Big Daddy

Elaine N. Russell

Two things have gotten me into trouble all my life - being told I can't do something and speaking out in righteous indignation. The first got me into my former career, thanks to Harry Morse. I dated that moron briefly during my freshman year of college. Imagine the unmitigated gall, telling me I wasn't smart enough to be an engineer. I showed him. I graduated third in the engineering class. The feminist movement was just getting rolling and working in a profession dominated by men appealed to my sense of justice. He, the engineering major, dropped out of the program to seek enlightenment with the Dhali Lama in Nepal. I, of course, spent the next 15 years saddled to a career I hated, but I made my point.

That's how my friend Greta and I got to a convention of electrical engineers, lawyers, and political types gathered in Washington D.C. We were to give a boring discussion on underground electric transmission-line costs. The Washington Press Club banquet room swarmed with testosterone, only 12 women among 200 men cloaked in the civility of Hart and Scaftner suits, men strutting their stuff and marking their territory in a refined manner, professional professionals all, pumping hands, patting backs, wearing serious concerned faces as they dropped names and discussed issues critical to the world of electric utilities - a parochial world to say the least.

I'll admit it, Greta and I thought we were pretty hot stuff that night, wearing our newly purchased Jones of New York suits and expensive black pumps. We turned a few heads as we circled around the crowd sipping our Chardonnay. But once the utility types read our nametags, Michigan Public Service Commission, a smug look of recognition swept over their brows. We were marked as suspect. Regulators can't be trusted.

Four guys representing our Michigan utility arrived in force, the little club we knew too well. Greta waved to Jerry and Mark, the nicest of the crowd. She nudged me, commenting on how she couldn't stand Jim, the attorney. I agreed he was an arrogant jerk. He was always ready to argue, to win. He had to prove he was right and most of all smarter. I suspected he didn't enjoy a great deal of respect for women.

Jim's beady little eyes narrowed as he scanned past us, pretending he didn't know me. He had bigger fish to fry, sidling his way up to the keynote speaker, top dog of utility regulation. Bob, his compatriot, nodded our way with a lackluster, insincere, I-don't-really-want-to-talk-to-you smile. He reminded me of my ex-husband, nice looking, charming when it suited him, and in reality a cold fish.

On the far side of the room, I spotted the guy from Louisiana I had met at last year's conference. He had bought me a few drinks in the hotel bar, but left incensed when I politely turned him down on a one-night stand. Told me I didn't know what I was missing. Thanks, but I had a pretty good idea. Now he stood against the wall swirling the ice in his drink and looking past me to a young woman with long blond hair who had a crowd of men surrounding her. Jerry cornered Greta and me, insisting we sit with them and the other guys from Michigan. As we sat down, I noticed Jim, the attorney we didn't like, order a double scotch in addition to a number he had already polished off. His buddy Bob-something commented on how lucky they were to get two good-looking gals at their table. Dinner loomed endlessly before us. I started in on the chardonnay.

I had just finished my third glass of wine when Jim smoothed his tie and said, "I saw in the program you girls are giving a paper Thursday." Greta beamed, cutting into her chicken. The paper had been her idea, a way to get us to Washington and out of the office for five days. I turned to Jim. "I hope you boys will be able to come listen." His beady eyes, shinier now after the last scotch, narrowed again. He shifted his gaze to Mark, one of our other good men. "Did you hear Ross Miller died last Tuesday?"

"Yeah. What a shame. He was a political genius. He'll really be missed," Mark said.

"There's never been anyone else like him," Jerry added.

"What a great guy. I played golf with him last year. He had a million stories to tell. And funny." Bob smiled and shook his head.

"Really, such a great human being," Jim agreed, his words slightly slurred.

Ross Miller's record as a political boss was unparalleled in Michigan. He ran his party and the legislature with an iron fist, garnering the nickname "Big Daddy." He was big in stature and power all right, the ultimate good old boy, but I knew another side of him. My last job had been in an agency he headed. I had seen him in action, forcing his way, taking money under the table. And I'd heard stories, amazing stories about what he did to the women he trashed when he got boozed up. Listening to them eulogize this man like some sort of saint, well, it just pushed a button.

"The man was an alcoholic, he played around on his wife, and he took bribes. Other than that, he was a great guy."

Four sets of wide eyes fixed on me, silence hanging over the table like a VCR on pause. Greta put a hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh and kicked me under the table.

Jim finally cleared his throat and huffed, "Well, he was a master at politics."

"Yes, a master at intimidating people and getting his way." I stared back at the defiant glower that engulfed Jim's face. He downed the last of his scotch and slammed the glass on the table.

"All I'm saying is he accomplished some good things, like passing the state's child health care legislation..." His voice had turned harsh and raspy.

I speared a piece of carrot with my fork and held it in midair. I knew I should let it go - not the carrot, but the point. There was nothing to gain by goading this man. I was hardly going to change any attitudes. Jim and all the others would write me off as a bitter women's libber with an ax to grind if I kept it up. Perhaps I was. How could they possibly appreciate the years I had spent working with men like Jim - the dozens of comments, blatant and subtle, belittling women and me in particular, our capabilities, our importance, our equality? They would never get it. They were probably thinking that girls just don't understand that boys will be boys. What's the big deal? No, it wouldn't do any good, but on the other hand, how could I let him have the last word? That would be too easy.

"He may have done some good, but he was a sleazy man. Hardly a role model for your children." I smiled sweetly and put the carrot in my mouth, chewing slowly.

Jim drew a breath as if he were going to reply, then stopped. His neck was flushed and the muscles around his mouth and eyes twitched slightly. I knew it galled him. I was the regulator, a woman on top of it, and he was the regulated. He couldn't afford to escalate the discussion. Jerry's eyes darted around uncomfortably and Mark shifted in his seat. Bob put his hand on Jim's arm and asked what session of the conference he was going to attend in the morning, diverting the tension.

Maybe I shouldn't have said what I did. After all, the man had died a long and painful death with cancer. Perhaps that's punishment enough for past sins. But I drank one glass of wine beyond good judgment, and it seemed the truth should be told, even the outrageous truth none of these men wanted to hear. For all the Harrys and Jims along the way, I felt compelled to stand my ground and speak up.

© Elaine N. Russell

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