THE WAY TO BEGIN, I think, is to admit that it has been my dream since I started writing this column to come up with a character of my very own - someone who personifies Washington. Every columnist has someone like this, someone to interview on a slow day, and they are always working class, and usually they hang out in bars and sometimes they drive cabs and sometimes they speak in the same style as the columnist, which is a coindence, of course, and always they are colorful.
So I have gone out looking for my guy, only I forgot that this was not New York or Chicago, but Washington. I rode with cab drivers and I hit a few bars and I even toyed with doing a column about a waiter who has played the horses for about 50 years but he wouldn't speak to me. In Washington, everyone knows about the press.
Then one night I went to a reception and someone there said I should meet. Sheila Zubrod. I should meet, this person said, because Sheila Zubrod is to Washington what maybe a Broadway type is to New York. She knows how to play the town, has no job for longer than a year or more and survives more or less because she long ago recognized that the action in Washington is the federal government and the coin of the realm is something called grants. So Sheila Zubrod does not read the Racing Form. She reads the Federal Register and the Commerce Business Daily and she waits for a thoroughbred of a federal grant to come along. This is Washington and this is why musicals about the city close out of town.
So Zubrod and I met in the lounge of a downtown Washington hotel where most of the customers were businessmen looking for federal contracts, and I told her that she was going to by my character. She laughed. I told her she was a Washington survivor. She laughed again, ordered a kir, and conceded that I was not far off base. She told her story. She is 29 years old, lives in the Dupont Circle area, graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in anthropology and is the daughter of an Army warrant officer.
It was at the University of Maryland that Zubrod discovered the federal government. She got a job with the Smithsonian as a micropaleontology intern, which meant, more or less, that she spent the morning crushing rocks and then looked at the pieces under a microscope. "That was under a poverty youth* grant," she said. "I used to fall asleep under the microscope. My glasses would be pressed into my eyes."
But it was a discovery - the beginning of a pattern. From then on, Zubrod would either work temporarily for a federal agency under some grant program or for a private firm that received a grant. Once she worked for a newsletter that tells others about what grants are available and once she became a consultant to a consulting firm - telling them what to tell the government so they could get a grant. When there are no grants available, Zubrod works usually in restaurants or shops. She always gets by.
After college, she worked in Baltimore evaluating a juvenile delinquency program under an LEAA grant. "I interviewed juvenile delinquents," she said. "They were called children in need of supervision - CINS. They used to be minors in need of supervision. I guess someone decided that CINS sounder better than MINS." She shrugged her shoulders and laughed. "I ran around for a year and interviewed parents and intake workers. The theory was that if these kids were matched with what were called exemplary youths the juvenile delinquents were bound to improve." Here she took a sip of kir.
"I don't think they got along as a general rule."
More jobs followed. She helped write a book on services available for the elderly with grant funds and she worked on an environmental impact statement with grant money. She used money from another grant to pre-interview speakers for a conference and then she wrote a book with another grant called "Solid Waste is Energy." Don't wait for the movie.
In her best year, she said, she made $18,000. She was worked on two films and as a press spokeswoman and as a researcher but always calling herself a consultant. I asked her if she knew that the Navy and other government departmentws kept lists of approved script writers for training and other films, and she said she knew. She told me of other lists and obscure government publications that list jobs, grants and contracts. It was clear that she knew the town.
Well, you would think that by now, after more than an hour of conversation and two kirs, Zubrod would open up - admit she's into the Washington hustle and that those being hustled are the tax-payers. She shook her head no. She likes what she does, likes not having a career per se, likes learning now to do different things and thinks the tax-payers get their money's worth from her. "I feel like I produce," she said. I believe her.
Zubrod is starting to look for work again. The agency for which she is the press spokeswoman is slated to go out of business this year. She is confident she will find something. She always does.
At the moment, she's with the Commission on Federal Paperwork.