EP080: Union Dues – Cleanup in Aisle Five

By Jeffrey R. DeRego.
Discuss on our forums.
Read by Rich Sigfrit (of Requiem of the Outcast and Amazing Pulp Adventures).
All stories by
Jeffrey R. DeRego
All stories read by Rich Sigfrit

“Which one are you?”

The kid fans out a small stack of super hero trading cards, but it’s not a Union deck. Figures. “Lemme see what you got there.” I flip through and remember my old baseball card collection. I knew there was something special about me, when at nine-years-old, I accurately calculated the probable batting stats of each player, on every team, in the 1996 season after opening only one pack. The Union recruited me five years later after my dad beat a couple of Atlantic City casinos for ten million bucks. I was caught on security camera tape telling him when and how to bet at the roulette wheel.

“These don’t look like you.”

The card displays a blue-costumed man leaping between buildings. I hand it back to him. “Those guys aren’t real, but I am.” Wow. Did I just say that? Maybe I’ll tell the kid that Santa and the Easter Bunny aren’t real either. He’s staring at me now, I can almost see his little brain struggling to make sense of my answer. I should tell him to buy Union Cards but, you know, he’s five.

Rated R. Contains profanity, some violence involving children, and retail corporate exploitation.

Union Dues Stories:
EP027: Iron Bars and the Glass Jaw
EP049: Off White Lies
EP062: The Baby and the Bathwater

Comments (33)

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  1. Great stuff another heart wrenching moment from a brilliant author. Another display that the ignorant masses of humanity are flawed and the public opinion and greater census is merely an embodiment of the id of humanity.

    Keep it coming.

  2. Benton Seay says:

    Love the Union Dues stories. Keep them coming.

  3. Jim in Buffalo (AKA WNYRPG) says:

    I think it might be time for Union Dues to become a full-fledged thing of its own… a website, an RPG setting (for Mutants & Masterminds, perhaps, or Champions), maybe even its own podcast. I haven’t gotten this interested in a superhero world since the Wild Cards series of books.

    There was a nice discussion of the Union Dues universe on the Escape Pod forums before the spammers took over.

  4. Anemone Flynn says:

    Those stories always make me feel so bad for the low-level super-heroes. How’s that for an oxy-moron. Of course, the hatred is rather accentuated. It’d be nice to see more people who are not mob-driven. Perhaps a real person who doesn’t hate the ‘freaks.’

    And that little blip at the very end … Nice.

  5. My wife is one of those crazy people who have the habit of running the wrong way during emergencies.

    She works for a local police department, and being female, often is the face of a friendlier more diverse police force (being both female and a Native American.) She is not the six foot 200lb super-strong super-athletic male that used to be on the trading card labeled “super cop.”

    We do not live in Mayberry.

    When she is called a “[expletive deleted] pig!” by her (often repeat) ‘customers’ she reflects upon the nature of humanity, on selfishness and selflessness. She has said on more than one occasion the difference between the two is only a matter of distribution. Do we focus our energies into a single point or spread it out serve those around us.

    In our story [the segment of] humanity [that composes mob] is so tightly focused on their hatred that refuse help from the outsider, and even bring harm to members of their own community. Only the maligned outsider lifts a finger [and unfortunately not a fender] to help that individual in dire need.

    Unfortunately this story accurately reflects accurately the reality in a large portions of the world. The story in itself is not a heart-breaker. The fact that there is so much reality in this fictional story of super-heroes is heart breaking.

    I listened to this story with my wife (who enjoys super-hero movies) and she said to me “I listened because I expected a light hearted bit of escapism but really I think you were just trying to make me cry.” [Yes, I am talking about this episode, #80 Union Dues.]

    This is one of the better pieces I have heard on EP to date (granted I have not been here long.) I love when fiction unflinchingly points its finger at reality and says “this is what you look like” even when it is not the image on the trading card labeled “mankind.”

  6. S.T.U.N. Runner says:

    I liked the story a lot, but did anyone else think that the voice the reader did for David, the five-year-old boy, sounded a bit creepy? It was like that guy in the old “Saint George and the Dragon-net” who says, “He bweaved fiyah on me… he boined me aweddy!”

  7. Didn’t bother me, S.T.U.N.

    I listened to this story this morning. The nicest thing I can say is that, having hear this, I am going to go back and get the other installments.

    Jeeze. Amazing: Eminent Domain, Greed, Apathy, and the human id all on display — *and* it involves Superheros — *and* it never slows down, not even once? Awesome.

    By the way, the shot at the end was quite comical.

  8. slic says:

    As an avid comic book reader, I’ve seen this story done a few times already. So while it was well written, I’ve read better and didn’t much enjoy it.

    Trying not to sound too much like “me too”, but I wanted to reinforce the idea of the maturing of comics that Steve mentioned. I think they have been part of the pop culture long enough now that they have grown beyond the original pulp aspects. There are still some straight forward superhero stories, but lately writers like Peter David, Kurt Busiek, Mark Millar and many I’ve missed are taking stories to new levels – the best ongoing example is Marvel’s Civil War, in which the government (with superhero help) basically tries to regulate superhero activity. Writers such as Warren Ellis(Ministry of Space), and Alan Moore(Supreme, Watchmen) were already there years ago.

    I heartily agree with Steve’s comments about Watchmen, it’s as much a comic book story as is this podcast. Another excellent story of the same vein, with more familiar characters (Supes, Batman, etc), is Kingdom Come. Add to it the painted art by Alex Ross, and it is a sterling example of “serious” comics.

    Oh, and I happened to stick it out right to the fading Daikaiju music, what/who was that at the end?

  9. SFEley says:

    Oh, and I happened to stick it out right to the fading Daikaiju music, what/who was that at the end?

    That was Rich Sigfrit. The recording he gave me was a raw take, and that was one of many things I pulled out of the middle of it.

    Perhaps one of these days I ought to release a bonus episode with outtakes from this one, Jesse Thorn’s reading of “Craphound,” and Paul Fischer’s reading of “Barnaby in Exile.” We instruct our narrators to Have Fun while they’re reading. Some take the advice more literally than others. >8->

  10. beardiebloke says:

    I liked it. Enough to make me order the back issues on CD – 45 hours of Escape Pod, huh?

    I must say it made me feel better about MY day at work.

  11. onelowerlight says:

    Great story, great series! I’m not much of a superhero / marvel comics fan, but I really enjoy listening to this series. One thing I really like about Escape Pod is that there are very few stories that are pulpy, shallow, full of cheap thrills, or melodramatic. The stories make you think a bit, and they stick with you after you finish listening to them.

    One question, though – the submission guidelines emphasize repeatedly that Escape Pod is looking for “fun,” “upbeat,” and “optimistic” stories, but if I had to choose five words to describe Escape Pod stories, I probably wouldn’t use any of those words. Not that I think that that’s bad, I really like it, but I think that the strength and appeal of these stories doesn’t really have to do with how “fun” they are (though it’s fun to listen to them) or how “optimistic,” etc. This story didn’t seem too optimistic or upbeat (some of the elements were quite depressing), but I thought it was an excellent story nonetheless. So what are the submission guidelines really talking about?

    Oh, and I think it would be a great idea to do an episode of nothing but outtakes from the narrators! Especially if they included just enough so that you could tell which story and which part of the story they slipped up in!

  12. Doug Dante says:

    Thank you Steve Eley for getting someone else to narrate this one, as the guest narrators bring a lot to the stories. I enjoy the Union Dues series for its inaudible merits too.

  13. boondockscifi says:

    this story made me cry and ponder why we humans attack things and people simply because they are different from us. it just disturbs me, because of this problem we want to ban gay marriage and ruin the happieness of others. And also according to this story it makes cars run over little kids.

  14. Stefan Ekman says:

    Yesterday was spent on various public transports listening to all four Union Dues stories and after initial disappointment (which lasted about 30 seconds), I was totally caught.

    The increasing darkness of the stories and the sense of impending doom (I really, REALLY want more stories in this world) and the disturbing feeeling that DeRego actually managed to plumb both the murky depth of humanity and gives us a gimpse of the amoral spires of the all-powerful elite is what got me hooked, and although the first two stories offer a suggestion of what doing right actually entails, the last two (and particularly Cleanup in Aisle Five) seem to offer no way out (just as Skeleton Steel has no way out from a confrontation).

    I will drag Alan Moore’s Watchmen once more from the shelf while I wait for the next installment.

  15. Martha Holloway says:

    I would just like to add my appreciation for Rich Sigfrit’s reading. I really got a sense of Skeleton Steele’s isolation, disillusionment and frustration and his simple pleasure at finding someone who hadn’t yet learned to resent “supers”. The pacing and voicing of the action sequence conveyed how differently SS thought from the mob around him–talent and TRAINING. Without the training, SS would not have been able to keep his cool while being egged not to mention act, although not quickly enough. And I think Rich nailed the scene in the employee washroom. It could have come off schmaltzy and overplayed and it didn’t. Great story. While this story line has been played out in many comics over the years, I think that Jeffery DeRogo’s version is well written and that it added effectively to the basic storyline. The superheroes are not unalloyedly good, neither are they villains–Skeleton Steele came across as human. Interesting path that the series is taking–a study in the impact of segregation on both sides.

  16. Mark says:

    For the most part, I’m not much of a superhero genre fan and don’t care much for these Union Dues stories. But the ending on this one really got to me and it makes this episode one of my favorites.

  17. Dave T. says:

    This is the first Union Dues entry I’ve heard and I’m hooked. I love these kind of superhero stories where they focus on flawed, blue-collar superheroes. I look forward to hearing more (guess it’s time to peruse the shopping area).

    I was also suprised to hear one of the National Book Award nominations was a graphic novel and shocked to hear that Wired magazine (of all publications) slammed it because it was a comic. I would’ve thought Wired would have more sense.

  18. ruthling says:

    Unlike most of the readers here, I was dissappointed by this Union Dues story and thought it was the weakest of the bunch to date. It’s hard to believe in a guy’s “super strategic” superpower when he fails to notice distraction and crowd dynamics and gets himself in that deep. Couldn’t a guy who speaks ten languages have *something* to say to shoppers, some kind of schtick? The story needed more show and less tell on his superpower, if it even is a superpower (I thought the story might be about how mallmart covertly hires super strategists). In addition, I personally disliked the manipulativeness of the ending. I look forward to seeing more in this universe though!

  19. justJ0e says:

    I have really enjoyed the Union Dues series.
    Thanks for continuing them.

    Steve – here’s a thought.
    I know that EscapePod values feedback from it’s listeners on the stories you present. Quite often though … I just don’t have any profound comments to make other then “I liked it.”
    Since posting that alone seems some how lame, I’ll often post nothing and I wonder if I am NOT alone on this.

    Would it be possible to have a little poll embedded in the comment section for each story? Something simple and to the point such as –
    “I liked this one”
    “This one was OK”
    “I didn’t care much for this one”

    I think that those with more diverse input on a story will STILL still post their thoughts here but it might intice a little moe feedback from those who “don’t want to take the mic” as it were.

    I’m just thinking.

  20. Chuck LeDuc says:

    I’m enjoying these stories, as much for the character development as for the actual stories.

    Having said that, the whole “I hate hiding my identity” shtick is wearing a bit thin. How about getting inside the head of a *bad* union member with a past to hide who’s thrilled with the cover?

    And how about letting us watch while it really blows up? These stories are somehow like Greek drama where everything exciting happens offstage.

  21. Chuck LeDuc says:

    As per justJ0e’s suggestion above about voting, a simple rating system would be great. Stories listed by hit counts + ratings could be on the front page to show which stories are most popular and highest rated. I don’t think WordPress supports that directly, but *sxore* allows for it (although it has a lot of baggage).

  22. Michael says:

    Another brilliant story. I love the union dues stories. I don’t think we need to see one with lots of action in it; there are plenty of other podcasts that do that kind of thing for you, and a story like that doesn’t work well in a short story format because everything is introduced, happens and is over far too quickly and leaves you wanting more. This story really got at the humanity of the whole universe that has been set up though. Not everyone has great powers and most people don’t love or just stand in awe.

    and I like the idea of a poll, I guess most people don’t comment because they don’t want to say ‘ I liked it’ or such.

    I’m doing this because I felt all the emotions that the hero felt in this story and towards the end it almost had me in tears while in the glasgow Underground train full of people. Thanks for another great story.

  23. Pete Butler says:

    It’s called “Diffusion of Responsibility.”

    It’s the psychological phenomenon that takes a crowd of people who might be decent, upstanding citizens as individuals and turns them into useless, passive gawkers in a crisis situation. There are so many people around, everybody figures that surely SOMEBODY will do something.

    Unfortunately, when everybody is trapped in that same fallacy, “somebody” turns out to be “nobody.”

    A famous example is Kitty Genovese, a New York woman who was raped and stabbed to death while more than 30 of her neighbors did … nothing. Ironically, this incident was referenced in Watchman, which Steve referenced in the intro.

    However, it is NOT an immutable law of human nature. You can beat it. You defeat Diffusion of Responsibility by ASSIGNING responsibility.

    You don’t say “Somebody help me lift this car!” You point and shout “You! Big guy in the blue shirt! Get over here and help me lift this car!”

    You don’t say “Somebody call 911!” You point and shout “You! Woman with the yellow jacket! Hang up your cell phone and call 911!”

    Slice them from the mob. Address them as individuals, and you can get them THINKING like individuals.

    And if that doesn’t work, if you point at somebody who just stares dumbly back at you, you assign the responsibility to somebody else. After all, you have a whole mob of people to choose from.

    I had a very large problem with this piece — we have to take the hero’s alleged superpower on faith. We’re TOLD he’s a super-genius. But where is this SHOWN to us?

    Not when the boys attack. For all the tactical analysis, he failed to identify the single most important aspect — the weapons being brought to bear against him — until they’re actually used.

    Not when he’s pulling David out from under the car. Why force the car to go up when you can force it forward or backward a lot easier?

    And not when he makes the bunder of screaming “Somebody do something!”, a mistake I have the tools to defeat with nothing more than an introductory psychology class in college.

    I like Jeffrey’s writing. And I like a lot of the ideas being presented in the “Union Dues” story; I understand why people are drawn to them.

    But I so wish that he would start letting his superheroes be super. Not just whining about not being able to do anything, or (in this case) failing to do anything when the opportunity arose; actually DOING something.

    Of course, there is an exception: the second story in this series, “Off White Lies.” That gave us the kind of action you’d hope for in a story about superheroes with all the emotional depth of the Union Dues series.

    I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it’s far and away my favorite of the series to date.

  24. Jeff Wikstrom says:

    This Union Dues story felt a little bit like more of the same. The previous entrants in the series did an excellent job of outlining the world the supers live in (and over), but after (in partular) “the Baby and the Bathwater,” “Cleanup in Aisle Five” played as somewhat redundant. I’d like to see the rising action of “increasing discontent on both sides” moved in a new direction for the next story.

    And of course, criticism aside, I’m eager to hear the next story.

  25. Bryan says:

    Minority Opinion: The Union Dues stories are uniformly depressing and predictable. The idea is interesting and I enjoyed the first two, but they relentless negativity and despair is a real bummer. The hero in this story was particularly bland.

  26. ryanknapper says:

    I have never read a comic book in my life, but I would read this. I look forward to more and hope that it is building to something climactic.

  27. Janni says:

    The take on what happens when superheroes meet the world as we know it here rang really, really true to me–well (and disturbingly) done.

  28. strixus says:

    Hi, first comment for me. I really enjoyed the story, and thought it was an interesting take on a common theme in the genre. Yes, its been done, but not often with so visceral a tone to it.
    My only other comment – something seems to be wrong with the feed such that this episode shows up for ep 77 and 80. I thought my long day at the office was starting to get to me when I heard the story start again.
    Keep up the good work!

  29. Mitch says:

    Liked this story (didn’t love it, but really liked it).

    I too had trouble believing that the “super strategy” guy didn’t see a good way to defuse the crowd. Maybe this was deliverate- he’s looking at the small view, focusing on fixing the next moment just in front of him.

    Here’s my theory: the Union leaders really do know how bad things are, and sent him there knowing things would go bad. They wanted him to get a first-hand taste of the rising discontent… convince him to look at the big picture… and then have him work in a think-tank to solve the problem.

    That’s the story I want to hear next. What’s the Union doing to plan for & counter the revolt that’s comming?

    So anyway, I liked this story not for what it was, but for the questions I see as comming up in the next story.

  30. Seb says:

    Its about time for another episode I think. Any news on when this miht be?

  31. […] least I find it amusing. Special thanks to EscapePod.org for publishing a great series of superhero stories (of course thanks to Jeffrey R. Derego for writing them!) and providing me the inspiration to find […]

  32. scatterbrain says:

    So good I forgot my bath and it nearly over-filled!

  33. TerminusVox says:

    How does a guy who can beat Kasparov AND Deep Blue at chess while simultaneously revising a complicated manual fail to see this catastrophic situation building?