Driving down to Portland for the regional booksellers' annual wake, ramble and roll-call, I had occasion to be reminded that living as I choose to do in a civilized place, i. e. a city -- where I might add, yet again, just for emphasis, most Americans now in fact do live -- I am exposed to the rougher growls of the American vox populi only via television and in the opinion pages of what now passes for a newspaper in Seattle. Here, the braying of asses on the Wild Right can be, if not ignored, turned down, skimmed over, and treated with due contempt as an all but entirely external annoyance to my daily life. In Seattle, I can go days on end, even working in retail, without a single significant confrontation with the ignorance, superstition, racism and homophobia that characterizes the daily intercourse of the America I now see only at a more comfortable distance. It is my choice, having grown up in a small and correspondingly small-minded place, to keep just such distance between my sanity and the shouts and murmurs of the bumptious hoydens I once knew as neighbors. Had I not made the move, I might long since have required medication. As it is, when I am forced to venture out into the country, if just in transit between cities, I feel myself vulnerable again to something of the familiar despair I knew in youth, and I wonder that anyone not utterly indifferent to the progress of civilization can survive in the vast, intellectually barren, morally schizophrenic middle-places through which one must pass to get from here to there in this country. As I passed on the freeway through farm country and strip-mall developments, I allowed myself a vague nostalgia for the cleaner air and slower pace of the country life I knew as a child. Stopping for lunch at a dinner somewhere in Cowslick County, I think it was, in the southern-most part of the state, I was charmed to find a waitress who called me "Honey," who filled my cup without asking, and who handed me a desert menu crowded with excellent pie, never thinking I might not want desert after an excellent lunch of turkey and gravy on an open-faced sandwich. After that meal, I was feeling very much like a prodigal returned. How nice the waitress was. How endearingly ugly the decor of the diner had been. How good the pie. But, back in my car, full and content and feelin' all country sweet, I had only to go a mile again to see a billboard, the size of the Wailing Wall, that reminded me of the true price of that pie.
"I Will Keep My God, My Guns, and My Gold. You Keep the Change."
My parents have made great friends with a couple their age whose religious and political enthusiasms could not be more unlike. "Good people," in the phrase of my childhood, this retired couple supplement their meager pensions by working the same auctions my parents frequent, and by driving the Amish to town for visits to the doctor, shopping and the like. The elderly foursome regularly dine out together, and their friends have invited my parents along to hear gospel concerts, which they enjoyed, and to church, which they did not. There is a strong lesson in tolerance to be taken from my parents making such good friends of these "good people." And perhaps, in putting that phrase in quotes, I do them an insult they don't deserve. By the standards of the place where my parents live, it is the other couple who have shown the larger spirit, by not bullying my parents more about their failure to be saved. And by those same standards, I am sure that these friends would, without asking, do anything for my parents that they might; actions being the better standard of faith, still, even among the most bellicose Christians in such a place. Any opportunity to do a good turn, in my experience, is more often taken than not in such places, even in the absence of common communion. That is what I remember as being best about not only the people who raised me, but about the people amongst whom I was raised.
What then was it that was so bad about being in such a place, with such people, that I felt the necessity, at all of eighteen, to be well and permanently away?
Talking with my parents on the phone last Sunday, my mother, in a confidential whisper she employs most often when telling something good of my father, told me of a lunch he'd been to that past week with his friend and friends of his friend, including the minister of the friends' church. The men had convened at some humble, local eatery, more for company, or "fellowship" as it is called there, than to any larger purpose. And as they all, with the exception of the much younger minister, share much the same history, in the invariable phrase employed in the local weekly paper to describe any social gathering of more than three people, "a good time was had by all." That is, until the conversation turned, as it always will among old men, to politics, and the sorry state of things in general. Now, my father knew full well the company he kept, and being a polite person, he sipped his coffee and said very little, while his friend and the rest went on and on about the terrible times in which we live, the dishonesty of politicians, and the degeneracy of the Republic. Living all his life in that small place, my father knows how to keep himself to himself. Only when the conversation, as such conversations in such places, among white men, will and do, turned from "that man in the White House," to "the nigger in the woodpile," and this, and worse, not only went unchallenged by any of the "good people" present, but was endorsed by the preacher, did my father speak up.
"The man's blood is as red as yours, remember," my good father told them, "and you ought not to talk that way, about anyone, let alone this man. He is the President of the United States, whatever you may think of him. Remember that."
That was all. He did not press the point. It isn't his way to argue with his friends. My mother told me though, "Your father was none too popular after that." She said that with pride, I should add.
All the discussion among the media professionals, left and right, as to the possibility that racism may motivate or at least contribute to the criticism shouted at the President, even recently in a joint session of The United States Congress, during a presidential address, seems to me to be so willfully disingenuous as to be laughable, in the face of what I know of even the best of the "good people," out there in the in-between of America. Even the devout, the decent, and the most respectable, white men, left to talk among themselves, still talk as they did when I was an embarrassed boy of ten, and I am ashamed again, as I was then, to think these people are Americans.
I am proud though, now, that I have lived to see a day when the majority of Americans elected a black man president. I am even more proud to be able to say, that my elderly white father, his father having once been a member of the Klan, not only voted for the man, but shamed the men who still assumed that no one at that luncheon table might challenge the ugly, violent ignorance with which they spoke of President Obama. Rather than listen to such hatefulness, I moved well away. My parents stayed, as that place was the only one they've ever known. Change, it seems, can indeed come, even there.
As for me, though I've arranged my life in such a way that I need not worry that I will ever have to risk much in defending my opinions, I'm pretty confident I can do so when the need arises. I owe my life to such good people.