Beauty and Absurdity in Sacramento
Observations Peculiar and Neurotic from My Time in the Capitol
If you look for it, the State Capitol is so much more than politics. Amidst the committee hearings and orations on the floor, there is revealed a madcap world as fascinating as the legislation that issues from it. And, true, while my desire to come to Sacramento was propelled by an interest in things political, I must admit I’ve fallen prey in trancelike fascination to this place in its entirety, whether that be the rough and tumble of the chamber floor or the simple peculiarities of the office workplace.
A Loft of One’s Own
Arriving at the dorm-like apartment, I began instantly to unload the eleven hulking boxes I had brought, adorning the minimalist unit with all the décor and ornamentation of a bohemian menagerie. Out of the many boxes flew books, busts, flowers, clocks, gaudy gilded picture frames and pretty things each one as aesthetically overwhelming as it was altogether useless. Infecting every empty space of the apartment with this Byronic redesign, I sought to create for myself (and unwittingly my roommates) a tolerable reproduction of the decadent baroque orgy that was my home back in Berkeley. To all but myself, it was the very picture of absurdity: decanters on the linoleum table, a small library along the windowpane, vases overstuffed with fabric flowers of crimson and brown.
With my elaborate redesign, I quickly latched onto my own way of mentally coping with the sudden change of environment, like all of us do who find ourselves thrust into strange and foreign places. Some people make new friends, some may read a familiar book on their first night away, some may phone back home to hear a friendly voice— all for the purpose of controlling what little we can of our new situation, to lend to it some form of familiarity, and therefore, comfort.
Early in the first week, I was often brought to the back boardroom to discuss the basics of the office. Normally, I am sharp and quick to answer and opine, almost to a fault. But during these first days, as my officemates asked me the most basic of questions, a veil of witlessness so clouded my mind that I, when left to respond, stood stunned like a deer in the light, blank and dumbfounded. Suddenly, I found myself continuously unable to discern rhetorical questions from actual ones, and when asked what I think on a subject I froze.
What do I think? Do I think? What are words?
The pace at which I should open up was also a matter of deepest inner turmoil. Like a neurotic English dandy, I have always compulsively spent an unreasonable amount of my time brooding over social calculations. When would it be appropriate to bring in my first personal affect to work? Would setting a picture frame on the desk send the wrong message if performed too soon? Such were my late-night musings.
Additionally, I found myself in constant fear that I might fail even the simplest duties assigned to me. Once told to bring a folder of information for the press to a media event, I experienced a continual nagging doubt that, by some fantastical flouting of basic physics, I might unknowingly drop the papers given to me and thereby create a political catastrophe. Moreover, I was continuously questioning in my head whether my assignments were in fact necessary to the functioning of the office or if they were in fact crafty little tests to measure my competence. In my irrational anxiety, I entertained the possibility that age-old political institutions could rise and fall by my success or failure to deliver a message to a co-worker.
Luckily, such neurotic thoughts began to pass.
Never before had I worked in an office. Never before had I really worked at all. Thus, here, in this world of water dispensers and office directories, I felt immersed in a place both new and exotic. Filling out spreadsheets, taking a lunch hour, rolling up my sleeves at the strike of noon, making small talk at the water cooler, and saying words like “pronto” and “power lunch” and “Xerox” and “timecard," were all rather new experiences for me.
Getting to Know You…
I am told that when politicians meet a new constituent, they vocally repeat the person’s name to commit it to memory. Either I am not destined to be a politician or this is a lie. For, since my very first day in the Capitol— as I was introduced to the legions of analysts, staffers and journalists who inhabit the world political— I have found that I habitually forget the names of anyone and everyone I meet almost upon learning them.
I thus have found myself compiling copious dossiers on everyone I meet, the likes of which would cause J. Edgar Hoover to drool. Recording names, ages, positions, parties and office numbers, I carry to this day an ever-thickening folder of people.
Over time, I have begun to feel like I know these people, reading their articles, attending the same hearings, taking interest in the same controversies. Almost like we’re friends.
Life in the Capitol
Part and parcel to this new world of the Capital was a host of unwritten rules and habits that were to be learned and followed as quickly as possible. Some of these proved initially irksome.
For one: there is the suit. I had been no stranger to dressing up and spending days in neckties, but adapting to the shapeless modern business suit was a singular displeasure. Devoid of nearly any variance, the black/grey business suit has, for some ridiculous reason, become the uniform of the age. Left with only the ability to switch out tie and shirt colors, I felt doomed to an existence devoid of character and independence. For what purpose is a suit without a carnation in the lapel? The struggle was lamentably quite real.
My time at the California Capitol has been hitherto brief, and my experiences thus far seem but snapshots of a larger image. As time passes, I can hope they piece together. Until then, I shall be ever-watchful, grasping at all I can and seeking to answer my many— albeit unusual— questions. And yet, I wonder if these questions will only ever multiply with every day. Questions like: How are there four different numbers being thrown around quantifying the governor’s budget? And, how can I enter the Capitol building on the second floor and then end up on the third? Why do the ornamental staircases have carvings of rodent heads on them? Does the “Door Close” button in the elevator do anything?
Brendan Pinder is a UC Berkeley senior majoring in Political Science, and Classics. He is the former President of the Berkeley College Republicans, and is currently interning in the Senate Republican Caucus as a Cal in Sacramento Fellow.