Just had one of the strangest experiences of my life: hearing the Rotary Club of Portland sing “Little Boxes.” As a red diaper baby from New York, now calling Berkeley my home, I was expecting at least a soupçon of disorientation at my first-ever Rotary Club meeting — but it never would have occurred to me that the proceedings would kick off with a lusty rendition of Malvina Reynolds‘s famous song lampooning comfortable bourgeois culture.
Adding to the weirdness, I was dressed as Ben Franklin. This was the idea of the fantastically named Devereaux Dion, the club’s current president. He and his wife had attended an early performance in my current (and very fun) run of Ben Franklin: Unplugged at Portland Center Stage. I remember spotting them from the stage: a handsome, middle-aged couple sitting in the front row. I had snuck covert glances in their direction, to see if they were enjoying the show; at some point in the first act I finally saw Dev smile, and relaxed a bit. Afterwards, Dev came up and introduced himself to me — following up with an email asking whether I might be interested in attending an upcoming Rotary Club meeting as “Ben.”
I should have warned him that I’m actually not a very good Franklin impersonator — in a way, Unplugged is about how I learned to love Ben without being able to embody him — but I was too delighted by his invitation to bring that up. So today at noon (sharp — these Rotarians are nothing if not punctual) I found myself in a fancy ballroom in downtown Portland, in full Franklin regalia, preparing to recite a short excerpt from my show. That’s when Dev brought this guy up to the lectern — apparently they start each of their meetings with a sing-along — who led the assembled Rotarians in an enthusiastic version of “Little Boxes” (they had the lyrics up on a screen). The irony was not lost on anyone — in fact, it was celebrated: the fellow leading the recital introduced the song as being a parody of the kinds of folks who were in that very room.
I was stunned — a countercultural anthem was being, as it were, co-opted by “The Man.” Turning to Trisha Mead, PCS’s delightful P.R. and publications manager (who had, thankfully, accompanied me to this gig), I said something about this moment being confirmation that not only had “my” people lost, but the winners were now actually able to gloat and joke about it! She replied, with an understanding smile, that she could certainly imagine I’d be feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance.
But here’s the thing: these Rotarians were winning me over. As I understand it (dimly, to be sure), the Rotary Club is about business leaders “doing well by doing good,” as Franklin liked to put it. (Or maybe it was “doing good by doing well.” Oh, well. That’s why I don’t have an almanac.) They contribute to many worthy causes — including, I’m pretty sure, the kinds of theaters I perform in. They educate themselves on important causes of the day: the fascinating main presentation of this luncheon was by two creators of a potential totally “green” high rise in Portland. (One of the presenters commented drily that not all architects design “boxes.”) And, yes, they help one another in their business endeavors. Soon after arriving in Philadelphia, Franklin launched a club, called the “Junto,” for doing these very things. So these people are living the lives that Ben advocated for a self-fulfilled America.
And who am I — the Paine in the ass who smiles smugly while observing these high-toned ceremonies? Well, not exactly: I’m a businessman myself now — my company, Quixotic Projects, owns my intellectual property (insert your joke here) and occupies a great deal of my time, energy, and hopes. I could learn a lot from these businesspeople. Plus, I’m a member of the Berkeley Energy Commission — and this green-building presentation was of tremendous interest to me in that regard. So you could say that I’m a potential Rotarian myself.
And yet, and yet … I’m also still … me. My aesthetics and politics — derived from the Old Left of New York, honed in the ’80s punk scene of Boston, and buffed to a Free Speech gleam in my beloved Bay Area — would probably tend to diverge a great deal from many (though perhaps not all) of those in that ballroom. Of that I have little doubt.
After the Rotary luncheon, we walked back to the theater in a thoughtful silence. Eventually, I said to Trisha, “Well, it looks like the Revolution is definitely over.”
Her eyes twinkled. “I wouldn’t be so sure,” she said.
Maybe she’s right — and perhaps, when the time comes, Rotarians and red diaper babies will march shoulder-to-shoulder into a democratic, sustainable future that would make Malvina smile.