Cleaning Up After The Bushes... Literally:
The Former President's Pool Boy Speaks Out
Pool boys are supposed to conduct torrid affairs with lonely pool owners. James Razsa has passionate feelings about his client, but not the kind likely to turn romantic.
An enduring American figure, the pool boy has long stood for one lowly half of the nation's class gulf. When the pool owner happens to have been the most powerful man on the planet, and the pool boy happens to be one of the planet's great despisers of power, the metaphor explodes into 1,000 points of light.
"If every American had to pool-boy for these people for a day, you'd have a revolution on your hands," is how he sees things.
The 23-year-old from rural Maine says he cleans several pools in the area, not just the Bushes', for a large pool-cleaning company. He works about 45 hours a week, and calls it the easiest job he ever had. He's paid $9 an hour -- "pennies thrown at my feet," relative to the wealth all around him, he says.
Maybe his education about "the ignorant rich" is worth a few additional pennies: "I didn't know places like this existed in Maine. Half an hour from the trailer where I live, there are places with multiple Ferraris, and guest houses five times larger than my trailer," he says.
Granted, the stakes are high at that level. Razsa recalls one day when former first lady Barbara Bush was on her way over, and it looked like there wouldn't be time to bring the pool's temperature up to her desired 82 degrees in time. The family's caretaker was in a panic, he says.
"He kept shouting, 'Barbara will go crazy! Barbara will go crazy!'" Razsa recalls. "This is the same woman who after Hurricane Katrina said (of the Houston Astrodome refugees), 'You know, they're underprivileged anyway, so this -- this is working very well for them.'"
I've known Razsa for a while now. I first got to know him in 2006, when I was living in Slovenia. One of his brothers, an old friend of mine, had been living in Ljubljana, and James had come for his wedding and to earn some money working at a bar. Ironically, given his feelings about our government, America couldn't have dispatched a better ambassador: thoughtful, warm and courteous.
When the bar job ended, Razsa returned to Maine to find more work. That proved nearly impossible. For a couple months he applied everywhere, fast food restaurants included. Finally, a buddy told him of a pool-cleaning business that was hiring. He got the job, and at length his boss asked if he'd ever committed a felony. He hadn't, and soon he and his pool net were inside the famed Kennebunkport compound.
"Seeing so much power accumulated in the hands of one person was just so weird," he says of his first time inside, about five months ago. "These people were just concepts in my head before this."
As for actual sightings, the Bushes have been elusive. At one point Barbara zipped by on a golf cart; at another, George indicated from afar that the pool looked terrific. (Note to communications staff: Would be funny if he said, "Read my lips" when communicating at a distance.) Otherwise the ex-president and his family have kept out of sight.
For Razsa, his job -- the only one he could find -- put him directly in touch with the very sort of power he holds partly responsible for his, and other people's, hard times.
"I look at the biggest middle finger in the world all day," is his more succinct explanation.
I ask Razsa if he has a monologue loaded up, in the event that his next encounter was at closer range. To my surprise, the idea doesn't appeal.
"What do you say? 'Thanks for School of the Americas, and Iran-Contra, and NAFTA, and shipping all those jobs overseas, and arming Saddam, and funding the Taliban?' What do you say -- 'You're a jerk?' There's nothing that can be put into a sentence that would capture the lives these people have taken, and the way of life that's been taken."
That way of life is a common thread in my conversations with Razsa. It's something that's perhaps less abstract for him than for the pool owner.
"My brother was on hard times, pumping gas for Exxon from midnight till 8 a.m. to support his daughter," he mentions at one point. "Exxon is one of the richest companies in the world and he was making $7 an hour. My brother had to go on welfare to support his daughter, even though he was working 40-50 hours a week. Instead of making Exxon pay a living wage, they make the lower and middle classes pay for him."
Meanwhile Razsa himself has been having a hard time, his $9 an hour notwithstanding. A dentist recently told him his teeth are falling apart, and to repair them would cost $3,000. Razsa has no idea where to get the money. (An enterprising friend, meanwhile, has set up a Web site in the hopes that some kind souls might narrow the wealth gap enough for some fixed choppers.)
When I first started talking to Razsa about his job, I hoped for some inside look at the machinations of the super-elite. Turns out a leaf-skimmer doesn't have tremendous access. In fact, the most insider-y stuff came from outside the gates, at a recent war protest aimed at the Bush compound. (For the record, Razsa felt obliged to attend in honor of a friend who was departing for Iraq; in fact he was as scornful of the "hippie protest kids" as he was of the pro-war element that showed up.) Leaving the demonstration, he stopped at a lemonade stand where a young girl and her mother had set up shop. They got to talking, and it turned out they were family of George Herbert Walker III, former ambassador to Hungary and first cousin of the ex-president up the road.
Ever respectful, Razsa kept his politics to himself and enjoyed the lemonade. It was the young girl who turned to him and held forth: "Just because we're related to them, doesn't mean we vote for them or believe in what they do."
"What did she say?" the mother asked.
Shocked, Razsa repeated the girl's declaration.
The mother nodded in approval.
Razsa's time in this strange universe will come to an end when the weather turns -- pool-cleaning is seasonal, hence his willingness to talk openly. He hopes for a fresh start after this.
"There are two things I wanted to do since I was a little kid. The first was join the Marines and then transfer to the Navy Seals," he says. When he got older, that dream unraveled. "I tried to talk myself into it being okay, but I couldn't get past the possibility of the government misusing our service."
The second dream remains: He wants to make films. Over the last few years, he's learned a fair amount, and he hopes to make it to Los Angeles in the months ahead. I don't doubt he has the skills and conviction to break into the industry, but I wonder aloud if Hollywood wouldn't be just a bigger, and possibly corrupting, Kennebunkport in his eyes.
"Gray (Maine), where I grew up, was a tough, working-class place. I know what's retarded and what's not," Razsa replies. "Anyway, I don't romanticize staying poor. Living in terrible poverty, and having no time for anything because you're always working -- that sucks, too. I've got a giant hole in my tooth that I can't afford to fill. I've got to do something."
Fortunately, wiser souls have covered this terrain, and reported back: "The fact is, prosperity has a purpose. It's to allow us to pursue 'the better angels,' to give us time to think and grow."
In the 19 years since Razsa's client spoke those words, in his Republican National Convention acceptance address, the amount he's thought and grown -- well, it could probably fill a good-sized pool. Which, fortunately, someone's been on hand to clean.
Chris Colin was a writer-editor at Salon, and before that a busboy, a bread deliverer and a bike messenger, among other things. He's the author of "What Really Happened to the Class of '93," about the lives of his former high school classmates, and co-author of "The Blue Pages," a directory of companies rated by their politics and social practices. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the New York Observer, McSweeney's Quarterly and several anthologies. He lives in San Francisco.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle