Who's Coming to Dinner?
For the first time since I began "Uber Nights" back in April, I've hit a wall. I'm stumped on what to say next. And I'd say that has everything to do with President-Elect Donald Trump.
The levity and, dare I say, hope that I had seemed to find in the mundane has subsided. Sure, I still enjoy the conversations with folks, meeting people I likely would've never met otherwise. We have a few laughs and sing-alongs and even the occasional connection, a deeper understanding between two different perspectives. That had seemed to be enough, at least more than I'd been giving back to the world in my previous life. But now, because of the times, I feel like every word we say and every word I write carries with it more weight, that whatever we say and I type oughta be speaking a little louder than before. When folks climb in my car nowadays—even down here where the map burns red—the current climate of our country is on the tips of all of our minds.
And so it was on Sunday night, when I picked up three firefighters, a white woman and two white men, probably in their late twenties or early thirties, wearing hunter green overalls and steel-toe boots. The top halves of their suits were undone, folded down to their waists, the suspenders dangling, and they were all wearing light gray, long-sleeve T-shirts. Everything was dusty and dry, hints of pine and burnt wood about them. The men slouched into the back seat, and the woman sat up front with me. She had hazel eyes to match the dark hair spilling out from under a baseball cap. Her name was Hannah, and, truth be told, I would not have pegged Hannah for a firefighter. The wide, welcoming smile reminded me of a seventh-grade English teacher, the one who all us boys trying to become men had a crush on, or maybe only pretended to, lest we not fit in.
Hannah and her fellow firefighters were leaving a popular barbecue restaurant on the Tennessee River, a locally-owned chain that has spread across East Tennessee. The guys were giving Hannah hell. They hadn't meant to go to this location, but she'd entered the wrong address with the first Uber driver and was too unfamiliar with the area, or perhaps too polite, to ask him to turn around. They had planned to go to the barbecue joint near the airport, close to their hotel, so they could eat and drink until last call before an early flight home to Oregon. They were here to fight the forest fires that have run rampant across the Southeast, a product of an extreme drought that has prompted states of emergency in Tennessee and surrounding areas.
Funny enough, Hannah had actually entered the wrong address again, another chain with multiple locations. So I corrected it, realizing they were headed away from the airport, not toward it. "I just downloaded Uber today," she told me and smiled that smile. "Back where we're from, there is no Uber."
One of the men in the back piped up: "You're not from around here? I don't hear the accent."
I told him that mine had mellowed during my seven years up yonder, in New York City and Hartford, Connecticut. "Get a few beers in me, though," I said, "and it'll show up—a little twang and a little drawl, hillbilly more than redneck." We started to talk about the similarities between rural Oregon and Tennessee, how some of our ways aren't all that different, despite the way we talk. I told them that on the east side of Tennessee, we're "hillbillies," cause the soil is too rocky for farming. I told them that East Tennessee actually sided with the Union, cause there wasn't any need for slaves, what with no cotton to pick. Although, I told them, somewhat jokingly, that the whole state didn't seem to have much trouble agreeing when it came time to vote.
"Oregon ain't all Hillary," the man in the back said. "Two counties run the state when it comes time to vote—hell, there's four million people in Oregon and more than half of them live in those two counties, basically Portland, where the liberals flock. Oregon's a long drive from end to end, almost seven or eight hours. We think a lot different from one end to the other."
I told him that Tennessee was the opposite, that there are two counties that wish they could run the state—Davidson and Shelby, basically Nashville and Memphis, which were two of the only three counties that Hillary won in Tennessee, which has ninety-five counties in all. Then I dropped my trivia on them, telling them that Tennessee and Missouri are the only states bordered by eight others states, and that of the fourteen, only two went to Hillary: Illinois and Virginia. Then I did something I hadn't done with a passenger prior to the election, something I've been offering up more and more. I told them I'd voted for Hillary.
I told them that my sincere hope is that Donald J. Trump wakes us the f*** up, that we realize the disconnect among us, that we reexamine the electoral college and the government as a whole, that we stop and listen and attempt to decipher how folks on either side have reached the point of disenfranchisement—to the point of protests and riots, to the point that people have no problem backing an openly misogynistic, racist, xenophobic blowhard simply because they misread the Constitution of the United States and thought "respecting an establishment of religion" actually meant "respecting an establishment of religion other than Christianity." I told them that apparently the two facts of life—paying taxes and dying—had been rewritten to simply dying.
I can be beguiling. I said it with enough tongue and some cheek that the silence didn't linger too uncomfortably long. We were all white, after all. We'd get to return to our regularly-scheduled lives of majority privilege soon enough. "I'm from a small town," I said. "But I left. I have friends who I'd call liberal elites. I have friends in the national media. I have friends in academia. I have friends whose pigment is darker than mine, and not from being out in the sun. And then I have friends in my small hometown who have never left and who don't get out in the sun much, friends who voted for Trump. I said some of those friends have daughters, and I still can't wrap my head around hearing what they heard and pulling that trigger."
Hannah spoke up. "I'm a female firefighter—I know sexism. But it's the other issues. The handouts that people are getting for not making an honest living; the Democrats calling us bigots because we believe what we believe, because we believe abortion is wrong and gay marriage is wrong. We didn't say ban it, but we don't condone it."
The two men in the back chimed in. They said the same, that they don't care if a man marries another man, or if a man wants to be a woman, but that they didn't appreciate being reprimanded for believing it isn't right. Besides, they said, Hillary was just more of the same, more of the political elite. Bernie, Bernie was at least different.
"He's a white man, too," I said.
We drove on. I looked up in the rearview. "Has there ever been a law that says you can't marry a woman?"
It was obviously a rhetorical question, so the two men didn't answer audibly, but the lack of an answer was enough.
"Has anyone ever said we should ship out the Christians because they breed hate groups like the KKK?"
"I understand your point," one of the men in the back said. "But those aren't economic issues or issues that deal with the strength of our country against foreign enemies. I don't care if a man wants to marry a man. But if you're going to cross the border, abide by our laws. Be here legally."
Hannah spoke up. "I want separation of church and state," she said. "I think we still have it. I just think the government was starting to have too much say in our day-to-day lives, sending our taxes to people who don't deserve them and our jobs to people who don't deserve them. I didn't go to college, but I fight fires. I work hard and help people. I voted for Donald Trump because the people on the other side of the country don't seem to care much about me. Those liberal elites you're friends with have never had to fight a fire."
We arrived at the Smoky Mountain Brewery, and I said that I appreciated the insight, that I appreciated their putting their lives on the line to protect us.
"We're on the same side," one of the men in the back said. "It's just that no one wants to listen. The left just wants to tell us we're wrong. What makes them right?"
Each of them opened their doors, and Hannah smiled that smile, although less wide this time. The man in the back who'd said the least, who I could tell was the drunkest, lingered a moment. "Just think," he said, "we wouldn't even have had this conversation if we'd gone to the right place to begin with."
I drove two drunken frat boys back to a drunken frat house recently, and they asked me what I was besides an Uber driver. I said that I used to be a journalist and was trying to be a writer. "So you're smart," one of them said.
"I'm not any smarter than the next person," I said. "I just always tried to hear both sides and figure out where the truth lied."
"That's intelligence," one of the drunk frat boys said. "Ignorance is thinking you always know the answer."
Most folks who read my posts tend to tell me they like them, that they're entertained or that they consider something they hadn't before. They tell me I paint a picture. But there are those folks who ask me why I defer to the passengers or friends and family members, why I don't question their shortcomings and their insecurities and often their ignorance. They ask me what I'm running from. Some folks ask me why I don't say what I really think, to them and to you.
I could have done a better job in the conversation with the firefighters. I have facts and figures to turn to. I could have asked those men in the back seat if they have daughters, and if they're going to explain to them that women can't be president, at least not right now. I could've asked Hannah if her father had told her she could be a firefighter or the president. I could have asked Hannah what empowered her to believe she could do a "man's" job, and why she didn't vote for a woman when it came time. Hell, I didn't even bring up global warming.
But this election wasn't won on logic or on reason. After I wrote my last post, "The Day Donald Trump Became President," a family member, a very well educated man and former business owner, wrote me a five-point statement about why he voted for Trump. He cited DJT's forty years of successfully running a conglomerate consisting of five hundred companies across thirty countries; DJT being a true "Washington outsider," beholden only to the American people; DJT's stern stance on illegal immigration, a major problem affecting our industries and our tax dollars; DJT's not labeling conservative Christians "haters and bigots" because of their values, as Hillary's camp and the Democratic Party has continued to do; and finally, DJT's vow to strengthen American's weakened state by pushing back with tangible force against radical Islam, North Korea, and Iran.
I paraphrase these here for necessary effect. Believe it or not, there are in fact those people who believe, logically and with reason, that DJT was a lesser of two evils, and perhaps even a qualified candidate. Hillary supporters could debate those five points, one by one, I have no doubt. But still, as I told my family member, this election was won by persuading hearts and groins, not brains. No one votes for a man who has said what Trump has said, waves it off as "boys will be boys," based on logic and reason.
So what do I really think? I really think that blind faith—like free will—can be a son of a bitch. What I really think is that folks who haven't bothered to live outside of their blue bubbles assumed they were fighting a battle of wits with unarmed men and women, when in reality this was a battle of wills, a battle of true belief, which doesn't know compromise.
I've always prided myself on objectivity, operating in the gray area of life, trying to see both the absence of color and color in all its hues. I spent the first eight years of my adult life as a journalist, after all. And I imagine that's why Uber appeals to me—the varying angles, the snapshots of lives that enlighten our understanding, the indisputable fact of a person sitting next to you and hearing the story straight from his or her own mouth. Of course, we all don't hear the same thing, do we? Or better said, we tend to hear what we want to.
So what do I really think? Life is eerily normal down here where I'm from.
I didn't think the United States would self-destruct on Nov. 9, but it did have that anti-climactic ending of Jan. 1, 2000, when everyone feared what might happen when all this new-fangled technology was reset to zeroes. If I scroll down on Facebook, where more than a third of my four hundred thirty-nine "friends" still reside in New York City and Connecticut, it would appear that we're fighting a war on our home soil, a war against ignorance and hate and all that Trump represents. If I walk out my door, all is relatively calm, other than folks praying for rain and for Tennessee not to lose to Vanderbilt. There have been very few protests around Knoxville, a city with an institution of higher-education smack dab in the middle of it. In the county where I grew up, Trump received nearly 16,000 of the roughly 22,000 votes. Truth be told, most of the folks where I'm from feel at ease, knowing DJT, as he is endearingly called, is their new man.
So how do I really feel? I feel a bit displaced, I guess. I went out into the world and lived in neighborhoods where I wasn't the overwhelming majority, met people who'd grown up getting Bar Mitzvahed instead of baptized, met men who dated other men, and women who dated other women, and we became friends. Before I left Hartford for good, a graphic designer I'd worked closely with at ESPN, a gay Japanese man who has yet to be granted citizenship, took me to dinner to wish me luck. On one of my last nights in my condo, I made a pot of chili and invited over six friends—three people who are Jewish, a black woman, and two white men—to say good-bye. I had a year-long relationship with a woman who is Greek Orthodox and who checks off the "Hispanic" box because her grandfather was full-blooded.
This isn't one of those "minority friends lists" that white folks use to prove they aren't racist. Or maybe it is. But my point, I believe, is that until other races and other creeds and other genders are given names and faces and come to be called "friend," they remain aberrations in that Missouri-Tennessee part of the country, they remain people who can be grouped and given a singular label, and therefore instantly sized up on sight.
So what of me? A white man who was raised Lutheran in a tiny Southern town that might as well be owned by the First Baptist church. Once, when I told a classmate that Martin Luther founded my denomination, she replied, "You go to a black church!" I graduated high school in a class of about one hundred fifty, two or three non-whites, and all of them black. I knew one Jewish person in college before I went above the Mason-Dixon. I'd never had a conversation with a person of Asian descent until I arrived in New York City. Folks where I'm from still say "Orientals" and "Indians," when referring to Native Americans, although I hear "nigger" less, unless it's out of the mouths of white kids who are riding in my car and rapping along to Drake and Future and Young Thug.
Those safety pins Hillary supporters want us to start wearing? I'd be staring at bare threads and lapels the next four Thanksgivings. I'd be a man on an island. And maybe that's what the women in my life and the people of color in my life have felt their whole lives, being displaced simply because of what's between their legs, because of the pigment of their skin, or how their noses and eyes are set.
On Saturday Night Live, Dave Chappelle did what he does and captured the Zeitgeist while nailing that nail, saying, "I'm just going to take a knee like Kaepernick and let the whites figure this out." It was the first time "the whites" pinched a nerve, like I'm sure pejoratives do for those of color when they're uttered by "the whites." It punctured my skin because I now can empathize. I now can begin to fathom what it is for a demographic to be generalized, to be made to feel that we are the problem.
But, in the words of Drake, aren't there issues at hand we're not discussing? I've been listening to every word of yours that is said, or shared, as it were. Several of my fellow MFA alums from Fairfield University in Connecticut have blogs that comment on the current socio-political climate, all of them resoundingly denouncing Trump and what he stands for, many of them promoting the wearing of safety pins for solidarity. And I listen.
Former ESPN colleagues share what they can within the confines of corporate America, many of them Hillary supporters, many of them minorities, although one black woman admitted to me that her brother voted for Trump, telling me there is no gray when it comes to Christianity, no matter what part of the country you live in. And I listen.
Buddies I've had since we went to elementary school in Kingston, Tennessee, joke about going to the gun range on Jan. 20 to celebrate the day Trump is sworn in. And I listen.
The women in my life who voted for Trump, the women who stand behind their husbands who voted for Trump, tell me that it was just "locker room talk," that every man is thinking what Trump said, if not saying what Trump said. Those women tell me to look at Bill Clinton. And I listen.
The conservative Christians in the Bible Belt where I was born and raised tell me that they're tired of being victimized simply because they believe what they believe, that being a homosexual or being a man who becomes a woman isn't how the Lord made us, plain and simple. And I listen.
A thirty-year-old black woman from Georgia who works as a paralegal in downtown Knoxville requests a ride, and she reminds me that black folks have dealt with this all of their lives. Still, she says, her father damn near disowned her for dating a white boy. She tells me that she'll do her part if I do mine, she'll speak up if I do. And I listen.
But what do I say? What do I really think? I think we start at Thanksgiving dinner tables. I think we ask what those folks around that table really think. I think that while there is a justified complex about crouching down to hear the lowest common denominator, we're not going to stand together without empathy going both ways. Admittedly, I am a walking contradiction, much like that swath of land below the Mason-Dixon, and all of the folk, black and white and other, who exist here. But to simply acknowledge the contradiction is not to examine it. Besides, I think you'd be surprised to hear what folks around your dinner table have to say, whether you're up yonder or down here.
And I think safety pins are a shade of gray, not black or white.