, and no one knows that better than me.”
“Well, you sure don’t show it!” one irate man said with a scolding tone.
“Maybe that’s because I still haven’t gotten over what happened in Needsville a few years ago.”
“What was that?” a woman asked.
“We were putting up the Christmas lights on the town square as we always did. The men were working away, using a cherry-picker truck. A young man was up in the basket, stringing the high branches, when a gust of wind came along. It toppled the truck over on its side, and the man died.”
The crowd was silent, and if one looked closely there could be seen on the necks of those that weren’t concealed by scarves big lumps of sadness sliding down their throats.
“Did he . . . leave a family.”
“Yes. A wife and three little kids.”
An audible groan was heard.
“But—isn’t that sort of thing covered by insurance?” asked a man with a worldly air that signaled he understood such things.
“Yes, of course. There was $250,000—not a penny more–to take care of those four. For the rest of their lives, or until the mother could afford childcare and go to work.”
“That was it?” the worldly man asked.
“Well, you want to keep your taxes low, don’t you?”
“Didn’t they take up a collection for the poor people?” a woman with a saintly manner asked, her voice infused with sympathy.
“Sure they did—they had a bake sale, and a charity basketball game. Raised another $837. With that kind of generosity, that poor mother should be all set, right?”
The crowd was silent. “If I’d had the money that town paid to put up Christmas lights to give to her, I’d have felt a lot better,” Macree said.
The crowd began to dissolve, first at the fringes, then throughout the mass of humanity that had been so strident and unified in purpose just a few moments before.
“Just a moment,” Macree called out over the backs of the heads that were now moving away from him slowly. A few turned, others stopped still in their tracks, while some just kept going.
“Go home to your families,” Macree said, “and give them all the love you’ve got. That’s what Christmas is about, not a bunch of crappy plastic lights.”
Moral: Sometimes it’s the hard candy that has a soft, gooey center.