Mexican “Office” Politics

Surrounded by dancing palm trees, pristine white sandy beach and an aquamarine lagoon bordering the Caribbean Sea, I told the bartender where I was from.

“Scranton, Pennsylvania,” I said.

The deeply tanned young woman’s eyes immediately lit like burning turquoise gemstones glistening in the afternoon Mexican sun.

“No,” I said before she could respond. “Don’t tell me.”

“I love ‘The Office,’” she said, accommodating me in fluent English and digging into instant common ground we suddenly shared as strangers in Isla Mujeres, a tiny tropical island off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula.

As far as she was concerned, idiot characters Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott from the American TV show are my lovable loser first cousins.

The next day, our guide for a tour in a golf cart — golf carts and scooters are ubiquitous on the island — picked us up at the Lotus Hotel with a smile offset by a brain loaded with local lore, history and deep cultural facts.

“Where are you from?” he wanted to know.

“Pennsylvania,” I said.

Blue eyes fired on all cylinders.


In a weird moment better suited for “The Twilight Zone,” another addictive American TV rerun, I knew I couldn’t escape the brand that shadowed my existence like a bad prison tattoo inked on my face.

“Somebody in the hotel told you,” I said.

The grin widened.

Nobody told him.

Sad to say, “The Office” now defines Scranton as the center of a nitwit universe populated by Dwight, Michael, Jim, Pam, Kevin and other imaginary friends who make the best of a dull and mundane life in my hardscrabble former coal town built by immigrants and their descendants who deserve better than a facetious comedy to label who and what we represent.

Scranton Mayor Paige Gephardt Cognetti actually endorses a plan to make the city more “walkable” that includes utilizing “The Office” as a theme. Jeff Speck, the urban design planner and a Boston-based business called Nelson\Nygaard pocketed $239,800  in Scranton’s American Rescue Plan Act funds for a “study” that  suggests and encourages placing statues of show characters throughout the city, resulting in what Speck called “a downtown rebirth of a magnitude that cannot yet be imagined.”

Speck spoke with a straight face.

“I think maybe you’re a little proud and you don’t want this to be your world image. I’ve got news for you,” Speck told the public last year when he and Cognetti unveiled their bubbleheaded plan. “It is your world image. And people love it and they love you because of it. And I think it’s a mistake to not hitch your wagon to the star and do something about it.”

I’d prefer hitching the wagon to Speck’s dorky vision so Cognetti (if she ever regains her intellect) can drive him and his asinine advice back to where he came from. I seriously urge the mayor to rethink her misplaced exuberance for foolishness and refuse to pay the publicly-funded consulting bill. Instead, Cognetti should loudly berate the carpetbaggers’ incompetence for even suggesting we showcase our tough still-struggling town as an insulting sideshow attraction that turns hard-working ethnically and racially-mixed people into an international laughing stock. 

Instead of Scranton shining on the world map because of our proud yet painful anthracite mining history, a past that still defines countless Scranton families including my own, a history of sacrifice, hard labor and achievement, Scranton looms synonymous with a harebrained television show.

Reviewers call the NBC mockumentary cringe-worthy and sarcastic – in too many ways the definition of Scranton community leaders who embrace contemporary cool rather than ancient coal in all its gory glory.

No one should fault our Mexican friends or anyone else for enjoying the show. The laugh’s on us. Ha ha. But stamping Scranton’s seal of approval with trademark tomfoolery and wallowing in its frivolity is like slinking into a VD clinic and asking for more disease instead of penicillin.

To make matters worse, rather than evolve with Mexico’s bold tradition of resistance and revolution, Maya brilliance and breath-taking natural environmental beauty, young Mexicans and who knows how many others globally embrace American pop culture at its worst with Scranton targeted as ground zero.

To our golf cart guide’s credit, his first stop included a three-paneled pastel color wall mural showing scenes from the Mexican Revolution that showcases women rebels, Zapata and Pancho Villa all cradling rifles above ferocious national emblems of the snake and eagle that mark Mexico as a powerful civilization.

I told our guide about the goofy Dwight Schrute wall mural near the National Bakery in Scranton. But I shamefully kept quiet about “The Office” cast mural that takes up another whole building wall in the heart of Scranton’s business district.

I had already related to the hotel bartender my personal experience with Rainn Wilson who plays Schrute in the show and how I once reached him on his cellphone when he blew off attending a local party with all the other stars of the “beloved” production. The bartender stood in awe as I described Wilson as whiny and incensed by my call, demanding and failing to find out where I got his private phone number and ordering me to never call him again.

I also told her about the recent foot race where 1,500 runners from across the country and the world flocked to Scranton to dress like their favorite “Office” character and run or walk down streets and past sites featured in the show that isn’t even filmed in wannabe hip Scranton but in too hip California.

“‘The Office’ used Scranton,” I said.

Only one other force of power and influence has used Scranton as much if not more. That singular dynamic phenomenon with hooks deep into Scranton’s roots is Joe Biden, a buffoonish caricature in aviator shades and an ice cream cone hat  who even has a new city street and nearby expressway named after him.

Our golf cart guide wanted to know if American voters will choose Trump or Biden in the November presidential election. How did this bright young man who flew a Palestinian freedom flag from his golf cart perceive a doddering American president getting sucked deeper and deeper into the Israeli genocide in Gaza he supports, enables and helps with taxpayer-funded bombs?

Good question, señor.

I later pondered his inquiry as our United Airlines flight home detoured presumably because of bad weather in the southeastern part of the United States. Our pilot hugged the Gulf coast east of New Orleans, cruising over Biloxi, Mississippi, Mobile, Alabama, La Grange, Georgia and other onetime hotbeds of slavery, heading north through the Confederacy American rebels are convinced will rise again as a beacon of conservatism in the land of cotton.

How do narrow-minded antebellum-brained right-wingers perceive “The Office,” Scranton and “Scranton Joe” who makes more and more of his “hometown” Scranton birthplace each day as he crisscrosses America begging for re-election votes?  Like Trump, endless Dixie rednecks still hate Blacks, Jews, women, immigrants, queers and blue-belly Northern elites like Biden. Do you think the average gumbo bar bouncer, shrimp fisherman or abused single mother serving beer in a hillbilly bar watches “The Office” reruns on days off and will vote for Biden?

Official Biden surrogates like Cognetti might unwittingly be doing Biden more harm than good as she cheers for “The Office” and Biden at the same time. The mayor better search deeper than the shallows of Biden loyalists’ minds for meaning as she sings along when Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott warble, “Ain’t no party like a Scranton party ’cause a Scranton party don’t stop.”

If voters turn on Biden, the party’s over.

On Thursday night, home in Scranton at last, I headed downtown for a tomato and basil pie. Standing outside Buona Pizza I watched a guy across the street take pictures of “The Office” mural. He snapped a shot, turned slowly in an aimless circle, snapped another and rotated in the other direction. Then he stood staring into space like he forgot where he was.

No, it wasn’t Joe Biden.

On second thought, maybe it was.