Sunday, July 19, 2009
Chapter 11: Emergency
Early one Thursday evening, the Philosopher-Prince returned alone from a week-long visit to his wife's family in the City by the Lake. She was staying another week, so there was no one to dissuade him from stopping by his office on the way home. The work day had ended some hours earlier; he would have the entire building to himself as he checked his messages and began to turn his thoughts from his wife's family's politics to the administration of Vilka, in preparation for the following day's business.
There were several messages, some appearing to be urgent. One was from a member of the Council of Several:
As the Prince penetrated further into the stack of messages, he found similar communications from every other member of the Council of Several. His curiosity grew with each message, until he found one with minutes attached from that afternoon's meeting. He read enough to know that the matter could wait until morning -- and enough that he anticipated a very interesting discussion with the Adjutant. Then he went home.
Entertainment in the Halls of Government
Knowing that his Adjutant typically arrived at 8:00 a.m., the Prince arranged to arrive at his office by 7:30 a.m., in order to prepare for what promised to be a memorable interview. To his surprise, though the building's outer doors were still locked, he found in his office an august, familiar, and welcome personage, none other than the Vicar of Vilka.
"Greetings, my friend, and welcome back!" exclaimed the Vicar.
"Good morning! You look well," answered the Prince.
"As do you, but you also look well rested," said the Vicar. "Apparently, the rumor that you were visiting your wife's family was erroneous."
The Prince laughed heartily, then said, "I am quite as surprised as I am delighted to see you here. Is there some urgent concern that wrests you from your parsonage at -- as you have expressed it before -- "this ungodly hour"? I hope you are not cancelling today's lunch."
"As to the urgent concern, there is none. As to cancelling lunch, no indeed. I will tell you why I am here, and you will laugh again."
"I am duly forewarned. Why are you here?"
"Prince, am I correct in understanding that your meetings are public, with some few exceptions, whenever you or your adjutant and at least two members of the Council of Several are involved?"
"This you know, my friend."
"And are you aware that you have a meeting at 8:00 a.m. with two of the Several, plus your Adjutant, to discuss an allegedly urgent matter which arose in your absence?"
"I am not aware of the particular meeting, but I did see my messages last night, and I am anticipating a discussion with the Adjutant as soon as he arrives."
"As am I -- purely as a fly on the wall, of course."
"Indeed? Does the matter concern you? You are welcome in any case," said the Prince, clearly puzzled.
"In truth, Prince, the matter does not concern me at all. But I have no particular engagements this morning, and I expect high comedy to ensue."
"We'll do our best not to disappoint you. By the way, how did you get in, with all the doors locked?"
"The Vicar bloweth where he listeth. This you know, my friend. Now, would you prefer that I absent myself for a few minutes while you prepare for the meeting, or should I simply sit here in silence?"
"I should very much like to see the latter, but -- to borrow a phrase -- except I see, I shall not believe."
"Then I will wait here."
Twenty minutes later, as he heard footsteps approaching the Prince's office, the Vicar finally broke his silence. "My friend," he said softly, "I know what you've been reading. Allow me to say, before the others arrive, that you are the most gifted poker face I have ever been privileged to know. It cannot possibly be healthy for you to hold all that in, but I acknowledge that I am in the presence of a grand master of the art."
A moment or two later, when the Adjutant and two of the Several had taken their seats for the meeting, all three experienced an irresistible urge to speak at the same time. After a few abortive attempts to impose order on the discussion, the Prince patiently held up his hand to signal for silence, then waited almost a minute for the ordered silence to arrive.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I thank you for your enthusiasm this morning, but I think it would be best if I attempt to summarize the situation, based on your messages and the documents I have perused this morning. I think I will start with some yes or no questions. Proper decorum would suggest, ordinarily, that you respond audibly with a 'yes' or a 'no', but I believe I would prefer, at least at the beginning, that you simply nod or shake your heads. I don't wish to demean you in any degree, but we do have a certain amount of work to do today. Is that acceptable?" He looked at them expectantly.
Nothing happened. Finally, he prompted them, "You may now nod or shake your heads, as you choose."
Three heads nodded in unison.
"Very well. As I understand the situation, one James McGregor, the proprietor of McGregor's Fine Goods, which I have found to be the safest place for me to buy gifts for my wife, none of which gifts is inexpensive, has one of those new and clever flush toilets in a small restroom in a back corner of his establishment. Is this correct?"
Three heads nodded again.
"I also understand that there is a long-standing shortage of public outhouses in the center of our fair Vilka, and that it costs two pennies to use the ones we have. Am I correctly informed?"
Three heads nodded.
"Now, if I read these minutes correctly, there is a prominent but eminently tasteful sign at the door of McGregor's Fine Goods, and similar signs at the counter and on the door of the small restroom, saying, 'No public facilities. Customers only. Violators will be prosecuted for trespassing.' Is this true?"
Three heads nodded.
The Prince continued. "I believe I also read that, if someone manages to use the restroom at McGregor's Fine Goods without actually buying something, Mr. McGregor insists that the person make a purchase. And if the person refuses, he executes a citizen's arrest for trespassing and theft of services, summons the constable, and swears out a complaint, which leads to the person being assessed a significant fine. Am I correct this far?"
Three heads nodded.
"I believe that Mr. McGregor makes an exception for what we might delicately call emergencies, by allowing one free use of the restroom per person per year, and recording names and dates in a log, which he checks before allowing the person to use the restroom -- or, if the emergency is dire, while the person is already, so to speak, ensconced on yonder throne." As he spoke, the Prince could not help smiling slightly, but the smile was only in his eyes; it never reached his lips.
Three heads nodded yet again, and the Vicar, who had hitherto, but with difficulty, sat quietly in the corner, snorted and began to shake. The Prince's eyes twinkled more brightly for a moment, but then he proceeded with outward solemnity.
"Now, if I am not mistaken," said the Prince, "on Friday evening last the Adjutant summoned the Municipal Barrister from his home and directed that he immediately draft two versions of an ordinance. One of these versions would make it illegal for the owner of a private restroom to refuse its use to any member of the public or to demand compensation for its use. The other version would allow the owner of said private restroom to charge a fee or require a purchase, but the fee must not exceed one penny, or, if a purchase is required, some item must be available for purchase at the price of a single penny. Either way, this would apply only to two central blocks of downtown, and Mr. McGregor's restroom is currently the only one in that area.
"The Adjutant gave the required 24-hour public notice of an emergency Council meeting on Saturday evening, to consider and presumably to pass the ordinance. Failing to obtain a quorum for the meeting, on Sunday he gave notice of and called a Monday afternoon meeting, but again failed to assemble a quorum. Then he placed the matter on the agenda for yesterday's regular meeting, where, after some discussion, the Council voted unanimously to table the draft ordinance indefinitely. Is all of this correct?"
Three heads nodded.
"Very well, Adjutant, please explain to me why we need such an ordinance."
The Adjutant nodded out of habit, then realized a moment later that he had been directed to speak. "Prince, we need to protect the citizens of Vilka from exploitation by the owners of private restrooms. It's not their fault that they have certain physical needs, or that these needs sometimes arise rather suddenly. Nor is it their fault that our public outhouses are too few and too . . . malodorous."
"I see," said the Prince. "Now, gentlemen," he continued, turning to the two members of the Several, "why did the Coucil disagree with the Adjutant's view of the situation?"
One of them spoke. "Prince, some of us felt that the question was merely a matter of a property owner's legitimate control of his private property. Others consulted with Mr. McGregor and with the service which cleans his carpets and cares for his establishment, including the restroom. We discovered that the cost to Mr. McGregor, in terms of cleaning, supplies, and the water he has carried in to fill the flush tank, is approximately two pennies per use. Therefore, either version of the draft ordinance would require Mr. McGregor to subsidize the fufilling of certain public needs at his establishment."
The Prince said, "Thank you. That was my reading as well. Now, if I recall correctly, both versions of this ordinance would have imposed a two-penny fine for defying the ordinance and refusing to pay?"
Three heads nodded.
"Are there other salient features of the legislation?"
All three shook their heads.
"Very well. I am pleased at the wise judgment of the Council of Several. The restroom is private property. Moreover, it makes no sense to set the maximum cost of using a private restroom below the cost of using a more primitive public outhouse. Nor is it reasonable to set the fine for defying the law in this matter equal to the cost of using the public outhouse."
"I am baffled and dismayed, Adjutant, at the lack of wise judgment evident in the proposed ordinance. But there is one more point of great curiosity for me. Adjutant, why was the matter so urgent? Vilka was not under attack. There was no looming disaster. In fact, this situation seems decidedly less urgent than a dozen ordinary matters on our agenda. Why was this particular agendum so pressing as to require an emergency session?"
"Sir, there was a . . . complaint," quoth the Adjutant reluctantly.
"A complaint? From whom? Who commands such urgent attention from this government?"
"Sir, must I say?"
"Under the circumstances, Adjutant, yes, I think you must."
"With due respect, I do not wish to."
"I shouldn't wonder. Please tell us, who is this person whom you do not wish to name?"
"It is my father-in-law. My mother-in-law was with him and was also mortified."
"He didn't like the rule? Did he create a disturbance or refuse to buy an item?"
The Adjutant's eyes grew very wide, and his face paled, but he said nothing.
The Adjutant pursed his lips, swallowed nervously, then murmured inaudibly.
"Please, Adjutant, I grow older and this meeting grows longer. I would thank you to speak clearly."
The Adjutant visibly summoned his courage and with great effort spoke, though only in a whisper. "There was an . . . incident."
"An incident?" the Prince asked. "Was there violence?"
"No, Prince, there was an . . . incident."
The Vicar convulsed in the corner.
"I see," said the Prince. "It was quite unpleasant and embarrassing, then?"
"Yes," said the Adjutant. "It was necessary for Mr. McGregor to close the store for the rest of the afternoon and then for the following morning. He now insists that my father-in-law pay for the cost of the cleaning and for lost revenue."
"And will he pay? I should think that the monetary cost is only the smallest fraction of his anguish."
"You are correct, Prince. I fear that my wife's parents will either leave Vilka altogether, never to return, or perhaps set fire to McGregor's store."
"And you thought that an ill-conceived ordinance, hastily passed, would make everything smell beautifully again?"
Judging by the barely-muted snorts from the corner, the uncommonly wide-eyed Vicar was near death.
"I suppose I did, Prince," said the Adjutant.
"Do you still think that?"
"No, Prince. I simply made things worse. My wife will not speak to me, and her parents will not even look at me. In fairness, I should note that they will not look anyone else in the eye, either, of late."
"One can scarcely blame them. But very well. Is this matter concluded -- as a matter for this government, I mean?
"Prince," said the Adjutant, as reluctantly as before, "I regret to say that it is not. There is . . . more."
"A great deal more?" asked the Prince.
"Then we will take a break for a few minutes while I tend to another matter. Then we will hear the rest of the story."
Copyright 2009 by David Rodeback.