Agents of the people
Participating in society can be nap-inducing
By Max Alexander
One of the ways I differ from my neighbors is that I have an agent in New York. One of the ways I
differ from my agent’s other clients is that they are Hugely Famous Authors. I suppose that leaves
me neither here nor there, yet in recent weeks I have spent a lot of time there — by which I mean
on the phone with my agent, or leaving messages for my agent, or wondering why my agent hasn’t
called me back.
Like most writers, I have no taste for the practicalities of business; in my ideal workday I would
write all morning, stroll out to the mailbox and collect the day’s checks and literary accolades
(dropping the utility bills on my wife’s desk), followed by lunch and a nap. But because I am in
the process of selling a book that I propose to write — the subject of which is building a barn
from my own trees — I must care, at least temporarily, about advances and art budgets and foreign
My agent is ideally suited to handle these matters. She is smart and she speaks in that worldly,
abbreviated New York way that makes you sit up straight and pay attention. You want an agent that
encourages good posture while taking ten percent of your money. When we do chance to find each
other on the phone, our conversations go like this:
SHE: Multi-National Conglomerate Publishing likes the idea but they’re troubled by the fact that
the barn isn’t built yet.
ME: So am I.
SHE: It’s not about the writing. They love the writing — other than saying give us Marcel Proust,
which is what they always say.
ME: Well, we could call the book “Remembrance of Barns Past.”
And so on. But then she called me on a Saturday, which was odd. “Here’s what’s happening,”
she said in an excited voice that sent my mind racing. How many millions did she get for the
book, I wondered? Will Tom Hanks play me in the movie?
“I’ve just taken the job as co-head of the literary department at the Major Hollywood Talent
“Wow,” I replied. “That’s great news.” It even made the New York Times on Monday. It
also turned out to be news that would cost me money, as her new agency charges fifteen percent
— but as I said, business details leave me cold. At any rate I figured it would take her several
weeks to learn the new secret handshake, so I forgot about my book and turned my attention to
weightier matters: it was time for my town’s annual local election and meeting. Decisions made
at this level would definitely not make the New York Times, but they would affect my
life much more directly than doings in that other Washington.
The biggest item on the ballot was the election of our version of a mayor, who goes by the wonderfully
archaic title of First Selectman, Assessor and Overseer of the Poor. I voted for the incumbent,
Wesley, and not just because he oversees the plowing of my garden with his John Deere every spring.
Wesley has proven to be one of the more conservation-minded town elders. That’s important because
basically, all Washington is divided into two parts: Those who want more gravel pits, and those who
One wants to sympathize with landowners who can make far more money strip-mining gravel than growing
cabbage. These are people who have lived off this land, their family’s land, for generations —
farming, logging, wreath-making, they’ve tried it all. They don’t have an agent in New York.
And yet one cannot imagine these pastoral ridges stripped of topsoil and riven by gravel pits, nor
support developments that destroy centuries-old rural landscapes for short-term gain.
But the annual town meeting, which is always held the day after the election, is generally a decorous
affair despite the bubbling resentments. Rarely will someone fire a broadside like “How can we keep
these people from away out of our town?” It’s more of a social event, and this year some 75
townsfolk showed up to munch on cookies baked by the ladies of the Evening Star Grange, pick up a
free smoke detector from the volunteer fire department, and congratulate Wesley, who beat his
opponent by a margin of 74 votes—a landslide in an election of just 444 voters.
Much closer was the vote to ban jet-skis on Crystal Pond, which squeaked over the line with just
seven votes. But a new mining ordinance to tighten restrictions on gravel pits failed — by 19 votes.
Most of the meeting was devoted to public approval of dozens of minute budget items — everything from
graveyard flags ($300) to street-light maintenance ($2,200). You might think such mundane matters
would pass without comment; not in my town. In fact, my town meeting could provide folks in that
other Washington with a nice lesson in accountability. Someone stood up and demanded to know
why we have to pay $2,500 for firefighter physicals. (It’s required by state law, replied the fire
chief.) Someone else wondered why the town was giving $1,185 to the Red Cross and only $800 to the
Washington Food Bank; shouldn’t we have alotted more to the local charity? (The Red Cross requested
a donation of one dollar per resident, someone replied — and at any rate the international relief
organization does help locally, especially after house fires.)
And so on. The meeting wore on, and when it ended I was tired. I drove home past the gravel pits,
checked my mailbox, and took a nap.
Max Alexander can be reached at email@example.com.