My Obama Encounter By Jacob Bartelby, Intern to the Department of Health Bureaucracy Department Building 15
“What are you doing?” I asked. Nothing. The three other interns stuffed into this office sat cattle-like as our persons were searched.
Once satisfied, they stood at attention.
Then I saw a light fill the hallway outside. More footsteps. Then the Undercommissioner for the Maintenance of Healthcare Department Bureaucracy Building 15 walked in Then the Entourage of The President and then The President entered the room.
Everyone jumped to their feet. It was a celebrity moment, of disbelief and euphoria, followed by inappropriate attempts at two handed glad handling that were quickly tamped down by security. Paul Volker was there, somehow recognizable, whispering to a young man with a clipboard, and several other members of the government whom I should have recognized but didn’t.
The Undercommissioner introduced us and The President flashed us all his beautiful flash of a grin, which always reminded me of Paul Newman in The Hustler. The Undercommissioner started spewing some boilerplate about the mission of this office of this basement of this bureaucracy building as the man with the clipboard took notes. Obama paid little attention, wandering the room, looking for something. As The Undercommissioner finished his speech, The President picked up a pencil off my desk.
“You use a lot of these?” He was asking me.
I couldn’t speak for what felt like minutes. My tongue clogged my mouth, and I made choking spitting noises before I could force out some intelligible words.
“We do go through a lot. Lots of…pencils. A lot of calculations.”
“You don’t do those on your computer?”
“We do do a lot of calculation using computer models, Mr. President. But a…a lot of the small everyday calculations and notes we do by hand.”
The Undercommissioner started talking again, but Obama wasn’t done with me.
“This is a number two pencil?”
Was it? Was this a test? Of course it was a number two. Wasn’t it? I tried to look at the number on the pencil the President was holding up to me, but I couldn’t focus. “I…I believe so, Mr. President. Yes. It is.”
“You think you could perform the same…ah…notations with a…2.5 pencil?”
I tried to remember what the numbers on pencils meant. The hardness of the lead. Then I wondered which 2.5 was: harder or softer graphite. Then I remembered that it didn’t matter. Only one thing mattered.
“Yes, Mr. President, I’m sure we could.”
“What would that save, department-wise?”
He had me there. The world closed in as a I searched for a proper deferment of an answer. Something about using a computer model maybe. I gulped, and then I realized this last question wasn’t addressed to me.
The man with the clipboard was scribbling furiously. His pencil was a blur, and then it became still like a stuck arrow as he punctuated a figure. I could suddenly focus; it was a 2.5. The clipboard man whispered into Paul Volker’s ear, and Volker whispered into Obama’s.
A small smile of satisfaction crossed The President’s face. “Thank you, Mr. Bartelby. Undercommissioner. Let’s go.” He signed autographs as the G-men plotted their exit. As he left, he put his hand on Paul Volker’s shoulder. “We’re going to do it, aren’t we? We’re going to pay for it all!”
“Um…” Volker started to say, and then they were out of earshot. I watched the light fade from the hall, and they were gone.
–Jacob Bartelby as transcribed by Dan Kilian