Talking politics

On a quiet suburban Street in the most boring part of Berkeley is a very large house painted brown 30 years ago, now faded to the color of smog.

I knocked at the door and a punk teenage boy answered. He was wearing the uniform — expensive chained wallet, spiked hair, ringed eyebrows, the works. It's a look designed to be repulsive, and it worked. I was repulsed.

"Yeah?" he said.

"Yeah yourself. I'm here to see Jacque."

"Basement," was all he said, pointing toward a stairway across a big, barely-lit living room, crowded with other faux punkers. A party was underway, with obnoxious music and obnoxious people. The boy who'd answered the door waved at a once-pretty 15-year-old girl, and I was instantly forgotten.

My footsteps followed his pointed finger, down the stairs to a narrow hallway with plywood walls, and doors all along the way.

I knocked at the first door, and an old woman's voice shouted, "Go to hell!"

At the second door, nobody answered.

At the third door, it swung open moments after the knock. Before me stood a chubby brunette, as pregnant as possible, hair in curlers — a typical American housewife. "Are you Doug?" she asked.

She'd looped my expectations. I'd come for dinner and a double feature with Jacque, but nobody'd said his wife or old lady would be there. I didn't know he had one, and I hate surprises.

Look, I can do conversation with one person at a time, but with two or more I'm easily lost. It's why I don't do parties. Even a double date is two too many people. I am socially retarded. If I'd be talking with two people instead of one, the night just got twice as difficult.

"Yeah, I'm Doug." I said sourly, but what the hell, in a few hours it'll be over.

"I'm Lori," she said, showing me into the room, where Jacque was sitting on the sofa drinking a soda. I said hello, and he started talking about the old movies he'd decided I'd like. The three of us chatted for a few uncomfortable minutes.

They live in a big, shared house, a setup like mine, only without the mess. Jacque says 16 roomers live there, which must be twice the legal limit, I'm sure.

He and Lori share a room a little smaller than the room I live alone in. In that tiny space, there's a mini-refrigerator, a microwave, some dresser drawers, a big bed, a TV, a VCR, the couch we were all three sitting on, some bookshelves, and a table that folds up against the wall. There's some clever shelving, though, so the fridge, microwave, TV, and VCR are all above the dresser, not taking up floor space. The space is tight, but only slightly crowded.

Jacque and I soon ran out of shop talk about the loonies on the Avenue, and after that there wasn't much else to say. For about ten seconds we looked at each other and said nothing. Yeah, this was going to be a great night.

Lori excused herself and went to the kitchen, which is shared and upstairs, and Jacque switched the topic to his other job. He works part-time in the mail room of a big insurance company, and he told me more about it than I wanted to know.

I said that it sounds like a boring American McJob, but I've done the same. What I haven't done is like it the way he seems to like it.

He explained that his work is important, went into some detail, and sounded seriously enthused about it.

And at that moment I decided that if I was spending an evening with Jacque and Lori, they'd be spending an evening with me — meaning, I wasn't going to go gently into that good night. I was going to be absolutely who I am.

"Life is strange," I said, "and people end up in jobs like that, but telling yourself it's important requires more self-delusion than I could muster without drugs."

He chuckled as if I'd told a joke, but I was half-hoping to start an argument so I could cut out early. We'd been talking for ten minutes by then, all very shallow on both sides, and I wasn't having a good time.

Lori came back with three cans of root beer, and passed them out. I grabbed one and took a sip, and she disappeared out the door toward the kitchen again. I guess she likes playing the "Mrs" role as much as Jacque likes playing the mail room worker.

He told me he's hoping to go full time at the insurance company, and stop gathering Green petitions on Telegraph, "because soon," he said proudly, "we'll have another mouth to feed."

"Yeah, I've noticed that your wife is pregnant," I said.

The conversation was making me crazy. Here's a man my age, late 30s, maybe early forties, working part time at a dead end job, living in one room of a house shared with strangers, with no money, no prospects, and apparently no brains — very much like me, really, except that he's married, his wife is pregnant, and he's happy about it. I don't think I could ever do that.

We kept talking, and some of the conversation wasn't stupid, so I began to relax. Pretty soon Lori came back with a pizza — home baked, she said. It was vegetarian, and mighty good. I had three slices, and could've had five, but it was all gone.

As we ate, the topic turned to her pregnancy. "Having a child," she said, smiling, "isn't about having enough money or—" she looked around at the tiny space "—enough room. It's about having enough love, and we have plenty." She smiled as she said it, and it was like looking at a genuine hippie chick from 30 years ago, or a very special episode of The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

Lori and Jacque talked happily about their plans for the baby's corner of this one room, and showing the good manners my mama taught me I did not roll my eyes. "Congratulations," I'm sure I said, but I've never comprehended this compulsion to breed. What hell it would be to have your life dominated by an infant, then a child, than a teenager, and surrender all your plans and hopes and hobbies for 18 years, maybe longer, maybe the rest of your life.

And I was about to say that, but Jacque cut me off, and started none-too-subtly steering the conversation toward politics.

"You usually set up near that 'Umberto' on the Ave," he said, "and I've heard you two talking about your politics. I'm green, you know—" and I did know, and didn't want to talk about it.

"Yeah," I interrupted, trying to deflect what I thought was coming, a pitch to register me with the Green Party. "I've heard your Green talk too, and no disrespect intended, but it's not for me."

"Well, I know that," he said, "and I'm not going to try to talk you into anything. Heck, I'm not even as Green as I seem on the Avenue. I'm more of a left-wing Democrat. Mostly I huddle with the Greens because I have Green friends. It honestly mystifies me, though, when you and Umberto talk about how you hate cops and don't trust the government. I don't like much of what the government does either, but we do need—"

"I'm an anarchist, Jacque."

"But what does that mean? Bombs and revolution?"

Dear diary, I can't tell you how much I hate having this conversation with people, and I've had this conversation with too many people already.

Equating anarchists with bombs is a stereotype with next-to-no basis in reality. Asking an anarchist about bombs is about as insulting as asking a black man how many white women he's raped. The underlying assumption is stupid.

You know who has bombs? Your US government has hundreds of thousands of bombs, and casually drops them on whatever third world country annoys the president.

A so-called anarchist like the Unabomber (despised by every anarchist I know) has built a dozen or so bombs and killed three people. Men like George Bush and Saddam Hussein, men with governments behind them, kill anyone they want. War is their hobby; they're collecting corpses like you might collect stamps.

Blaming anarchists for bombs is like blaming janitors for dirt.

Anarchy is the opposite of bombs. It's simply the love of freedom, and government is the opposite of freedom.

Every time someone says, "there ought to be a law" what they're saying is if you disobey this rule, the 12 billionth rule of civilization, you ought to be in jail, along with everyone who's violated any of the other 11,999,999,999 laws already on the books.

The real question ought to be whether this that or the other societal problem is more important than freedom, because every additional law crams the concept of freedom further down in the dumpster. Oh boy, I can still legally darn my own socks — isn't freedom wonderful?

Jacque asked if I was registered to vote. "Of course not," I snarled, knowing his next pre-programmed idiocy would be, If you don't vote you have no right to complain. I despise that particular line of lack-of-reasoning, since it shows how very, very quickly your average American is willing to deny other people's rights. 

I was obnoxious. For years I've listened to every shallow argument everyone makes, that without cops and laws to restrain us we'd all be shooting each other dead in the streets, and tonight I was out of patience with it, so I said all of the above and more to Jacque and Lori, while watching Jacque's head silently shake 'no'.

"You know, Doug," Lori said, "maybe I'm an anarchist too. You haven't said anything that doesn't make good sense to me." Jacque grew stone-faced as he listened to her. As if, how dare she have an opinion, especially not his. "I mean," she continued, "if all the laws were enforced to the letter, probably all of us would be in jail."

"I'm in love with your wife," I said to Jacque. A joke, of course. I do like her more than I like him, but she'd need an abortion before I'd be romantically inclined. It was nice, though, having someone think maybe I wasn't nuts.

Jacque resumed his prattling about the sacred importance of voting, and said, "Every vote makes a difference," and la di da.

"One vote makes as much difference as a single raindrop in a downpour," I said, "which is no difference at all."

"But if everyone felt that way—"

"I don't decide for everyone, only for me," and I sighed too loudly. "Look, I've had this conversation a million times, with people who spit back platitudes from high school civics class, so can we talk about something else, or watch the movie?"

He smiled and sighed, and asked if I'd ever seen Brute Force. I hadn't, and he promised I'd love it, which is the only thing Jacque was right about all evening. He pulled a tape off a shelf, powered up the VCR, and thankfully shut the hell up.

Brute Force (1947) has Hume Cronyn, usually a dependable movie nice guy, as a cruel jailer at a penitentiary. He's Genghis Khan or Khan as in the Wrath of, beating and killing prisoners, turning inmates against each other, and scheming for the warden's job. Flashbacks illuminate some of the prisoners' pasts, and the movie has a rock 'em sock 'em conclusion. And best of all, Jacque barely talked while we were watching.

At intermission, Lori brought us all more root beer, and then Jacque plugged in King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946). It's a huge, accidentally offensive western, with Jennifer Jones as a half-breed women (a few pounds of gloppy Hollywood makeup makes a white woman an Injun) who falls in lust with the man who raped her. Gregory Peck is the bad guy, Joseph Cotten plays Peck's angelic brother, and one of my all-time favorites, Lionel Barrymore, is terrific as their wicked father. I'm not sure it adds up to much, but the whole thing is wacky as hell, and 100% American, dang it.

After the second movie, the three of us made more small talk, some of which bordered on being pleasant. I thanked them both, surprised all three of us with a belch, and the night was almost over.

"You're welcome to stop by again sometime," Jacque said politely as he followed me into the Hall of Plywood. "I've got a lot of great movies on tape."

"Talking politics was pretty awful, so next time let's talk about religion," I said, nodding toward a portrait of Jesus on the wall. "But as long as as Lori is here for some intelligent conversation, I'll accept any invitations you offer."

From Pathetic Life #22
Thursday, March 21, 1996

Addendum, 2023: I still have an anarchist streak in me, but no longer do I wave the black flag. Maybe I'm a pinko now. Maybe I'm a Green.

All I know for certain, same as I knew then, is that the whole system is rigged against freedom, joy, and health, unless you're rich.

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

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