Eight minutes. It’s not a long time. You can scramble up a couple of eggs and toast in eight minutes. You can read this essay in eight minutes. You can even have a meaningful conversation in eight minutes.
But when eight minutes gets lopped off your morning routine with no warning, that’s when you realize how important they are. Getting the kids to school is more rushed. The lines on the T or the expressway feel like they never move. That morning meeting downtown is harder to make.
Denise Garlick, a state representative for a trio of metrowest towns, learned this year just how important a lousy eight minutes can be to her constituents. That she helped restore those eight minutes to their lives is an example of how local government can, and should, work. But the fact that Garlick chose to act so swiftly on this particular issue, of all the items on her long to-do list, is an especially valuable civics lesson in today’s political climate.
So let’s all learn from it.
Back in the spring, the MBTA and its commuter rail operator, Keolis, moved the 8:02 a.m. inbound train from Needham Heights to 8:10. Big whoop, right? Suck it up, suburbanites, and deal. Well, if you rely on that 8:02 to get downtown by 8:50 so you can attend a daily 9 a.m. meeting, and now you can’t arrive till 9:10 or 9:15, that means you have to take the train a half-hour earlier. Except your kids can’t be dropped off at school before 8. So now what? Or if you hop off the train at Ruggles to teach a 9 a.m. class at Northeastern, now you have to drive and pay for parking. Or if you normally see patients at Brigham and Women’s at 9, now you can’t start till 9:15, which means your day — and theirs — has to start later.
When we’re angry about a delayed flight, or our cable company’s customer service, or a restaurant’s failure to refill our water glass, we take to the Web and sound off, hoping for likes and retweets. And in Needham, I joined in that chorus in the days and weeks after the schedule change. Facebook and Twitter lit up with venom. E-mails were fired off to Keolis, the MBTA, and to Denise Garlick.
Like most local elected officials, Garlick’s world revolves around the T’s her constituents care about: Town. Trees. Teens. Troubles. Trains. So it didn’t take her long to realize that these eight minutes were serious business.
But social media isn’t what got her moving. Garlick says what she reacts to, what really sticks in her gut, is conversation. And in this case, it was the heartfelt phone chats and face-to-face interactions she had in the supermarket or at one of her favorite breakfast haunts in Needham, Fresco. Those, more than anything, set in motion the meetings she arranged that ultimately led to this note coming from her office a few months later: “Great News! Town of Needham Commuter Rail Riders! Starting November 21, 2016, the 8:02 am (Train #606) from Needham Heights will return!”
I celebrated, I admit it. But after that I wanted to understand how government can seem useless and dismissive of public concerns one day and reverse a bungled decision so smartly and efficiently the next.
Over a grilled corn muffin at Fresco, Garlick explains. It’s simple, she says. Talk, don’t just tweet. Call, don’t just post. Join, don’t ignore. Picking up the phone and sharing your story with your representative, introducing yourself at a public meeting and speaking out, organizing a 5K in support of a cause, all of those dwarf the impact any Facebook post, e-mail, or tweet will have.
“People need to figure things out together,” she tells me, “instead of figuring them out in isolation.”
When Garlick wants to make a point about how government’s working or, as it may be, not working, she has this little exercise she goes through: When speaking to a group about advocacy and citizen empowerment, she’ll ask everyone in her audience to stand up. And then she’ll begin a series of questions.
Are you a registered voter? Everyone remains standing.
Do you vote in every election — local, state, federal? A big group sits.
Do you belong to a community group or local organization? Another group sits.
Do you know your state representative? Sheepish looks all around.
By now, Garlick, who was elected in 2010, can usually count on two hands those still standing. “And those numbers are diminishing,” she says.
Somehow, the basics that used to be obligatory, just standard business in a democracy, began to be seen as all that is required of us. Voting, reading, and sounding off, we should be doing those things. Go ahead and post an Election Day selfie, but you can’t stop there.
That computer in your pocket is an amazing device. It tells you how to avoid a traffic jam, when the Red Sox traded for an ace, and it reminds you to pick up toothpaste on the way home. But it’s most powerful as a telephone. So the next time you’re angry, go ahead, post it, tweet it, e-mail it. But after that, dial your rep, or better yet, buy her a corn muffin, so you can really be heard.