Scene from an early morning at Matt’s Big Breakfast in Phoenix
Wednesday / 10:10 p.m.
“This story, it’s really gotta pop. It’s gotta knock me on my ass, you know?”
“Yeah. I mean, that’s what I’m going for.”
“So what is it? What’s the best stuff you got? Best sentence, right now. Go. Knock me on my ass.”
I pause — because it’s something I’ve contemplated for weeks now, alternating between long, sleepless-drunken nights and pre-dusk easing into my bed and feeling the vibrations of the day still pumping in my veins like a body high, alternating in two and three day shifts, an unhealthy inconsistency but what must be done for the story.
“Come on, don’t even think about it. What is it? Something no one else has. Go.”
I’m chewing, but her pressure is too much and I shift the potatoes into my cheek: “Money. Bonuses. They’re arbitrary. Wasting money on people who’re fucking up big time. Essentially, I’ve found the true source of the backlog.”
“Well, what’s with this money, anyway? What’s the deal? You have proof or something? Tell me more.”
“Oh —” Wiping the grease from my lips with a napkin, gathering my spiel, my engrained mantra of an elevator pitch prepared for anyone who cares enough to ask.
“I mean, put yourself in the shoes of the worker. The guy or woman with a family. Maybe has connections to the military, maybe not. I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. These are people behind-the-scenes of an impenetrable fortress of bureaucracy, an iron blanket that was never meant to be like this, the quintessential problem of a good-intentioned idea gone sour. Just a truly dysfunctional agency of government that has failed its mission. You know, big picture. Looking at it from 10,000 feet. Anyway, the media circus is all dancing around the VA — easy target — and focusing on the veteran. "The veteran," the stock character imagined by policymakers. Both very reasonable courses of attack, and both which will be incorporated in the story yes, because they have to be, but just in the sense of cause and effect. Because who is absorbing both of these extremes? Tensions sent from D.C., pressure from veterans? Outrage? The guy or woman in the middle. The workers. They are the closest to the claims going through the system. (I think I even say that in my draft.) Why hasn’t anyone looked in-depth into what they do? Why they do it? And how they pass the top-down dysfunction on? On — yes — onto the veteran. They’re just pawns. Other stories miss this completely. It’s a creative, and also the most accurate, way to show the flaws of the system as a whole. It’s too hard to prove. And, yeah, it’s real hard. Let me tell you. This has been exhausting, but I can guarantee, going back to your original question, no one has done with before. The bonuses are only part of it. I don’t even know if I’ll end up leading with it. I personally think it’s not the dirtiest I’m gonna find…I feel like it’s dirtier than even we know. These offices, like I said, are forts. They have no press people. Yeah, right? Fucking crazy. No public relations structure at all. All questions, big or small, go to D.C. to be processed, I guess, in these gigantic, swirling tub of damage control and spin. So just imagine if I get into this offices? Probably metaphorically, at this point. Just get my feelers around a few of these workers. I’ve got a ton already, but I’m not happy. There’s something more to it. More than just absurd bonuses and a system of disincentives. I think I’m onto something with this work credit system — how employees are giving points for actions — I mean, that’s basic animal training at its core. It could be sure as science, as math. I mean, geez. Right? I just…have to grasp it better. This trip up to Nevada could prove to be the breakthrough.”
My head is actually pounding. My stomach, unsettled, swirls with Four Peaks and sangria. But it’s another phoenix morning under faraway skies, already 100 degrees, furnace-dry heat radiating from the ground just as quickly as it comes down from the sky.
Inside the Matt’s Big Breakfast, I’m thinking about it in a refreshed way.
Away from the pollution and spread-out city grid streets, closer to the fuzzy brown outlines of mountains in the distance that are actually about a 45 minute drive to the base but are visible out my window reflecting golden sunlight during the days, I found it recently. I’ve been too cooped up lately. Too busy with work inside the chilly but vibrant office. Too bent over my own desk. Too stagnant with the opening weeks of meet-and-greet social hours. I fear I’ve strayed from the core of the project. Work and play and — something else. A road trip might be in order, out on horse-trodden sandy paths melting into desert rocks, critters bristling frosty petrified plants that web the trails and clutch the hillsides, the cacti eaten away by sunstroke and creature burrows, where views of the valley unfold unlike anything.