On Eric Hoffer and Public Maintenance
By Dan Krotz
Eric Hoffer was among the most remarkable of Americans born in the Twentieth Century. Orphaned as a young teenager, and blind from ages seven to fifteen, he hitched his way out to California after the First World War and spent the next 40 years as a migrant farm worker, and then as a longshoreman on the docks in San Francisco.
Hoffer's period of blindness gave him an unquenchable thirst for reading once he regained his sight. Entirely self-educated, Hoffer said "when I wasn't unloading bananas or coffee from the holds of freighters, I spent my time in public libraries." In 1951, he wrote The True Believer, an abstract but lucid analysis of mass movements that was an instant critical success and which is now considered a classic.
"I wrote the True Believer in a dark corner of the San Francisco Public Library and during moments when I was in railroad yards waiting for a freight, or in fields waiting for a truck." Although Hoffer went on to write eleven other bestselling books and countless articles, he never stopped working on the docks, and lined up each morning to get that day's freight assignment.
Hoffer's style of writing was aphoristic, meaning that he would formulate a quote, and then explain what he meant by the quote. For example, after retirement at age 65, he wrote, "At night I dream of unloading slow boats from China. Dreaming is the work of the retired."
A Hoffer aphorism or quote that I particularly like is "The sign of a good society and a good government is not in what it builds, but in what it maintains." Hoffer went on to explain that good maintenance applies to big and small things alike, from securing the intent of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to assuring that our roads are smooth and that public bathrooms are clean.
Hoffer was suspicious of intellectuals and continued to work on the docks as a way to "inoculate" himself from becoming too far removed from the experiences of people as they go about daily life. His books often use examples of poor public maintenance coupled with high sounding, but goofy explanations, from politicians about why certain conditions exist--or don't exist.
Hoffer would certainly have something to say about the sorry condition of the public "restrooms" on Berryville's town square. He would compare these sorry conditions with the weekly updates from the Quorum Court that assures us that we're riding on velvet when we travel county roads and that the Court is saving us money as never before.
I hardly ever travel on county roads and I have no idea how much real money these birds have "saved" me: politicians have told me just about everything except the actual facts of a matter. Who knows how good the road are, or how much money is being "saved?" I certainly don't. What I do know is that visitors to Berryville reel out of the town square toilets as if from the bowels of a confinement lot for hogs. These county operated toilets are a disgrace, friends.
Now, the Carroll County Quorum Court is thinking about asking us for a couple of million dollars for a new courthouse, or "Government Center," as they like to put it. One justification is that our various public servants require better facilities in which to "rest" as they conduct important business. I guess there is mold in the current "resting" facilities.
Although the mold in the town square's "public" restrooms has shoulders and carries a gun, I'm willing to allow that we may need a new "Government Center" to bookend the fine jail we've built. Surely, we want our elected officials and criminals to "rest" in comfort. But I have a Hoffer-like question: Why should we entrust these people with the building and operation of a new, million dollar courthouse, when they can't maintain a small toilet on the town square?