Saturday, February 23, 2013

Dinner with John Stacks

     We stood on the corner of the crowded intersection of Broadway and 2nd Avenue North in Nashville, where storefront windows arrayed with cowboy boots, some studded with rhinestones and others dripping with suede fringe, compete with music venues, their doors wide open for business until four in the morning.  Street lights twinkle as far as the eye can see, until they stop in the mirror-like waters of the Tennessee River, which makes the whole rowdy scene seem to float downstream.
     It wasn't a get-me-out-of-here experience, like Times Square, which hems people in with narrow thoroughfares, claustrophobic skyscrapers and blazing corporate logos, because people who come to Nashville are really, really serious about music, and are the substance of the roiling, molten center of the town's economy.  Propped-open saloon doors beckoned us into raucous karaoke performances where the singers, who happen to be ordinary people who've practiced, prepped and gussied up like real entertainers, step onstage, one after the other, to unleash their heartfelt versions of country tunes.
     I wouldn't have entered any of these clubs, preferring not to commit myself and instead gawking like a tourist from the sidewalks at groups of mostly young people swinging their hips, stamping their boots, singing along with the current star because they know all the songs word for word.
     "Hey you!" one of the karaoke singers shouted, pointing at me.  "You, with the white hat!  Where you from?"
     "Florida," John Stacks shouted back, pointing at me.
     "I knew you was from a long ways off!" the singer said with a regional drawl, "'cuz I can tell by the way you look."
     Everyone laughed, looking at me.  I don't suppose people wear white ski caps and Gap t-shirts in this part of the country.
     "Come on up here and sing us a l'il tune!" he went on, holding out the microphone.  "Come on!  Come on up!  I'll help y'all along!"
     Shyness is not a concept they understand in Nashville--especially not justifiable shyness.  The idea that someone might not be able to sing doesn't make sense within a hundred-mile radius of Graceland.
     Everyone around us wanted to sing, and everyone had plenty of songs by heart, complete with dance steps, hand motions, and a country twang like a creaking door-hinges at the end of every stanza.  The audience members were ready to hop onstage and pour out their souls--they were just waiting for an invitation.  Everyone, it seemed, but me.  I know Gloria Gaynor's, "I Will Survive"-- like every woman who grew up in the seventies--but I wasn't about to subject anyone else to my version of it, not at two hundred decibels.
     Therefore, I demurred, and was replaced by a Johnny Cash look-alike.  His name was Roger, and he told us later that he lives and works in Tulsa, but drives to Nashville every few weeks because he loves to perform.  If only we all had an opportunity to live out our alter-egos any day of the week, not just in Nashville. 
     I was thinking about how FBI agents are paid to act out their alter-egos every day, like six-year-old boys who get giddy at the chance to ride in the front of a police car, or start up a fire engine, or hold a real gun.
     In fact, FBI agents and federal prosecutors play cops-and-robbers so much they seem to forget who they really are--namely, human beings.  It doesn't feel so great, I suppose, being ordinary, like the rest of us, when you've had the chance to brandish guns, and feel the thrill, every day, of driving fast cars, arresting people, exercising power
     "The FBI agents in my factory's raid were power-tripping big time," John told me over dinner at the River View Restaurant.  He had a sizable sirloin steak on his plate, festooned with giant prawns, all of it grilled like everything else in the noisy downtown eatery and microbrewery, and he kept asking me if I wanted to try some.  But my plate was loaded with food, too--mahi, shipped from the coast--was I a traitor, eating seafood in the beef belt of America?
     John said he'd had nightmares for months after the raid, many of them featuring him as a superhero who was getting back at the FBI bullies.
     "It has really done a number on me," he said, "as it has for the other plaintiffs in this lawsuit."  We talked about the raids on Gibson, Midamor, and Duncan, and the parallels to our own company raids.  John told me about the numbers of employees at his company, as well as Midamor and Duncan, who have suffered health problems related to the trauma of the raids.
     "The government's tactics have been escalating over the past five years.  There are more guns, lots more intimidation, and many more FBI agents," he noted.
     "There were at four or five law enforcement officials for each one of my employees, at my office," I told him.  "Why should the government need so much reinforcement?  What danger did we pose?"
     "It's getting out of hand," he said.
      Everyone in our class-action group has been indicted so far, except John Stacks and me.
     But this week John learned that he, too, is about to be "tried"--by a Grand Jury, if such a thing could be considered real trial.  He will probably be indicted.
     "I thought Grand Juries were held in secret," I said.
     "Most of the time, they are.  But sometimes they send the defendant a 'target letter'--an invitation to the Grand Jury hearing.  That's what they did with me."
     "Will you attend the hearing?"
     "I want to, because I'd like to say a thing or two," he answered, without disguising his resentment. "But my lawyer says I should't go.  In fact, he says I absolutely should not go."
     "Can't he go with you?"
     "No," he said.  "Defendants' lawyers are not permitted at Grand Jury hearings."
     "So, you'd have to wing it?"
     "That's right.  And my lawyer says it's too dangerous."
     "Why?"
     "Because I'd only be allowed to give one-word answers, and the prosecutor's intent would be to entrap me, and to strengthen the government's case by twisting my words."
     "Are you likely to be indicted?"
     "My lawyer says it's  99.9% certain."
     "Do you think they have a case against you?"
     "No.  It's a travesty.  The whole thing is crazy."
     Once indicted, a defendant has to give up his guns and can't travel outside a narrow range.  John has water-bottling plants in Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi, and owns a bank in Little Rock.  He lives on a ranch which used to be the family homestead--the dairy farm where he grew up, and his father grew up, and their parents, and so on.  His roots go deep, but his work requires that he travel a lot.
     Midwesterners like John Stacks and the other plaintiffs in our upcoming lawsuit really are the heart of America.  They grow or manufacture most of what the rest of us eat, drink, buy and walk on every day.  Arresting them is no small thing, as it threatens America's bread and butter.  Even if some of them are guilty, the transgressions are likely to be minor.
     I say this because I am remembering a TED talk about crime and punishment.  In it, the speaker--an expert in the motives behind criminal acts--reports results from a study showing that 80% of people anywhere will lie or cheat a little bit, if they think they can get away with it.  It's built into the human psyche--maybe we're like foxes.  People won't cheat a lot--even if they can get away with a lot--but they'll cheat a little.  They aren't sociopaths, and they aren't a major threat to society, and we can't lock them all up, or we won't have society.
     Therefore, if government agents want to raid, indict, and incarcerate 80% of Americans, they probably can.  Where do they draw the line?
     Which lying, cheating human beings present an imminent danger to society, and which ones simply require a fine, a warning, or restrictions on their business enterprises?  Here is where our country's judicial system has gone wrong.  We can't indict all the tax-paying business owners in this country, not without bankrupting the DOJ.  The owner of Gibson Guitar, Henry Juszkiewicz, says government agents spent $20 million investigating him over a period of six years.  He settled with the government last August for a few hundred thousand dollars.  If this is how well the DOJ is doing on its profit-and-loss tallies with "take-backs," it's deepening our national debt without offering much in the way of improving citizens' safety and welfare.
     After dinner, John and I walked up and down the sidewalks of downtown Nashville, bumping into plaster effigies of Elvis, listening to Loretta Lynn and Randy Travis songs screaming out of the music halls, and ducking into souvenir shops.
     I suggested a visit to a nostalgic candy store, where I bought a bag of flying saucer candies filled with sugar beads.  They're called "satellite wafers," and the label on the package says:  "This candy has enjoyed a great reputation, particularly in the northeast, where people love these candies so much they will do anything to get their hands on them."  I think it's the communion-wafer texture of the candy that accounts for its popularity, because it suggests something like absolution.  I ate the whole bagful.
     There was a weatherworn tin sign on the wall of the store, and it was for sale, too.  It portrayed a white chicken who looked for all the world like my indefatigable hen, Mabel.  The chicken was about to cross the road.
    "I dream of a world in which the motives of chickens will no longer be questioned," the sign said.
    "Amen," I thought.  
         

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