Civil servant Franklin Mathers straightened his necktie and trudged down a stairwell, sticky from spilled drinks and urine, into a suburban Washington D.C. metro station. He sidestepped a clutch of boisterous hacky-sack players, scraped some chewing gum off his shoe, and elbowed his way into a car. The seats were, as usual, all taken, two of them by a sprawling teenager devouring a bag of potato chips, so Franklin shared a pole with a hunched-over elderly woman.
As the train rumbled along, Franklin reflected with pride on how his small government agency was putting an end to all the rude behavior that had crept into public life over the past decade, ever since people decided norms were for suckers. The agency was developing the Uniform Code of Civil Behavior, which was going to do for society what the Uniform Commercial Code had done for business: provide a set of rules that would be enforced not by dirty looks and pursed lips, which had become as useless as “Please flush!” signs in bathrooms, but by the courts.
Franklin arrived at his office and looked for a place in the break-room refrigerator to put his padlocked lunchbox. He was wedging it between a swollen carton of milk and a cellophane-wrapped puddle of green slime that may have once been celery sticks when he caught a whiff of a cloying perfume. Janice’s. She entered, took a seat at one of the tables, and eased her shoes off.
“Good morning,” Franklin said. “How was your trip to Happy World?”
Janice, who was wearing her “Cheat. Prey. Shove.” T-shirt again, scowled. “Miserable. They won’t let wheelchairs go to the front of the lines anymore. Said too many people were taking advantage.”
Franklin’s forehead crinkled with worry. “So Bill’s in a wheelchair?”
She cut off a length of dental floss and wrapped the ends around her index fingers. “Not after we found out about the new rule.”
Franklin went to his cubicle, and set to work on his first project of the day: Article 19 – Celebratory Behavior, Part 7 – Birthday Parties, § 2-1019. Cakes. (8) Blowing Out Candles.
He shook out his hands and typed: “The Birthday Person shall not spray saliva on the cake when blowing out candles.”
He walked it over to his supervisor, Angela Remick. She used to be a personal injury attorney and had a good mind for writing tight regulations.
Angela read the rule and frowned. “What if the Birthday Person is sick?”
Germs. Right. He went back to his desk and added some language: “The Birthday Person shall not spray saliva on the cake when blowing out candles, and shall blow only if free, to their knowledge, of communicable diseases.” He took it back to Angela.
“The diseases part seems too restrictive,” she said. “What if the BP has, say, athlete’s foot?”
Franklin tried again: “The Birthday Person shall not spray saliva on the cake when blowing out candles, and shall blow only if free, to their knowledge, of communicable diseases other than athlete’s foot, cholera, crabs, gonorrhea, HIV, HPV, Lyme disease, mad cow disease, pinkeye, scabies, syphilis, and ringworm.”
This time, Angela folded her arms and cocked her head back, as if studying the ceiling. “Here’s a hypothetical: You’ve got a cold, but you blow out the candles with a bellows. That should be okay, right?”
Franklin returned, once again, to his desk. Before typing, though, he peered around the partition at Harold, who was playing “La Macarena” through his giant desk speakers.
“Would you mind turning it down?” Franklin asked.
“Bite me,” Harold said, and he turned up the volume.
Franklin calmed himself with a deep breath, added a sentence to his regulation, and returned to Angela.
“Maybe carve out an exception for cupcakes?” Angela asked.
“What?” Franklin asked. The walls were now shaking to the pounding beat of another song, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
“Exempt cupcakes,” she shouted.
Franklin did so, though the vibrations from Harold’s speakers were making his keyboard dance.
Angela was, at last, happy with the regulation, and Franklin sent all 681 words of it upstairs for review. If all went well, it would be approved within minutes, and incorporated into the Code. The blowing out of birthday candles would, at last, be regulated, for the benefit of all.
He set to work on his next project: § 2-1020. Piñatas. He was adding “chainsaws” to the list of forbidden devices for breaking them open when Harold’s blaring music stopped abruptly, as if someone had pulled the plug. Franklin scrambled out of his chair and crouched next to his desk, in case this was another gun incident. Harold’s shrill voice filled the silence: “Get your hands off of me.” “Don’t you dare touch that.” “The hell you will.”
Franklin crept into the aisle to see what was going on. Two DC police officers were standing by Harold’s desk.
“You’re in violation of—” One of the cops read from a paper, his voice rising over Harold’s loud and sputtering protests— “‘Article 7 – Office Comportment, Part 18 – Noise, § 1-942. Personal Stereos.’ We received a complaint just a few minutes ago.”
The officers read Harold his Miranda rights and grabbed his arms. Harold wrapped his legs around his chair and went limp, so they had to disentangle him and drag him to the elevator. Most of Franklin’s coworkers were by now outside their cubicles watching, their faces slack with surprise.
When the elevator doors shut behind them, Franklin turned to Janice, who was standing in the aisle, arms folded, cracking gum.
“I wrote the code just a while ago and called in the complaint,” she said. “He was getting on my nerves.”
Lorraine Alden has a doctorate in economics, so ideas like moral hazard and externalities are often woven into her stories. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa and likes to travel to exotic places. She lives with her family in Sonoma County.