Greasing the Squeakiest Wheel is a Waste of Time

Genuine customer complaints to a major super market chain in Chicago:

"Guacamole was wayy too spicy! This is why [MAJOR CHAIN] is closing stores!"

"Customer stopped by the desk to say that he was unhappy that he was directed to the water station to get water because that water cup doesn't have a cup and a lid. He says the people working at [MAJOR CHAIN] are nice, but he doesn't understand why he’s directed to the water fountain instead of just being handed a cup of water with a lid and straw. He says he will be shopping somewhere else now."

"I HATE this store! I asked 3 people where I could find the Bhakti Chai and I never found it. I've wasted 20 minutes of my time at least and I'm still thirsty!"

In my decade of dealing with the public radio crowd, I encountered the phenomenon of the relentless complainer on more than a few occasions. I understand the legitimate complaint—not receiving a pledge drive premium or encountering a mistake in the ticketing for Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! but the reaction of public radio to the endless bitching from a tiny constituency of people who, for some deep-seated reason, must complain about anything and everything in order to be heard was maddening.

Years ago, I was charged with producing the first Millennium Park taping of WWDTM. Huge outdoor venue, free seats, union labor, lots of plates in the air to spin. One of my responsibilities was to wrangle up volunteers to assist in traffic control of the huge crowd. I put out the all-call request. I received a lot of eager volunteers who were excited to be a part of the experience.

Among them was Don Evans.

Don wanted to volunteer but wanted to know if A) he would get a good seat for the show, B) if volunteers would get backstage access, C) if volunteers could expect to be fed, and D) if parking downtown would be validated. All legit questions if not belying his reasons for offering his time and energy. He was a regular donating member, he assured me, and was very excited about the opportunity.

I answered these questions to all the volunteers in an email:
A) No. Volunteers would be expected to be on their feet for the duration.
B) No. Backstage access was to be limited to staff only.
C) Yes. There would be pizzas delivered for volunteers to enjoy before the show began.
D) Yes. The MP staff will be providing us with parking vouchers for selected garage spaces and I would give them out as volunteers checked in.

Long story short, the MP staff failed to provide the parking vouchers. I explained to all of the volunteers that, while I did not have the vouchers, parking in a specific garage would only be $10 but that I would recommend taking mass transit if that was a hardship.

Don was late. Late enough to not be given much to do, late enough to miss the pizza, but not late enough to sit and watch the show.

A week after the event, I received four emails and two phone calls indicating that I owed him $10 for his parking. I informed him that I could not reimburse him but that we appreciated his sacrifice. Not good enough. He wanted that $10 and he proceeded to email and call the station, NPR, our Philanthropy Department, my boss, Board Members and Torey Malatia in pursuit of what he felt was rightfully owed him.

His frustration at being denied this money boiled over into hyperbolic language as if refusing to reimburse him this $10 amounted to a violation of all the principles public radio stood for. I was a liar and an opportunist. I was taking advantage of members. I was a bad person for denying him his reimbursement for parking. This went on for six weeks.

I tried to reason with Don. It was, after all, only ten dollars and he did see the show without having to do any work as he was late. As a volunteer, his tardiness basically made him just an audience member. It was, in his mind, about principle, not money.

Finally, I was instructed to pay him the $10 just to grease this squeakiest of wheels. There was no budget line for this sort of thing (which is why it was difficult to process in the first place) so I just paid him out-of-pocket as it was just easier to give him ten bucks than listen to him bitch. I found out a bit later that Don Evans was, indeed, a donating member. He had, the previous year, donated... $10... and then was angry that he couldn't get a subscription to The Atlantic because the premium was for $10 a month rather than for $10 in total. He got his subscription anyway because he was relentless in his pursuit of that subscription.

There will always be folks like Don Evans in the world. Blowing up anything they can find to complain about. Demanding to be heard because being heard and attended to fills some void in their lives. Going to a grocery store and threatening to never shop there again because he had to fill his cup of water himself. There is no appeasement, no effort great enough to stop these broken wheels from sounding off.


Dana Schutz is politely unrepentant. The artist knew she’d waded into controversial territory when she depicted Emmett Till, the African-American teenager who was famously lynched to death by bigots in 1955, in her abstract Open Casket painting.

“You think maybe it’s off limits, and then extra off limits,” Schutz says in this week’s New Yorker. “But I really feel any subject is O.K., it’s just how it’s done.”

Ever since the painting went up at the Whitney Biennial almost three weeks ago, it has become a lightning rod in the war on cultural appropriation, with protesters arguing in an open letter that Schutz, a white artist, had exploited black suffering “for profit and fun.” (Schutz, however, had previously made clear that she never intended to sell the painting.)

The painting, along with six other artworks, has been temporarily removed from view because of a water leak—and is due to be remounted today.

Within days of the Biennial’s opening, dozens of artists had signed an online petition calling for Schutz’s painting to be excised from the exhibition and subsequently destroyed, ensuring it never re-enter the art market.


Calls for the painting to be excised and destroyed? Seriously?

When it comes down to idiots dressing up in offensive costumes or mega-rich artists using cultural iconography to sell their videos and even the obvious whitewashing of an awful lot of the entertainment industry, the point is clear. These are all legitimate complaints and problems to be solved.

To even level the accusation that an artist who made it clear the artwork would not be made for sale painted a work depicting the death of Emmett Till "for profit and fun" is ridiculous. To insist that only black artists are somehow culturally allowed to comment on black culture is lunacy.


The squeaky wheels continue, however, despite the ludicrous lengths they must go to make their points.

Local gadfly and identity politics zealot Ricardo Gamboa posts this on Facebook recently:

The complaint is rooted in the need for more Black, Latino, Hispanic, Asian, Muslim, Queer and Trans people to be included on Chicago stages but the extremes he goes to illustrate this need is almost Onion-like in it's asinine suggestion that without full representation of every single possible group, a theater is merely a 'colonial' theatre.

Gamboa is known for his comedy so it might be fair to assume that this hyperbole is simply a bit but I doubt it. What about equal representation of disabled folks? Chicago has the largest population of Polish people anywhere but Poland, so what about equal representation of Polish people? The blind?  Little people? The Weight Challenged? Homeless?

His screed is no more relevant to Chicago theatre than the lady who decided she hates a grocery store because the "Guacamole was wayy too spicy!"

There is harm, however, in paying heed to the complaining wheels. Eventually, the machine gets bogged down trying to address even the most mindlessly stupid complaints that the legitimate ones are ignored. Unfortunately, the Internet has opened up a world of a billion soap boxes with no discrimination as to how crackpotted or full of shit the orator might be.

Given that there will always be squeaky wheels in society—from Flat Earthers to vehement racists to those who firmly believe they were abducted by aliens—the best policy is to ignore them. They will always have an audience and, for a variety of reasons, small squads of people who wholeheartedly agree with them. I'm quite certain that, if put to a test, there are at least 121 people on Facebook pissed that they couldn't find the Bhakti Chai in a chain store.

Like the specter of alternative facts proliferated by our executive branch, the relentless bitching about tinier and tinier things need to be seen in the light of context and common sense, and wholly ignored.

Notes from the Post-It Wall — Week of April 9, 2017

Passover: The 11th Plague