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McClellan: If you can't beat the Machine, join it

McClellan: If you can't beat the Machine, join it

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In a recent column, I mentioned that the hippies I used to know often talked about the Machine. That was the word they used to describe the whole social system, a system they saw as a malevolent entity designed to perpetuate itself.

The column was about bank robber Donald Keith Giammanco, and I wrote that the hippies would have said that, in these difficult economic times, the Machine would require stern punishment for Giammanco. This punishment would be a lesson to the rest of the citizenry that bank robbery will not be tolerated.

Then I mentioned that I am older now and no longer believe in the Machine. It's really about people, I wrote.

That comment led an astute reader to send me a note. Dave A. wrote, "If you're old enough not to believe in the Machine any more, there are people who would make the observation that you have become part of the Machine. Cogs don't admit to the greater machinations of the bigger entity."

Dave is right. I have become part of the Machine. I am a little spoke in the big wheel.

In this case, for instance, my job was twofold. First, I had to let people know that the Machine will not tolerate bank robbery. What good does it do for the Machine to set an example of somebody if the rest of the people don't hear about it? My job was to get the Machine's message to the public.

My second job was to let people know that Giammanco wasn't that different from the rest of us. He was a normal person who ran into some hard times and he made a very bad decision. His normalcy was not a mitigating factor.

I do that a lot. I point out that a lot of people who get in trouble are normal people. We are all a bad decision away from trouble.

So that is what I do for the Machine. I get the message out. Whatever it is that day, I get it out. In return, I have a job that pays pretty well and requires no heavy lifting.

But how did this happen? That's what I sometimes wonder.

I go back to the days of my misspent youth. Imagine me sitting in an efficiency apartment somewhere near Phoenix. The stereo is playing. (I wasn't smart enough to buy a reel-to-reel tape deck when I was in the service. Instead, I bought monkey pod dishes. I was going to reinvent myself as a sophisticate and have dinner parties.)

At any rate, the little portable stereo is playing Blows Against the Empire by Jefferson Starship. The scent of incense hangs in the air. (All right, it wasn't incense.) One of my friends, who has been sitting motionless for half an hour, suddenly rouses himself. "You got anything to eat?" he asks. I nod and say that there is leftover pizza in the refrigerator.

"Sorry, I ate that an hour ago," says another guy.

We realize we will have to go out. Fortunately, there is a 24-hour diner nearby. It is called Sambo's, and the walls are decorated with pictures of a dark-skinned little boy and a tiger. (There was once a chain of such restaurants, more than 1,200 of them in 47 states. In the late 1970s, the name and concept became controversial and drew protests and lawsuits. In 1981, the company filed for bankruptcy.)

We were regulars at Sambo's, and my fondest memory is this: We would drink coffee at any hour. There was something radical about that. Each cup of coffee was like a revolutionary statement. We didn't go to marches or protests — and maybe we weren't hippies as much as derelicts — but we drank coffee at 3 a.m.

The Machine does not like people who drink coffee at 3 a.m. You know why? Because people who drink coffee at 3 a.m. have not been co-opted. They sleep when they feel like sleeping and they get up when they feel like getting up.

I was once in that crowd.

That's probably hard for people to believe now, as I run around doing my little bit for the Machine. "You better not do this! You better not do that!"

But yes, I was once an independent operator.

Then I got older, and maybe not wiser, but more tired. I quit drinking coffee after 5 p.m.

Finally, I got a job on a newspaper in Phoenix. In the very beginning, I thought that maybe I could still be an independent operator, albeit with more regular hours.

But that's not the way it works. You become part of the Machine. I did. Dave A. was right about that.

But if it means anything, I still like Jefferson Starship.

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