Yesterday—to be exact: late on the Friday afternoon of the Labor Day weekend— I needed to mail something at the post office (how quaint such an errand seems to me in this e-day and virtual age) before I dropped my thirteen-year old daughter at the Dairy Queen, where she was to meet her friends.
Just by this last bit—the Dairy Queen—you can probably guess where I live: a relatively sleepy Midwestern town, where flat front stores line typically two-lane streets. Train tracks, once prairie trails, cut through the center, past little fountains and farmers’ markets. There’s the park with the gazebos in front of the newly renovated library (tax dollars!), and the park with the humble band shell where summer concerts are free. Once this town was a veritable island among cornfields; now those fields are pretty much gone, replaced by sprawling subdivisions and upscale stores. I know this place pretty well, having grown up here myself.
One of the things I especially like about this town is the post office. I like the somber, gray architecture, the way it nostalgically reflects the light. The cool inner sanctum, so immense to me as a kid. The helpful women behind the counter—some have been there for decades, never mind the rising stamp prices, the Men in Brown. This town has more notably beautiful buildings—turreted with distinctively gothic, gorgeous stone. But those are mostly no longer fulfilling their original, civic functions. They are condos or offices now. In fact the sign outside the old courthouse, a pricey piece of renovated real estate indeed, reads something along the lines of : Historic Values—Your Life Now!
But the post office—yes, the post office is still doing its job. I respect it for that.
I suppose it was still doing its job yesterday, too, when I parked the car in one of the familiar angled spots only to see the (approximately) five foot tall, Chuck Close-like poster of President Obama’s face, sporting a Hitler mustache. (Sorry, Chuck Close.) Here they were again—those advocates for Lyndon LaRouche, a man and a woman intent on giving out pamphlets, taking in signatures, and talking to anyone who’d listen. There were about five people listening yesterday, engaging in what seemed to be supportive conversation.
My daughter and I stared open-mouthed at President Obama’s mustachioed face. Was it my imagination, or had all the color been washed from his skin? How had he turned such a palid, mein kampf gray? It’s amazing what a stubby black caterpillar of facial hair can do to a person. Something had happened to Obama’s eyes too. I’d never seen them so glazed and vacant, so empty.
I got out of the car. My daughter stayed where she was, cracking the car door. I could feel her watching as I walked past the stand, the little crowd. As I passed I heard a man’s voice, one of the crowd: “Just get big shotgun, that’s what I say.” People laughed.
Something happened to me physically in this brief passage of time. I was experiencing a kind of tunnel vision. I let it guide me to the friendly woman behind the postal counter. I mailed my letter the old-fashioned way.
Then I came back outside.
By now the crowd around the man and the woman had dwindled. The man watched me approach. He looked so mild, with his close-lipped smile and round, wire rim glasses. He looked like a reader, someone who might give me good advice on a book, someone who might even like poetry. His wife had long, white-blond hair and a similar demeanor. If only she’d been selling felted wool scarves or aromatic oils.
My own version of stereotyping. I know.
My daughter was still watching, half in and half out of our car.
I followed my tunnel vision. I walked up to the man. Really, I still couldn’t believe it. I had to ask: “Are you suggesting that a comparison be made between Obama and Hitler?”
The man took an eager step toward, proffering his clipboard, holding out his pen. “Obama’s current policies are similar, yes.”
I held out my hands—stop. The man stopped. He was keeping the required distance from the post office steps, too, I suppose.
I said, “I respect your right to freedom of speech, but what you’re doing here is spreading hate.”
The man smiled. His smile showed teeth. “Thank you for sharing that,” he said, as he turned away, leaving me standing there, sweating in the heat.
We were both so civil. The man used such a nice verb—I shared, he shared, we shared. So why was I so shaken?
I got back in the car. My daughter shut her door, too. I looked at her. At this stage in our journey together, my daughter and I often find ourselves focused on different things.
She jerked her thumb at the image of Obama and said, “That’s horrible.”
She said, “This is why I don’t want to live here when I grow up. If we lived in a less conservative town, things like this wouldn’t happen.”
I’ve lived in a town that’s known for its progressivism. I work in Chicago these days. I tried to tell her what I’ve seen on those streets: the man who wears placards that say “Hart Schaffner & Marx Killed Jesus,” for instance, and circles the plazas on a weekly basis. I’ve tried to tell her how this wasn’t about conservative, progressive, democrat, republican. This was about something much more important.
In the interest of full disclosure, I voted for Obama. I cried with relief on all kinds of levels the night he was elected. Though I have some concern about some things that have happened since, I’m still a supporter. But as my friends and family who are in no particular order republicans, democrats, socialists, communists, aesthetes, apolitical, etc. will tell you: I don’t typically define people by their political views. At the risk of sounding simplistic: I am mostly thankful we can all have them.
Yesterday, I wasn’t.