“Somos pero no somos.”
“We are but we are not,” the Somos conspirators whisper as they organize their resistance to the Potlatch.
What is the Potlatch? Randolph, the homeless artist in red high-top sneakers who frequents the front stoop of the Coggins household in southeast Philadelphia, read in National Geographic that, among the Tlinget Indians of the Pacific Northwest, the Potlatch “…was a kind of pow-wow where the big chief gave lots of stuff away to keep the tribe happy.” That the “stuff” was useless trinkets fashioned from beach shells was not beside the point. It was the point. The aborigines had nothing better to do with their leisure time.
According to Somos resister Maria, “If there’s less of something or more of something, it’s because of the Potlatch.”
The front stoop of the Coggins home is host to sophistry. Family patriarch Ray Coggins holds forth there daily. He has to because he is serving a life sentence under house arrest ordered by Judge Rotundo. Only Kyle Rotundo, Ray’s parole officer, son of the judge, and preferred suitor for Ray’s daughter Alice, in hope that their marriage will reduce Ray’s sentence, has the authority to permit Ray to perform tasks on behalf of Desmond Gallaher, the Boss of South Philly. Such undertakings might include visiting cemeteries on Election Day to register the dead to vote the Gallaher ticket or paying a call on Baby Boy Barkocy, butcher and loan shark, to persuade him to assume financial control of UCLA – University on the Corner of Lancaster Avenue – the defunct embalming college transformed into a scam to entice students into enrollments financed by loans they can never earn enough to repay.
The principal reason graduates are consigned to lifetimes of voluntary servitude is because all employment opportunities in Gallaher’s realm are unpaid internships. Ray’s daughter Alice – sometime narrator of the story – interns for Gallaher Catering. Her elder sister Tiffany interns for Gallaher’s Third Millennium Life, her entree to meeting rich men at fundraisers for non-profit organizations. Tiffany is both nudge and scourge to Alice, insistent on conformity to fashions, diet, or romantic designs.
“I don’t want to be like you,” Alice objects. “I want to be like me.”
“Alice has low self-esteem,” her mother quips.
Alice holds no romantic design for Kyle Rotundo. She has set her sights on Andrew, son of David and Patti Ogleby, whom she met while catering at a fundraiser for the Homeless Art Museum. Funds raised are not for the homeless, although all the art on exhibit is by them, purchased on the cheap by patrons who have their value overestimated so they may donate them to the Museum for tax write-offs. Andrew is an intern attorney at Stark Raven, a non-profit law firm representing non-profit entities such as the Affluenza Research Institute or The March To Stamp Out Plantar Fasciitis. Peter Wolf, the firm’s senior partner, explains, “Non-profits are where the money is.” Andrew has been directed to organize the annual Beg-A-Thon for clients to make tax deductible donations in lieu of fees. He has also been assigned to a pro bono criminal case, representing Eric Johnstone, a young man in perpetual incarceration because he has never been charged with a crime and therefore can never be given a hearing.
Andrew lives at home in Walden Towers Condominiums. His mother Patti is Walden’s real estate agent, ever keen to sell units to rich tenants. She is desperate to sign up the wealthy Forepaughs, owners of a cat food factory, whose unappealing daughter Melissa is engaged to the very reluctant Andrew. The Ogleby’s balcony is adorned by Achilles, a 300 year-old tortoise that never moves and serves as a patio table. Achilles is the Ogleby’s most valuable asset due to his insurance policy from Pet Life, a division of Third Millennium.
Patti educates naive and nouveau riche tenants Rick and Rosemary Wurlitzer in Walden Towers’ unwritten protocols. “It’s not the money you spend on necessities that people judge you by – it’s the money you throw away!” Rosemary is employed as a teacher at Desmond Gallaher High School, where administrators maintain safety by keeping students off the premises. Rick has earned a windfall reward as a whistleblower at the Forepaugh cat food factory, an unfortunate fact certain to discourage the Forepaughs from buying a Walden condo. To guarantee their mortification and hasten their exit, Patti persuades the Wurlitzers to invite all Walden residents to a Fifty Shades of Grey party.
Alice Coggins does not know that Andrew is smitten, but she is very much aware that Hector Lopez, a bashful neighborhood nerd, is in unrequited love with her. Hector is an intern at the Federal Reserve Bank, a UCLA graduate in economics, medieval theology, and embalming. Due to a glitch in affirmative action hiring policy, all the employees of the bank are female except Hector and the furtive Arbuthnot. (“The ‘h’ is silent,” he insists.) As the only other man around, Arbuthnot forms a kinship with Hector and invests him with secrets about the bank’s operations, including gnomes in green uniforms that guard a treasure in the basement and the pervasive influence of the Potlatch. “The metaphors have changed, the names and institutions have changed, but it’s been the same process, essentially the same organization, since time immemorial.”
“Purposefulness without a purpose,” says Mr. Reddy, a front stoop regular at the Coggins home.
Alice avers that the Potlatch “means everything is just a make-work project to keep people busy with pointless activity.” She says, “I want my life to be more than just a racket.” Both of her parents laugh.
For Ray, everything is a racket. When Alice announces that her heritage is “2.6% Neanderthal”, it inspires her father to found a new political party to advance the rights of Neanderthal-Americans. A ticket in a forthcoming Mega Millions lottery is his collateral to fund castle construction in northeast Philadelphia. “On the strength of his spending plans,” Alice reports, “banks are lining up to lend him millions and local merchants say he’s putting new life in the economy.”
At the Federal Reserve Bank there is concern about supply and demand. Hector’s boss Gwendolyn observes “entropic deceleration” in the illicit sex industry. “The issue is how to include sex in our measurement of the economy.” She delegates Hector to study the situation, suggesting a “stimulus package” in the form of “more cleavage on prime time TV.”
Arbuthnot confides to Hector, “Money is a magic wand that you point at somebody to get them to do what you want… all the desires of the world can only be fulfilled by somebody else… There’s something you should know. Money doesn’t exist. It has never existed.”
Another thing that only seems to exist is the Dwight D. Schopenhauer Memorial Health Center, a 30-story edifice that Alice visits often because her grandma is a patient on the top floor. She discovers that floors 2 through 29 are crammed with comatose elderly patients confined to beds wearing respirators, fed curare through IV tubes, financed by insurance premiums payable to Third Millennium Life. Doctor Mason cares for the patients, making sure that they never die by a process of infinitely halving their life support systems, like the mythical race between Achilles and the Tortoise, so that they never reach the end.
Maria of Somos cautions, “Those who speak, don’t know. Those who know, don’t speak.”
It will be up to Alice to marshal the Somos resisters, challenge the reign of Gallaher, unmask a Grand Scam, and muster a zombie apocalypse. All she has to do is “to hold up a bank, raise the dead, and steal an election.”
Potlatch (2017, Swallow Tail Press) is a comic feast. Spicy verbal dumplings and schemes as convoluted as spaghetti simmer in the Potlatch stew. Wisecracks pop like kernels in a heated skillet. Bruce Hartman stirs his savory satire of airball economics, disorganized labor, credulity-based credit, and conspiracies that Are-But-Are-Not with a Five Star chef’s ingenuity and taste.