During our first six episodes, we spent a quiet (well, not always that quiet) evening at The Last Chance Democracy Café. We watched Zach, the café’s newest customer, meet Horace, Winston and Tom, three of its oldest and certainly most notorious regulars. And we listened in while these Three Wise Men mentored Zach on the subject of economic inequality and the damage it’s doing to our democracy. But all good things must, as they say, come to an end, and so it was with this evening in the lounge.
The Last Chance Democracy Café:
Time Grows Short
by Steven C. Day
“Spiro says it’s almost two o’clock,” said Horace looking at his Spiro Agnew watch (Horace likes wearing it because it reminds him that there was once a time when they actually prosecuted a crooked Vice President.) “We should really try to sum things up for Zach before closing . . . It’s the least we can do considering how politely he’s listened to us wag our tongues all evening.”
As if to prove Horace right, the automated sound system squawked on to announce last call. At about the same time, the lights began coming back up and all of the entertainment devises, including the Bushspeak Machine, turned themselves off. I gestured to Samuel, the bartender, to give the table a last round on my tab. Although it’s my café, I keep my own tab since the employees have an ownership interest and I know I tend to give away too much of the merchandise. Samuel nodded and brought the drinks. I don’t think he ever put them on my tab, though. They usually don’t. I probably should insist. But I usually don’t.
“How to put this . . .” began Horace. “Well, let me ask you Zach . . . What kind of an impact would you expect all of this right wing money to have on public debate in America?”
“I don’t know . . . I suppose it could make it kind of one sided.”
“Very good. Yes, I think that says it . . . one sided. The sheer volume of conservative economic propaganda is just so overwhelming. It drowns out other voices . . . like a tidal wave crashing onto a low lying beach, sweeping aside all resistance . . .”
“You’re getting awful damn poetic,” grumbled Winston.
“It’s the beer,” grinned Horace.
“I’m impressed,” said Tom. “It usually just makes me pee a lot.”
Winston rolled his eyes. “You want to know if the political debate has become one sided?” he said. “Just turn on talk radio anywhere in the country . . . I’ll guarantee you that at least 9 times out of 10 the voice you hear blaring out of the speaker box — and boy do they blare — won’t just be conservative. It’ll be apocalyptically conservative, scary conservative, nutty conservative. Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Michael Savage . . . across the bands and across the land, it’s the same story — right wing kooks rule the airways . . .”
“And it isn’t much better on cable television,” said Tom. “It isn’t just Fox anymore . . . MSNBC, CNBC and CNN are also increasingly all conservative, all the time. And the few, quote, liberals, close quote, they do give regular spots to, usually as co-hosts and often lined up against more than one adversary, are generally either not really all that liberal . . . or, a lot of the time, seem to have been chosen to play the role of a left wing Hamilton Burger to a right wing Perry Mason.”
“Putting it more bluntly,” said Winston, “getting their butts kicked is part of their job description.”
Horace drained the last few drops of his beer and then began pulling the strings of the conversation together. The bottom line, he explained, is that the right has succeeded in moving the goal posts. Even in the major media outlets, like the TV networks, the national news magazines and the big city papers, the playing field has moved dramatically to the right. People once considered right wing fanatics are now respectable conservatives. Formerly respectable conservatives are now moderates. Former moderates are liberals. And traditional liberals — well, they’re just nowhere to be found.
Horace stopped dead in his tracks, looking thoughtful. Then after a time he said, “We shouldn’t let this get off onto a general discussion of the liberal media myth. That’s for another evening. In the meanwhile, if you want to know more check out Eric Alterman’s book “What Liberal Media?” But for right now, it’s enough to note how successfully the right is controlling the national conversation. They’re the ones today who frame the issues and define the terms . . . and in the process, they often pervert the meaning of language itself . . .”
“Like equating political debate over economic inequality with class warfare,” said Tom.
“Or calling opposition to an unnecessary war treason,” said Horace.
“Or renaming the estate tax the death tax,” huffed Winston.
“And let’s not forget describing tax giveaways to the rich as economic stimulus plans,” Tom chimed in again.
“But it goes beyond that,” said Horace in a soft voice. “The right, to a large extent, has succeeded in redefining the very concept of what it means to be a good citizen . . . even a good person. No longer is an honorable life judged primarily by ones service to others. Today it’s all about self interest . . . Looking out exclusively for number one has somehow been transformed from an expression of selfishness into a corrupted view of nobility. They have taken something beautiful and made it ugly . . .”
“Say amen, brother,” whispered Winston.
” . . . People forget . . . I guess one of the advantages of having lived some seven decades is that it gives you perspective. When people say today . . . and it’s the conventional wisdom, that our society, through our government, is incapable of doing anything, or at least anything constructive, to help people . . . Well, I know that’s a lie. I know that because I lived through a different truth. I saw all of the good that government programs, from the GI Bill to food stamps, to name just two, can bring to people’s lives. Under the GI Bill, we opened up the opportunity of attending college to millions of people . . . folks who otherwise, in many cases, would never have had the chance. And this country was repaid for that blessing a hundred times over. It’s a big part of why our economy boomed during the decades following World War II, all those educated and productive workers. And as for food stamps . . . people can talk about welfare queens all they want, but the fact is that for one shining moment we came close to ending hunger in America . . .”
“Say amen, brother,” whispered Tom.
” . . . and for that one shining moment, we came close, in at least that one respect, to actually becoming the sort of nation we should be, the sort of nation we are capable of becoming . . . You see, I lived through a time when a man’s worth was judged by something more than how well he lined his pocket. I lived through a time when Jack Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” And you want to hear something amazing? People didn’t just laugh — like so many would today. We were inspired by it. We really believed it was true . . . that we owed something to other people. It wasn’t all pretty back then, of course. As a black man living in that age, believe me that I know that well. But we did believe. We really did believe.”
It was now four minutes before closing time. Most of the remaining customers — probably about 20 in total — were in the process of paying up. Samuel was wiping down the bar, waiting for the last few tabs to come in so he could reconcile the cash register before going home. But no one was actually leaving.
“Let me quickly sum things up, Zach,” said Tom. “We’ve talked about how unequal the distribution of wealth and income has become in our society . . .”
“I think I know what you’re going to say,” said Zach. “That this inequality, by concentrating wealth in the hands of the richest Americans, is also concentrating power in those same hands . . .”
“Bingo,” said Tom in a voice, that for Tom, sounded down right complementary.
“. . . and it isn’t just political influence that all this money buys, but also . . . I guess, cultural power . . . or let’s say, the power to set the agenda . . .”
“Double bingo, said Horace.
” . . . and all of this becomes a sort of vicious cycle, in which the richer the wealthy get, the more political power they have . . . and the more political power they have, the richer they get . . .”
“Good God, that’s a triple bingo,” smiled Winston. “This kid’s on a roll.”
Zach smiled but didn’t slow down.
“. . . and then eventually, I think you’re saying, it will all get to be so bad that . . . well, it will reach the point of no return, where regular people will be so far behind that they can never catch up . . . or fairly compete with the rich in politics, or even more generally in the control of their own lives, just like that school . . .”
“Washburn,” said Horace.
“. . . yeah, Washburn, can never catch up to KU.”
“That’s a world record setting quadruple bingo,” said Tom, slapping the table top 4 times. “You’ve got it. You’ve hit the nail on the head. But just to finish up the thought, when we reach that point . . . no, I should say, if we do reach that point, then at that moment the United States will cease being a liberal democracy, in any meaningful sense, and will officially have become a plutocracy.”
Zach thought for a moment. “I’ve got to tell you guys, based on what you’re saying it sounds to me like you think we’ve already come to that point.”
“Maybe that’s true,” said Horace. “No one can know for sure. But I don’t think so and I don’t think the rest of these guys think so either. This is still a functioning democracy . . . not functioning very well, mind you, but functioning . . . If people will get the mind to do it, this country can still be put right.”
“But there isn’t much time,” said Tom.
“No . . . not much time at all,” agreed Horace
And then, as if to put the period to the sentence, the clock struck two . . .
Epilogue To The Evening
The sound system barked out its standard announcement: “Ladies and lords, dukes and commoners, Democrats and fools — by order of his most majestic majesty, Sir John of Ashcroft, it has been declared, that by the will of the Boy King, George the Lesser, that henceforth it shall constitute a felony for any of the king’s subjects to engage in conversation disrespectful of the crown in any tavern after the hour of its closing.”
Zach laughed. Everyone else had heard it before.
“And now, good friends,” the announcement continued, “since that hour is at last upon us we must ask that you forthwith cease and desist in your revelries, place your caustic tongs in abeyance and promptly hand over all taxes and duties owed to this establishment . . . And please don’t forget your servers.”
Then everyone in the lounge stood and sang “America the Beautiful.” If you’re wondering how we sounded, let me simply say that if you had been there you would likely have felt nostalgia for that time Roseanne Barr sang the National Anthem at a San Diego Padres game. Winston’s voice, for example, is probably best compared to a sandpit trying to sing opera. And Marvin’s songsmanship, for those of you old enough to remember, is eerily reminiscent of Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” on the old Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in show. (For those not old enough to remember, let me simply add that, yes, back in our day, we really did have to walk to school 10 miles through rain and snow.)
“Do you always sing at closing time?” Zach asked in much the way one might ask a sadomasochist if he always hits himself with the same whip.
I told him yes. “One of the biggest mistakes liberals have made over the last 40 years has been the way we’ve surrendered the trappings of patriotism to conservatives. Well, that’s coming to an end . . . or at least it’s come to an end here at The Last Chance Democracy Café. Liberals love this country at least as much as conservatives — and we love the principles it stands for, like Freedom of Speech and equality under law, a hell of a lot more — and we’re damn well going to start showing it.”
All the designated drivers were now coming forward to reclaim their keys. It’s a standing rule in the lounge that all car keys must be surrendered at midnight (up until that point, we react on an individual basis). It’s understood that keys will only be returned to reasonably sober designated drivers. No exceptions. (I’ve actually driven Bob home a few times. Talk about a miserable 25 minutes.) In most bars, a rule like that would probably cause a fight or two, but we have a unique clientele. There’s rarely a problem. Zach looked at me sheepishly as I handed the last key ring, other than his, over to its rightful owner. “Don’t even think about it,” I said.
“I wasn’t going to ask,” he replied. I wasn’t sure if I believed him, but I liked his style.
After I locked up, the wise men and Zach all piled into the back of my van.
I have a regular Wednesday evening carpool set up with the wise men. Car pooling is an especially apt phrase for the drive home: I drive the car, while they all just sort of pool in the back. None of them drink during the rest of the week, but they definitely make up for lost time on Wednesdays.
“So Zach,” said Tom as we pulled out of the parking lot. “What did you think of our little conversation tonight?”
“Well . . . you’ve got me thinking, I’ll say that much . . . but to be honest, I haven’t really decided yet how much of it I buy.”
Horace gave him a thumbs up. “Excellent. Absolutely superb . . . You, sir, have the honor of being a citizen of the United States of America. You should always think for yourself and never, I repeat, never, blindly follow anyone else . . . not even us.”
“Although you could do a lot worse than us,” smiled Tom.
Zach returned the smile.
After a couple minutes, Zach began fidgeting uncomfortably as the van crawled through the night air. He started to say something — then stopped. Waited. Then started again, “So . . . would you guys mind it if . . . you know, once in a while, I dropped by on Wednesday evenings . . .”
“What’s your class schedule on Thursdays?” asked Tom sternly.
“No classes, just an independent study meeting late in the afternoon.”
“In that case,” said Horace, “we’d be honored to have you.
“Well, I don’t know about that . . .” chuckled Zach.
“We’d be honored.” said Horace again.
Then the van grew quiet, as the late hour and the surging blood alcohol levels began taking their toll. I dropped them off, one by one — Zach last. I promised to call the next day to arrange a time to take him back to his car.
He smiled. “Not too early, okay?” To which I gladly agreed.
As I drove home alone, I was struck by the number of cars still on the road. The real people of the night. Late shift factory workers — the lucky ones who still had a job — night nurses, hotel workers, cops, street crews, cooks, bar tenders, office cleaners, convenience store clerks, truckers, grocery store cashiers, assorted late night partiers and on and on. Their headlights formed a flickering parade: My countrymen, whistling by at the rate of one every few seconds.
That evening, one of those flickering lights had walked into my café and into my life and the lives of the wise men. What a blessing that would prove to be.
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001