On the road this week, traveling the back roads into New England, I was struck again – as I always am whenever I get my ass out of the house – by how fundamentally decent most Americans are. I’m talking about basic stuff: the back-and-forth at the gas pump, the willingness to help if you have a question or run into trouble, the joke while waiting for the restroom in the back of the convenience store.
It’s nice to be reminded of this, to know that basic civility and politeness are still alive in America (though harder to find in some communities than others), that the country I knew so well as a kid, when I hitchhiked more than was probably good for me, is still alive and breathing. Back then – I’m talking about the 70’s and 80’s now - the generosity of people who had nothing to give but gave it anyway, left a huge impression on me.
Sure there were exceptions – this isn’t some ‘Up With People’ thing, and, yes, I don’t doubt that my experience might have been different if I hadn’t been a white kid then and a generally unthreatening, middle-aged white guy with a goatee now - but these exceptions were outnumbered, hugely, by people who’d go out of their way to do you a good turn. Just because. Ranchers in the Central Valley who’d take the trouble to pull over on the highway, give me a ride, offer me a beer. An interracial couple – it was more noticeable then - that picked me up somewhere outside of Fresno, shared their sandwiches with me, then insisted on taking me where I was going, a good fifty miles out of their way. An elderly Mexican woman – I’ll never forget her - who saw me and my girlfriend trying to set up our tent one windy afternoon in a vacant lot full of burrs and bunchgrass and walked across the road to tell us to set up instead in her tiny backyard, which was watered and soft with grass.
This wasn’t somebody with money. Her house was cinderblock with a tin roof, hardly 300 square feet. Railroad tracks ran no more than a hundred yards away. A dozen oil rigs dipped and rose in the hot desert air. We’d just started to break down our tent the next morning when she backed out the screen door carrying a big platter: two plates of huevos rancheros, silverware, napkins, fresh coffee – the works.
For nothing. For two complete strangers - people she didn’t know. We offered – as tactfully as we knew how – to help out. She wouldn’t hear of it.
This is what I want to say: There are millions like her in this country. Male and female. White and black, and every hue between. Eighth-generation American and first generation. Gay and straight. Of every variety and grade of religion (or not) known to man.
They outnumber the assholes 10,000:1. OK, 1,000:1.
I need to remember that whenever I think about some of the gentlemen running for the Republican nomination.
I particularly need to remember it lately, because recently I’ve been struck by some of the things coming out of these people’s mouths. It’s not just the feigned ignorance that’s stomach-turning (Marco Rubio, who knows better, answering a question on global warming by declaring that “America is not a planet”), or Trump’s immigrant-bashing. It’s the soft-guy-with-a-big-mouth-talking-big thing. Fresh-faced Marco telling us that in his administration, terrorists (because he knows who they are), “get a one-way ticket to Guantanamo, where we’re going to find out everything they know.” Mild-mannered Dr. Carson criticizing the survivors of the mass shooting in Colorado Springs for not being brave enough to charge their attacker. Trump (when not too busy making faces like Mussolini, laughing at cripples or egging on the mob), declaring that Sgt. Bergdahl, who was an idiot (and who paid for it with five years in a Taliban jail), “should be executed.”
Who’s going to pull the lever, Donald – you?
Dr. Carson, when’s the last time you found yourself targeted for assassination by someone with an assault rifle?
Marco, my good man, are you going to be the one finding out “everything they know?” (Or don’t know, for that matter, because people – innocent or guilty - will make up absolutely any fucking thing when the alternative is drowning?) Are you going to be the one personally conducting the session?
Citizenship in a democracy is predicated not just on knowledge, it seems to me, but on imagination. Wherever you land on the issue of immigration, for example, your position means nothing unless you’re capable of imagining yourself and your family in a refugee detention center. Wherever you stand on the issue of gun control, your stance is compromised unless you’re capable of imagining yourself on December 14th, 2012, let’s say, driving down Rt. 84 on your way to work when you get the call that there’s been a shooting at your kid’s elementary school in Newtown.
Imagine that twenty minute drive. Then make your decision.
E pluribus, unum? You can’t get to the unum until you’ve imagined the pluribus. And it’s our inability to imagine the pluribus these days - what it feels like to not be us – that’s fracturing the unum.
In an ideal world, I swear, we’d have a constitutional amendment automatically disqualifying anyone from running for president who couldn’t demonstrate that he or she had read and understood three hundred books in his life, and more, that he knew what it is to put down a book and gulp for air and feel the universe of known things shift subtly under his feet.
Lacking an ideal world and stuck instead with this one in which rich, coddled men brag about who they’d execute and who they’d torture and how they’d charge into the rifle’s fire, I’m left with fantasy.
I don’t have the book in front of me, so I have to go with memory, but there’s a scene, early on in Tom Sawyer, when our hero spots the new kid in town, a stuck-up dandy in a blue felt hat whose every gesture and sneer says how superior he is to the serfs. A kid who’s got nothing but money.
Tom, a child of the 19th century not given to self-analysis, develops an instant, irresistible hatred for this little cretin. It’s a heartfelt thing, an instinctive thing, like two dogs who sniff, bristle and lunge.
That’s how I feel about Donald Trump.
In my Tom Sawyer fantasy, the Donald (Ted or Marco would do in a pinch) would have to stop running his mouth for once in his life and put it on the line. The bodyguards would drop away. He’d be handed a pair of 16 oz. gloves. Shown into a room. Waiting for him inside would be a 57 year-old (58 this month) ex-professor who hasn’t had a fist fight in 35 years. Who was never much of a brawler but who’s met enough people in his life to know that just as assholes come in all colors, so do the folks who make you proud to be a human being, and that the people who say otherwise need to be called out on it. Someone who’s calling you out, therefore, in the name of all the desperate people you’ve conned into thinking you’re the man when you’re just a blowhard in a hairpiece.
In the name of all that’s good about us.
There’s still time - maybe Donald will call for my birthday.
It’s a date I’d keep.