City Desk

The Shutdown Diaries: No One Wants to Talk (Yet)

ShutdownDIariesI am a nonessential federal employee. This is my shutdown.

My alarm wasn't set for this morning, but I wake up at the usual time. It turns out my internal clock is indifferent to the ongoing negotiations between Congress and the president. As the shutdown continues, I find I'm learning things about myself. For one thing, I don't just want to laze about. Routines are important, and so is getting out of the apartment. I consume culture at a rate that's faster than average—I moonlight as a film critic, and can talk your ear off about the latest serialized TV drama—yet the last thing I want to do is marathon through a show on Netflix. Maybe I see acquiescing to a couch-potato day as a flag of defeat? Hard to say, but the forecast calls for rain on Monday, so I guess I'll find out then.

Let's rewind. Yesterday's day-drinking eventually took me to José Andrés' Jaleo, which only had a food special on offer: From 3 to 5 p.m., nonessential federal employees get a free sandwich (serrano ham, manchego cheese, and crushed tomato on a mini-baguette). I met my friend from grad school there. She's a furloughed budget analyst, and she rode a virtually empty Red Line train from Tenleytown to Chinatown. We were catching up over sangria when I got a phone call from a producer at Al Jazeera America. She was given my contact info by a mutual friend and wanted me to talk about my shutdown experience. The producer said she was willing to meet anywhere. I agreed to be interviewed, as did my budget analyst friend.

A few moments passed, and both of us felt nervous. What if we say something we shouldn't? I'd already seen this: At Z Burger Tuesday, a reporter talked to some furloughed feds, and they agreed as long as they didn't mention what agency they worked for. I went further: I called the Al Jazeera producer back and made it clear I only wanted to talk about my furlough experience and how I'm spending my day. We ended up filming the segment without my friend—aside from her initial reluctance, she had some errands to run. I was asked my name, how long I've worked for the federal government, whether I was affected by the sequester (I wasn't), and where I've gone for shutdown food and drink deals. And we shot some B-roll, which was a little surreal and annoying.

When we were done, I asked the producer about how she's covering the shutdown—and, feeling a pang of responsibility, told her that a fluffy piece like the one we filmed is fine, but she should try and talk to feds facing real financial hardships, especially those who aren't white-collar. She said she'd been having trouble reaching them, so I told her to reach out to AFGE, a union that represents federal employees. It's kind of funny: There are 800,000 of us who aren't working, yet for many the fear of speaking out of turn overrides any outrage or dismay we might feel.

But I bet the producer will find more feds willing to go on camera once the shutdown lasts a little longer.

Graphic by Jandos Rothstein

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