When a T worker notices that something is “off,” and acts quickly to save a vision impaired rider from getting hit by a train, or when a State Trooper helps deliver an impatient baby by the side of the Turnpike, we applaud them heartily, as we should. And when a municipal tax collector embezzles the public’s money, or an elected official influences a public procurement in favor of a campaign donor, we condemn them, and expect prosecution when a crime has been committed. These kinds of things are newsworthy and reported in the media, and shape our opinions about government, the taxes we pay, and public employees. But the little things matter, too.
Several years ago, on a sultry summer weekend, I decided to drive to southeastern Connecticut to visit an old friend who lives there in a house with a shaded deck and a cool, kidney shaped pool. Really, this is the kind of friend you want to have if you live in Boston when it’s hot and humid. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the first person to think that it might be a good weekend to “get out of Dodge” and, as I approached the Allston/Brighton tolls, the crush of traffic was, um, confusing. Without a transponder, I found myself being carried along by the traffic toward the wrong booth. I have lived in Boston for 20 years, but I still find Bostonians’ ability to aggressively ignore each other an impressive talent. Eventually, the father of a young family in an old, beat up car acknowledged my plight and waved me in front of them. The least I can do, I thought, is pay the toll for them. So I told the toll collector that I was paying for myself and the car behind me. As I pulled away from the plaza, I watched in my rear view mirror as the collector charged them the toll and pocketed what I had paid for them. Ugh.
Fast forward to last weekend, a beautiful summer Sunday, and I decided to take the commuter rail to Singing Beach for a few hours. It’s always a nice experience – everyone is going to the beach, or to ride their bike around Cape Ann, or to explore Salem or Rockport, and the train has a festive mood. I pulled on my backpack as the train slowed to a stop in Manchester-by-the-Sea and hopped off, heading first to the market to order a sandwich to take with me to the beach. Glancing at my wrist to check the time I realized my watch was gone. Remembering that I had struggled to get the strap of my backpack over the watch, I knew right away that’s when it had come off. It’s not a valuable watch, just something I picked up years ago at the Fossil outlet in Wrentham. But it’s such a standby that I had recently replaced its rubber wristband, the original one having finally worn out from use. I thought about asking the conductor on the way back if she had seen it, but it wasn’t the same crew as I had on the way up and I decided not to bother.
By Monday I was really missing what I had now decided was my favorite watch, and I placed a call to commuter rail lost and found at North Station to find out if anyone had turned in a Fossil watch with a blue dial and a rubber band. Bingo, the woman on the other end of the line had just one watch and that was it. When I went to retrieve it, I asked if they knew who had turned it in. The answer: it was one of the crew.
Unless you live as a hermit in the woods, government touches your life many, many times every day. When you live in a city, those interactions are more frequent and often more personal. It’s one thing to commute to work on the interstate, it’s another to have an exchange with a toll collector, or a train conductor. Unlike the rescued life or the criminal conviction, these experiences aren’t newsworthy, but they affect our attitudes about government, and the people government employs, equally if not more so. Everybody is entitled to a bad day once in a while, and we all have had our times with a grumpy bus driver or a less-than-congenial RMV clerk. In order to get through the day, we just roll our eyes and shrug. And it’s not just government that works like this, of course. As I’ve often said, all bureaucracies are the same – an unhappy experience with the phone or cable company can leave a bad taste just as a visit to city hall can be aggravating when the tax collector is in a rotten mood.
I’ve been a public employee of some sort for a good portion of my career, so I tend to come to the defense of public employees when they are criticized, and they often are. But I know that the pilfering toll collector, who ruined my small act of gratitude at Exit 19 all those years ago, affected my feelings about all toll collectors and the Turnpike Authority, if even subconsciously, and if even unfairly. But so, too, did the conductor, who went to the trouble to help reunite me with my watch, affect my feelings about train conductors as a group, if even subconsciously, and if even unfairly. A couple of bucks in the wrong pocket isn’t such a big deal, and the watch I now value more than it’s material worth for its journey back to my wrist isn’t exactly front-page material. But in some small way, after the petty larceny on the Pike, the universe has come back into a kind of cosmic balance, and for that I am grateful to Mr. or Ms. Conductor. In government the little things do, indeed, matter.
Peter O’Connor, a lawyer and development consultant in Boston, is a former Deputy Secretary of Transportation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.