Note: What follows is based entirely on a true story.
A year ago, close friends told me that, “secret government skull-duggery caused Noblesville’s ugly new Christmas decorations.”
In truth I thought the decorations were . . . okay. They neither filled my heart with awe nor offended me.
One friend snorted the decorations looked like sea horses copulating on a light pole. Another said it looked like Mary Tyler Moore’s hairdo from the Dick Van Dyke show.
But “secret government skull-duggery?”
Stop. You had me at “secret government.”
Their story suggested that wives of two city officials had secretly forced through their own private, “sorority girl” decorating agenda. The lucrative contract for the new “ugly” decorations was given to the brother of one of those wives. Money for the decorations came not from the normal source, the Common Council, but from a shadowy slush fund controlled by the Noblesville Board of Public Works.
(Just so you know, I’m gonna keep putting quotation marks, ala John McCain in a presidential debate, around other people’s phrases that I don’t want to take responsibility for. I know it’s trite, but I’m not a smart enough writer to do it any other way.)
So I’m on the job. This will be a 60-Minutes-styled expose’. Christmas Decoration-Gate.
I call former Common Council members about the funding process. Yes, they agree. The funding source was unusual but by no means unheard of.
On the square the next noon hour I see three Latino men decorating a light pole across from City Hall. I whip into the Huntington Bank parking lot and jump out, admiring their work.
“Hey fellas. I’m thinking of hiring someone to decorate my office. If I wanted to hire you, who would I call?”
The men do what non-English speakers do when Americans shout questions at them. They nod blankly and smile.
A man approaches from a nearby truck and hands me a business card.
“Give this guy a call,” he says.
I walk back to my car thinking, “Aha! I’ve got you’re name Mr. Insider-Trader-of-Family-Connections-At-The-Expense-Of-Taxpayers-Guy.”
(And yeah, I’m also gonna keep hyphenating things I don’t know how to properly punctuate.)
I call and tell him my bullshit story.
“Can I have references?” I ask. “For instance, who hired you in Noblesville?”
He gives me four puzzling names. Four names I know, but who aren’t cloak and dagger types. They’re regular, old fashion, hard-working city employees.
“You didn’t speak with Mrs. X or Mrs. Y?” I ask. “They were never at any meetings? I thought one of them was your sister.”
“I don’t even know who you’re talking about,” he says, his voice rising. “Man, do you want Christmas decorations or not?”
Another dead end.
The next day, eating in a downtown restaurant, I overhear repeated complaints about the decorations but keep my own lack of outrage to myself.
That afternoon I walk downtown for a real estate closing. In front of the Faux Flower Shop I pass those 4 city employees. They’re looking at a light pole, stringing colored lights, scratching their chins, knitting their brows, apparently trying to identify an improvement plan for the displays.
That’s gotta suck. They probably didn’t want to be on the committee in the first place. Their bosses probably made ‘em.
People filled with Christmas spirit moan on about the decorations. “When will you write your tell-all story?” they ask.
Okay, one last try.
Next day I stop a young gal in my office that I know socializes with one of the four city employees. I get his cell phone number.
Driving across town for a business appointment, I call and tell him I’d like to ask him some questions, “off the record, of course.”
“I’m at the city’s Christmas employee luncheon,” he shouts over background noise, “can I call you back?”
“Sure,” I said.
Seconds later as I cross the Logan Street Bridge, I think better of the conversation and call back.
“Hey, for the time being, don’t tell anybody I called you.” I want him to talk honestly, not worrying who will know he spoke to The Contrarian.
He stammers, “W-well, I just told everybody at my table you called.”
I catch my own reflection in the rear-view mirror and smile at the fool looking back at me.
“Enjoy your lunch,” I say. “You don’t need to call me back.”
No skull-duggery, no secret slush funds. And I don’t even dislike the decorations.
A week later a city hall insider tells me the Mayor identified me in a meeting as the guy raising a ruckus about the Christmas decorations. Go figure.
There’s the tell-all story you’ve all been waiting a year for.