The game -- and life -- grow harder

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 19, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The two of us, ducking out of an icy wind which is wheezing and sputtering like a state legislator climbing stairs, have come here to play one-on-one basketball but end up talking about feeling conned.

''Furlough,'' he cries.

He says this immediately after missing a jump shot that went awry perhaps because I had my heel planted on his foot and my hand shoved into his hip.

''Foul?'' I inquire innocently. ''Furlough,'' he repeats. ''We ain't going for it, you know.''

His mind is not on basketball. He's a city policeman who faces five days' unpaid furlough because the city's broke and all remaining belts will have to be tightened.

The furlough is Plan B. Plan A called for city schools to be closed for five days, with teachers taking the major financial hit on behalf of everybody else. But Plan A brought such a barrage of complaints to City Hall that now, under Plan B, the misery is to be spread more evenly, with all city employees involuntarily taking five days off without pay.

Only now, here is this veteran city cop saying, forget it, the police will fight it with lawsuits if they must.

''Shoot the ball,'' I say.

''We're angry,'' he says.

''Everybody's angry,'' I say. ''Why should you be any different?''

He thinks I don't get it. The police are already underpaid, he says, and making them give back money will only anger them and discourage any bright newcomers from joining the department.

I consider a gentle lecture here: about community teamwork, about the need for everyone to pull together in tough times, about the sacred honor of police work.

''Shoot the ball,'' I say instead.

I find myself without any heart for a lecture. The cop blames the furloughs on the mayor, and I don't make the easy argument that it isn't the mayor who made the city impoverished. He blames the governor, and I don't argue that the governor's only one person, that the whole country's up against it now.

The cop and I come from the same distrustful generation. The politicians tell us something, and we've learned not to listen. The city's got its head under water, and the state's gasping for air, but everybody in power says it's not their fault.

And across the country, there was an anniversary noted last week, although nobody quite called it a celebration.

One year ago, the country went to war. In his youth, the cop went to war in Vietnam and now wonders what that fight was about. In our middle age now, the two of us remember last year's splendidly choreographed military briefings from the Persian Gulf and wonder what they were really all about.

''Vietnam,'' the cop says, catching his breath after sinking a jumper from the corner.

''Exactly,'' I agree.

The gulf war was Washington's attempt to triumph at last over the memory of Vietnam, to make us believe in ourselves again, or at least to believe in our military.

In case you missed it, that was George Bush's point of reference last week in New Hampshire, where he's campaigning in the first presidential primary of the season. The economy's gone to hell, but in stop after stop Bush kept bringing back the glory days -- his, in particular -- when America was ''standing up'' to Saddam Hussein.

It's important that the president prod our memories. But, in the process, he makes a big mistake, for this is a country currently without much hindsight.

A congressional study released the other day says the wealthiest 20 percent of the country saw their incomes increase by 15 percent in the last decade, while everybody else either stagnated or took a dive, even while working longer hours.

In such mean times, the war slips away. It was just something on television that distracted us for a while and then was gone, like some romantic drama that aired briefly but

wasn't picked up for a second season.

And now, a year later, we have all these retrospectives coming our way. The weekly news magazines last week offered insights into the war -- ''secrets,'' they call them -- that they've just learned. A year later? We knew a veil of secrecy had been thrown over military operations, but it took a year after the fighting ended to pull the veil away?

So we're left wondering how much has really changed from the cover-ups of Vietnam to the veils thrown up over the Persian Gulf war.

The cop and I go one-on-one for close to an hour, but the action is punctuated by this kind of political talk, and by age. We are each in our mid-40s now and need our breathers: from the basketball action, but also from the disillusionment that never goes away.

A year ago, we remember, George Bush called Saddam Hussein ''another Hitler'' but then let him live. Is that what this country does to Hitlers? Now Bush campaigns for re-election and hopes we remember the past and overlook the present, in which cities like Baltimore struggle for air.

''How can they furlough police?'' the cop asks now. ''It'll leave the city without enough protection.''

''Maybe they'll make you work without pay for those days,'' I say.

''Then everybody'll just go through the motions,'' he says.

I want to tell him that we all have to pull together now. I want to tell him that we have to trust our political leaders now. I want to tell him that the people who run our country would never lie to us.

''Shoot the ball,'' I say instead.

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