"This is the only place they have an empty chair," he explained, motioning to a desk on the first floor of the Federal Building. "If I didn't sit there, I'd be standing around all day."
Mallek has spent the past two weeks showing up for work as a Federal Protective Service officer in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, doing nothing for eight hours, returning to his room at the Nob Hill Hotel, and then coming back the next day and sitting around some more. "I just kind of walk around, mingle a bit; I ask people, 'How's it going?' and, 'Remember when?'" Mallek explained as we took the escalator to the cafeteria for a two-hour coffee break. Mallek said he'll likely continue his current routine for several more months. "It's kind of funny; I'm making over $60,000 a year for doing this," he said.
Funny? It's a regular laugh riot, especially when you consider that Mallek is currently performing the same task for which the federal government owes him 11 years of back pay: He's doing nothing. After all this time, he's still hanging around waiting for someone to correct a supposed bureaucratic snafu.
In 1989, Mallek was hired as an officer in San Francisco with the FPS, an obscure agency created in the 1970s to police government property. Along with a couple dozen other such orphan bureaucracies, the FPS recently became part of the Department of Homeland Security.
But someone in the bureaucratic ether delayed Mallek's expected 1993 start date. They said his paperwork had been lost; for reasons unexplained, his background investigation dragged on for years. He hired a lawyer and obtained a judgment, confirmed on appeal, that the government owed him a job, because it had vindictively postponed his employment in San Francisco after he'd complained of racism in the service's Atlanta bureau during the early 1990s.
Two weeks ago, Mallek was finally allowed to show up for work here in S.F. A lifelong police officer, he's had thousands of hours of training in just about every kind of police work. But he's been given no assignment, nor will he for several months, he says. Technically, he's considered a trainee, and, as such, he's awaiting a decision on whether he'll be required to attend police academy -- for the third time in his career.
In the meantime, he walks the halls, reads, and watches other staffers come and go.
"This is so far beyond anything I've experienced. And I was the chief judge for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Baltimore," says Gary Gilbert, Mallek's Washington, D.C., attorney. "It's hard to tell whether it's bad faith or incompetence. But the fact is, it doesn't matter."
In Vaclav Havel's hilarious 1965 play The Memorandum, a cruel supervisor in a government office creates an artificial language called Ptydepe putatively meant to make interoffice memos more specific. All memo-writing is overseen for approval by departmental Ptydepists, who, because Ptydepe is impossible to learn, approve nothing.
This halts all communication, and the supervisor thus vanquishes all bureaucratic rivals and guarantees his own sinecure.
How could Havel possibly have known about Barry Mallek's world?
The strange sojourn that has left Mallek protecting our homeland security by doing nothing began, in Mallek's own, perhaps biased, account, when he retired after 20 years as a police officer in San Bernardino. His is the tale of a simple California cop who dreamt of a middle age spent in a federal government sinecure, followed by a retirement of double-dipping ease. Instead, he embarked upon a pair of fantastic and simultaneous journeys, one through the bureaucracy of what is now the Department of Homeland Security, the other through the corrupt, redneck world of small-town law enforcement in the South.
When he was first hired with the San Francisco FPS office, Mallek was only 40. He already had a pension from the San Bernardino Police Department. He'd established his own chain of traffic schools on the side. He'd bought a house in the tony hills above San Mateo. He was living a government employee's dream.
After serving in San Francisco a couple of years, in 1992 Mallek imagined he could do even better for himself. He applied for a transfer to Atlanta. "I figured I'd improve their [crime] statistics just as I had here, and maybe get a promotion," Mallek recalls.
The transfer, by Mallek's account, proved to be horrible miscalculation. In the Atlanta FPS Bureau, employees posted a photocopied order from a sadistic, racist, Old West judge boasting of how vultures would pick flesh from the bones of a "chili-eating, copper-colored" Mexican convict after he was hung. Mallek, whose wife is Mexican-American, made a copy of the flier and filed it away. Fellow employees, who learned that Mallek was Jewish, began making comments such as "Who's his rabbi?" One of Mallek's co-workers, who was Hispanic, reported to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigator that co-workers would greet him with the salutation, "How are you today, Guacamole?"
"It was like a KKK party," recalls Mallek. "I found that these people weren't playing around, unfortunately. I guess I'm a single-family cross-burning waiting to happen. I'm white, but I'm Jewish, and my wife is Mexican. ... My son, who I love very much, would fall under that copper-colored category. He's very dark."
Mallek arranged for a new job as police chief in San Benito, Texas, and quit the Atlanta FPS post. He subsequently filed a discrimination complaint against the federal agency with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming the FPS had fostered a hostile, racist working environment in its Atlanta office.
Mallek then began an unexpected trip through a realm as brutal, in its own way, as the federal bureaucracy: small-town law enforcement in the Deep South.