Red Tape

June 24, 2011

The other day somebody at work was in a hurry and had something he wanted done ahead of things that had been put in the queue earlier, so he tried to circumvent the normal procedures and get me to take care of it for him. And I sent it back to him and said I was sorry, but he was going to have to go through the normal procedures. Which, being an intelligent and reasonable guy, he understood, but, being an intelligent and reasonable guy, he grumbled about bureaucratic red tape, which I understood. But some procedures are in place to make sure everyone’s in the box, out of the loop, and that all the t’s get dotted and all the i’s get crossed and that at the end of the fiscal year the auditors don’t have a collective myocardial infarction because there’s a missing three and a half cents that no one can account for. That’s the kind of bureaucracy that everybody likes to grumble about and that may not be in place for an amazingly great reason but at least is there for a reason. And while it’s something I normally don’t deal with there’s also bureaucratic red tape that people still complain about without realizing it’s there because if there weren’t some kind of stopgap in place to prevent dishonest people from taking advantage of the system.

Some procedures exist to guarantee that the auditors never have to worry about a missing three cents because they’re in Barbados with thirty million dollars they embezzled from the company accounts. The next time you have to fill out a T-47312/JX form in triplicate don’t blame the bureaucrats. Blame the jerk who tried to take advantage of the system, and who, whether he succeeded or not, made that form necessary in the first place. Even though it’s sometimes an annoying brake on efficiency some red tape still serves a purpose, and wouldn’t exist if everyone could be trusted to do the right thing all the time. When my coworker tried to cut through the tape he reminded me of a story a bus driver told me. This particular bus driver was a very nice older woman who always greeted every passenger with a smile and a hello, and who would chat with passengers when traffic wasn’t heavy or the bus was stopped at a red light. Since I was a regular on her route I saw her almost every day. I once commented on how friendly she was and she said, "That’s because I love my people." And I believed her. As overused as the word "love" is I think she genuinely cared about and felt responsible for every passenger on whatever bus she was driving, even the ones who kept their eyes down when they got on and sat in the very back. Even, for that matter, the ones who talked too loud and blamed her when they pulled the stop cord three blocks past their stop. She also talked about her students. At first I thought she was a teacher moonlighting as a bus driver, but then I figured out she meant kids who didn’t ride regular school buses but who had to ride the city bus. One day she told me that the reason I hadn’t seen her the previous day was because one of her students brought a milkshake onto the bus. Technically you’re not supposed to have any food or beverage on the bus, but he’d apparently hidden it under his jacket. And as long as you don’t leave trash or dump your soft drink all over the floor most bus drivers let that particular rule slide anyway, so bringing a milkshake onto the bus isn’t usually a problem. The problem is that a guy with an open sunroof was driving in the lane next to the bus and the student, demonstrating remarkable aim, managed to toss the milkshake through the sunroof and hit the driver.

There was a time when I would have found that funny. Scratch that. There was a time when I would have found that hilarious. So if you laughed I’m in no position to judge. But for the record I didn’t laugh. I must be getting old because my first thought was about the consequences. I thought, what if that happened in heavy traffic? What if the guy had been about to change lanes and hit another car? Or the bus? Or a person? And since none of that happened, what a waste of a perfectly good milkshake. Or a really bad milkshake. It doesn’t matter. There’s no milkshake in the world bad enough that it should be thrown through the sunroof of a moving car. The bus driver didn’t know what had happened until the guy in the car yelled at her to pull over and, still dripping milkshake, got on the bus and demanded to know who’d done it. The driver didn’t know who’d done it–she hadn’t seen anyone get on with a milkshake. And the kids had been smart enough to close the window. All she really knew was that a few seconds earlier her students–and she still called them "my students"–had all been screaming and cheering about something. The bus driver did the only thing she knew to do: she called the police. Maybe this was an overreaction since no one had really been injured But if someone had been hurt or if there’d been damage, other than the car driver having to have his suit dry cleaned, it would be a matter for the police. And the bus driver stayed there with the bus and talked to the police. Even though the other riders had to take the next bus she made sure her students who weren’t responsible got where they were going. And she probably had to spend a lot of time explaining the situation to her supervisors. Not to mention having to fill out half a dozen T-47312/JX forms in triplicate, even though the only reason she’d park the bus on a busy street for more than an hour would be for a legitimate and very serious reason, and not so she could take a nap or go get a drink. But she didn’t mention any of that, and I think it’s because she understood the reasons for the procedures. She believed in being responsible and knew that dealing with a lot of red tape was part of the job, even though if everyone acted responsibly there’d be no need for it.

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