Homer's encounter with Governmentium*

Homer has been Bubba's friend for many years. He lives down the road a piece from Bubba, which means he's out in the boondocks. He has an old mobile home that the tree branches have been blown down and poked a few holes in the roof, which Homer patched up by covering them with a blue tarp from the discount store in town. He putters around the place as best he can, since he's mostly stove up from previous injuries and just old age.

[This story is satire, written several years ago, but with the way things are going with the myriad of rules, regulations, permits and just the total loss of personal freedom, it is doubtful that many will view it as such and may even have their own true tales of the bureaucracy to tell. Take it for what you will... just sayin' - Homer]

OK. I got to feeling a bit guilty for not doing a number of things around the mobile and one thing that got on my mind was the old water pipe that runs from the well house to the mobile. It's fifteen or so years old, 3/4 inch flexible black irrigation pipe that I put down in the ground when I moved the mobile onto the family property. Sister's kids were teen agers at that time and "helped" me (i.e., watched me) run the line with a small rented backhoe and five hundred or so feet of the pipe. Not a big project, but time consuming.

I figured that since the old pipe has been underground for those fifteen years, maybe now was a good time to redo the old waterline, since one nephew had bought a shiny new garden tractor with a backhoe on it. So all it would cost would be the new pipe, fittings and a bit of diesel for his tractor. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

In fifteen years, things had changed a bit and prices had probably gone up, so I drove to the big orange DIY store to see what the pipe and fittings would run me now. Waltzing into the store feeling pretty confident that I knew what I needed and was doing, I marched directly to the plumbing-plastic pipe section and started looking around. I couldn't find any coils of the black irrigation pipe that I wanted so I asked one of the friendly guys in the orange apron where I could find it. After half an hour of trying to track someone down.

"You want three quarter inch irrigation pipe?" he asked.

"Yup," I replied confidently.

"What length?" he asked.

"Well, I'll probably need about five one-hundred foot coils, I suspect. That's what I used last time," I told him.

"Oh, flexible tubing, like they use for irrigation?" he said, now making some sense of my seemingly obscure request.

"Exactly," I told him. "Last time, I just got five rolls of it and it worked pretty good. Want to do the same thing."

"Oh, OK. You probably need to check in the farm and garden section. That's where that type of thing would be," he told me.

Thanking him for his help (?!), I sauntered over to the farm and garden section, which was helpfully marked with a very big "Farm and Garden" sign hanging above it. And some Spanish words underneath that. After spending a while looking for someone and finally finding another guy in the orange apron wandering around (hiding?), I stopped him and asked him where they kept the three quarter inch flexible irrigation pipe.

"Three quarter inch? Flexible? Irrigation?" he asked, seemingly obviously picking right up on my needs.

I nodded sagely, realizing that he'd gotten at least three fourths of the idea and said, "Yes. Pipe."

"Pipe?" he asked.

"Yes, pipe," I reiterated.

"Oh, pipe would be over in the Plumbing section," he helpfully told me, pointing back from whence I'd come.

"No, no. They sent me over here. They said that you kept all the flex irrigation tubing over here," I patiently explained to him.

"Oh. TUBING!", he exclaimed. "I thought you said 'pipe'. Sure, irrigation tubing is right over here. How much do you need?" he asked.

"Uh, Last time I used five, one-hundred foot coils, so I'm pretty sure I can go with that now," I explained, hoping he might understand.

He walking over to a large section that had a sign that said, "IRRIGATION" and had all kinds of plastic hoses and fittings.

"How big an area are you going to be irrigating?" he asked as he pointed to the coils of black tubing.

"I'm not. It's just going to be, uh, a supply line, basically," I said, not wanting to spend a lot of time describing my "project".

"Oh, you're just gonna use it as a supply for your drip lines, huh? What're ya raisin'? Flowers? Garden?" he asked.

"Uh, no, I'm just gonna replace an existing water line that's been buried for about fifteen years," I said, "Figured it might be about time." I grinned at him.

"Well, I don't think we got any three quarter inch. Lots of quarter inch, three eights, half, but I don't remember having any three quarters," he said, his mind apparently whizzing through the myriad items in the "IRRIGATION" inventory.

Perplexed, I said, "Hmmm. Last time I just bought coils of three quarter inch. Worked great. I really don't want to replace it with a smaller size, like half inch," I told him.

"Well, we got some five eights stuff, but it does't come in hundred foot coils. Only two hundred foot," he patiently explained to me. Great, I figured. I'd only have to buy three coils instead of five. No problem there. Might even leave a bit left over.

"OK, well, what size fittings do I have to get for the five eights stuff?" I asked, figuring that my simple mind coming up with 'five eights' would probably be wrong. See, I was picking right up on how things were going so far.

"Three-quarters," he said with an air of satisfaction.

"So I buy five eights tubing and use three quarters fittings on it. I guess that makes sense in some alternate universe," I said, rethinking the whole idea of replacing the water line.

"Ah, yup. Ya see, the tube is actually five eighths inside diameter, but it's three quarters outside diameter. So you would use three quarter fittings, 'cuz they fit in five eighths inside diameter. Five eights would be too small. They're for half inch stuff," he explained, certain that I'd missed out on that third grade class where they explained pipe diameters. Excuse me. 'Tubing' diameters.

"So, I'll need three coils of five eights pipe..." I started to say.

"Tubing," he corrected.

"Ah! Tubing. Three coils of five eights tubing and three or four of the three quarter inch connector fittings," I said, knowing that I always get more fittings than I calculate because of Murphy's law. Always would rather have something left over than have to make another trip to 'town' to get more. See! Not as dumb as I look.

"Uh, no. You'd only need two of the connectors to connect three pieces of the tubing together," he explained, trying to make me understand the elementary school math that I'd obviously missed or forgotten. "Ya see, ya takes the end of the first coil and connect it to the start of the second coil. Then ya connect the end of the second coil to the start of the third. See. Two connectors. Three coils of tubing." The look on his face as he explained the basic math indicated that he dealt with complete morons like me quite often.

"Right. Right. I see. But if I cut one of the coils for some reason, then I'd need more than two connectors. I always try to be safer rather than sorrier," I told him, trying to be apologetic for burdening him with my abject uselessness.

"Yah. Well, if ya cut it up, then ya'd have to have more connectors, I guess. But you said you were just gonna connect the three coils together. I can't know how many fittings you'll need unless I know how many times you're gonna cut the tubing. Why're ya gonna cut it up? Isn't it just gonna be a supply line? You said it was just gonna be a supply line. Now if ya'd said that it was gonna be cut up into sections, then I'd be able to help ya figger that out," he somewhat patiently explained, a little offended that I didn't let him into all the gory details of my nefarious plot to run a replacement for my water line.

I decided that I had most of the information I needed, looking at the price tags on the coils of tubing and the plastic fittings. I noted that the prices seemed a bit higher than I'd remembered. Quite a bit higher. Astronmically higher. The cost of my simple project seemed to have risen dramatically.

I thanked him for his most expert help but apparently his wild curiosity beat his normal professional disdain into submission. He asked, "So what ya gonna be irrigatin'?"

I smiled and said, "My house. I'm just replacing an old water supply line from the well to the house. Nothing major."

His face blanched a little and he asked, "Ya mean, yer gonna use the tube for potable water?" He hesitated, then realized that he should further explain the technical terms to me, since I hadn't indicated that I really understood much so far. "Ya know, water that you can drink?"

I hesitated a second because of the look on his face and the fact that he felt he had to 'splain 'potable' water to me. Against my better(?) judgement, I said, "Uh, yes. Is that a problem?"

"Oh, well, I wish ya'd tol' me that ahead of time. Woulda saved us a lot of trouble if ya had. Ya can't use this stuff for potable water. This is only for irrigation purposes. Ya know, like waterin' the garden or the yard. That kinda stuff," he pointed out.

"OK. Well, why can't I use it for potable water?" I asked, immediately kicking myself for such a dumb assed mistake.

"Well, first of all, this tube ain't certified for potable water use. It's only certified for irrigation use. You have to use pipe that's certified for potable water if you're gonna use it fer drinkin' and stuff," he patiently explained to me.

"Uh, well what's the difference between this tubing that's certified for 'irrigation' use and the stuff that's certified for 'potable water' use?" I asked, continuing to mentally kick myself for getting into this discussion.

"Furstly," he said (yes that's how he pronounced it), "this is only certified for 'irrigation'. It's not certified for 'potable water' use. Just irrigation." I waited for his 'secundly', but there was no more coming. He'd obviously 'splained everything that mattered in his 'furstly' statement.

"And..." I prompted him.

"And ya can't use irrigation certified tubing for 'potable water' uses. Ya gotta use 'potable water' certified pipe," he patiently told me. I could see that he wanted to speak slower so that the full import of his information would more easily slip into my befuddled mind.

"I understand. But what's the actual difference between 'irrigation' certified and 'potable water' certified. Are they made of different materials?" I asked.

"I guess they're pretty much the same that way, but the 'potable water' stuff is certified for 'potable water' use. The 'irrigation' stuff ain't," he again patiently 'splained to me.

"So they're both the exact same material. One says it's for irrigation and the other says it's for 'potable water'. But they're made of the same stuff. Right?" I pointed out with some logic.

"Yeah. But the regs state that you can't use anything but 'potable water' certified pipe for 'potable water' uses. Just can't do it. You could get arrested," he explained.

"Arrested? So if I buy 'irrigation' tubing instead of 'potable water' tubing... or pipe... and I install it on my own property between my own well and my own house, I could get arrested? For not using 'potable water' certified materials?" I asked, a bit incredulously.

He nodded sagely. "Yup. The stuff wouldn't pass inspection. The inspector would red tag the whole thing as soon as they found out you're gonna hook it up to a well and use if for human consumption."

"Inspector? Red Tag?" I mumbled, again incredulously.

"Yah. If'n ya don't get a permit and get it all inspected, then you could be fined or arrested. Code violations. Ya just can't do whatever ya want. Ya gotta foller code," he said, apparently thinking that I was some renegade rebel who was gonna poison the whole community by using 'irrigation' certified tube for potable water uses. Nobody would even be drinking the water except me. And I run any of it I actually drink through a filter, and maybe ozonate it too.

"Say. Where's this place where ya gonna put this stuff in? Not the city?" he asked.

"No. I'm out in the county," I told him.

He looked relieved a little. "That's good. That's what I thought when you said 'well'. Dickin' with them city inspectors is a real pain. The county regs are better. Ya kin do things in the county that ya can't in the city."

"Like what?" I asked, still feeling that kicking feeling again for pursuing this conversation beyond the point of 'three quarter inch'.

"Like, ya can't have a well in the city. Gotta hook up to city water. And sewer. So right there, they'd getcha," he said, grinning.

"Well, you've been very helpful. Could you point me toward the section that would have the 'potable water' certified hose... er.. tubing... ah, pipe?" I said, hoping that it would actually be closer to the exit door so I could make a quick getaway.

"I don't know if we carry any of that stuff. It'd be in the plumbing section if it was. But there's nothing like what you're looking for. You'll have to get lengths of PVC pipe for what you want to do. That's certified for 'potable water' systems. Unless you're gonna use it for hot water. Then you'd have to use the higher temp stuff. But just cold water, you can use PVC Schedule 40. And it's certified for potable water systems. But all that would be in the plumbing section. Here, I'll show ya," he said, heading back to where I had been before.

"No, no. You've been a great help. I know where the plumbing section is. I'll just head back there and look around," I told him, hoping to head directly to the exit.

Instead, he said, "No trouble at all. Ya know, if you'd brought your site plan with you, we could go through the whole materials list and get exactly what you need."

'Site plan'? 'Materials list'? This whole idea was to just replace an old water line before it leaked and I had to do it under less than ideal conditions. With no water until it was done. Obviously, I was grossly naive about just what it took to do a simple 'home improvement' project these days.

"Ayup," he said. "Gotta have a site plan and materials list if yer gonna apply for a permit. Gotta have a permit to do anything. Like if'n yer gonna bury this pipe underground, then ya gotta excavate a trench for it. Ya'll wanna check the county specs but prob'ly gotta have it below the frost line. Then yer gonna have to put some sand in the bottom of the trench, so the rocks don't break the pipe. Don't remember how many inches of sand ya'll need, but you can get that at the county code and permits office. They'll give ya the specs on the type of sand required."

"Code and permits office?" I mumbled.

"Yah, down at the county annex. They'll give ya all the specs for the code. Gotta have the right kinda sand so the pipe don't break and leak. Or contaminate yer potable water."

And to think that for all these years, I'd been (gasp!) drinking and using water from the well that was run through three quarter inch plastic irrigation pipe... uh, "tubing" that is... that wasn't even certified for 'potable water' use and hadn't even had a problem. Guess I really didn't understand how much I was 'livin' on the edge'.

As he walked ahead of me, the guy said, "Let's see. If ya go with twenty footers, ya'll need twenty five lengths, plus fittin's. If ya go with tens, then ya'll need fifty lengths and more connector fittin's." He turned to look at me. "Ya got a truck? Ya'll need a truck if you're gonna take the twenties. The ten's ya can prolly tie to the car, but it'd be best if'n ya got a truck. Lot easier."

I slapped my forehead in feigned exasperation. "I knew I should have driven the truck. Ya know, you're right. No use even worrying about all this stuff right now. I'll just head home and come back with the truck. That'll solve a lot of problems."

He smiled in condescension at me like I'd missed out that part where they'd handed out the brains. I'm sure he dealt with inveterate morons like me all day, every day. Sheesh, I didn't even know the difference between 'irrigation certified' and 'potable water certified'. I'd better not let him think that I had planned on doing this whole project without any permits, inspections or anything.

"OK. Let me know if I can help you with anything," he said. Then he added, "And bring that project plan and list of materials with you and we can set you right up, real quick."

I nodded, mumbled something like I'd certainly remember to bring them next time and headed out the door. Sitting in the car - NOT the truck - I shook my head and wondered just what I'd gotten myself into. All I wanted to do was just quickly replace an aging water line that I'd put in myself years ago. A three quarter inch water line. Not pipe. Not 'potable water' certified.

After I got home, at one point I ended up at the sink and turned the water on. The not very strong stream, as usual, poured out of the faucet. However, looking at it run, I wondered how much time I actually had before the line started leaking... if it hadn't already and I didn't know it.

A few days later, after I'd had some time to let what the guy told me gnaw at my mind a little bit, I wondered just what it would take to actually DO the job, up to code, permits, inspections, certifications, everything. As much as I knew how aggravated it would make me, I decided to make a trip to the county Planning/Zoning department. I figured I'd head out in the morning, have breakfast on the way, check out the permit requirements, do a little grocery shopping and have lunch on the way home. Yep, call me naive. Call me uninformed. Call me stupid. None of that even comes close.

Checking the old phone book for the address of the county Planning department, I drove there, stopping for a quick breakfast on the way. Finding a parking spot at the building which (ironically) was supposed to house the 'Building' department was a major undertaking. It seemed like just about everyone else in the county was visiting the building at the same time I was. Passing a large number of empty parking spaces right at the front door, but marked "Handicapped", I drove around until I finally found an empty space. I walked what seemed like a half mile to the building. I entered the front ante-room and looked for signs or directions to the Planning/Zoning dept. There were an amazing array of posters, bulletins and plastic signs on all the walls, almost none of which were very helpful, but all of which were in several different languages, sometimes even English.

Deciding that it would be much quicker to ask where the Permit office was, I walked up to the glass enclosure, behind which were numerous desks with people apparently working at them. At least those who were at the desks seemed busy if they weren't talking to someone at another desk. The ones not at desks were clustered in various places, talking, nodding, gesturing and in general, seeming to have a very good time conversating.

None of them acknowledged my presence or even glanced at the glass window that I stood in front of. After politely waiting for several minutes for someone to realize that a customer was at their portal, a very muffled voice over a loudspeaker said something totally unintelligible and a sign on the wall with red numbers on it 'binged' and the number on it changed.

DUH!!! I felt so stupid. Naturally a busy office like this would have some efficient way of helping people who came here. I looked around and next to one door, there was one of those take-a-number things. I walked over to it and took a number. '87' was printed on it. I looked at the number on the sign and it read '76'. That seemed a good omen as there were at least a dozen people seemingly hard at work at the desks behind the glass partition, so it shouldn't be much of a wait. As the person with number 76 vacated their seat, I sat down in it.

As I watched, number 76 stood at the glass partition waiting to be served. After a few minutes, a woman stuck her head around the corner and motioned number 76 to follow her. They both disappeared down a corridor. Looking around, there were many bulletins and posters to read, but little else. On one table there were several pamphlets about the various county offices. There were also numerous handout sheets with glowing descriptions of how the county services were provided quickly and efficiently to all citizens without discrimination for race, creed, color, religion, language, national origin, sexual preference, eye color or clothing price. (Those last two weren't actually listed.) Most all had pictures of smiling politicians who were the heads of some precinct, bureau, division or county council, or whatever. None showed anything on how you actually could find your way to the various departments that were so glowingly described.

After what seemed to be an interminable wait, the sign 'binged' again and the number changed to '77'. Again the muffled voice came over the loudspeaker, and now that I was more attuned to the whole rhythm of the experience, I thought I could make out something that sounded like 'semmsem' out of the muffled voice. A male this time poked his head around the corner and looked at the assemblage before him, questioningly. He waited for a while, looking around at the people seated there, then ducked back and went down the corridor from whence he'd come. Apparently number 77 had found something much more urgent and worthy of his time than sitting in the crowded waiting room, hoping that some disinterested if not hostile county employee would be able to count high enough to actually get to his number.

This time, the wait was a bit less interminable and the sign 'binged', changed to '78' and the muffled voice said 'semm't' or something reasonably similar. I had to assume that the voice was stating the number 'seventy eight', but at this point, I couldn't be sure of just about anything. Seemed like a good possibility based on deductive reasoning, but as I was quickly learning, that probably wasn't such a good idea to base what I was experiencing on.

I couldn't keep from wondering with all the gobs of money that the county took in and spent on its buildings - not to mention all the printing costs for all those posters and brochures - that they couldn't install a public address system that could actually produce something approaching an intelligible auditory sound over it. Maybe they did. Maybe the person using it actually talked and sounded like that.

Since there wasn't much else to occupy my waiting time, that got me to considering the number and intelligence of whoever it was who hired such a person and what criteria they might use to make such a momentous decision. I could see the job listing:

Position: Public Numerical Announcement Operator Level One. Duties: To announce numbers for client selection services in public offices. Skills required: Must have working knowledge of all numbers between zero and one hundred. Must be able to co-ordinate such number announcements with the visual number display in various offices. Must be able recognize and to make number announcements from one to one hundred when the visual number display changes to the next number. Education and Financial assistance available to selectee if numerically challenged. Requirements: High school education. (Assistance for obtaining GED available to selectee) College education accepted but not given preference. College degree in public administration given preference, but not required. English as native language not required. Preferences given for gay, lesbian, transgendered, sight, hearing and/or physically impaired, and to any minority such as Native American, African-American, Hispanic, Aleutian or Hawaiian Islanders, Women, Native Alaskans, Arabs, Muslims, Asian-Indian, Asian-Pacific, or any other non-white population. The county does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, religion, height, weight, veteran status, mental disability, familial status, parental status, religion, genetic information, political beliefs, reprisal, or because all or a part of an individual's income is derived from any public assistance program, or the applicant's citizenship or legal residency status. Starting Salary: $65,000/yr.

Sitting there in the crowded waiting room, I could just see the employee who was doing the selection trying out various applicants.

Manager: OK, go ahead and read the number displayed.

Applicant #1: very clearly and precise voice- "Number Fifty Seven. Fifty Seven. Five-Seven."

Manager: "What was THAT!?? I could understand every syllable. You're out. Next!"

Applicant #2: mumbling- "Fitty Sem."

Manager: "Not quite. I could still understand the number. Next!"

Applicant #3: barely audible, mumbling- "Fffsmmmah."

Manager: "That was pretty good. Now try another number."

Appicant #3: "Ssssmfffftmmmmhhhh."

Manager: "Good. Was that 'sixty five'? No? 'Seventy seven'? No? Uh, 'seventy five'? No? Hmmmm. No idea. OK. Great! You're hired. I don't think anybody could figure out what that was."

While this scenario played out in my head, a woman stuck her head around the corner and looked out. A man had risen when the sign 'binged' and changed numbers, proudly displaying his paper number for all to see. He walked over to the woman and they disappeared down the corridor again. Since there was now a vacant seat, I felt it would be reasonably safe to get up and stretch my legs and maybe take a peek at the mysterious corridor that the people were disappearing down.

I got up, stretched nonchalantly and shuffled over to the corridor. It was pretty short, with a door at the end and several other doors off to each side. Apparently, each citizen when it was their time, was led though one of the doors to communicate their request to the civil service employee who would help them in their quest. The major question in my mind was why there were dozens of employees at the various desks and in the various offices, but only one person was called at a time. And at very long intervals between them. Even fast food joints will sometimes open additional registers when the lines grow long. Granted that's not a common occurrence, but I HAVE seen it happen. Rarely.

Being the impatient rabble rouser that I am, I decided that I'd try to get someone's attention so I could ask about getting the permits I would need. Walking up to the glass partition, I knocked politely on it. Not one head at all the desks even looked up. I waited a few minutes, figuring that someone might be busy and not able to respond immediately. I looked around at the people seated in the waiting room. Several were obviously in shock that I would actually DO something like tap on the glass partition to get attention. Most were oblivious, not caring what anyone else was doing, lost in their own little world. Contemplating their little piece of paper with their number on it. A few scowled at me, seemingly pissed that I was not waiting my turn like they were and obviously trying to jump the line ahead of them.

Turning back to the glass partition, I lightly tapped on it once more. Again, not one head even looked in my direction. Dozens of people behind dozens of desks seemed totally oblivious to anything happening at that front entrance. I could see a number of people getting up and walking to different areas or other desks. There were quite a few talking amongst themselves, some quite animatedly, and others with some gaiety. None paid any attention to my polite knocks.

After another reasonable interval, I knocked on the glass, this time a bit harder. Noticeably harder. In fact, the glass partition rattled a bit. A couple of heads looked up from what they were doing and a couple of those standing around talking looked over, then all went back to their primary purpose, which seemed to be to completely ignore anything or anyone who tried to get their attention.

Since all I wanted to do was get directions to the permit office, I rapped smartly on the window again, making it rattle. After a short time, a woman walked from out of sight up to the window and said, "Please don't knock on the window. Take a number. Your turn will be called." She then turned around without even so much as hesitating to make sure I acknowledged her command and started to go back to where ever she came from.

Being the old, curmudgeonly ass that I am, I knocked sharply on the window again to get her attention. That indeed got her attention and she turned back to me with an almost livid expression of distaste on her face. She stormed over to the window, pointed to the number machine and said, "TAKE A NUMBER!" I held up my number to show her I'd already taken one.

I said politely through the glass, "I just need to find out where the..."

I didn't get any more out. She said, "WAIT YOUR TURN!" and stormed off. Again, being the recalcitrant ass that I am, I knocked sharply on the window to get her attention back. She turned, glared at me and walked out of sight. Shortly, a door down the corridor opened and a uniformed cop walked out, shutting the door securely behind him.

He walked up to me and said, politely, "Sir. You're to take a number and wait until you're called." I held up the number to show him. "Then wait until that number is called. Everyone is helped in order. If you pound on the glass one more time, I'll have to arrest you."

I forced myself to smile at him and said, "I understand, officer sir. I just need to ask directions to the permit department."

The cop looked at me like I was a mental retard. "You're not here for records requests. Or Assessor records?"

I shook my head and said, "No, sir. I just want to apply for a permit to replace a water line."

The cop shook his head and said, "This isn't the place for that. You need the permit department. That's in the Mayor Ferguson Memorial Annex building. This is the Assessor records, Economic Development, Auditor, and Facilities Management offices annex."

I said, "I'm sorry. I looked in the phone book and it said the Building/Zoning dept was here, at this address."

"No, that's out of date. They moved out of here to the Ferguson Annex some time ago. You know where that is, don't you?" he asked contemptuously.

I told him no. He heaved a huge sigh, held up his finger to indicate that I should quietly wait where I was, then turned and entered one of the doors that wasn't the one he'd come out of. Perplexed, but not wanting to be arrested for disturbing the peace or interfering with a county employee, I decided to stay put and wait. Shortly, the cop came back out of the door, carefully closing it behind him. He had a piece of paper that looked like it had been run off on a 1970's mimeograph machine. Not anything like the slick, fancy brochures in the waiting room, extolling the many and sundry virtues of each and every political office holder and their multitude of accomplishments for the citizens of the county.

Pointing to the address on the crudely printed piece of paper, he gave me directions to a building that I knew under a different name a number of years ago. I mentioned the name to him. He laughed and said, "Yeah, that's the one. They changed the name when the county leased it."

"Why'd they change the name to Mayor Ferguson Annex if it's a county building?" I asked.

He laughed again, looked at me a bit askance and said, "Ol' Ferg was a city councilman, then mayor, then city councilman, then mayor again. He ran for county council when he finally lost the city election. Was a county councilman for years after that. Got a lot of money for the county. Well, and the city, when he was there."

I'd known the name and remembered the guy as a rather slimy career politician, with many unconfirmed rumors of major graft and corruption, ties to shady contracts and contractors, and even 'the mob', but which were never prosecuted or proved. I figured that he'd greased enough palms along the way and that they named the building after him because of that. I suspect that some county political rival who wasn't too happy with Ferguson finally got back at him by naming the building the 'Mayor Ferguson Annex' instead of 'The Councilman John Cosgrove Ferguson Building'. I decided to keep my theories to myself and thanked the officer for his help.

He looked at me and said in a very menacing voice, "And when you get there, take a number and wait until you're called. We don't want to have to arrest you for 'interfering' or 'disturbing'. You have a good day now." He turned, pulled out a set of keys, unlocked and opened the door he'd come out of, nodding to me courteously as he went back to wherever all those civil employees go when some ass isn't tapping on their windows and disturbing them.

Happy that I'd decided to have breakfast before undertaking this safari into the bowels of county government, I went out, walking the half mile to my car, dodging numerous vehicles whose drivers were trying to find a vacant parking space so they could experience the sterling, expeditious and courteous service from those stellar exemplars of county civil service employees. I then drove across town to the 'Mayor Ferguson Memorial Annex' building, hoping against hope that I'd get a better number there. Pulling into the postage stamp sized parking lot, which was completely full except again for the numerous and empty "Handicapped" stalls right at the front door, I drove around until I spotted another parking lot in the next block. After driving around that one for a while, I finally spied a car leaving and slipped into the vacant spot. I got out of the car and walked the almost two blocks to the entrance of the Ferguson Memorial Annex building. About that time, I was referring to it in my mind as the Ferg Ass's building.

Through the main double glass doors, I walked into the lobby of the greasy pol's memorial annex. Again, there were numerous official government posters and bulletins on the walls, although not in such a huge amount as the other place. And again, in multiple languages, sometimes even English. There were chintzy blue plastic signs with white lettering and arrows pointing out the way to different offices. Obviously much better organized, if only because it was newer. I took the elevator to the third floor, silently thanking the officer for divulging that little tidbit of detail while he was impressing me with his total grasp of intimidation and authority.

On the third floor, there was a repeat of the many posters, bulletins, and chintzy signs, one of which said, "Land Use/Zoning" and had an arrow pointing down a corridor. I followed the corridor and came to a door emblazoned with the same chintzy blue and white sign that said "Land Use/Zoning" on it. Opening the door, I entered a huge room with cubicles stretching from wall to wall. Looking around, I spied another blue and white plastic sign on a door that said "Building Permits". Aha! It seems that I'd followed the rainbow and struck the pot of gold! Now we were getting somewhere! Oh you poor, deluded old man.

I opened the door and found myself in another nondescript government waiting room, with another glass partition. Behind the partition were two empty desks and behind the desks was an open doorway. Through this doorway, I could see another sea of desks, and a few civil servants busily ignoring anything or anyone who might be in the waiting room.

Being at least somewhat able to learn by experience, I looked around for the ubiquitous take-a-number device and the red number readout sign. The number readout was right above the glass partition, but I didn't see any take-a-number machine anywhere. I wandered around the waiting room and finally came upon a small kiosk type of thing that I'd passed without much notice on my way in. It was pretty sturdily built and had a computer monitor behind what was probably a Kevlar plastic bulletproof screen. An armored keypad was built into the counter of the kiosk below the monitor.

The screen had "Press ENTER to start" visible on it, so being the super IQ genius and computer wizard that I am, I dutifully pressed the 'Enter' key on the armored keypad. Nothing happened. I waited. Nothing. So I pressed the 'Enter' key again. A bit more forcefully. This time the screen changed and printed "#2- Is your construction located in:" and had several choices. Number one was "Within City Limits", number two was "In County, Outside City Limits". I pressed number two, holding my breath. The screen changed and asked question #3, if the construction was one)- residential, two)- commercial, three)- farm/agriculture. I pressed one again. It worried me that the questions started with #2 instead of #1, but I could see no method to back up and start over. Oh well.

After a number of different selections and choices, a piece of paper was spit out from a slot next to the monitor. It had "Your number is 27" printed on it. Nothing else. 27. I glanced up at the number sign and it read '11'. Since there were only about four people besides myself in the waiting room, I wondered just where all those people with the numbers between 11 and 26 were. I took a seat and again found only county press releases, bulletins and more self serving twaddle scattered around, which meant there was nothing to read. I wished I'd brought my eReader with me. Or even picked up a newspaper when I stopped for breakfast. Too late now.

Three of the four people seated were doing things with their cell phones. One looked like he had a smart phone and was surfing the 'net. Two were texting. At least they were furiously thumbing on the keys, brows furrowed in concentration. The fourth guy was falling asleep.

My stomach growled. Suddenly I realized that I'd gotten here during lunchtime. I also realized that that meant that there was nobody around to "help" any of us citizens sitting here. They'd all be on their lunch break. Trying to look on the bright side, I figured that we'd at least be a the head of the line when everyone came back from lunch. So I sat there, trying visualize in my mind what I was going to need to replace the water line. What seemed like a brainless project was starting to turn out to be a brain dead exercise.

At about one o'clock, a large number of people trooped into the waiting room and took seats, which quickly filled up the room. At about one fifteen, two women entered into the glass cubicle from the doorway behind it and took their places at the desks. Ah! Now we were getting somewhere! I watched as they talked, moved papers around, talked some more, made some telephone calls, moved papers, talked and completely ignored the crowd in the waiting room. Other "public servants" also trickled into that office and the desks that were visible through the doorway. Now we'd get some action!

About one thirty, the number sign dinged and the number changed to 12. A loudspeaker popped loudly and I swear the same muffled voice that was at the other county building mumbled something that could have been mistaken for 'twelve' if you used your imagination, squinted your eyes and held your head at the right angle. Or deduced it from the number sign.

One guy jumped up and walked to the glass cubicle. Neither of the two women at the desk paid any attention to him while he stood there patiently. They continued to chat, read and shuffle papers, chat, move papers, chat some more. After a couple of minutes, another woman walked through the doorway at the rear of the cubicle and up to the sliding glass window. She opened it up just a crack and asked "Zoning or Permit"

"Permit," the guy answered.

"Withing the City Limits?" she asked.

He shook his head and said, "County."

"Residential, Commercial or Agriculture," she asked.

"Residential", he said.

Basically, the woman went down the list of choices that had been given on the computer, asking him each one. When he finally got all of them answered, she motioned him to go down a corridor to the right and closed the window. He followed her directions and she turned and walked through the doorway to disappear into the bowels of whatever was behind there. Not once did either of the two women at the front desks or anyone walking by the doorway or at the desks in the back pay any attention to the interaction. Or non-action, actually.

I wondered just what the purpose of the questions on the computer were if they were just going to be re-asked again when the supplicant approached the glass enclosed altar of the public service window. Couldn't come up with any logical or rational basis, so I decided to heed the cop's warning at the previous office and sat quietly in a chair, watching the circus that this was.

After an interminable wait, this whole scenario was repeated again, with a different number and the same questions, but asked by a different person. The long wait was repeated and again the same question and answer scenario was repeated. Slowly we were getting toward my magic number of 27. Finally the number sign changed to 27, the muffled voice came on and mumbled something totally unintelligible. I got up and walked to the window. It took a while, but a sour faced woman finally came out of that mysterious back room and slid the window open a crack. She looked at me. I proudly held up my number to show her the 27, which she didn't even glance at.

"Zoning or Permit?" she asked.

Like I said, I'm pretty much a fast learner and I'd gotten all the questions memorized during my so enjoyable time watching the circus clown troop perform, so I itemized quickly so she wouldn't have to ask each separately: "Permit, County, Residential"; each one of the choices that had been already asked on the computer and of every person who'd gone up to the window. I felt pretty good, saving both of us a lot of useless time with the back and forth. Stoooopid me. I shoulda known.

"Uh Hmmm. Permit or Zoning?" she repeated.

"I told you. Permit, County, Residential..." I started to say, but she shook her head, held up a finger and looked at me with a frown.

"PERMIT OR ZONING?" she asked again slowly.

Remembering my lovely interaction with the nice police officer at the last county building, I decided that discretion is the better part of valor and that if these "civil servants" wished to do their jobs in one very structured way, I should probably humor them. At least if I didn't want to be arrested for 'interfering' or 'disturbing'. My idea of efficiency apparently didn't share the same planetary space as these wonderful civil servants.

"Permit," I said.

"Inside City Limits or In the County?" she asked.

"County," I answered evenly each query she posed, trying not to reach through the sliding glass partition and strangle the obviously mentally challenged individual.

When she reached the end of the three question list, she motioned to the corridor to my right and said, "Down there," and closed the window. Now I was starting to understand why each county office had what was probably bullet proof glass or plexiglass separating them from the rabble that were invading their space and taking up their valuable time. Idiots like me who wanted totally disrupt their routine.

I walked down the nondescript corridor and the same woman opened a door and motioned for me to follow her into the inner sanctum. She led me through a maze of desks, most with a person sitting at it, looking or trying to look busy. Again, some were talking between themselves and a few stood together talking, laughing and gesturing. We finally got to a desk with a second chair beside it and she motioned me to sit down, which I did.

"Now, what are you here for?" she asked.

"I was told I need to get a permit to replace an old water line between..." I started to tell her when she held up her hand to interrupt me.

She pulled out a form and asked, "Is this new construction or remodeling existing construction?"

"Ummm, I'm replacing an old water line, so I guess it would be remodeling existing construction," I said.

"Have you contacted the water department about it?" she asked.

"Uh, no. There's no connection to the water department. It's an existing water line from the well to the mobile home," I explained.

"A well? Have you contacted the Dept. of Natural Resources for a water usage or taking permit?" she asked, pulling out another form.

"No. It's an existing well. And existing water line from the well. An existing mobile home at the end of the water line that runs from the existing well. I just want to replace the old one that I put in fifteen years ago in case the existing one starts leaking," I patiently explained.

"You can't put in a well and take water with out an environmental study and a permit from Natural Resources," she told me.

"I'm not putting in a well. The well is already there. The water is already there. It's been pumping it out for over thirty years. I'm just replacing a water line that is already hooked up to it," I said through gritted teeth.

"So you want a permit to construct a water line from an existing well to a mobile home? Right?" she asked.

Yes!! Now we're getting somewhere! Exultantly I said, "Yes, that's correct. Replace an existing water line."

"So you'll need a permit to site the mobile home then," she said.

"No. The mobile home is already there. It's been there for fifteen years, just like the water line. I just want to replace the old water line." I answered, again though gritted teeth.

"Is this going to be an above ground structure or below ground?" she asked, looking at another form.

"The existing water line is below ground. I'm going to replace it with another line underground, the same as the one already is," I said. Then I added, "The pumphouse for the well is above ground as is the mobile home. Just the water line will be underground."

"So you'll be excavating for the water line? Correct?" she asked. Amazingly adept at picking up the most minute of facts, this one was, I thought cynically, but bit my lip to keep from mentioning that thought out loud.

"Yes. I'll have to. That's the only way I can figure out how to get the water line underground. I'll have to excavate, I guess," I said, my jaw muscles straining.

She pulled a new form out and pushed it to me. "Here's an environmental survey and impact statement. You'll have to have the Dept. of Natural Resources, Environmental Division, OK your plot plan and excavation plans to make sure you're not altering any wetlands or sensitive habitat."

"But it's just a bunch of woods. There's no wetland. Nothing sensitive," I said, pleadingly.

"You never know until you have the survey done and find out what kind of impact you're making on the environment. Now after you have the DNR do the survey, they'll issue a permit or a variance for limited excavation for a limited time. You'll have to have the site survey, their impact assessment and permit attached to the construction permit when you call for inspection. Before you start any excavation." She slid another form to me and circled a phone number. "You call this number when you've got all the DNR paperwork ready and you've marked your site according to your site plan. The inspector will come out to the property and check to make sure you have everything ready so you can do the application for the excavating permit."

"How long does it take for the inspector to come out?" I asked.

"Usually, they'll be there in 48 to 72 hours, but sometimes depending upon workload, it could be a week or two at the most," she said.

"A week?" I exclaimed.

"Maybe. They can usually give you an idea when you apply for the permit and know what your excavation timeline is," she told me.

"AFTER I apply for the permit?" I exclaimed, getting a little hotter.

"Yes. After you have the DNR forms, assessment, survey and permit, and DNR OK's the excavation, you bring that paperwork along with this permit application in and we'll evaluate everything and if all is in order, we'll issue your construction permit for the excavation," she said.

"And how long does it take from bringing the application in to the issuing of the permit?" I asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.

"If everything is in order, you have the DNR paperwork, permit and approvals and it's within your timeline and the permit application is filled out completely, it could be issued the same day. Usually, if there's some hold up, it might take a week or two to get all the paperwork cleared up. It depends." she said. "Now, what excavation company are you going to use to do the excavation?"

Stunned by all this, I hesitated, then said, "Uh, I'm gonna do it myself. We've got a small tractor with a back hoe attachment and I can do it with that. It's not that big a job really. It's just a shallow trench to lay the pipe in."

"Is the tractor licensed? What about smog and pollution controls? Has it been certified for commercial excavation use?" she asked, pulling out another form.

"Uh, I'm not sure. It's just a garden tractor. It's not used for commercial excavation," I explained.

"It doesn't make any difference. If you're using it for excavation that requires a DNR permit or disturbs habitat, it has to be licensed for commercial excavation purposes. You can take it to the DMV and get it inspected and licensed for commercial use. The DNR will require that license before they'll issue any site excavation permits or variances," she continued.

"Uh, so if I get all these permits and licenses, then I can put the waterline in. Right?" I asked, hopefully. And dumbly.

She looked at me with that look you give slow learners. "Well, do you have a commercial operator's license to operate excavation equipment?" she asked.

I pulled out my drivers license. She shook her head and said, "No, that won't do. You see, you have to have a license to operate commercial excavation equipment, which the tractor will be after you get it licensed by the DMV. So you'll have to take a course, and a test and if you pass, you'll be issued an excavation equipment operator's license. Please don't try to operate any machinery without the license. That would be against the law. And make sure to attach a copy of that license to your construction permit application."

"Uh, so maybe it'd be best if I hired someone to do the excavating then," I said.

"Yes, that would be the best. Whomever you hire, you'll have to attach a photocopy of their business license, their excavation equipment license, their operator's license and a copy of their bond to your permit application when you bring it in. That's very important," she told me.

"Bond? For a simple water line trench?" was what I asked, incredulously. What I was shouting in my mind was "It's a friggin' cheap assed water line, lady! Not the Trump Towers or the Big Dig Tunnel!" Fortunately for me, she didn't hear my thoughts, no matter how loud they were screaming in my head.

"Oh, yes. That indemnifies both you and the county if there should be any disruption of habitat or damage to the environment. Mitigation can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, even the millions, depending upon the damage to the habitat, environment or any species that would be affected," she explained patiently.

"But it's just a friggin' water line on our property!" I exclaimed, exasperated. It just slipped out that time.

She got a hardened look on her face, similar to the one the woman at the other county office did just before the police officer came out. I looked around to see if there was a cop nearby.

Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she said, "Sir. You have to understand that nobody actually owns any property. Everything you do affects someone else or some other life form. Why, you could be digging up the habitat of an endangered snail, or knocking down the trees that an endangered bird species must have to nest and mate. My god, don't you even understand the billions of dollars in damage and the massive kill off of wild life that BP caused with their oil spill? Sir, we don't live in isolation. If you burn something on your property, does the smoke stay on your property. No! It travels over to the neighboring properties. What happens if one of them is allergic to wood smoke? Someone could die! Sir, without the proper government oversight and guidance, through these applications, permits and surveys, we're protecting the innocent from what you could be doing to them. YOUR property, indeed! It takes a community! Don't you understand?" Her face was flushed and she was getting a bit livid.

I nodded my head contritely, hoping to defuse the situation while I tried to calm myself and fight the overpowering urge to strangle. After all, this was just a friggin' three quarter inch-- uh, five eighths inch -- water line. And I didn't need another nice conversation with a very formal but courteous police officer. No siree!

Settling down a bit, the woman shuffled some papers around, looking at the different forms. She then looked at me and asked, "Do you intend to cut down any trees or disturb any vegetation in this project?"

"No," I answered, not wanting to set her off again. 'Disturb vegetation'? Ya gotta be kidding me! I'm gonna dig a trench through the brush for a lousy water line. What part of cheap replacement didn't she understand, I wondered.

"Will you be burning any vegetation that is disrupted by this project?" she asked.

I smiled at her. "Nope. Can't very well burn anything that isn't disrupted now, can we?"

"Sir, please don't make light of this. It's a serious matter. So, no burning?" she said.

"Nope," I answered again, trying to keep a serious face. I hoped she didn't see my jaw muscles clenching and unclenching. There was another muscle that was clenching quite tightly, but we won't discuss that here.

"If you do, you'll have to contact the local fire department and apply for a burning permit. They'll give you the requirements and determine if you can burn or if there is a burn ban in effect in the area at that time. And the size and quantity of the substance to be burned." She handed me a sheet of paper with all the county fire departments listed and their business phone numbers, along with general burning regulations.

Looking at the sheet with all the different phone numbers, I joked, "Easier to just dial 911, isn't it?" The look on her face told me that this also was no joking matter.

"Sir! That's against the law. The 911 system is for emergencies only! Do NOT call 911 for any non-emergency matter. You could be arrested." Again the livid look on her face took all the fun out of the joke. Zoom! Over her head! Even a midget didn't have everything go over their head! Oops. 'Little person', I thought. Or 'vertically challenged person'.

I hung my head and tried to look contrite again. She said, "Now, what kind of materials are you going to use for this... ahem, 'water line'?" I could actually see the scare quotes around the words when she said them. Somehow I believe that I hadn't gotten on this civil servant's good side today.

"Oh. Um, I talked to the guy at the building supply store and he said I should use schedule 40 PVC that is certified for 'potable water' systems. He helped me out quite a bit on that," I told her, trying to smile.

"Hmmph. Did he mention the requirements for bedding a water line? Did he happen to mention..." she pulled out another sheet of paper, "that the trench shall be at least six inches below the frost line? And that the bottom of said trench be covered with a layer of sand before laying the water line in place? To protect against punctures? Let's see, what else?" She looked through the listing.

I said, "Uh, I think he mentioned that but if you can give me that sheet, I'll certainly make sure that we comply with every one of those requirements."

The woman looked at me like she knew I was patronizing her and said, "Look. We're here to help you. If you try to get around these regulations and requirements, you'll go to jail. This is not something to take lightly. This is a serious matter. What seems like a simple water line to you is a big deal for us. We're here to make sure that everything is done correctly so nobody, no species and nothing is adversely affected. If you think this whole thing is some big joke, then I'm sure we can call an inspector over here to explain to you exactly why these regulations and permits are necessary." She pressed a button on her phone.

"No, no. You'd done a marvelous job. Please don't think I'm taking this lightly. Just give me all those forms and I'll take them home and make sure they're properly taken care of. Believe me!" I whined.

She gave me a look that indicated that she had no faith whatsoever that I meant a word of what I said. She gathered all the various forms and applications together, taking her time doing it. Then she pulled a stapler over and very precisely stapled all of them together with the staple in the upper corner. Precisely at some civil servant prescribed angle, I was sure.

As she handed me the sheaf of papers, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Looking around, I found that another uniformed police officer was standing behind me, looking rather menacing. No smile. Hand on gun.

"Sir. Could you please show me some identification?" the cop asked, very courteously but firmly. Even I could tell that it was not a request, but a command.

"Identification?" Gulp. "Sure. Library card OK? Or my Costco membership card?" I asked joking.

The cop's expression didn't change, except his eyes got a little more squinty. His hand moved to unsnap something on his holster. I quickly pulled out my driver's license and offered it to him. After looking at it with a bit of disdain, he reached into a shirt pocket, pulled out a pad, then a pen and proceeded to write down the information on my license in his notepad.

Not quite picking up on how serious these 'public servants' took this whole thing, I said, hoping to lighten the atmosphere a little, "This isn't going to go on my permanent record, is it?"

Without making a sound or even changing his expression, the cop continued to note my information. When he was done, he handed my license back and said in a very stern voice, "That, sir, all depends on you."

Taking my license back, I said, hopefully lightly, "So, do you know the cop...er, officer over at the Assessor records office?"

With the same stony expression, the cop put his hand back on his holstered weapon and said, "As a matter of fact, I do. He notified me that you might be visiting our offices here."

I gulped. I decided that it must be one of the basic job requirements for cops and bureaucrats to have a complete absence of a sense of humor. At least I'd not gotten any indication of even a smidgeon of one anywhere so far today. I tried to smile a little and said, "You know. I appreciate all you've done to educate me about all of this. With what you've pointed out, I'm sure that it would be best if I don't disturb anything at all and just leave the existing water line in place until it rots. Then I'll have a commercial contractor... uh, a *licensed* commercial contractor do any of the work needed. I certainly don't want to upset any natural resources or environment or anything."

I stood up and the cop stepped back a ways, unsnapping his holster and putting his hand on the handle of the weapon. I gulped again, tried to put on a disarming smile and said, "No. Really. It was a stupid idea. I won't do anything at all without consulting this office and going through the appropriate channels. Permits. Inspections. Everything. I understand completely."

The woman at the desk looked at me, slowly picked up the stapled papers and handed them to me. She didn't say a word. The cop looked at me, motioned the way toward the door. He stayed close to me while he guided me back out to the outer office that I'd first entered.

Holding the door for me, he said, without a trace of a smile or good humor, "Have a nice day."

I walked out the door, a bit shaken. What started out as a simple idea of replacing an old water line that had been in the ground for fifteen years turned into most of a wasted day and being in the close and uncomfortable scrutiny of not one, but two armed and very uncompromising police officers.

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