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The big man on my street

 |  NCR Today

The tumult in Wisconsin reminds me of a guy in my old Bronx neighborhood who everybody called Nicky Large.

He earned the nickname: Nicky was, in fact, very large. Day after day, you could find him perched on a wooden folding chair in front of the corner candy store, just two doors down from my father's bread bakery. I must've been around ten years old when I finally asked my Dad what Nicky Large did for a living that he could sit out in front of the sweet shop like that all the time.

My father -- who worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, baking and delivering bread -- smiled and said: Nicky works for the city.

This was my introduction to the world of government employees. My father went on to explain: Nicky had a nice portfolio of what I then thought were called "french benefits," exotic things like several weeks of paid vacation, free health care, job security, and unlimited sick days. Among other things, those unlimited sick days allowed Nicky Large to spend so much time on that corner of 211th Street.

For a while, I became a little obsessed with this: when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them I wanted to work for the city, just like Nicky Large. My Dad would laugh this off -- and quietly discourage me. In his mind, government work was only suited for people of low ambition, people who dreamed merely of spending their days sitting outside a candy store on a folding chair.

Funny thing: as we all grew older, my family saw a different side of government workers. In his old age, my father relied on people from the Veteran's Administration for low-cost medical care and perscription drugs; my mentally-challenged older brother found a measure of independance and self-reliance in a group home run by state-paid caregivers; and my sister, a psychologist with two master's degrees, discovered her most rewarding work was as a school psychologist, helping diagnose problem students. She is a county employee.

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As a family, we learned over the decades that government workers are like lawyers or journalists: cellar-dwellers and bottom-feeders ... until you actually need one. Then they are a lifeline, a tangible connection to a system we've kept going with our taxes and our votes.

Not that I'm saying we should have some kind of Bureaucracy Appreciation Day -- we all have nightmare stories of being confronted by snarling clock-punchers trapped in their own labyrinth of rules and regulations. Yes, there are people like Nicky Large. And people who aspire to be just like him and get into government work to accomplish that and nothing else.

But the battles Wisconsin (and Indiana and Ohio) display a dark resentment against everybody in government, and a lack of appreciation that -- for all its flaws -- the streets get cleaned, the sick are visited, the police patrol. The system works in small unnoticed ways every day.

Weed out the Nickys, every single one of them. But the fight in the Midwest feels larger than Nicky Large -- it feels driven by people who want to bring the whole thing down.

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October 10-23, 2014

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