Day 3 in my novel-in-a-month effort
Chapter 3: The War of Independence
All furniture purchased for the use of the Executive Residence at the White House shall be, as far as practicable, of domestic manufacture. With a view to conserving in the Executive Residence at the White House the best specimens of the early American furniture and furnishings, and for the purpsose of maintaining the interior of the Executive Residence at the White House in keeping with its original design, the Director of the National Park Service is authorized and directed … to accept donations of furniture and furnishings.
—Title 3, United States Code, Office and Compensation of President, Furniture for the Executive Residence at the White House
Ted Castro found himself engaged in guerrilla warfare. He had never guessed that furniture could send him ‘round the bend so effectively.
Theodore Castro (Associate Justice, retired) had spent a dozen years on the highest bench in the state. In that time he had penned some of the most respected and longest-lasting opinions on matters of workers’ compensation and related employment issues. Ultimately, and ironically, it was his own current workplace that was rising from the level of distraction, to annoyance, and, where he was now, the level of anger.
His animus began innocently enough, with a credenza he passed in the reception area. As he hurried to his office, he realized that he had to slow his pace and turn sideways to wheel his way between a small heap of dog feces and the output tray of a fax machine. Paired with its 29 identical siblings, the machine worked in lockstep to comprise the largest fax center Castro had ever seen in his life. It reminded him of vintage photos of newsrooms, where aisles of teletype machines would spit out the breaking news of the day.
Indifferent to history and largely irrelevant to the news of the day, the fax machines sat silently, awaiting an order to dispense data.
Because Castro had to slow his gait, he noted something that had escaped his attention: that damned credenza.
Sitting stolidly on the floor behind the army of fax machines, the wooden piece of furniture looked like it had been deposited there after being ripped from a pirate’s galleon. Its faux cherry veneer, paired with its faux golden hardware, appeared all of a sudden cheap and tawdry to Castro. How could he never have spotted it?
We never know when our next life-altering experience may occur. For Castro, his mid-life crisis was not to be about sports cars or sailboats. Instead, he was about to plunge headlong into a cosmos of furniture and furnishings. And for a man whose entire career had been dedicated to ferreting out the truth of the matter, there was to be no room in his heart for the non-genuine, the faux, or the pretentious pretender.
Castro’s head swam, and his eyesight blurred. He quickly sank down in a burnished cherry wood side chair with cushioned imitation leather appliques (a seat whose seat-ness was not long for this world, once Castro brought his burgeoning plan to fruition). He rubbed his eyes, tilted his head back toward the ceiling, and let his mind wander to memories of furniture past.
His first job out of law school, he recalled, was working at a nonprofit organization dedicated to correcting funding inequities in public schools. The work was hard but rewarding, and his young colleagues became lifelong friends. But he knew there was something else there, in his memory … what about the furniture?
His mind’s eye cleared and he visualized his original workspace: a metal folding chair and a six-foot-long folding table, stacked high with papers. His typewriter sat in front of him, next to a lamp whose frayed cord taunted him with death on a daily basis (and which was to send to the great beyond a paralegal standing in a puddle the very next year).
He later worked in the civil division of the Attorney General’s Office. There, he also toiled at rather utilitarian workspaces, more at home on a frigate or submarine than in the law offices of a state government. And yet they served him adequately. In fact, perhaps they lent some of their simplicity and straightforwardness to his own writing, which was revered by lawyers, law clerks and law students for its freedom from jargon and acronym and its willingness to buttress its ramparts against the onslaught of footnotes, ever eager to invade and topple the battlements.
He kept that simpler approach when he was named to the appeals court and, later, to the supreme court. But even then he could feel his resistance to more ostentatious writing begin to wither, and his ability to repel the silly, unnecessary, repetitious, redundant and even unneeded adjective weakened, like a muscle left too long unflexed.
His final years on the court were a whirlwind of written opinions filled with five-dollar words. His parenthetical phrases, formerly absent or only an occasional visitor, became permanent residents in his written work. His footnotes ballooned in number and size. He used Latin.
During those years of transformation, Castro assumed that it was advancing age that led to his change in style. He thought that the larger number of years and the burgeoning case load made him grow verbose. When he was kind to himself, he averred that it was a sign of growing erudition. But when he looked more closely in the mirror, he began to think he was becoming a horse’s ass.
It wasn’t until that summer day at Dedrick, Duckworth, Castro & Paine, stuck between a dog pile and a fax machine, that a new theory dawned on him: The furniture had done it. Like a virus, it had invaded his body linguistic and wreaked havoc on his simpler DNA. He had been complexified, cluttered-up, like a nightstand festooned with tschotsckes.
It all made sense. For it was only when he arrived at the appeals court that he was first subjected to the faux colonial furniture that certain workplaces are susceptible to. His public agency experience had blinded him to the tragic lack of taste that so many of his peers were subjected to daily.
His diversity of experience was his window to a clearer vision. He could see it now, and the scales of judgment fell away for the first time. No wonder so many of his brethren acted like unprofessional louts:
It was the furniture! IT WAS THE DAMNABLE FURNITURE!
Once he could see a portion of the larger picture, all else fell into place.
Perhaps, he thought, it was his Hispanic heritage that spoke to him and made him realize the angry history that colonial furniture represented. How thoroughgoing was the Man’s hegemony of the highboy, the dialectic of the dining table. The power structure’s utter and complete control of the null hypothesis had insinuated itself so well that the Man had decided it could still use the word “Colonial.” Why not? Who would know? Give the masses the pablum of a dining set with six matching chairs, and they would swallow anything. Throw in a loveseat with that couch, and shoppers barely felt the yoke of tyranny being set upon their frail shoulders.
The supreme court, of course, had been the worst. Draped in seating from Drexel Heritage (“Whose heritage?” he raged inside. Not mine!), the court exuded an aura that said no value comes from the modern age. Its interior landscape of cherry monstrosities telegraphed one message certain: Truth, justice and relevance reside not amongst the hoi polloi living in the here and now; it can be found only in a particular time—specifically, the period between 1754 and 1791. The Colonies overthrew tyranny, and have been imposing it ever since, in every settee, hutch, coffee table and bureau.
Ted Castro knew that the office furniture was the foot soldier in an age-old battle he was about to join. But the battlefield general was his primary nemesis—and that was Claude Dedrick. Castro understood that he needed a strategy, that a full-blooded frontal assault would be repelled for the naïve gambit that it was. But although he was led by an inchoate concept, one that would take time and treasure to formulate, he already had a banner-carrier, a Winged Victory, a flat-packed conquering champion.
Castro had his Mother Courage, and her name was IKEA.