Each morning at o’Bagelo’s started with coffee in the pre-dawn hours with the lights off, enjoying the peace of a locked door. Reading the paper then thumbing through a book of quotes for something topical to post on that small green chalkboard by the cash register. I don’t remember the very first dollar that came in the store, but I will always remember the first quote I put on that board. Several lines of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”
“. . .
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
. . . “
Each day there was a building excitement during the morning prep for the noontime rush. It was game time everyday. And in the midst of all this there was constant, current, and cultural discussions that often included reactionary, no-thought responses on my part. Not thoughtless but “No time to think and make sure it wasn't offensive or just plain wrong”. This is where the good stuff came from. The crazy ideas, the reactionary ideology, and often just a one-liner that even made me laugh.
Some of you will remember the wall of Dr. Seuss photos; the annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” party; the wedding at he bagel shop and many others (stories for another post, all). On occasion the issue wasn’t one of choice but rather of force. And maybe I had a choice on how I was going to react, but once you are heading down certain hills, it’s seems best to go all out. After all, if you can't express yourself fully at some little inconsequential bakery in the middle of the city, where is it that you can tell a story and hold to your beliefs.
This behavior was supported by my rereading every few years of Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience. Originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government” and often interpreted as an angry response to being jailed for not paying his taxes. However it is considered his most famous and popular essay so I like to believe it has content and value greater than just the rantings of an angry jailed man.
My story started with a letter in the mail early in 2005. The city was responding to the post “9/11” world and was trying to crack down on the possibility of money being diverted from small businesses to the current evil extremists outside the country. A bold move. Conquer and defeat an enemy that may not exist, rather than the much more difficult enemy the city was having no luck eradicating (poverty and crime, if I am being too abstract).
The letter from the city informed the business owner of the new rules being applied to the existing business license that we all currently held. These new rules were going to stop small businesses from financially supporting terrorists. There were several new aspects to the license, and we had to comply within 90 days or face fines and possible revocation of the license many of us had held for years.
First they wanted a full profile of each owner of the business including a primary individual to be held responsible for the activities of the business. This included home address, social security number, and a background check. They also wanted a placard conspicuously posted on a wall in the facility with the name and picture of this primary person. The primary could not leave the country for for more than 6 months without assigning a new primary, who had to go through the same process. They wanted a fee of $100.00 to process all this information, and a smaller annual fee to keep the data up to date. In addition, there was some arbitrary formula making this only apply to small businesses. No chain needed to supply this info and no large corporation.
For many people this may not seem overly burdensome, similar to the tax that was asked of Thoreau. Some small, seemingly acceptable, response to a perceived threat that would save us all from the injustices of the future. Another weight on the balance of cost vs. the principles and liberties that are the foundation of our nation.
Unlike Thoreau, my objections lie outside the monetary fee being demanded. I certainly didn't think it was appropriate to post a picture of the person who would most likely be carrying the days deposits to the bank, even though most people knew me as the owner. Secondly, I absolutely did not trust the city with all this personal information that was now vital to the our safety. Thirdly, I could find no reason for the city to be informed of my travel plans, no matter the length of time, or the location. By this time I had gotten to know many of the people in city government, and although I liked most of them, I certainly did not trust the systems that were in place over there.
I wasn’t the only one offended by this attempt to suppress my civil liberties (Reductio ad Absurdum? Maybe). There was a small group of business owners who had banded together to protest this atrocity and were gaining the usual attention of 12 protesters made to look like a great movement by the media. I even attended one of their meetings that had the ear of a man running for mayor. A man I knew for many years from o’Bagelo’s. I sat in the back and acknowledged my friend as he walked in, but I was there as an observer and I let the others squawk on in length about their issues with this new program.
My friend would eventually go on to win the election in a large upset over the sitting mayor, and then on to state level politics for a while. He was a very empathetic listener.
While the group continued their open and media based retaliation, I pursued my own path with the city officials. I ignored their requests my mail, and my disgust was well documented the first time a code enforcement official visited in person. This was a bad idea for everyone involved. Walking in to my place to challenge me in front of my customers rarely works out well. I end up insulting someone, and often look like a grouchy and arrogant buffoon. Not to mention my overly inflated sense of morality.
This lead to a visit from another city official that I had befriended. Rod was a sharp looking and well dressed young man who was destined to go places. Pleasant demeanor, bright and quite personable. I just don’t think he was prepared for my response when he came in after the rush one day to pitch the plan that I had learned was his “baby”.
“I’m glad you are vested in this city and have worked hard to put this program together, Rod, but it’s crap. And I intend on fighting you all the way on this one.”
He continued his soft and political argument, and I my loud and brash retort, but we ended no where closer to a consensus.
What followed was a visit from the code enforcement agent (another frequent customer) with a pre-filled out form from their current info, and a few data pieces for me to finish and sign. I went over my objections again without being distracted from my daily tasks and he as he realized my compliance wasn’t an option on that day, he pulled out the another pad. He informed me that if I did not comply, that he would have to write me a violation ticket, that came with a fine of $100.00. I informed him that he could have the money for the registration fee, but I would not provide the information requested, I would not sign the form, and I certainly would not be paying any fines.
The ticket informed me of my blatant disregard for this new mandate, and the consequences that would follow. Those included more tickets with exponential fines for non-compliance, and eventual loss of my business license. I took the ticket, said thank you, displayed it in clear view of the customers, and soapboxed about the injustice.
The road ahead looked to be an ugly trip, and it likely wasn’t going to go my way. Whether it be pride, ego, or some other sense, I was still going down that trail. This is when those risky decisions turn to actions quicker than better judgment can intervene. I went home and printed out 30 copies of the “Bill of Rights” and then had them laminated at the local print shop. Next I threw them randomly across the floor of the dining area, and I continued to do this every day. So as to reduce the potential risk of a lawsuit, I posted another note on the door at eye level, also laminated and in a bright yellow color.
“Warning: Acts of civil disobedience in progress”
Not that this would stop a personal injury attorney from taking my last bagel knife, but at least the most aloof customer (And yes, I am talking about you G.M.) would take pause and be more cautious upon entering. As the customers entered they looked around and noticed the mess of papers strewn across the floor, the table tops and the counter. I ignored the mess unless asked, which usually happened after each person ordered and I would explain while making their food. “If the city can trample all over the bill of rights, why shouldn’t the constituents have the same opportunity?” My own personal tea party.
By now most customers were aware of the ongoing battle and I hoped this would produce a little humor and some passive interest in the situation. The most important part of securing a movement is not to get bogged down with the nitty gritty of the injustice. Keep it to the big highlights and move on. Some will trust you, others will research it, and most will shake their heads and forget about it.
But a point was being made in my community. I’m not sure it was the point I was looking for, but a point none the less. “John is up to his antics again.” “What is it this time?”, or other comments of this nature. Once again, marketing through stubbornness.
My refusal to provide the city with this newly requested data continued. My friend in code enforcement was required to come back every few weeks and ask again for the information and to issue me another ticket. Each time I refused. The fines increased: first to $200.00, then to $600.00 and the final ticket, $1000.00 was to quickly accompany the revocation of my business license. This is where the process stood. Me holding a $600.00 ticket and awaiting the final curtain.
Each time the code guy came in it was a bit of a circus. On one occasion I was sitting with a group of lawyer friends and they could do nothing but laugh at my jovial nature as the hammer appeared to coming down. My life boat sat perched calmly by the side of the business as I snickered at the passing storm about to sink my ship. They knew me well enough to know that I would stand my ground, but in the subtext of their laughter it felt like “Nicely, Nicely” in “Guys and Dolls” . Sitting aboard the life boat of his dream, while the other passengers sang to him “Sit down, sit down, sit down. Sit down, you’re rocking the boat.”
Other friends that owned businesses had buckled under the threats even though they were equally offended. They did however, watch closely as I engaged the enemy armed with only common sense and logic. Generally a losing bet, by the way. I was glad they were on my side, but wished a few would more had the taken the risk with me. At last count I was told from the code guy that there were 30 of us left thumbing our nose at the system. Not a large percentage.
This last encounter happened sometime in the fall, before election day. As I stated earlier, a new mayor was elected and I wasn’t banking on any change. But I was informed by a different city official not to pay the fines and hold off until the new mayor took office. They had planned on reviewing the whole of the legislation. This was a huge relief. Despite my nonchalance about those tickets, I was concerned. Would they really try to close ME down over this issue? Was I that arrogant to think that they would not? The answer was the same for both questions.
After the first of the year, there wasn’t much going on with all this hubbub as the new administration went to task overhauling the appointees in the administration. The curator of the that law didn’t make the cut. When the dust settled and a few clearer minds went to task, they issued a rewrite of the program. The fee was down to a one time $25.00 payment, and many of the those abrasive and invasive demands were removed.
I quietly accepted the proposal, feeling I had challenged the big dog and was presented with a winning hand if I was smart enough to play it. Certainly not a royal flush, but it was a win in my book. This process served to reinforce one of the many lessons I learned over the years. The importance of giving someone an avenue to retreat when negotiating. Back someone into a corner and you may be in for a fight that although you may win, you will not come out unscathed. Give someone a path to walk down with their head in the air, and a feeling that they have accomplished something, and both sides can feel like winners. The ever so elusive Win-Win.
It is important to recognize when that window is being left open for you. And just as important to exit smoothly. I am very thankful that my father let me read some of his material from the Center for Dispute Settlement (shameless plug) and that he showed me the importance of this position.
I filled out my paperwork, cut the check for the City, and the battle was over. Or so I thought. A week later my revised license came in the mail; no picture required, no travel plans to be revealed, along with a few other wins. It was a bright pink cardboard placard that fit into a legal size mailer. I removed the form and hung it proudly on the wall for all to see. The first line was the name of the business in a large font, and that was followed by the name of the person in charge, just as large.
“O’Bagelo’s” was clear and legible, and so was the owner’s name: Hyun-woo Kim. At the bottom of this form was a printed signature of the department head who had approved all these licenses.
It was as if they needed to prove my point for me, and take away my power. I was dumbfounded and could barely present an argument when customers would ask. Shaking my head in disbelief, I was silenced. “You shouldn’t be trusted with this personal information.” That was my argument. Proven.
Two days later a very nice and unwilling mid level city official came into my store and informed they had made a mistake and would like to reissue my license. “I should think so” I said with an arrogant smile. “But I need to take that misprinted one with me before I can reissue a new one,” was her response.
I paused for few seconds, thinking, plotting, weighing. This was opportunity knocking loud and clear. The question I pondered; “On which door?” Do I continue my Thoreau-ian tirade or offer a window for the other side, as they had done for me? Answer the door, or open the window? I agreed to her terms on one condition. I wanted the guy who signed this license to come and get it himself. As Thomas Jefferson said, “If you have to eat crow, it it while it’s young and tender.” Here was his chance.
She left politely and the next day came back looking even more discouraged and drained. I was informed that he was sick and couldn’t make it, and she could not leave without that pink cardboard placard.
Empathy crushed me as I looked at this poor woman. There was no way I could put her in the middle of this any longer. I handed her the license and apologized to her for my behavior.
In the end I chose to believe not that I am a stubborn man with authority issues, but rather that I followed the good advice from several of my mentors. I stood in the shadows of Thoreau with my own Civil discontent, and then recognized the path to retreat with dignity when given the opportunity. So,
“Two Roads diverged in a yellow wood,
. . .
. . .
I Took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
And that has made all the difference.