As a government worker, have you ever pretended to be someone (or something) else? Over the years I’ve known half a dozen IRS employees who, while proud of what they do, said that when strangers asked they often steered the conversation elsewhere.  Given the violence against IRS and Social Security workers, I don’t blame them.  I ask because its confession time for me. My sin?  There was a period in my life when I pretended to be a dentist. Or undertaker. Please don’t judge me.  I can explain.  There was no criminal intent.  Nobody (man or beast) was harmed.  And I only did it when talking to people on airplanes.  For my own protection. It was actually self-defense.  Really.    As government workers you can certainly understand.   Let me explain…

 At one point in my illustrious career, I had to travel a lot.  At least by my standards.  I covered 4 to 6 federal and postal union conventions every other year. And often was sent to the big retiree group too.  Back then the unions had a lot of political clout and there were real external issues of general interest to people---especially feds and politicians---outside the union membership.  Things like the right to strike. Legally or (remember the air traffic controllers) otherwise.  There were also other groups of interest that we covered because they were involved in public health, defense and IT.  Many of them phased out operations after 9/11.  Or changed their formats. Then the Great Recession hit (2008-9) and left its mark on much of the convention circuit. Security had already been changed. The recession put a big dent in the

Almost all of the conventions/meetings were in fun places. New Orleans, Orlando, Palm Springs, Palm Desert.  And of course, Las Vegas.  Which meant flying.  Which meant sitting beside somebody, a stranger, where you are both strapped down for a couple of hours.  Conversations (this was before smart phones and iPads) often broke at 50,000. After establishing destinations and home bases people, back in the day when people looked at each other and talked, would ask what you did? As in your occupation.  For a while I said I was a dentist.  Not to show off but to get people to shut their mouths: Literally. It usually worked.  Later, I switched to funeral director or undertaker.  Also a conversation stopper.  But I digress…

Being a Washington Post reporter/columnist wasn’t impressive, or popular, outside of Washington.  Sometimes not even there.  I suspect it may be worse today. If you are with the ‘wrong’ newspaper, TV station or cable you are the enemy.  Back in the day I had seen other reporters get punched at rallies.  Or sometimes get roughed up by the cops. Once in the old (1150 15th street nw) Post building I got out of one of the elevators during a shift change.  Lots of people exiting.  The Newsroom was on the 5th floor.  I was talking to a guy from advertising (6th floor) when we exited the elevator.  Standing at the door leading to the street was a well-dressed suit-and-tie guy with a big smile. As people went by he would politely say, “Excuse me, do you work on the 5th floor?” When they said no he smiled and looked to the next person.   When I got close to him he asked the same thing, “Excuse me do you work on the 5th floor?” For some reason, an alarm bell went off.  “No, “I said smiling, “I’m in advertising on the 6th.” He let me pass.  The genuine advertising guy beside me looked at me like I was crazy. He knew I was a 5th floor resident.  Then we heard it.

“Excuse me, do you work on the 5th floor?” he asked someone.  “Yes I do” the reporter replied.  He was then punched in the face, chest and kidneys before the questioner—who turned out to be political nutcase—was subdued. 

 Listen to your gut.  I did. And it didn’t get punched.

I hadn’t thought of that incident in years.  But the way things are now, I’m beginning to think defensively. Again.

I don’t have to cover riots or rallies anymore. Which is just as well.  Not as fast as I used to be. 

But I was surprised (happily) to read a poll, by the trusted Pew organization, which said that the majority of people (at least those polled) actually like government workers.  Can you believe it? Postal employees, not surprisingly, are at the top of the list.  But lots of feds in other agencies are liked and well respected too.  Except folks at ICE. And the IRS at the bottom of the list although both are arguably agencies we couldn’t exist if they didn’t do their jobs.  Times will change.  ICE might make a comeback. The IRS, probably not.

Oh, I didn’t finish the undertaker part.  Why did I stop using?  Well, what happened was this.  I was on a flight from Nashville to DC after running a 10k race.  The two guys sitting next to me looked alike. Which made sense when I learned they were identical twins.  We they asked what I did in DC I told them I was a funeral director.  They beamed.  So where they! They owned a funeral parlor and wanted to talk shop.  Naturally I froze. I faked it fairly well until one of them asked my name. I told him. He said “I thought you were with The Washington Post.” Busted.

Worse, we discovered we had (briefly) gone to high school together.  Lesson learned.  Now when I travel I just say I’m a retired florist. So far, so good.



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