Not any more

The perils of stopping gravy trains – The Globe and Mail

In Canada on October 29, 2010 at 13:38

Stop the gravy train!

If you don’t live in Toronto, that was the catchy slogan from the campaign of the city’s new mayor-elect, Rob Ford. If you live in Toronto, well, even if you didn’t support him, you may have secretly lusted after the campaign’s $30 T-shirt, which featured a suited-up pig driving a train as dollar bills rain down.

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“Stop the gravy train” may have been the most successful and resonant – not to mention deliciously retro – campaign mantra in recent history, but why limit it to evoking frustration with government overspending? It should be a convenient catchphrase on every Canadian’s lips.

You can use it to explain away everything from how cheap you are, to how broke you are (a great phrase to lay on the kids when they ask for lunch money; or even on Aunt Myrtle when she’s expecting an 80th birthday present!), to how you just don’t give a damn.

For example, you can walk by a homeless person with impunity now. Instead of fishing for that spare “change you can believe in,” you can shake your head and say, “Gotta get off that gravy train, dude.”

What exactly is the gravy train? I’m not sure I’ve ever been aboard one. In fact, I’ve probably been going in the opposite, gravyless direction – let’s call it the dry-rub express.

Webster’s defines gravy train as “a much exploited source of easy money” and several online sources say it originated in the 1920s, when railroad workers used it to describe a run on which there was “good pay and little work.”

Now, having started my career in an era in which there was always a fleet of chauffeur-driven cars lined up at city hall to ferry its movers and shakers around – and having personally been on assignment in former Mayor Mel Lastman’s house when his wife, Marilyn, asked him to stop off and pick up household coffee (or was it bagels?) in just such a chauffeur-driven limo – I’m not quite sure why depriving city councillors of their free TTC Metropasses as they go about government business is now construed as stopping the gravy train.

But I guess this picayune line-pencilling is what erupts when the public gets legitimately fed up with mindless million-dollar bureaucratic boondoggles and unfair strike settlements as they struggle with their own finances during a lingering recession.

I have an image of the new Toronto mayor, soon soberly sitting where the buck actually does stop, wondering uneasily whether he can actually keep those promises, and hoping that some financial wizard will come along and show him where to put his decimals.

It reminds me of a scene from the movie Dave, in which Kevin Kline, playing an ordinary guy masquerading as the U.S. president, calls up his accountant buddy, Murray Blum, and, bribing him with bratwurst from the White House

kitchen, begs him to take a look at the budget. The accountant, played by comedian Charles Grodin, goes through the massive budget line by line, muttering “It doesn’t add up.” Kline wants him to find the money to actually keep programs that help poor people, and eventually he does. Whaddya want, it’s a feel-good movie.

We may not be in such a feel-good movie now, but let’s at least give stopping the gravy train a try, even in our personal lives.

Granted, many of us have already done that, but maybe there are new corners to cut. Take my twentysomethings occasionally saying “I can’t get to the bank machine. Can I borrow $20 and pay you back?” “Sure, just look in my – I mean no! That’s how we got into this mess! We’ve got to stop the gravy train!”

Try it on your spouse. Firmly saying “It’s time to stop the gravy train” may mean never unwillingly opening your wallet to family members again.

Many of us have long done away with the $5 latte. But even my dog gets freebies from the arts-and-culture sector – every time we walk into our local Book City, Lucy gets a free biscuit. I say it’s time to stop that gravy train!

And yet, as Ford will discover, it’s not easy to do. The gravy train is sometimes a massively inefficient financial mess that requires time and expertise to fix, and sometimes it comes down to a simple unnecessary perk that can be eliminated with a simple necessary no.

Other times, that simple no can lead to a false economy that deprives a city of its potential for greatness. Many people didn’t vote for Ford partly because they consider themselves not just taxpayers – a word on every one of his campaign signs – but citizens, too: a word he didn’t mention much, if at all, on the trail.

Everyone cheers when they see a city or a province or a country well-run, but citizens understand that building a great city or society, and enjoying its benefits and protections, requires some tax dollars.

A year or so from now, I will be the first to cheer if my city is a better and fairer place for all its citizens. In which case there won’t be the need for a new, slightly more cynical slogan: “How’s that stoppin’ the gravy train thing working out for ya?”

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