The good news from the big gray building along Independence Avenue is that crime is down, they've cut the price of coffee and soft drinks in the cafeteria and there's now a place to complain if your job is being abolished.
The bad news is that crime is still a problem, bats occasionally flit through the hallways, the heating system blows cool air into many rooms and if you're one of the 208 employes with a three-letter last name, a fluke in the computer's program kept you out of the official phone book.
If that seems a humdrum Page from Anywhere, then well and good. Appropriately, these tidbits of Bureaucratic Americana come from the Department of Agriculture, which has as much or more to do with the way we live as any other agency of government.
USDA is into a bit of everything: nutrition, home loans, rural electrification, soil conservation, water supplies, farm production, economics, school lunches and food-stamp distribution, foreign intelligence-gathering, sophisticated scientific research, overseas trade development, police-type investigative work, the purchase and sale of surplus farm commodities.
The department's work is carried out in every county of the United States and in many foreign countries, but the nerve center of all this is the USDA South Building (it's south of Independence), an adjunct to the Main Building (north of Independence) to which it is linked by sky-bridges and tunnels.
Secretary John R. Block's office, the size of a small gym, is in the Main Building. It is adorned with farm scenes and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois Republican (like Block) who created USDA in 1862. Block's chief aides are stationed nearby, within easy walking distance--important because the Main Building's elevators don't work for squat.
The sprawling South Building, however, is more the epitome of USDA. To eyes and feet accustomed to sights and distances of the warrens of bureaucracy, it is a rather reassuring melange. It is mainstream, and its denizens, if you'll excuse the term, are mostly middle-American in dress, coiffure and accent.
"This place is full of people from all over the country," said Russell Forte, an information specialist who's been at USDA 21 years. "They were brought here for their expertise, not their style. So you see some folks coming in here wearing boots or funny hats and talking different accents."
Forte had another thought: "There's a lot of loyalty here and we have ties to the entire country. We have a constituency of farmers, foresters, conservationists, editors--people who can relate to this building and what it stands for."
But it's bureaucracy, no doubt about it. Here in the South Building, if you listen closely enough, you can actually hear the sound of paper shuffling. Brilliance works next door to incompetence, public service is a term that still makes some eyes brighten and there is a palpable air of reality.
The hallways are reminiscent of some 1930-vintage central city high school--uniform architecture, opaque windows, tiled floors--and one imagines Miss Smith's Latin I just around the corner. But open doorways reveal scholars poring over foreign-language papers and magazines, searching out farm data, or idle secretaries who make no effort to disguise the romantic novels they're reading. GS15s sit with their feet propped on desktops; others rush from meeting to meeting, with scarcely time to pause for breath.
It is a place where you can see tedious hand-filing techniques going on next to humming computer terminals. Message clerks work side by side with an ingenious self-propelled robot wagon that carries a mountain of mail along the hallways of the Main Building.
On top of everything else, USDA is a city within a city. It has a quite passable cafeteria (with gourmet foods, among other goodies), a newspaper, an employe-run discount store, a gift shop, a barber shop, an airline ticket office, a credit union, a library, its own police force and (high school image, again) a sports trophy case in the central hallway.
USDA also takes care of other wants and needs. It has a travel club, an American Legion post, a Hispanic-American club, Toastmasters affiliates, a Viking Club (for employes of Scandinavian background), a welfare and recreation association and a raft of other similar organizations.
And like every other city, the South Building has a crime problem, although it appears to be diminishing since Secretary Block posted guards at most of the doors in August. He instituted strict security measures to counter muggings, assaults and blatant thievery. Monthly losses of thousands of dollars worth of office equipment have been reduced to practically nil since Federal Protective Service cops began watching the doors and patrolling corridors.
No matter how zealous the mayor, life in the city still is tough. The latest issue of Ag Reporter, the employes' newspaper, carried police reports about cocaine, marijuana and alcohol being used in USDA buildings and an increase in drug-overdose cases being treated at the health office.
Ironic, perhaps, but once a fellow leaves the farm, there's no telling what will happen.