"Proximity is destiny," Carol Tomlinson Keasey, first chancellor of UC Merced, often said. It was one of her slogans and like almost everything she said, it was nonsense. While we were still pondering Keasey's koan and looking for evidence that Merced was somehow becoming smarter because there was a UC campus on its outskirts, Keasey left, Chancellor Steve Yang came and went, and now we have Chancellor Dorothy Leland, voted one of four "power women" in the state of Georgia in 2009.
Leland, a minimal scholar of Simone de Beauvoir, 1. professor and university administrator, 2. reported to "the community" (Merced City Council, Merced County Board of Supervisors) last week on the UC Regents' decision in July to approve the $1.3-billion expansion of the UC Merced campus.
Leland thanked the Merced City Council because, she said, "you leaders help us grow within the world-renowned UC system...we got a lot of leadership support from the city," for UC Merced, "a special place that reflects the very best of California ... transforms lives" ...etc.
She reminded the council of how much UC Merced wants to have a "strong relationship with the community, including downtown ... a few months ago, we had the groundbreaking for our new campus right across the street from City Hall." It's just another example of "our commitment to the Merced community," she said.
The space was once a convenient parking lot for people attending meetings at city hall. Valley Land Alliance included the space in its "County Ventures" map (perhaps still available at the Merced Visitors Center). VLA thought it was going to be a "green" hotel and conference center. But, just as UCM embraced the Great Valley Center after it had finished its great work of co-opting an entire generation of local community leadership, so the "green hotel" also went to UCM. Proximity is growing denser by the year but what does it mean?3.
In just four years, according to the schedule of the university's 2020 project, enough building will be added to the campus to double its size to 10,000 students (and staff and faculty to 'transform' them). Following the regents' approval, "we reached financial close," she said. This "close" is difficult to understand but we will take a stab at it later.
Leland described the new master plan for the campus, beginning with the obstacle the MID canal that divides the campus between "upper" and "lower" halves and Little Lake. Major design concerns on the 11-year-old campus were: (1) that there be no marked difference between the upper (older) part and the lower (newer) part, and (2), that students from the lower part of campus would not have to walk all the way to classrooms in the upper part of the campus. Lest we think this is coddling the students, given the wind and sun out there, dehydration could occur on the way to an 11 o'clock lecture in Cognitive Dissonance 101.
Little Lake is to be "reconfigured to be the new heart of the campus." Or possibly the heart of the new, doubled campus? Hopefully, it is too windy out there for disease-bearing mosquitoes to settle and multiply and infect students with West Nile virus, Zika, polio, encephalitis, etc. But, an adequate dose of organophosphates or their legal equivalents will take care of the mosquitoes.
A firm called "Plenary Properties Merced" won the project bid. It's parent is the multinational Plenary Properties of Australia, whose North American subsidiary, Plenary Properties Canada created the sub-subsidiary Plenary Properties Merced. Plenary's partners in the project are Webcor, a San Francisco construction company, and Skidmore-Owings-Merrill, another multi-national whose home office is in Chicago, but have a strong west-coast presence because founder Nathaniel Owings and his second wife, Margaret, lived in San Francisco and Big Sur. Although Skidmore was once known as the "King Kong" of skyscrapers, Leland assured her audience that there would be no skyscrapers at UCM. Among Skidmore's planning and design projects are the New York World's Fair of 1939-40, the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, design and construction of the secret village of Oak Ridge TN in WWII (for atom-bomb research), and the firm were major planners for the Washington Mall and Pennsylvania Ave. reconstruction during the Nixon administration. The Owings created the Big Sur Master Plan and Margaret was the founder of Friends of the Sea Otter, a boon to environmentalists and a bane to commercial abalone divers from Morro Bay to Mexico.
By the numbers 1.2 million new square feet will be developed, 1,700 new beds and 1,500 new parking places. The $1.3-billion project will be "world class."
We were baffled by Leland's frequent references to student-life space, space in academic buildings for conversation, a multi-purpose building with a "new dining option." Would that be a student union serving beer and wine? That might be an improvement on them drinking in small groups in dorm rooms.
The primary academic buildings are four stories "punctuated " with shaded arcades and surrounding an "intimate academic quad(rangle) and outdoor gathering space," featuring a "low-water" landscape in this drought-prone environment." Student housing will "blend living and learning." Students will live in the floors above the classrooms, removing the need for some part of the students to walk uphill and across the canal to classes.
But, on university campuses all over the world, students walk uphill, downhill, and on flat land to their classes, or they ride bicycles. For most students, it is about the only exercise they get regularly. It is hard to imagine a university without the bustle of students and faculty hurrying from one classroom to another between classes. It's like dairies without pastures, to use a Merced "community" simile.
The buildings will be "multi-functional," Leland assured us, so that future generations can change purposes without a great deal of expensive remodeling.
There will be "recreation courts" adjoining the housing/classroom buildings. Leland did not mention that such lots are commonly built on later.
Forgive us for the thought that the regents might have required this bit of flexibility in case they decide that the "boondoggle land deal" that is UC Merced cannot be papered over with expensive architecture and is better sold off for an Indian casino/senior facility complex.
Leland then introduced dignitaries from the Plenary Group and Webcor. Dale Bonner, executive chairman of Plenary Concessions, is a former California secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing (2007-2011), chairman of the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank, former head of the California Department of Corporations (1998-1999), and various government counsel positions, in 2011 formed the consulting firm Cal-Infra Advisors and ... he once lived in Merced. 3.
Leland described the building schedule as "aggressive," and promised most of the additions would be done by 2020, including a turn lane and stop light at the entrance to the campus. She emphasized that these would be done to city standards because, "you know, one day there will be annexation."
Leland estimated that there would be an overall economic impact to the region of $1.9 billion, estimated by "an independent consultant."
"Our partners," she said, had established "goals for local hiring and local purchasing."
Pity she didn't say what the goals were. One member of the Badlands Journal staff was once assigned a story by the local McClatchy outlet to interview people on what they thought the impacts of building a UC campus might be. He met a group of construction workers fishing in the canal from the bridge on La Paloma Rd north of the future site of the campus. They said they thought it would be fine if local workers were hired. But they did not think that would happen. Fortunately for them, the residential building boom that accompanied the construction of UC Merced -- i.e. the purpose of the boondoggle -- did provide employment until the Bust in 2008, and all the consequences of that gigantic fraud.
Then Leland waxed superlative about the project -- "never been done in higher education ... biggest thing going in the nation ... in four years will essentially double the size of the university ..."
She said of the financing that it was a lease deal, contractor financed, guaranteed, but the building ends up being owned by the public. We have included in the notes two somewhat more detailed descriptions of the financing 4. but other than perceiving the liniments of the same-old, same-old public/private "win-win" partnership for growth, we are unclear quite how creative the finance package will be, but the regents accepted it.
Mayor Thurston led off the comments from the City Council, noting that the city/county revenue sharing agreement reached earlier this month is "another step toward annexation" of the campus because the agreement will stimulate development projects on the campus border.5.6.
Councilman Josh Pedrozo commented that a regent remarked that he liked it that UC Merced officials always brought with them "a contingency" from the local community. Perhaps he meant a "contingent"-- a group of people united by some common feature, rather than a future event, or circumstance that is possible but cannot be predicted with certainty.
Proximity is density, after all.6.
(1)The Existential Phenomenology of Simone de Beauvoir, Wendy O'Brien, Lester Embree, eds., Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001
(5)Portion of an amicus brief to the California Supreme Court:
To: Honorable Chief Justice Ronald M. George
From: The Regents of the University of California
Office of General Counsel
James E. Holst
Date: September 12, 2003
Re: The City of Marina and Ford Ord Authority v. Board of Trustees of the California State University
...The recent example of UC's new Merced campus is illustrative. In the CEQA process for the campus long range development plan (LRDP), local jurisdictions identified approximately $200 million in improvements to local roads, parks and schools that they claimed would be made necessary by the new campus development, and argued that UC was obligated to pay for those improvements under CEQA. UC rejected those demands as reflecting economic and social impacts outside the purview of CEQA, and in light of its exemption from such assessments under the California Constitution ...
This amicus brief on behalf of the California State University failed to convince the court, who found for the City of Marina and Ford Ord Authority on this issue. This is well known to the regents' general counsel's office as it is also known to UC that nothing like $200 million has been paid for these improvements identified by local jurisdictions. -- blj
(6) Reply to a local planning official
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
From: Lydia Miller, President San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center, Merced CA
Steve Burke Protect Our Water, Modesto CA
To: Merced County Board of Supervisors Merced CA December 21, 2004 (via fax and email)
Re: December 21, 2004 Board agenda item: 10:30 a.m. Planning - 2004 Cycle III General Plan Amendment; University Community Plan.
The following is submitted for the record regarding the Board’s consideration of the University Community Plan.
An article titled “Reply to the Chancellor on UCP” was recently posted on the Badlands website (http://badlandsjournal.com). A local planner responded with the question: What do you think will happen if we don’t plan for the growth that will result from UC Merced?
It is a serious question, we appreciate it, and will try to articulate what we think about Merced County/UC Merced planning. The first word that caught our attention in the planners question was the word, we. Who, we wondered was the planner intending to include in the word, “we”?
Participants in the sordid political deal in which Merced got the UC in return for Condit delivering the Valley for Davis in 1998, ripping the campus from the talons of Fresno where they had committed to locate at least a medical school as early as 1965, and had land already donated in Kearney Park?
Participants in the whole cover up, inconsistency, tendentious obfuscation, regulatory-agency avoidance in the process to streamline UCM permitting run out of the governor’s and congressman’s office?
Participants in the process of gagging the press, buying the press, and intimidating reporters so that no critical questions would appear in the media about the UC project?
Participants in the UCM propaganda machine, which featured huge, UC-produced, publicly paid-for PR supplements in the local paper?
Local paper regurgitation of UCM press releases as objective journalism? Tiny tots in UCM T-shirts lining state Capitol corridors?
Greenlining Institute, proclaiming all Hispanic students would, should, and could go to UC if only they could stay in their family homes here in the Valley?
Promoters of a campaign to name a mascot that gave the prize to a species that does not appear in Nature?
Great Valley Center’s smart-growth propaganda, emanating from that tower of planning rectitude, Modesto?
Dot-driven public focus groups confronting lists of projects that contained all pre-cooked possibilities but no project?
The Nature Conservancy?
Producers of meaningless planning documents like the CAA, CPAC, CAPS, various MCAG plans, Merced Water Supply Plan, NCCP/HCP, storm drain master plan?
Grant hustlers using the East Merced Resource Conservation District to legitimize bogus plans and be a conduit for mis-spending public funds?
Authors of numerous General Plan amendments that have rendered a weak document utterly unintelligible as a planning tool?
The red and green teams?
The black-and-blue team?
Scientists scouring the pastures for endangered species who also found a dead baby Black Bear?
Participants in the political process of suppressing ground-truthed science about the biological inventories on UCM land?
The political geniuses behind adopting a blanket Agricultural Preserve over most of the county to mitigate for UC, the most significant restriction of private-property rights in the history of the county?
Right-wing propagandists who whipped up a mob of land owners against the much less intrusive Critical Habitat Designation?
Every scofflaw in the county Planning Department?
Members of a county bureaucracy that systematically obstructs public access to public documents?
Aggregate-company and developer lawyers who write planning documents and General Plan amendments?
Private and publicly funded indemnifiers against lawsuits opposing local land-use decisions? Politically directed judges?
Contemptuous EIR-writing, finger-flipping, harassing consultants?
Packard Foundation money launderers?
Venal, punitive local political staffers, hit squads for congressmen, state legislators and the special interests who pay them?
Land-boom speculators in elective and appointed public offices?
Elected officials that constantly, publicly harass members of the public who object to what only the county calls a planning process?
Returning to the question: “What do you think will happen if we don’t plan for the growth that will result from UC Merced?”, the next word that perhaps requires more definition is the word “plan” itself.
Now, what could the planner have meant by this pregnant term?
A hopelessly out-of-date General Plan created in 1992 as the result of a lawsuit brought by the public against a county that could not provide the court with evidence that there was a Merced County General Plan; a General Plan the state Attorney General directed the county to update at least every decade; a General Plan that was never followed anyway, but has now been rendered absurd by the superimposition of huge development amendments over a plan that valued the county’s agricultural and natural resources?
The donation of a large tract of land to UC by a land trust too hapless to run a golf course during the height of popularity of that sport, manipulated by a local water lawyer, (his partner under indictment for defrauding Waterford), and a county planning department unwilling to enforce environmental law on its wetlands takes?
The wholesale use of programmatic UC EIRs to secure mandates for “plans to make plans” that avoid any concrete analysis of inevitable negative impacts to natural resources, public health and safety that set a new, low, irresponsible planning standard for Merced County?
Lawyer-guided, side-stepping of inconvenient permits, and building without them?
The policy of UC to continually whine that UCM is the first campus it has attempted to build since serious environmental protection laws were passed, therefore it can’t really be held accountable to laws of the land? The splitting of land-use authority in two pieces: the county and UC?
The splitting of local planning offices in two: the county Planning Department and the UC Development Planning Office? Wholesale confusion and lack of coordination between the two offices and between one or the other or both of them with the City of Merced?
The complete lack of an adequate, comprehensive water plan for eastern Merced County?
The disturbing eagerness and insanity of UC and its speculating boosters, landowners, and surrounding developers to double and triple the size of the Merced population in what has become the worst air-pollution basin in the nation?
The willingness of the City of Merced to break its own ordinance to supply water and sewer services to UCM, once UC promised to indemnify it from legal challenges to its decision?
A resource-easement program designed to fail?
The wholesale, unrelenting stream of planning propaganda in place of accurate information, leaving the public in as much dark as could be decently managed at every step in the process? (For just one example, the completely bogus presentation of the Williamson Act as mitigation for UC and its induced development.)
Leading the public into unpleasant speculations about future suburbs that could be named Smithville, Kelseyville, Crookhamton, Cardoza/Coelho Azorean Estates, Cuidad Cortez-Keene, Lynch-Adam-dAdamoville, Tatum Corners, Wellman Retirement Community, Lyons Industrial Park?
Every project in the county driven by the heretofore not really, fully, completely permitted location of UCM?
Rumblings of bribery and corruption in the county Planning Department?
In conclusion, what do we think will happen if we don’t plan for the growth that will result from UC Merced? Well, Mr. Planner, the only answer we can give is: what’s happening at the moment. Merced’s agricultural and natural resources are being auctioned off to the highest bidders because of what you and your fellow planners did, while subjecting the public to an endless barrage of bureaucratic procedures and documents claiming you would not do exactly what you have done, are doing and will continue to do until your actions become so transparently corrupted that even the local judiciary will be unable to blind itself to them.
Cc: Interested parties
What if all the lies had not been told?
What if the Great Valley Center and the University of California had not advocated the faith that “growth was inevitable,” and simply respected the environmental laws and regulations on the books?
What if Great Valley Center had said that the growth projections of their developer sponsors and contributors and the California Department of Finance were unacceptable?
What if the Pomboza (representatives Richard Pombo, Buffalo Slayer-Tracy and Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Merced/Maryland) had not tried three times to gut crucial provisions in the Endangered Species Act to allow even more construction of half-built subdivisions losing homeowners by the day?
What if there had been any concern in local governments for environmental law and regulation beyond how to avoid both?
What if there had been more than a tiny handful of people willing to resist publicly the wholesale destruction of environmental law and regulation in Merced County during the speculative real estate boom that has now, catastrophically, busted?
What if development had actually paid for itself?
What if local McClatchy outlets, the Merced one led by a squalid speculator in a half-million-dollar house, had written accurate journalism instead of being the chief pimp for finance, insurance, real estate, University of California. Riverside Motorsports Park and the WalMart distribution center?
What if Valley judges had ruled to uphold environmental law and the laws of public process in cases involving the permitting of developments that not only ruined the environment but, if not the entire global finance economy, at least the economy of these Main-turning-Mean streets?
What if people opposed to their own environmental destruction had been able to withstand the public hazing dished out by rightwing politicians on the dias and in the audience that they were “socialists” and “anti-growth nuts,” “tree-huggers,” “fairy shrimp lovers,” etc.?
What if more people in Merced had regarded the economy as something other than a casino and politics as more than a high school popularity contest?
What if agricultural special interests, who benefit constantly from the help of eco-justice advocates, had not demonized them completely behind their backs, as if farm and ranchland ownership were a license to lie, cheat and steal? What if agriculture could escape its schizophrenic state – are we farmers or are we owners of parcels for development? What if local, state and federal government did not perpetually subsidize our yeomen stewards of attractive real estate parcels for future development?
What if our esteemed local business and political leaders had conceived of economic growth as something – anything – other than housing construction? What if they had realized that housing is about the most wasteful economic growth investment possible? What if they began to cope with the contradiction between their “free-market” ideology and their abject begging of government for grants and loans, bailouts and subsidies for the stupidities of the Merced Main Street?
What if the term “jobs-housing balance” had ever been taken seriously?
What if, as Mayor Ellie Wooten recently said, 80 percent of the entire Merced housing market actually was speculative?
What if local government had actually retained any meaningful control of growth after the arrival of UC Merced?
What if landowners, developers, financial and insurance institutions and local, state and federal politicians had not conspired o destroy the environment and economy of Merced, in some instances including their own institutions?
What if any elected or appointed official among Merced County’s land-use boards and councils had ever taken their responsibilities as anything other than to enrich themselves and their cronies?
What if planning and administrative staff had planned rather than accommodated growth that is both environmentally and economically ruinous?
What if any of these complacent, overpaid, incompetent officials had ever had a clue about the relationship between the environment and the economy, between protection of natural resources and the greedy, speculative boom, or the difference between housing growth and economic growth? What if they had ever had any sense of the balance of things, rather than becoming experts in coercion of the public and corruption of the laws?
# # #
"Wow, this UC Gravy Train is one long train," the dull-witted boy said.
"You can say that again," the brakeman said.
"Wow, this UC Gravy Train is one long train," Hector said.
FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT!! Another Dull-witted boy story
DQ -- UC Gravy Train
One morning, when the dull-witted boy and his friend, Hector, reached the railroad tracks while biking to school, they encountered a stalled train.
Behind them, as far as they could see, were automobiles waiting to get across the tracks. Looking down the tracks in both directions, they saw thousands and thousands of sheets of paper littering the gravel, the yards beside the tracks and the streets behind them and beyond them.
They saw it was a strange train, made up of cars they had never seen. Instead of flat cars, box cars, lumber cars, cattle cars or car cars, each car of this train looked like a passenger car with a suite of offices inside it. Before them was a suite with large, corner offices with big windows for bosses at both ends of the car and little cubicles with tiny windows for secretaries in the middle.
But what caught their attention most of all was the name of the train. Little Hector, as some readers may recall, was a train fanatic who knew the names of a lot of different railroad companies by heart. But he had never seen this one. It was called the "UC Gravy Train." The gold letters were painted on royal blue. It didn't even have any graffiti on it. Hector was amazed.
Just then an old brakeman passed by, walking up the track through the paper litter.
"Why's the train stopped?" the dull-witted boy asked.
"Son, it's derailed but that ain't half the story," the brakeman said. "This is the longest train in the history of California gravy trains. It's got 47 locomotives.This train is actually goes all the way to Sacramento, stalling car traffic all the way."
"Wow, this UC Gravy Train is one long train," the dull-witted boy said.
"You can say that again," the brakeman said.
"Wow, this UC Gravy Train is one long train," Hector said.
"Where is it derailed?" the dull-witted boy asked.
"Right here in Merced, wouldn't you know it?" the brakeman said. "Three blocks from City Hall."
"Why here?" Hector asked.
"Human error," the brakeman said.
"What are all these offices doing on it?" the dull-witted boy asked.
"Well, that's your staff," the brakeman said.
"Well, your staff is what makes up most of your gravy train," the brakeman explained. "You can't have a gravy train what without you have staff, see. The two go together."
"Well, where's the gravy?" Hector asked.
"And where's the potatoes to put the gravy on?" the dull-witted boy said.
"This is pretty deep stuff for youngsters your age, mebbe it's out of your depth," the brakeman said.
"Try us," the dull-witted boy replied. "We ask dumb questions."
"You too?" the brakeman asked. "OK, I'll give it a try. Where to begin?
"Well, you see, you got your taxpayer -- that's the ones that work for their livings, like me. And your taxpayer pays his taxes to your government. Your government is run by those crooks we elect every two or four years or six years and, of course, their staff. You still with me?"
"You mean like Mr. UC Merced and Senor UC Merced, that Rusty guy from Los Banos, who thought about selling his water to LA once, and them others?" the
dull-witted boy asked.
"Say, you're well informed for a youngster," the brakeman said. "You must read the newspapers."
"Nope, I can't say as I do," the dull-witted boy said. "I got uncles."
"Well, anyways, as I was saying, "you can't have your gravy train without your politicians making a pork barrel. It's your pork barrel that attracts your gravy train. Those are the essential ingredients," the brakeman said.
"To repeat: politicians, pork barrel, gravy train."
"What's a pork barrel?" the dull-witted boy asked. "A pig in a bucket?"
"You pour the gravy in the pork barrel?" Hector, who was still only in the second grade, asked.
"You boys have your dumb questions down real good," the old man said. "You're pretty close there, boy, but -- on account of it's a government thing -- it's not as simple as it sounds. But ..." he paused and scratched his head, "actually it is as simple as that but they make it look as
complicated as they can because the taxpayers don't like to see their money turned to gravy but your politicians are trying to get all the tax money they can to build projects in their home districts they can put their names on. For instance, since Senor UC Merced won the election, he's gonna want his name on the football field at the new UC Merced, right up there with Coca Cola and your state Holstein Breeders Association. But he can't get his name up on it if it don't exist so he has to get his pork barrel going, see.
"Your pork barrel is kinda like home brew," the brakeman said. "Your uncles make home brew?"
"Yep," the dull-witted boy said.
"It sort of smells, don't it? And it attracts flies?"
"Well, your political pork barrel ferments just like your home brew," the old brakeman said. "But in the beginning, it's just an idea, an idea that looks like it's going to make money for people who like to make money, see?
"But what makes the greed turn sweet, taste fine and go down like velvet is that it ain't gonna cost them nothing. The money is gonna come from somebody else's taxes. That's your gravy. You got to have the pork barrel to get the gravy, understand?"
The dull-witted boy and Hector found this more interesting than a book full of fractions.
"Now, the way it works is this: once you get your pork barrel working in your district and your politicians working in government, the next thing you know you got a gravy train full of staff."
"Yeah, but what's staff?" the dull-witted boy asked. "I don't understand staff."
"You staff just shows up," the old man said.
"Where from?" Hector asked.
"Nobody knows the answer to that," the brakeman said, scratching his head. "It's just a fact of nature that when your get your pork barrel filling with tax money, your staff shows up. It's like them mud holes out east of town.
When you got your pork barrel working, here came the scientific staff came in on the gravy train and the next thing you know, them mud holes are being called "vernal pools" and new little critters are being discovered every
day. Every year, when they fill up with water, here come them fairy shrimp -- just like staff to a pork barrel, see?"
"I think so," the dull-witted boy said.
"Then, when the mud holes dry up, the fairy shrimp go away. Some say they go into the mud and go to sleep in little seeds. Nature's a mysterious thing, boys. Mebbe it's the same with staff. You can never tell. But when you got
your pork barrel and your tax dollar working together, they produce staff and a gravy train. Fact of life."
"What's a pork barrel look like?" Little Hector asked. "I never seen one."
"Well, of course your essential pork barrel is an invisible Wish. It could start working anywhere -- like in a donut shop or over a steak dinner or at a service club lunch speech. But it starts as a wish, a dream, a fantasy.
"It's just like an invisible little seed in the beginning, see," the old brakeman continued. " It starts out in somebody's mind like an itch. He can't see it, it itches and he wants to get rid of it so he starts broadcasting it here and there around town, telling his friends and bankers. But it won't ever amount to anything unless it's fertilized."
"How do you make something invisible grow?" the dull-witted boy.
"That would be your application of large quantities of bullshit," the old man said. "Your farmers will say horseshit's good for trees, old chicken shit works for other crops but to get your pork barrel out of the conceptual
stage, liberal quantities of bullshit is the only form of fertilizer ever known to work.
"But once you get germination and growth, your genuine political pork barrel comes to life in many different forms," the old brakeman said, "oftentimes
in the form of roads, paid for by federal highway funds.
"In fact, in Washington, DC, where they make federal highway funds, they have a cult of religious visionaries called The Lobbyists. These mystics believe federal highway funds are the Mother of the Pork Barrel and the
Grandmother of the Gravy Train.
"Other times it's your dams. Lord, how the politicians love a dam, particularly out here in the West. You have no idea how much bullshit mystical lobbyists have been spread around trying to grow dam wishes. They say there ain't no river around that couldn't be improved by putting a tax-paid dam on it.
"Then you got your irrigation canals," he continued. "You have to have your canals so you can grow your cotton so the taxpayer can pay the cotton grower the difference between the world price of cotton and what the American
cotton grower can get his congressmen to get the taxpayer to believe it should be worth to a patriotic American cotton farmer to grow it.
"Now, this is too deep for you or me, boys," the old brakeman paused. "Some call your water and your agricultural subsidies the highest, most mysterious
of all pork barrels. When you talk water and agricultural subsidies you're talking about the highest mysteries of tribal cults. Nobody but members of the tribe understand them or get any benefit from them. These subsidies
don't leave a trace except in the US Treasury and some local bank accounts.
"Take rice," he continued. "See, your genuine, patriotic American farmer can't be expected to grow cotton or rice for what they'd pay a Chinese or an Indian farmer to grow cotton in their countries, could they? That ain't
American. So we pay for the canal and for half the crop. Same for rice, only rice takes more water. And then there's your ranchers. Everybody knows the cowboys are true-blue red-blooded Americans. Just look at their hats. So whenever they have a drought -- or staff says there might be a drought coming -- your taxpayer pays your rancher something for the grass that didn't grow.
"Like I said, those pork barrels surpass human understanding because they involve tribal religious issues.
"But here in this congressional district, they dreamed up one helluva pork barrel, mebbe the best pork barrel ever invented -- a public, tax paid university campus and a nuclear research lab, so mebbe some day soon you
boys will be playing Nintendo on nuclear energy.
"See, it's better than a dam because it's new technology. A dam just produces energy from water making a turbine spin and everybody knows how to do it now. Nuclear energy is better because it's new technology."
"Why is new technology better?" asked the dull-witted boy.
"Because when you get new technology you get more staff and a longer gravy train and that's what your politicians and your business leaders call Real Good," the old brakeman said. "See, when nobody knows how to use a new technology and it could be dangerous, your staff gets bigger and your gravy train gets longer.
"Why?" Hector asked.
"In words you might understand, son, 'just because,'" the brakeman said.
"The other thing is project gets so big and expensive nobody can calculate how much tax money is going to go into it. Then you have to hire on more and more staff to contain costs.
"Then you got your locals standing around the pork barrel watching it boil, bubble, sprout and grow," he continued.
"Your locals come in two varieties.
"In a pork barrel like this, the people who support it are called Leadership and the people who ask questions about it are usually called Environmentalists. Your leadership is Real Good because they got Faith and your environmentalists are called dog doo because they have Doubts."
"I don't get it and I gotta go to the bathroom," Hector said.
"Third willow on the right," the brakeman said, pointing to bushes plastered with pieces of paper beside a fence.
Hector departed the conversation to answer the call of nature.
"That's a real smart little kid," the brakeman said. "Always glad to meet a youngster interested in the railroad. It's getting so that young people don't learn about railroads anymore."
The dull-witted boy agreed that Hector was an intelligent boy.
"Got a sense of history, that kid," said the brakeman. "You can't teach that anymore. It's illegal these days, I think."
"Mister, do you know who are those people in that car up front staring out the window at Little Hector taking a pee?"
The brakeman squinted at the car for a moment, then said, "That's just another urban planner car. I think they said there were more than 300 urban planner cars on this gravy train."
"What do urban planners do?" the dull-witted boy wanted to know.
"It's like I'm trying to tell you," the brakeman said. "They're just staff. It don't matter what they do or if they do anything at all. What matters is they are staff and they show up. Urban planner staff are the ones that stand
up in front of your elected officials and give your power point presentations of boxes and arrows and especially of maps: subdivision maps, annexation maps, specific plan maps, urban development plan maps, spheres of influence maps and the like. Your power point presentation is one of the strongest ingredients of your bullshit, see?
"You look at that thing and it looks just like a train, any old train," he continued. "But, Bud, that train has mystical powers: a genuine gravy train can stop most human thought for 50 miles either side of the track it sits
"Why?" the dull-witted boy asked.
"Because people go mad when they get near it. See, son, they just gotta get on it! This derailment was caused by the last lawyer in the state that wasn't invited to the party. They say he was so upset he drove his car right into this here gravy train in the hope somehow he'd get in on the deal. All he achieved was a few hours of posthumous fame and get me a little overtime," the brakeman said, chuckling.
"Now the car he drove into was one, just one of a dozen cars packed with lawyers on the UC Gravy Train. Those are special cars. They got "On Retainer" written on their cars."
Little Hector returned from the willow bush.
"Better zip up, kid," the brakeman said, "you're exciting the secretaries."
Hector, a fastidious second grader, blushed, turned around and zipped up.
"See, boys, your real gravy train -- like this UC gravy train -- just goes on and on," the old man continued. "Right now, even as they're sweeping off the mortal remains of that unpopular lawyer, they're putting on 15 more cars full of land speculators at the other end -- right next to the plutonium cars full of nuclear weapons researchers -- your 'academic component.'"
"What's that?" Hector asked.
"Well, this is a UC gravy train, so a university campus is involved," the brakeman explained. "You have a university, you got to have your faculty and you have to have something for them to do -- that's your academic component. Don't get me wrong, it's just one part of it and not a very large part of it, unless it blows up, of course.
"The biggest part is your development community that's going to build houses around the nuclear research laboratory. Some people like to live near plutonium, I'm told. Personally, I prefer sagebrush, roadrunners and coyotes when I can get them. But that would be your water problem which, like I said before is an issue of tribal religions too deep for you or me."
"But, what do staff do?" the dull-witted boy asked, trying to get the old man focused on the original question, just once.
"Well, you see how all these cars are connected?"
"Yeah, just like on a regular passenger train."
"You got it," the old man beamed. "They've got people in there, the conductors say, that do nothing but go back and forth talking to each other. A little known fact about gravy trains is that no one ever gets off them unless they get pushed because they're afraid that if they get off them,
they'll never be able to get back on. So, to keep their places, they have to constantly talk to each other. The conductors say this is what staff calls 'staying on the same page.' There's only one thing that can get a staffer upset -- he's got his salary, his benefits and his position on the car -- but if he's even once accused of not 'staying on the same page' with all the other staffers, your staffer is gonna have a panic attack because he knows what's next. That would be when they push him off the train."
"I don't understand what 'staying on the same page' means," Hector said.
"Well, the conductors tell me it means that everybody constantly has to be talking to each other to make sure nobody gets any ideas of their own or even looks out the window much."
"So what do they actually do?" the dull-witted boy asked, again.
"I tole you twice," the old man said. "They run back and forth between all those thousands of cars agreeing with each other for fear if they don't, somebody will push them off. When everyone is in full agreement -- they call
that 'consensus' -- somebody writes up a memo and makes a diagram with boxes and arrows on it and they make a power point presentation out of it to put on their computers and then they show it to each other."
"It sounds sort of stupid," Hector said.
"Hush, boy. There is one thing you cannot say about people on the UC Gravy Train and you just said it. You can't say it because every one of them but the secretaries has not only one but two or more degrees from universities, and their studies were mostly subsidized by taxpayers.
"Now UC has its tribe of lobbyists too, just like the highway and the water people and the farmers and ranchers," the old brakeman said. "They all dress in simple robes of blue and gold. They look like monks. There are hundreds of them, each with a begging bowl, swarming over your seats of government. I ain't saying educational funding is any less mysterious than highway money but the approach is different. There's a holiness about educational funds that's lacking in highway deals. I actually feel sorry for the politicians when they get in the clutches of the Holy Order of Higher Education Lobbyists promising salvation and better school grades in their districts.
"But back to your highly educated staff," he said. "Every one of them studied Gravytrainology and each and ever' one knows deep in his heart, mind and marrow that anyone who isn't on that UC gravy train is dumb as a post -- like all the taxpayers that paid for their campuses and their professors.
"Once again, it comes from learning in school how to stay on the same page by talking to people like themselves and nobody else. They ain't like you and me, just friendly strangers sitting by the side of the tracks talking 'till
the train clears. At your departments of gravytrainology in institutions of higher learning, the first thing they teach you is who to talk to and who not to talk to. That's the secret of professional success and the fundamental premise of gravytrainology."
Just then a huge rumbling and crashing split the air like the biggest thunderclap in the universe. Both the boys jumped a foot off the ground.
"No need for worry, boys," the old brakeman yelled, "That's the sound of a gravy train starting up again."
"Where's it headed if the project is here?" the dull-witted boy screamed. "Why aren't they getting off?"
"Kid, you're not as bright as you look," the brakeman bellowed. "I tole you: nobody gets off unless they get pushed off. In a pork barrel project like this UC Merced, the last place a staffer wants to end up is in the barrel,
on the ground, at the project. You want to be ON the gravy train, not on the bottom of the pork barrel."
"Why?" Hector asked.
"Because then that staffer ain't going to be talking to other staffers. He's gonna have to talk to the public, the people who live here where they're gonna build this radioactive pork barrel with a college attached to it. Now the staffers don't know the public don't know much about the project. The reason they don't know that is because that ain't their department. That's your public relations department, also known as the Mothers of the Power Point Presentation.
"Like I say, the staffer only really knows one thing: he's got to stay on the same page with all the other staffers. But they think the public knows all about the project. And since the public can't be on the same page with all the staffers because the staffers ain't dumb enough to share the page with the public, they figure the public is mad."
"Why don't they share the page with the public?" asked the dull-witted boy.
"You don't get to see the page until you get on the gravy train," the old man explained.
"Well, how do you get to see it?" Hector asked.
"That would be your 'emerging community leader' deal, which is a multi-step deal. Your first step would be to start parading around your town calling yourself an 'emerging leader.' That's a wannabe leader. Then you borrow some computer time from your boss and look up 'emerging leader' on the Internet and get connected with the People Who Can Help You, that's a non-profit foundation that gets its money from people who build huge factories and want to save what they call signature landscapes and quaint rural people. The step after that is buying a lot of clothes that make you look like you
really don't come from your town -- Ceres, Livingston, Red Top, Fowler, Goshen, Orosi, Buttonwillow, Arbuckle, Gridley, Williams, Lamont, Strathmore, Clements, Milton, Hilmar, Denair, El Nido -- places like that.
"Then you gotta quit sounding like you come from places like that. When you're really almost ready for the Interview, you gotta quit thinking like you came from places like that. Finally, if you're lucky, you get a call
which would lead you to the Interview. So then you would go up to Modesto to meet the Rich Ladies, aka The People Who Can Help You. If the Rich Ladies decide you really, really don't look or think like your neighbors anymore, they'll give you a peek at one little corner of the page -- something so old it's been released to the public -- and ask you if you can get on it.
"Now, there's three ways you can make it. You can talk your way in, you can write your way in, but the best way is to make some charts, graphs -- they love
numbers -- put a bunch of boxes and arrows around them, and maybe you'll
"Make what?" the dull-witted boy said.
"Make it on the UC Gravy Train, stupid," Little Hector said.
"OK," the dull-witted boy said, "but what's all this paper littering the tracks and everything?"
"That's different from your page," the brakeman said. "This is your flack. There's cars and cars up there full of writers that do nothing but write flack. Then they got other staff people to print it. When they print it they
chuck it out the door into the world. It's part of the reason people go mad for 50 miles around a gravy train.
"See this one here," the brakeman said, picking up one of the sheets of paper.
"'Chancellor Tests First UC Merced Building.'
"Hmmm," he read on. It seems that 25 of the state's finest civil engineers designed a 'non-chemicalized, totally self-contained personal sanitary depository of wood in a style sensitive to prevalent local aesthetic design standards, including a moon-shaped window.' Then they hired a construction company out of Orange County to build it. Prominent university, local, state and federal officials did a tour and the chancellor was given the honor of
being the first person to test it."
"What is it?" Hector wanted to know.
"Boys, this is good flack," the old brakeman said. "The essence of good flack is that it leaves you with important questions, like 'what is it?'
"Real Good Flack -- and the UC Gravy Train has the finest flack staff tax money can buy -- is kinda like the old-time Chinese Buddhists. What they say all points to what they haven't said. Real deep and mystical.
"Now in the case of this latest flack release now littering the entire Central Valley, what you got is the announcement of the completion of an outhouse on a cow pasture. It has to be an outhouse because they don't have
any sewer lines. It can't be a chemical outhouse because the environmentalists would get after them for pollution. Now the chancellor of these cow pastures which the pork barrel, the gravy train and the staff are going to transform into a university, and the high officials apparently went
out to this outhouse. Then, if I am translating the flack accurately, the chancellor went in the outhouse and used it. It doesn't mention if other high officials also used it. However, it does say that when she emerged from the outhouse, there was a 'warm round of applause.' Good flack always has a happy ending."
The three of them stood beside the tracks and watched endless cars full of offices lurch slowly past them.
"Where'd you say it was going again?" the dull-witted boy asked.
"Where it goes, nobody knows, kid," the brakeman said.
"It just keeps going until the money runs out."
As if to confirm the wisdom of the ancient brakeman, a window opened in the office car inching through the intersection and a young man, kicking and screaming, his hands desperately grasping at the window casing, was being slowly ejected from the opening by a crowd of men and women insistently pushing and pushing until, finally, he fell to the gravel bed of the railroad tracks below.
The young man, scratched and bleeding, immediately leapt to his feet and began pounding his fists against the slowly moving office car, imploring his former office mates to let him back in.
"For God' sake, it was just a simple observation," he cried. "You can't be serious! Let me back in immediately. I have a masters degree from UCLA. I didn't write it down. I didn't do any analysis on it. IT WAS JUST A SLIP OF THE TONGUE."
His former office mates closed the window and drew the curtains. As his office inched away, he hobbled along beside it, pounding it, crying out in despair until it was clear he could expect no pity from those within.
He was off the UC Gravy Train.
The kindly old brakeman led him away from the train, fearing he might throw himself under its wheels, something similarly ejected staff had done before,
causing a time-consuming mess for railroad employees when they did. The old man brushed off the fellow's khakis and pressed blue oxford shirt and picked up his briefcase for him, saying, "There, there, the world ain't come to an end. There's more than one gravy train come along these tracks. Just you wait. Life ain't over," and soothing things in this vein.
But the young man was hysterical.
"I am a certified traffic consultant," he stated wildly. "Certified, I say.
I have advanced academic degrees and certification. I am a professional."
"I can see that myself," the old brakeman said. "You look every inch the professional traffic consultant. If I saw you in a crowded Starbucks, I'd say: 'By Golly, that man is a professional, certified traffic consultant.'"
"That's right, I am," said the gravy-train reject. "I want that clearly understood."
"It is perfectly clear," the brakeman said. "No arguments here, right boys?"
The dull-witted boy and Hector shook their heads.
"Well, why did they do this foul, unjust thing to you?" the brakeman asked.
"It was just a casual, totally unquantified observation based on anecdotal information," the consultant said.
"About what?" Hector asked.
"All I said, and absolutely all I said -- and just to my secretary, that bitch Irene -- who blurted it to my supervisor because ... well, I won't go into the social habits of the people in that office. Beasts, absolute
beasts. But all I said was that since the UC Gravy Train had derailed, it was blocking every intersection in Merced and streets in every city from here to Sacramento. Judging from the line of cars of people trying to get to work this morning at this one intersection, I said I would have to call the LOS -- that's the Level of Service for you lay persons --unacceptable this morning. Then I said something about Merced City not having been able to afford to have more than one overpass on one of its two sets of railroad tracks in town, and no underpasses. Then I wondered -- out loud, in front of Irene, what a fool I was --if this might pose a problem we could look into.
"It was meant as a kind of joke, don't you see?" he whined. "It wasn't serious! I mean who cares about traffic congestion in Merced or anywhere else along the route of the gravy train. Certainly not UC. We're building roads around Merced. I personally have -- had -- total control of the planning for six feet of that beltway. Did I say that I have a masters degree and am a certified traffic planning consultant?"
"Yes, yes, you mentioned that several times," the old brakeman said gently.
"Please go on."
"Every certified traffic consultant on the UC Gravy Train at the moment is totally focused on the traffic congestion for Phase 1 of its project -- that's the part that won't impact anything except the golfers who lost their municipal course. Forget the rest! Forget the other phases, the new town,
the nuclear lab and all the development around it. That's what I said:
Forget it! Forget it! Forget it!
"But they wouldn't and they pushed me out and that Irene was right in there with the rest of them, laughing as she did it. The last one we pushed out was at night when the train was doing about 40 miles an hour. He screamed when he landed. I think he died or something."
Suddenly, the rejected consultant sobbed, grabbed his briefcase and dashed up the tracks to begin his fruitless pounding on the sides of his former office car on the UC Gravy Train.
"Boys, that's the saddest part of the gravy-train business you're looking at," the old man said. "You might wonder how come I know so much about what goes on inside those offices. It's from dusting off young fellows like that
one, the rejects you find wandering along the tracks, mumbling to themselves, crazy as loons. Sometimes you can see their camp fires at night in the old jungles where the fruit tramps used to gather. They all got a tale to tell about their part of the project and they all tell the same tale: once you're off the UC Gravy Train, they never let you back on it."
The old man paused and scratched his head, trying to remember something.
"Oh yeah, I should tell you this. I hate to mention it -- it ain't sad, it's just mean -- but if them little backpacks of yours contain any paint cans, don't do it on this train. Personally, I have enjoyed the peoples' art ever since it started, but if you're artists, consider another canvas. They got a private crew of graffiti dicks, all former Texas Rangers, that have zero tolerance for taggers. I mean zero and I seen the bodies to prove it.
They'll track a tagger all the way to Utah and do him in and age is no consideration. Younger the better, is their motto. Each one of them has a special authorization letter from very high officials to enforce this no-tolerance policy. UC definitely don't like anybody defacing its Gravy Train."
Little Hector said, "I never."
"Me neither," said the dull-witted boy.
"Good," the old brakeman said.
"Tell us about some of the other cars," the dull-witted boy said.
"That's a tall order, boy, and we'd be here for months if I told you about all the cars on the UC Gravy Train.
"There's your Governor's car and your Legislature cars. There's specially made out of bullet-proof, foot-thick black glass. Nobody can see in. Nobody can see out. They're blocked at each end and nobody can get in or out
"But the fanciest cars are for the high UC officials," he continued. "The paint on those cars is so clean and shiny it blinds the eyes. Hundreds of little businessmen, all dressed in blue suits with gold ties are constantly washing and polishing the UC officials' cars. You can't see inside those
cars because they have thick, brocade curtains of blue and gold. The businessmen who clean the cars say the thread in these curtains is made of pure gold. Every once in awhile one of the high officials opens the window to give an official address. Official UC addresses are done by the official dangling his or her backside out the window and permitting the businessmen and prominent local officials to kiss it.
"Down the line you might see more than a hundred cars with fly-specked little windows. That would be your secretarial pool cars. You'll see women answering telephones behind the little windows. They all say the same thing to whoever is calling. The message is: 'whoever you're calling is out of the office.' That's an essential component of a gravy train and staff."
"Why?" Hector wanted to know.
"Well, your key difference between staff and ordinary people is that staff has secretaries to tell anyone trying to call that staff is out of the office. Otherwise you wouldn't be staff. Get it?"
"No," Hector said.
"Well, you're young yet," the old brakeman said. "You see those plumes of smoke up ahead, looks like burning rice fields?"
"Yeah," the dull-witted boy said.
"That's your public records cars. See, to get back to the beginning, your pork barrel, because it's a public project using tax money, has to comply with all local, state and federal regulations. That means about half the staff on the gravy train are constantly writing reports on the development of the pork barrel so the public will know what's going on. Get it?"
"But since your leadership don't want the public to know anything about the pork barrel except flack, as soon as those staff reports are written and read by leadership, they run them over to the incinerators in your public records cars before the environmentalists get hold of them. Get it?"
The dull-witted boy bit a finger nail and said nothing.
"I know it takes awhile," the old brakeman said.
"But all the public records don't get burned up because copies of them go to place like the natural resource agency cars. Now these cars look kinda like old-time Pullman cars, a little worse for wear. The blue and gold paint is chipped and you can see the old Pullman green underneath it. That's because there's more money in pork barrels than there are in resource agencies. And there's only a handful of people in each car. But you can't see these people because the windows are blocked by signs. Each sign is just one big letter.
Put all the letters together and they spell, 'SUE US PLEASE!'
"Then you got your punishment cars," he continued. "There done in an Old West motif, real graphic and meant to show the public what can happen if anybody asks any dumb questions and does anything that displeased any powerful person on the gravy train.
"You got a few emaciated journalists prowling around open cages begging food from passers-by. Then they've got a former congressman tacked up to a cross with real nails. Then they've got the skin of a baby black bear tacked up
for some reason, right over the hide of the guy who shot it, making a charming Western tableau. Then they've got their wanted posters -- mainly pictures of vernal pools. They've got see-through padded cells for consulting biologists who went nuts trying to prove they could build the project without threatening endangered species.
"Then you have your road-kill panels," he continued grimly. "Oh, yes. Car after car fitted out with tall, white walls on which they tack up dead squirrels, skunks, coyotes, mice, dogs, cats and whoever else they can scrape off the roads. If you look at this project from a raptor's point of view, it looks like Sherman's march to the sea, burning crops all the way or maybe what the Spanish did in Peru when they burned all the amaranth.
"Next to the flack cars, you find your newspaper cars," the old brakeman explained. "The newspaper cars are connected to the flack cars by fax machines. In the beginning of the gravy train you could still see through
the windows into the newspaper cars but that hasn't been true for a year because fax flack has filled the newspaper cars entirely. Sometimes, if the train is stalled and you're near a newspaper car you can still see movement
inside. Sometimes the paper seems to move about and you can imagine there are editors within but you never see them anymore and they sure as hell can't see you. Every once in awhile some editor gets so burned out, his
frying mind sets fire to the fax flack and one more local newspaper uncouples from the line.
"Next to the newspaper cars, you have your dog-and-pony cars. They're set up like theater stages, complete with adoring audiences of reporters and local leaders hanging on every bark and whinny. One stopped near where I was
working on the track for several hours. It drew a crowd because people are naturally curious when they see dogs and ponies dressed up like college professors.
"So, we're all standing there watching the dogs bark, the ponies whinny, the local leaders acting like they understand every word and asking important questions about growth and prosperity and the reporters scribbling away in their notebooks. But, boys, none of us out here on the track could speak either dog or pony so we couldn't make head nor tails out of it.
"My personal favorite car on the UC Gravy Train is a special glassed-in car full of naked lawyers who were too stupid and corrupt to be of any use on the project. They don't feed them anything so every couple of days or so
they hold a trial, convict one of their mates and eat him. It's something to see."
"Then, of course, you got your boosters -- confetti and pompom girls. A lot of those cars are filled with school kids and your ethnic minority groups.
No gravy train can do without your smiling children and your smiling, grateful minority people -- just glad to be here in the US improving themselves through education. They tend to work on your politicians' hearts and minds. Who ain't gonna vote for more tax money for a university in their
region after your school children and your minority leaders have come to them begging for the chance to be Real Successful Americans like that traffic consultant and telling you that if you don't vote for that campus and the nuclear research lab in your backyard you're just condemning those
people to ignorance and privation.
"Then you got your school teachers and your school administrators cars," he continued. "These look like floats at the homecoming parade. They are alters made of wire and blue and gold paper napkins. It ain't Christian exactly
because they're worshiping a Golden Bobcat, a creature that does not occur in nature but which they highly exalt anyway. They kneel all around it and pray 24/7.
"The UC Gravy Train goes on and on," the old brakeman said. "You got your developer cars and your land speculator cars. The only way you can tell the difference is your developer cars have little slit windows about an inch thick that double as rifle ports. Land speculators don't have any windows at all.
"Boys, you see that boxcar coming up?"
"Yep," the dull-witted boy said.
"Well that's my car and I'd better hop it or I won't get any lunch. See you later."
With that the spry old brakeman disappeared in the open door of the boxcar.
The boys were hoping to see the cannibal-lawyers cage but gave up after a couple of hours and went home.