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TALKING TO STRANGERS


I'm fairly timid when it comes to voicing my political feelings to strangers. I assume that the person I am addressing will hold the exact opposite view, and that nothing can come of my frankness than a shouting match in the street, with curious onlookers stepping back in case either or both of us have concealed weapons. It's not good to be too forthcoming these days. But I notice a lot of people I encounter are willing to assume I am one of them. I'm confided in when the name of Hillary Clinton pops up, as if I harbored similar prejudices against her, which I don't. I find it difficult to interrupt a mini rant on her vile past, her defense of her husband's infidelities, her infamous private server kept in the basement of her house, while someone is blocking my way to the exit door. It gets awkward as we perform a slow dance of evasions left and right while I negotiate a narrow escape route. I don't want to argue; I merely want to make it to the street and take a deep breath. I'm shy, I'm not confrontational, I don't enjoy raising my voice in indignation or protest. I just want to nod and smile and remain disengaged. And it occurs to me that I can't go on this way.

I have to tell the next stranger who confronts me with his smugly polarized view of the world that I don't agree. I'll have to confess that I continue to live as a Democrat, a guy who thinks progressive government is actually a good thing. I feel it is my duty to myself to say that the poor and the elderly and the children are all my responsibility as an American and that I am willing to pay taxes to make sure their lives are not without dignity. I don't want the rich to take their meager handouts in order to further expand their hold on the economy and on government. I don't want to live in a Russian-style oligarchy of the super rich, with couples like Jared and Ivanka Kushner huddling with other powerful aides in some dim room of the White House plotting the next abridgment of Medicaid, or the privatization of Social Security and Medicare.

I hate the word voucher; it's nothing more than a subsidy for those who are nibbling away at the public good. I don't want religion taught in the classrooms of public schools. I am wholly against private prisons, the seizure of public roads by toll-charging companies; I don't want the postal system to be taken over by an Internet start up with lots of robotic technology to get the mail to my door. I don't use the self-charging tellers at Wal-Mart or Home Depot. I go to the last remaining clerks standing at their registers while lines form at the automated checkouts. I want them to keep their jobs. I'm going to have to tell that to the next stranger who gets too close to me and begins a tirade that will slowly grow hoarse and emphatic.

When the stranger has found his rhythm and begins to rock on his feet to the metronome of his anger, and words begin to cascade down from his rigid thoughts, I will have to put my hand lightly on his forearm and inform him that I do not want to have a thing to do with reforming Obamacare. I want it expanded, fully funded by the government, allowed to evolve until everyone, from the homeless man sleeping in an appliance carton on the sidewalk to the child with a serious illness is covered by a benevolent federal agency. He will have to know that I am not voting for anyone who promises to lower Medicaid support for families unable to afford nursing home payments for their elderly parents. I never want to see a gurney being wheeled to a curb and some burly attendants lifting a frail body from the sheets to be propped up against a tree. I don't want to imagine it.

I want to ask him if he has any savings in the bank? Does he have an IRA-Roth account for the later years? Is he sure he can afford his son's college education, even at the local community college? He has a bit of flexibility on what he can put aside? His daughter may want to become a doctor, which is wonderful, but she may have to go abroad to study if she wants to stay out of life-long debt. Tough decisions, I will tell him. They could have been avoided had we anticipated how the state legislatures in Republican hands have been slowly withdrawing support of public higher education. I know his medical insurance is through the roof, and that he has to watch his spending just to be sure he has the eight hundred or a thousand dollars he must pay each month. His wife's bronchitis costs him an eighty-dollar co-pay every time she runs to the doctor; and her meds are running higher each year for the same pills. That's a shame, but then, we don't regulate medical care enough, do we?

Oh well, I'll say, putting my hand on his shoulder and leading him out of the foot traffic. If we could just sit down, he and I, and sort through our differences, and forget that we are supposed enemies at each other's throat. What if we said that our grandmothers deserved good care in their old age? What if we agreed that the workers at the big chain stores should get fifteen-dollar an hour wages to help pay for their families? What if we said we needed safer food and better labeling so that our kids don't get really fat in their adolescence? What if we could get some personal control over our lives and not let corporations preach excessive consumption to us? What then?

Remember, Bob, I'll say, now that we are introduced, remember those pictures of our parents as they stood there almost willowy thin on a bridge? Where did that go? It was so much fun to see those old pictures from the '40s when men wore fedoras and women had on little cloth hats and were laughing at something on the silver screen? What fun it was. And movies cost a quarter, popcorn came in a bag for ten cents, and the car outside was worth about five hundred dollars now that it was five years old. The house they bought (with cash) came to eight thousand, and was worth about twelve thousand now. What happened to those houses? Where did all the money go? Who knows, he'll say, hunching his shoulders growing uneasy with my own flow of words. I'm glad he is letting me get through to him.

Well, I haven't met Bob yet. He's out there walking around somewhere nursing his grudges, getting mad whenever he hears about liberals in Congress thwarting all those big agenda items Trump promised to get passed in his first 100 days. He's mad, but he can't quite say why he is, just that something is not right and it must be the left that's at fault. We don't believe in God, he tells himself; we want everyone to have abortions; we want the government to bleed itself dry giving out checks whether we deserve them or not. We want, want, want, and give nothing back but our mumbling and kvetching about the damned right wingers.

Bob needs me. He knows I am ready for him and bring some ideas that I have whittled down from all the offensive jargon and pie-in-the-sky promises. I won't insult him; I'll agree with him that we have drifted way too far from the path of real democracy. We poor Democrats have forgotten about all those working voters who are below the technocracy. We let them slip away as if they didn't exist. We paid little or no attention to the terrible condition of our public schools; the roofs leak, the heat is erratic, the teachers are poorly trained and not very well vetted for their jobs. He'll nod to all that. He will say he didn't think I knew the Dems had any faults of their own. Oh yes, I'll say. Plenty of faults. We can't complain enough about mixing God and the state, about limiting family planning, about our permissive parenting while our kids are getting hold of opiates at school and coming home woozy and nodding. We have more problems than we know what to do with. Bob, you and I, we are in the middle of a terrible sandstorm of failing ideas and a generation in power that wants to change how we govern rather than what we are governing for! Yup, Bob says, I got that one right. Then why don't we stop grumbling and start meeting over dinner, talking things out? It wouldn't kill us or our wives and kids to hear us having a little town hall of our own, would it?

I may never meet Bob, and Bob may not want to stay on the same side of the street where I am. I may look a bit unsavory with my old linen jacket and gray pants, my unshaven beard of three days. My long hair may throw him off, too. I hate going to the barbershop where they always cut my hair too short. He may think, there's an old hippie still hanging out as if he were twenty. I don't want to hear his peace talk, he might say, his highfalutin reasoning about war, the Pentagon budget, global warming, women's rights. And I don't want him breathing fire on me as he gets into one of his rants. It will be very hard for me to stand around here in front of the old boarded up Penny's store waiting for him. I might have to turn around and go home, and it's already five o'clock. Time for the news to embitter all of us.

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