Blowup in City Hall

Councilman Duncan summons city staff for personal errand

Therman Nobles wanted to go home.
Instead, he was sitting in the underground parking garage at Dallas City Hall, behind the wheel of tire truck No. 901020, with the engine idling noisily. He sat with his arms cradled around the steering wheel, staring at a set of fire-engine red doors through which a woman named Diane Harper was supposed to walk. Three minutes earlier.

Nobles, 43, who is married and has two sons, has worked for the city of Dallas for 21 years. He's one of those hidden employees--low-paid, hard-working, and absolutely critical to the smooth daily workings of a big city.

Nobles repairs tires. Each day, he makes sure the city's 4,500-vehicle fleet keeps rolling. When any one of those vehicles--a dump truck, a garbage truck, a police squad car, an animal control wagon--blows a tire between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., Nobles is just a radio call away with the quick fix. In his truck, he carries hydraulic lifts, air pumps and compressors, lug nut removers, and every other conceivable automotive tool.

The job is often grueling. Early that morning, just 10 minutes into his shift, he had found himself on his knees jacking up a three-ton garbage truck in the dark with a chill wind, flecked with rain, blowing at his back. That day, he would service two more garbage trucks, a fire department Chevy, two pickup trucks from the streets department, and five more vehicles he couldn't even recall. After 21 years of seeing everything at tire level, it all kind of blurs together.

Nobles points to the wide black belt around his waist--a much-needed precaution in this job--and shakes his head. It's been a long day. His face is lined with sweat, his brown work shirt streaked with tire grease. "Sometimes I go home, and I take a shower, and that's as far as I can get," he says. "I just hit the bed. And a lot of times I miss dinner."

From the way he looks, this might well be one of those days. Indeed, Nobles had been looking forward to his 3 p.m. knock-off time.

But it was not to be.
At 2 p.m., as Nobles was winding down his day cleaning up the service shop located a mile east of City Hall at Canton and Hall streets, a highly unusual call had come in. "My boss called me into the office and gave me a work order," Nobles recalls. "There were some other guys around, and they kind of laughed and rolled their eyes. But here I am. I just do what the boss tells me to do, that's all."

Nobles and I waited a few minutes more. Then the red doors opened, and a tall woman in a green skirt suit emerged with a newspaper folded under her left arm. As soon as the door closed behind her, she stopped in her tracks, whipped out a cigarette, cupped her right hand, and lit up.

After her first puff, Diane Harper glanced at Nobles and his truck and asked, in the same detached tone of voice used for Domino's Pizza delivery men, "Are you here to put some air in Councilman Duncan's tire?"

Gee, Larry Duncan. What were you thinking?
When this minor incident occurred two Mondays ago, the equipment services division of the Equipment, Communications and Information Services (ECI) department of the city of Dallas--Therman Nobles' employer--went into red alert. The Larry Duncan work order became an instant hot potato, with employee after employee wanting nothing to do with it because no one wanted to wind up the fall guy for something that should never have happened.

"We can't work on private cars," Nobles told me that day in the garage, repeating what other employees would tell me again and again over the next few days. "If we ever get caught doing anything to a private car, we're gone. We have a flat on our own car, we wait until after work, and we change it ourselves--without our city equipment."

That had, in fact, happened to him, Nobles said. He had found a flat tire on his own car after work one day, and he had changed it--alone and without the benefit of city tools or assistance.

Nobles couldn't help but smirk just a tad when he hooked the air hose up to the councilman's car two weeks ago. Yeah, it was a little low--but clearly not low enough that it couldn't be driven to the nearest service station for a couple shots of air. ("It wasn't safe," Duncan told me later, quite insistent.)

Even if Duncan had been positively stranded, which he wasn't, Nobles shouldn't have been anywhere near his white 1982 Ford Granada--a filthy, hubcapless jalopy with a torn rear bumper and a trash-strewn interior filled with old coffee cups and cigarette butts.

Nobles can work only on city-owned vehicles. Period. He and his fellow employees do not work on councilmembers' cars. They do not work on employees' cars. They do not work on citizens' cars--not even if the citizen who is flagging them down is nine months pregnant with a toddler clinging to her in an ice storm at midnight on a remote stretch of road in a bad neighborhood. That's the rule. And it's been beaten into Nobles as long as he's worked there--and it's been beaten into everyone else, too.

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