Short Story: “Authenticity”

The need to find your true voice isn’t limited to individuals. This series started with “Crossing the Line“, and continued in parts 2, 3, 4, and 5.

[Part 6 of a series]
by P. Orin Zack

“Yeah, but Buster Flange?”  Buzz asked incredulously. “How can anyone take that clown seriously?”

Marjha Horcik thumbed the pause icon on her cell phone. The City Councilman had been caught fulminating in character again, but this time his performance wasn’t just sacrificed at the altar of Internet comedy. The video was being used to attack his proposal to change the city charter. “He may be a jerk,” she said, glancing at Flange’s reddened face on the little screen, “but his idea is good. The homeless community in this town could use something like that.”

“Bull. Creating a virtual district so Occupy supporters can make themselves feel important isn’t going to do squat for anyone who hasn’t got four walls and a john. I read about his crackpot scheme in the Sidewalk Spectator. It’s just a sop for suckers.”

“That’s not the point,” she insisted. “If Occupy Wall Street can have a virtual district, then so can we. Just because someone lives in their car or a tent city, or under the highway like this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a say in how this city—.”

A loud metallic crunch from the highway support trusses overhead snatched the sound from her mouth. She glanced at Buzz for a quick read on the situation. He’d risen from the boulder he was leaning against and was peering upward. “That’s not right.”

The screech of tires above was followed in rapid succession by an air horn, and then a series of crashes. It was obvious that something nasty had happened on the highway, doubly so because the din of traffic rumbling past quickly subsided.

“Jesus,” Buzz breathed. “Let’s get out of here.”

Marjha nodded, took one last look along the length of the highway supports, and then peered into the shadowed distance below it. People had begun emerging from hidden niches, hauling bags and pushing wagons piled high with stuff. Then, just as she turned to go, there was another, much louder crunch, and a section of roadway dropped to the ground, crushing nearly a dozen people under a pile of twisted steel, reinforced concrete and scraps of black roadway that rained down over the rest of it.

“Those people…” she said, but couldn’t bear to finish the grisly thought.

“Those people might as well not even exist,” Buzz said coldly. “Nobody knew who they were, nobody knew they were there, and nobody’s going to look for them.”

“But they’re people!”

“They’re ciphers. We all are. Face it, Marjha, the only time homeless folks like us even get noticed is when one of us makes a pest of themselves, and then it’s only to cart us off to lockup, or pawn us off to social services. The people up there don’t want to know about us. We’re the ugly little secret that makes it possible for the rich to be rich in the first place.”

She stared at him, breathing hard, as the rising wail of sirens filled the air, peppered with the staccato beat of news copters approaching from two directions. “And that’s exactly why Buster Flange’s proposal matters,” she said, raising her voice. “We’re only invisible because we’re split up. Nobody will know what happened to those people down there —” she broke off as the foul memory turned to reflux, “— unless we do something.”

“Like what?” he said, more a challenge than a question.

“Report what happened.”

“To who? The morons who print the daily fishwrap? That rag’s so far up the butts of the syndicate who owns it that it’s a wonder they don’t get paper cuts when they crap.”

She gestured skywards. “Look, we’ve got to do something. Once that video hits the airwaves, all anyone’s going to talk about is the tangled commute and the cost of rebuilding the highway.”

“And you think there’s something you can do about that?”

Her resolve hardening, she turned to go. “You’re damn right.”

“So where’re you off to?”

“The Spectator.”

*   *   *

“Say again?”

Marjha tried to ignore the din from the scurry of activity in the Sidewalk Spectator’s storefront office and made fierce eye contact with the editor, a bearded ex-GI named Frank. “I said,” her voice sharper this time, “we were under the highway when it came down. We just saw at least a half-dozen people crushed to death.”

“What do you expect me to do about it? We’ve got a two-week news cycle, and the paper’s already been run up. It’s not like we can just toss them out and start over.”

“You can stick an insert into them, can’t you? Don’t you get it? This is a goddam scoop!”

Buzz, who’d been standing near the door and eyeing the exit uneasily, suddenly closed on Frank, which made the man flinch. “Look, crewcut,” he said, “I’ve been living under that highway on and off for about a year now. Bits and pieces have been working loose for the past week, and the DOT inspector they sent down a few months ago just gave it a pass. I watched him. Didn’t climb up there to examine the braces or nothing. If you ask me there’s some money changed hands over this deal.”

“Okay, okay. So maybe we can sneak a flier into the papers. What do you expect to happen? It’s not like we’re the newspaper of record, you know.”

“You’re right,” she said. “It’s not. But they’re not covering the deaths of six people and you can.”

“You can do more’n that,” Buzz said. “You can wipe their noses in it. Scooping all of the so-called ‘legitimate media’ in this town is gonna get you noticed. Or are you afraid that someone might actually read this rag?”

Marjha stifled a grin. If only he could apply it to himself.

“All right. All right. We’ll run a flysheet. But you two are gonna park your butts here and add them to every last paper that hasn’t gone out yet.”

“Deal,” Buzz said. “But how are we gonna get them out to the vendors who’ve already got theirs?”

A young man who was watching the set-to raised his cell. “Don’t sweat it. With something this big, we can probably draw a flash-crowd to run them out for us. I’ll handle that angle.”

Marjha finally let her happy out. “Great. So what do we do now?”

Frank pointed at a laptop. “That wrapper’s going to need some copy. Grab some help and start writing. I’ll call our printer and tell him what’s up.”

“Writing?” Buzz said, alarmed. He glanced over his shoulder for an escape route. “I don’t do ‘writing’”.

“Sit,” she said, swinging a chair around for him. “We’ll write. You’re our scoop. Just don’t let it go to your head.”

Over the next two hours, they assembled a history of what Buzz had observed during his time living under the highway. What the inspector did, bits of the framework breaking off – stuff like that. Several of the volunteers called around to see if they could get some leads on the names of any of the people who were killed when the highway collapsed. Meanwhile, Frank tracked down the name of the inspector Buzz had seen, and discovered that he’d been accused of taking payoffs from JonesCo, the developer that had wanted the building lot where the Occupy encampment had been. The story was getting more interesting by the minute, and none of it was even being mentioned on either of the TV stations that had been doing wall-to-wall coverage ever since their copters converged on the site.

The Spectator’s printer gave priority to the job, so it didn’t take much longer before the folded flysheets were on their way to the network of independent vendors on the streets, as well as to the district pick-up locations and the Spectator office itself. As soon as the volunteer dropped a bundle of them on the office floor, Frank pulled one out and laid it on the table.

“’Highway crushes former judge,” he read, “Damn. If that headline doesn’t get us some eyeballs, nothing will. Who was he?”

“She,” Buzz corrected him. “Elana Sworzl. Circuit court judge. She was disbarred a few decades ago on charges that were later disproven. It broke her, and she never recovered. Turns out she’s been homeless for years, but only moved under my highway about four months ago.” He frowned and looked away. “I thought she looked familiar. Maybe I should have gone over and said hello or something.”

“Beat yourself up about it later,” Frank said. “Right now you’ve got work to do.”

“Like what? The thing’s done.”

“Ain’t been sold yet. You two ought to go plant yourselves at Main and First. Best spot in the city. Team up with the vendor there – a woman named Betsy, and draw yourself a crowd. The broadcast guys won’t take long to notice if you rile up a bunch of the rush hour crowd. By then it’ll be too late. It’s our story, and they won’t know what to do with it.”

*   *   *

The noisy crowd at Main and First was already seeping into the street by the time Marjha and Buzz arrived. A driver rolled down his window and asked Buzz what all the excitement was about.

“The highway collapse,” Buzz said absently.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s all over the news. Traffic’s going to be tangled for months they said.”

He shook his head and bent down to speak with the driver. “Not that. The judge that was killed.”

“A judge? Radio didn’t say anything about a judge.”

Marjha handed him one of the extra flysheets she was carrying. “It’s in the Sidewalk Spectator.”

The man scanned the page for a few seconds and peered up at them. “Six people were killed? How come that’s not on the news either?”

Before she had a chance to answer, a fortyish woman in a bright green newsboy cap tapped her on the shoulder and slipped her hand into the strap binding the stack of flysheets. “Thanks. I’m going to need as many as you can get me.” When Marjha gave her a puzzled look, she fingered her vendor badge and added, “Oh, sorry. I’m Betsy. Can you give me a hand here? I’m swamped.”

Marjha released her grip on the bundle and turned back towards the driver.

When Betsy noticed that he had a copy of the flysheet, she said, “That one’s free, sir, but you owe me the purchase of the next issue. I know when you go past, and I’ll be watching for you.” As the man drove off, she stepped closer to them. “Here’s the deal,” she said. “See this crowd here? They’re my regulars. If we can get them fired up about this, they’ll spread the word for us. I’ve told them that you two were on the way, and that if they stayed on the corner with me, I’d interview you for them. Think you’re up to it?”

“Interview—?” Buzz mouthed distastefully.

She frowned and turned to Marjha. “It’s on you, then. How do you want to do this? I could ask you—.”

“No, wait,” she said. “Give me a chance. I think I can get Buzz to open up.”

He started to back away but lost his footing when he discovered he’d overshot the curb. He yelped at his sudden loss of balance, but Marjha reached out and grabbed his flailing hand, pulling him to safety. When she realized that the chatter had stopped, she quickly turned to the crowd. “Now that we have your attention,” she said, “I’d like you to meet Buzz. I was visiting with him under the highway when it collapsed.”

Betsy grinned, and urged her regulars to gather around.

While Buzz silently pleaded with her to stop, Marjha sketched out the scene for her listeners, so they’d get a sense of what the world was like from that vantage point. “In a way,” she said after a pause, “being under that river of traffic was kind of soothing. After a while, the noise felt akin to the crash of waves on a rocky shore. Distant. Almost as if the shadow of the highway offered sanctuary to Buzz and the scattering of people I could see off in the distance. But then…”

A woman to her right raised a tentative finger. “Had you been there before?”

“No. But I’d met Buzz at a soup kitchen, and he invited me to come visit.”

“So that spot under the highway was his home?”

Marjha was about to answer when she had an idea. She nudged Buzz, who was doing his best to be invisible. “Did you think of that spot as your home, Buzz?”

He looked away for a second, and then turned to face the woman squarely. “It’s different,” he said. “Not so much my home as a place I was willing to stay for a while. You can’t really get attached to anything, or anyplace in my situation.”

While Marjha slowly cajoled Buzz towards the moment when the highway collapsed, Betsy moved to the other side of the crowd and began working the pedestrians like a carnival barker. People could buy a copy of the Spectator anywhere in the city, she called, but they could only get the story from the horse’s mouth right here at the corner of Main and First.

Buzz loosened up once he realized that the people surrounding him were more interested in knowing what he’d seen than who he was. He really started to get into the swing of it after Marjha asked him to describe what the Department of Transportation’s inspector did when he was there.

The interview had gone on for about ten minutes when a truck from one of the local TV stations pulled up next to them, and a man with a video camera jumped out. Buzz immediately stopped speaking, crossed his arms, and glared at the man. The crowd parted to let Betsy through, and then closed ranks behind her, looking very protective. “What’s your business here,” she asked. “This is my corner.”

“It’s a public sidewalk,” the man said with a patronizing tone of voice. “Oh, that’s right,” he continued, “you’re peddling the homeless news, aren’t you.” He raised the camera so she could see the station’s logo. “Well, I’m a reporter, and this is the number five. Or can you read that rag you’re hawking?”

She laughed, and turned to the crowd. “I hope you’re all paying attention. This is how the power structure responds to the truth. They send their lackeys to discredit the messenger because they can’t counter the logic of your argument. Who knows what that’s called?”

Several people called out, “Ad hominem!”

“Who are these people?” Marjha asked incredulously.

The reporter raised his camera. But before anyone could respond to her question, a man with sunglasses and an ill-fitting sport jacket emerged from the crowd. “I’ll tell you who they are,” he said evenly. “These people are well-informed citizens of this city, and they have every right to know what their government is doing with their money, and in their name.”

“And you are…?” the reporter prompted.

“Who I am isn’t important, any more than who the witnesses to a crime are. What this man knows, what he’s observed, and what he says is what’s important. The moment that the supposedly ‘free press’ began to concern itself with who witnesses are, and what power and influence they have, it ceased to fill that role. If you want to read a real newspaper,” he said, holding up a copy of the Spectator, “then start with this one. It’s written by people with a stake in what it says, sold by people who know what it’s like to be ignored, and it’s read by people like these who have a better grasp of how the world ought to work than the ones who pay your salary.”

By this time, the crowd had swelled far beyond the sidewalk, and a number of people were holding their cell phones up to video the exchange. A police siren was drawing near, and traffic was at a standstill in all four directions. The TV reporter swung his camera around towards the police car as he narrated what was happening.

Marjha thanked the man who had stepped forward, and started to ask him who he was, but then she thought better of it and changed the subject. “I guess you’re one of Betsy’s regular’s then?”

“I suppose so. A friend of mine told me about the paper. She’s a—.”

“Would everyone please clear the street!” The officer’s amplified voice drowned everything else out. “Everyone please get back onto the sidewalk. You’re blocking traffic. I have to ask you to disperse.” When nobody moved, he walked through the maze of cars and approached the knot of people in the eye of the storm. “What’s going on here?”

Betsy met him halfway. “The Sidewalk Spectator,” she said proudly, “is conducting an interview. If you hadn’t heard, a former judge was killed this morning. That man,” here she pointed at Buzz, “is a witness.”

“Oh?” he said as the two reached the corner. He sized Buzz up for a moment, and then turned to the man who had countered the reporter. “And what are you doing here, Councilman Flange?”

Buzz eyed Flange suspiciously.

“Meeting with my constituents,” he said, removing his sunglasses. “We’ve got enough signatures now to get my proposed change to the city charter on the ballot. If it passes, this distributed community, which is a good deal larger than you might think, will get a seat on city council. What are you going to do about it?”

“I wouldn’t care if you were the Pope. You’re blocking traffic. Can you take this interview somewhere else? Somewhere that you won’t be blocking traffic?”

Buster Flange nodded, and turned towards the crowd. “If you’re amenable,” he said loudly, “I’d like to move this civic event to the city council chamber. Would that be okay with everyone?”

Vocal assent came from every direction. Satisfied, the officer returned to his car.

As the crowd filtered out toward city hall, Buster Flange walked along with Buzz, Marjha and Betsy. “I’m sorry if I made an ass of myself back there,” he said.

Buzz chuckled. “I’ve seen videos of you, councilman. You did that a long time ago.”

“Well, I’m trying to put that behind me now.”

“You did okay. I didn’t recognize you without all the theatrics. That really helps your case.”

“Thanks. Oh, I didn’t get your name. The interview had already started by the time I got there.”

Buzz didn’t say anything for an uncomfortable while. And then, just as Flange was about ask Betsy a question, he nodded to himself and looked at him. “I’ve been hiding from the world and calling myself Buzz for so long, I’d almost forgotten my name. Councilman Flange, my name is Hector.”


[The series concludes with “Engaging Constituency“]

Copyright 2013 by P. Orin Zack


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