Last week, I had an opportunity to participate in The Political Process: I lobbied. It was a last-minute request from my boss. “Do I have to speak?” “No, we just need to show our strength in numbers.” “Is lunch included?” “Sure.” Alrighty then.
I was there with other public library professionals from all over New York State. Our common goal was to meet face-to-face with our respective legislators, keeping State library funding “top of mind” as our 212 elected officials entered into their annual budget negotiations. We were armed with “talking points” and library statistics–increased visits by the public, dwindling funding levels, how the community uses library resources–ostensibly to share with each legislator, to hammer home the need to keep these institutions adequately funded.
In theory, this approach sounded reasonable. In practice, however, it looked/felt/sounded a lot more like this:
We had appointments to meet with about a half-dozen senators and assembly(wo)men throughout the day. This involved spending about six hours shuffling through the dingy, depressing, windowless, fluorescent-lit halls of the Legislative Office Building, the imposing marble structure pictured at the top of this post. The LOB is a massive, unapproachable, mausoleum-like building, vintage 1970s ugly, conceived and built at a time when everyone involved in design and architecture was stone cold trippin’. The LOB is one of several similar structures that comprise the Empire State Plaza. The Plaza houses our state government and related agencies, and resembles a vast, cold, marble whitehead on the pocked, pimpled face of our esteemed capital city, just begging to be popped. It was developed and constructed over the course of nearly 20 years–and at a cost of a few billion dollars and thousands of displaced Albanians–in an attempt to give the much-maligned Albany some semblance of a skyline. I loathe it.
But I digress. Back to the LOB: The exterior and first few interior levels of this building are of marble. More marble than should be legal in any civic, religious, or private structure. I think a whole corner of Vermont must have been forsaken to extract this quantity of the stuff.
Even in the utility stairwells, marble. We spent a lot of time on Lobby Day going between floors using the stairs; never has a place had such few, slow, crowded, pungent elevators.
But mount to the upper floors where our legislators and their aides occupy space, and enter into the office equivalent of a sensory-deprivation tank.
And that’s when it hit me: This is why our elected officials are so ineffective. This is why New York State can never pass an on-time budget. This is why our legislators are so cranky and uncreative. It’s this bloody building. A mausoleum where good intentions and ideas go to die a slow death, suffocated by marble, and fluorescent lights, and…wood paneling. Oh, yeah. Wood paneling.
We shuffle into the inner office of one of our tenured state senators, a highly respected gentleman sporting a brown leisure suit that, like the LOB, was likely built in the 1970s. He matches his walls. He talks about himself, about all he’s done for his constituents. He tells us he’s been “doing this for 36 years, which is more time than all the women in the room have been alive.” For reals. (Eyeroll/gag/Oh brother!) He wants to know all of our names, and where we’re from. But he doesn’t get around to asking us why we’re packed into his office, why we think libraries are so important, why he should support library funding in the 2012-13 budget. He’s a supporter. We should know that. (Repeat of all that he’s done for us over 36 years…is he running for re-election?)
I grow bored. Behind me is a window. A window! Daylight! Sort of. The view out this senator’s window is, well, dirty. But it’s a beautiful day. I can see three people ice skating in the recently re-opened Plaza rink. I can see The Egg, the football-shaped performing arts center/amphitheatre. At the far end of the Plaza, the NYS Museum, a perpetual grade school class field trip destination about which I briefly wax nostalgic. And as far as the eye can see, you guessed it: marble. Steel, and glass, and marble.
Our time with this senator ends. A glimpse at our itinerary tells us it’s time to visit with our assemblyman. But he’s not there. Instead, we plead our case to a legislative aide who is, on the outside, 20.
Outside the assemblyman’s office sit two more aides. One, I think, is very focused on his Facebook page. The other is munching on potato chips and trying to engage his aide-in-arms in silly talk. While the cat is away…
We exit this assemblyman’s office. I look back at the cheap placard outside his office suite. I muse over his title, and all the various titles of his co-legislators as I walk the LOB halls, reading the lists of committees in which the various senators and assembly(w0)men participate, wondering just how anything in government ever gets accomplished. Mental note for when back in the office: Look up what exactly a “whip” is/does…
Six or seven appointments, and a quick lunch in what is essentially the Plaza’s basement, and our “lobbying” is done. A half-hour later, we are back at the office. The Library. I reflect that, in this silly season of politicking, my glance at the democratic doings in New York’s capitol is less than inspiring. But one thing sticks with me. As I pass through the hushed reading room on the way to my office at our library the next morning, drinking in the light from the lofty windows, marveling at row upon row of stacks, glimpsing all the different titles and appreciating the manifold interests they represent–1000 Sensational Makeovers, Lasagna Gardening, Bush’s Brain, Riding the Iron Rooster, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?–I recall something said by Leisure-Suit Senator: “Libraries are like the cathedrals of learning.” True dat, Senator. Amen.