A work story
I have the most fervent desire that when I retire from the government I will be remembered for having picked up a prostitute in a government van. And I know what you’re thinking here. If you don’t work for the government, you’re thinking, “isn’t that what you guys are doing all day anyway?” And if you are a government employee, you’re thinking “why, that would be an unauthorized passenger – you are in so much trouble”.
The federal government owns a quarter million or so vehicles administered by the General Services Administration, or GSA. They are referred to as GOVs, for government owned vehicle, which is an abbreviation, not an acronym, and is always pronounced Gee-Oh-Vee. As you might imagine, there is paperwork involved in using one, but in our organization we’ve streamlined the process to where you can stroll out the door with the keys to a $30K vehicle with stunning ease. But there are still rules to follow in their use. No texting. Use regular gas. No unauthorized passengers.
I drove a GOV cargo van to Fayetteville, NC to meet a work crew on some hazardous waste site that I cannot now recall. Fayetteville is the quintessential military town, home of Fort Bragg and the 82nd airborne. In singer Gamble Roger’s stage banter he quips something along the lines of “there’s a mobile home sales lot on every block, a massage parlor on every corner, and the baptist churches have SWAT teams”.
On the way into town, I see a woman standing next to a car on the shoulder, looking like she needs a ride. Being who I am, I figure I can bend the rules a little and give her a ride a few miles into town. I pull over, she jumps into the passenger seat, and I pull off. She cheerfully announces, “Hi, I’m a prostitute”. This crosses even my thresholds and I mutter, “Oh cheez, I can’t be picking up a prostitutes in a government van”. She tells me, “I need three hundred dollars to get my car out of impound”. Apparently the car on the side of the road was not hers. If she had led with the plea for cash, I might have thrown in ten bucks for the cause, but the prostitute thing has me in a negative state of mind. I tell her emphatically “Well you’re not getting it from me!” Her; “Well, let me out then”. Me; “OK”. I stop and she swings down out of the seat. As she’s closing the door, she feels compelled to tell me, “You shouldn’t be picking people up in a government vehicle”. Me; “Well thank YOU, Miss American Citizen”. My parting comment might just have been in my head, two miles down the road.
So, there really wasn’t much to the whole episode, which took place over about a minute. But elsewhere in our region, another employee from our office had his own episode of vehicle malfeasance cooking. You know how if an organization allows employees some latitude and freedom, there is always SOMEONE who has to push to find out EXACTLY where the lines are drawn? Said individual took a spouse/girlfriend in a government vehicle to a conference, left the conference early, and toured the Blue Ridge Parkway on the way home. As you might guess, lines were crossed here and management was forced to map them out. In fact, lines had been crossed so enthusiastically that an all-hands meeting was called to explain exactly just where those lines were drawn. No surprise, this was basically no unauthorized passengers and no diversions from efficient routes to destinations. (In a stunning lack of self-awareness, I just realized as I write this that the person who has to find out where the boundaries are may actually be me.)
Since I was off having my own vehicle extravaganza in Fayetteville when all this occurred, upon my return the boss called me into his office for a private meeting so he could tell his superiors that the entire staff had been reacquainted with the vehicle usage rules. When he finished his spiel, I couldn’t resist querying “Hypothetically speaking…” and related my Fayetteville experience. I fared better with this than I anticipated. By my boss’s interpretation, you can offer a ride to aid an American citizen in distress. But you have to put them out of your vehicle when you find out that they are a prostitute. Woo-hoo – I’m practically a model employee.
I made further ‘hypothetical’ queries. You can tie up your vibracore workboat in front of a waterfront Hooter’s. And you can take a government vehicle some reasonable distance to a horse track for evening entertainment. In my boss’s estimation, these are both legitimate business establishments. Pretty much the only thing I could ferret out that you couldn’t do is drive twenty miles into the Everglades on a day off to rent a canoe, or park a van at a strip club. The Everglades thing surprised me since this would be educational for people doing environmental work. And I’m not sure if it’s fair to imply that the strip club is a non-legitimate business establishment, but the optics problem is clear. And for the record here, although I tied my workboat up at a slip in front of Hooter’s, I ate at Macaroni Grill; I took a rental car, not a GOV, to watch the ponies; and the only time I’ve been to a strip club with a GOV, it was daylight and there was a monitoring well in the parking lot.
To clarify about our ad hoc ‘aid to American citizens rule’, this occurred several years ago, before citizenship became such a heavily charged political issue. I think pretty much what was meant in the discussion was ‘american taxpayer’. If you’re paying for the vehicle, it seems you should be allowed some direct benefit from it, even if we’re not going to hand you the keys.
Other government agencies may not follow this rule and I’m betting GSA disapproves. To this point, I was bicycling on a sunday evening through a seaside national park when I ran across a soldier that had gotten mired off of the road trying to pull someone else out who was stuck in the dunes. I told him I’d come back with our four-wheel-drive truck and see if I couldn’t pull him out. By the time I got back a National Park Service officer had arrived with blue-lights flashing and turned the scene into a big fracas, ticketing everyone involved for being off the roadway. Seeing my government plates he doped out what I was up to and flagged me over. Trying for a trifecta, he demands “Are you authorized to be using this government vehicle for this purpose?” I tell him my boss says we can use a government vehicle to help american citizens. He was visibly taken aback, to the point of being wide-eyed, “What? Really? Things don’t work that way in our organization”.
I found this exchange sadly disappointing. So if you are a taxpayer and in need of aid, your mileage may vary depending on what government agency stumbles upon you. Our guys are generally good for a push to the side of the road, or a pull out of a ditch, or a battery jump. Can’t promise a ride, though, especially if you’re a prostitute. Sorry.
If you know my long-suffering wife Becky, you may wonder what she thought about all this. Since we have an open marriage, I related the experience to her when I got back from Fayetteville. To be clear here, by ‘open marriage’ I mean that we share everything openly and not that we’re each free to openly pick up prostitutes. “What was she wearing?”, Becky quizzes. “I don’t know, a white blouse and bicycle pants, maybe?”, I tried to recall. Her eyes narrowed. “Did she have a bicycle?” she wants to know. I tell her no, not sure where this is going. She walked off, shaking her head sadly and muttering “You shouldn’t be allowed out in public”.
Oh, and one last thing. If you’re a GSA employee, or my new division director, or even an irate letter-writing sort of taxpayer, these posts are totally fictional.