The story takes in the People’s Republic of China. References to Chinese Communism include the Mao suit (the uniform worn by Mao Tsetung (1893-1976), leader of Communist China, and by his followers) and red armband (symbol of a dedicated communist). Other references to China include dragon dancers (traditional dancers who perform at a festival under a cloth in the shape and design of a dragon).
“National Cleanup Week start today,” said Secretary Zhao, “and officials everywhere are going out to join in the street sweeping. Here’s our list of participants — all top city administrators and public figures. We’re just had it mimeographed over at the office for your approval.”
He looked like a typical upper-echelon secretary: the collar of his well-worn, neatly pressed Mao suit was buttoned up military style; his complexion was pale; his glasses utilitarian. His gentle, deferential manner and pleasantly modulated voice concealed a shrewd, hard-driving personality.
The mayor pored over the list, as if the eight names on it were those of people selected to go abroad. From time to time he glanced thoughtfully at the high white ceiling.
“Why isn’t there anyone from the Women’s Federation?” he asked.
Secretary Zhao thought for a moment. “Oh, you’re right — there isn’t We’re got the heads of every office in the city — the Athletic Committee, the Youth League Committee, the Federation of Trade, the Federation of Literary and Art Circles — even some famous university professors. The only group we forgot is the Women’s Federation.”
“Women are the pillars of society. How can we leave out the women’s representatives?” The mayor sounded smug rather than reproachful. Only a leader could think of everything. This was where true leadership ability came into play.
Secretary Zhao was reminded of the time when the mayor had pointed out that the fish course was missing from the menu for a banquet in honor of some foreign guests.
“Add two names from the Women’s Federation, and make sure you get people in positions of authority or who are proper representatives of the organization. ‘March 8 Red Banner Pacesetters,’ ‘Families of Martyrs,’ or ‘Model Workers’ would be fine. Like an elementary school teacher returning a poor homework paper to his student, the mayor handed the incomplete list back to his secretary.
“Yes, your honor, I’ll do it right away. A complete list will be useful the next time something like this comes up. And I must contact everyone at once. The street sweeping is scheduled for two this afternoon in Central Square. Will you be able to go?”
“Of course. As mayor of the city, I have to set an example.”
“The car will be at the gate for at one-thirty. I’ll go with you.”
“All right,” the mayor answered absentmindedly, scratching his fore head and looking away.
Secretary Zhao hurried out.
At one-thirty that afternoon the mayor was whisked to the square in his limousine. All office workers, shop clerks, student housewives, and retirees were out sweeping the streets, and the air was thick with dust. Secretary Zhao hastily rolled up the window. Inside the car there was only a faint, pleasant smell of gasoline and leather.
At the square they pulled up beside a colorful assortment of limousines. In front of them group of top city administrators had gathered to wait for the mayor’s arrival. Someone had arranged for uniformed policemen to stand guard on all sides.
Secretary Zhao sprang out of the limousine and opened the door for his boss. The officials in the waiting crowd stepped forward with smiling faces to greet the mayor. Everyone knew him and hoped to be the first to shake his hand.
“Good afternoon — oh, nice to see you — good afternoon — “ the mayor repeated as he shook hands with each of them.
An old policeman approached, followed by two younger ones pushing wheelbarrows full of big bamboo brooms. The old policeman selected one of the smaller neater brooms and presented it respectfully to the mayor, like a Tibetan offering a hada to an honored guest. When the other dignitaries had gotten their brooms, a marshal with a red armband led them all the center of the square. Naturally the mayor walked at the head.
Groups of people had come from their workplaces to sweep the huge square. At the sight of this majestic, broom-carrying procession, with its marshal, police escort, and retinue of shutter-clicking photographers, they realized that they were in the presence of no ordinary mortals and gathered closer for a look. How extraordinary for a mayor to be sweeping the streets, thought Secretary Zhao, swelling with unconscious pride as he strutted along beside the mayor with his broom on his shoulder.
“Here we are,” the marshal said when they had reached the designated spot.
All eighty-two dignitaries began to sweep.
The swelling crowd of onlookers, which was kept back by a police cordon, was buzzing with excitement:
“Look, he’s the one over there.”
“Which one? The one in black?”
“No. The bald fat one in blue.”
“Cut the chitchat!” barked a policeman.
The square was so huge that no one knew where to sweep. The concrete pavement was clean to begin with; they pushed what little grit there was back and forth with their brooms. The most conspicuous piece of litter was a solitary popsicle wrapper, which they all pursued like children chasing a dragonfly.
The photographers surrounded the mayor. Some got down on one knee to shoot from below, while others ran from side to side trying to get a profile. Like a cloud in a thunderstorm, the mayor was constantly illuminated by silvery flashes. Then a man in a visored cap, with a video camera, approached Secretary Zhao.
“I’m from the TV station,” he said, “Would you please ask them to line up single file so they’ll look neat on camera?”
Secretary Zhao consulted with the mayor, who agreed to this request. The dignitaries formed a long line and began to wield their brooms for the camera, regardless of whether there was any dirt on the ground.
The cameraman was about start shooting, when he stopped and ran over to the mayor.
“I’m sorry, your honor,” he said, “but you’re all going to have to face the other way because you’ve got your backs to the sun. And I’d also like the entire line to be reversed so that you’re at the head.”
“All right,” the mayor agreed graciously, and he led his entourage, like a line of dragon dancers, in a clumsy turnaround. Once in place, everyone began sweeping again.
Pleased, the cameraman ran to the head of the line, pushed his cap up, and aimed at the mayor. “All right,” he said as the camera started to whir, “swing those brooms. All together now — put your hearts into it — that’s it! Chin up please, your honor. Hold it — that’s fine — all right!”
He stopped the camera, shook the mayor’s hand, and thanked him for helping an ordinary reporter carry out his assignment.
“Let’s call it a day,” the marshal said to Secretary Zhao. Then he turned to the mayor. “You have victoriously accomplished your mission.” he said.
“Very good — thank you for your trouble,” the mayor replied routinely, smiling and shaking hands again.
Some reporters came running up to the mayor. “Do you have any instructions, your honor?” asked a tall, thin, aggressive one.
“Nothing in particular.” The mayor paused for a moment. “Everyone should pitch in to clean up our city.”
The reporters scribbled his precious words in their notebooks.
The policemen brought the wheelbarrows back, and everyone returned the brooms. Secretary Zhao replaced the mayor’s for him.
It was time to go. The mayor shook hands with everyone again.
“Good-bye — good-bye — good-bye — “
The others waited until the mayor had gotten into his limousine before getting into their.
The mayor’s limousine delivered him to his house, where his servant had drawn his bathwater and set out scented soap and fresh towels. He enjoyed a leisurely bath and emerged from the bathroom with rosy skin and clean clothes, leaving his grime and exhaustion behind him in the tub.
As he descend the stairs to eat dinner, his grandson hurriedly led him into the living room.
“Look, Granddad, you’re on TV!”
There he was on the television screen, like an actor, putting on a show of sweeping the street. He turned away gave his grandson a casual pat on the shoulder.
“It’s not worth watching. Let’s go have dinner.”