We have had some fascinating visitors at The Last Chance Democracy Café. But this may take the cake.
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 57: Cocktails with Franklin
by Steven C. Day
Have you ever awakened feeling wonderful because of something terrific that just happened, only to be crushed when you realized it had all been a dream? Then afterwards, have you ever found yourself wondering whether, by the grace of some magic in the moonlight, at least a little of that dream may somehow actually have been true?
* * *
You would think I would learn. I mean, how many times does a man have to get burned before he figures out that sticking his hand into a pot full of boiling water isn’t such a swell idea? Every time — every single time — I violate my personal rule against drinking in my own cafe I get into trouble.
The first time I made this mistake was the evening we played “Lie George,” as described back in episode 8. That one, of course, almost got us closed down.
But that didn’t stop me from repeating the same sin 11 months later. My wife took the kids out of town to visit her mother and, given that I was batching it, I figured what the hell. So, I joined some of the dart players in an Irish whisky taste test; the idea was to sample each brand we stock.
Let’s just say we have a fine selection.
My next memory is of standing up and stumbling a few feet, nearly falling in the process, as I tried to make my way to the bathroom (don’t worry, Samuel, the bartender, had already taken my car keys). After regaining my footing, I noticed the blurry but familiar image of a woman standing directly in front of me. She was about 60-years-old, wearing a fashionable pink pantsuit and a scowl that ran deeper than the salt mines of Kansas.
She was my sister-in-law, Charlene.
The same sister-in-law who has never completely forgiven me for endangering her sister’s financial security by leaving the practice of law to open The Last Chance Democracy Cafe.
“You’re drunk!” she said in voice dripping with contempt.
As for what came next, there’s really not a whole lot I can say. I was drunk, okay, real drunk — and something about the way she had spoken reminded me of Winston Churchill’s famous response to a woman who accused him of being drunk at a party. And before I knew it, I was repeating Churchill’s words to Charlene:
“And you, madam, are ugly. But in the morning, I shall be sober.”
And, no, it didn’t go over all that well at home.
Duly chastened, I followed my no booze at work rule religiously for well over a year. But then last night after closing, all alone in my tiny closet-office on the second floor of the café, trying to catch up on paperwork, the urge for libation started to rear its ugly head. I hate paperwork. And I figured what harm could one little drink do –
Or two little drinks –
Or three –
When the numbers on the balance sheet started dancing a jig — actually, I’m not sure exactly what a jig is, but they did start dancing — I knew I was in trouble. My wife, who was not expecting me home for several more hours and no doubt was already long to bed, has always told me that if I ever find myself drunk to call her and she’ll come get me (she doesn’t want me driving drunk, which I would never do anyway).
I don’t doubt her sincerity, but there are some offers in life that you should only take up under the direst of circumstances. I decided to call a cab. But before I got around to it, I leaned back in my chair to rest my eyes for just a moment and –
* * *
I was sitting on one of the tall barstools in the café’s lounge, a Scotch on the rocks resting conveniently in front of me. As to just how I (or it) got there, I had no clue, and, for that matter, no particular interest. What I did know was that I was exquisitely comfortable, with my feet resting on the circular steel footrest located about halfway down to the base of the stool and my elbows perched lazily on the bar. Light from the street outside was streaming in through the café’s windows, giving the otherwise darkened lounge a twilight feeling.
I love this time of night in the café; I often loiter alone after closing, using the time to think about my life or just to daydream a little. It’s an incredibly peaceful time.
On this particular night, however, I wasn’t alone. On the barstool next to mine, looking tanned and relaxed, sat a 60ish appearing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, happily sipping Gran Duque de Alba from a large brandy sniffer, a state of affairs that struck me as remarkably unremarkable.
“What are you doing here?” I asked in a voice that betrayed no more surprise than one might have expected if I’d found my wife cooking minute steaks on meatloaf night.
“I heard your brandy was exceptional,” he grinned, the big toothy grin for which he was famous.
“Actually, although that’s a premium brand, you can get the same stuff everywhere,” I responded, as though there was nothing more important to talk about.
“Then I guess it must have been the ambiance that drew me here.” He gestured toward the political posters plastered as thick as mosquitoes on a spring evening in Minnesota on the wall behind the large round table. “I just love what you’ve done with the place.”
I smiled. “You like the retro-cluttered look, huh?”
“Actually, what I like most is the raw partisanship of it. That’s something too many liberals have lost sight of today: The power of down and dirty political partisanship to do good things.”
“You sound like Winston . . . he’s one of the regulars here.”
Franklin laughed heartily. “I’ll take that as a compliment. Winston’s a good man, like the famous Winston of my time.”
“How could you possibly know our Winston?” I asked abruptly — the absurdity of having a former president who had been dead for over 60 years know the comings and goings of my café having finally crept into my consciousness.
“That’s one of the advantages to being dead, Steve. You know pretty much everything.”
Franklin swirled the contents of his sniffer below his nose, breathing in deeply. “I do so love a good brandy,” he said. “Winston . . . Churchill that is, always insisted that a good brandy was essential to the proper digestion of any meal. I always figured that was nonsense . . .” Then he flashed the same toothy smile. “. . . but I never let it stop me from drinking his brandy.”
I poured more Gran Duque de Alba into his sniffer. I had no idea how the bottle got into my hand.
Franklin’s face became serious. “All of those so-called experts who keep saying that the Democratic Congress shouldn’t be aggressive in investigating Bush and should try to reach bipartisan compromises with the Republicans on everything are fools . . . You do understand that, don’t you?”
“Yes, but . . . how do you know about all this?”
“I’m dead. So I know just about everything. Remember?”
“So, you follow politics . . . in heaven?
“I’m a political animal. What do you think I do with my time, watch the clouds blow by? We’re talking eternity here. Don’t you think that would get a little old after awhile?”
“So sure, we keep up. We can’t interfere in elections, but we can cheer from the sidelines. You should have been there for the big victory party after the Democrats took back Congress in 2006. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Paul Wellstone look so happy!”
“You know Paul Wellstone?”
“Know him? Why I had the honor of leading the welcoming committee when he arrived at heaven. There was quite a group of us there: Just the former presidents included Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Ronald Reagan . . .”
“Reagan? But he’s one of the most conservative . . .”
“Everyone’s a liberal in heaven, Steve. It comes from the company you keep up there, especially at the head table, if you get my drift.”
I poured myself another Scotch from a bottle that had somehow appeared in my hand. It was then that I realized why the FDR next to me seemed so different from the one I had seen so many times in books and old film clips over the years, even aside from the fact this one showed no sign of any disability. It was the fact he was in living color. I had never really thought about it before, but up until that moment my image of Roosevelt had always been in black and white.
Then, without even thinking about it, I asked, “So . . . up there in heaven, you haven’t bumped into . . .”
“You want to know about your father, right?”
I lost my father a few months ago. And he was right — that was what I was in the process of asking.
Franklin patted my arm twice — good strong physical pats. This clearly wasn’t one of the ghosts depicted in movies who have no form and whose bodies pass right through those of mortals. From every earthly appearance, this “man” was flesh and blood. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we’re not supposed to give out those sorts of details. It would get me in trouble with the big guy.”
Franklin laughed even louder. “My Lord no. The big guy I’m referring to is General George Marshall. Did you know that one time he actually took me off the list of the people authorized to see the results of our super-secret Japanese code breaking after a copy of one of the decrypted messages was found in a White House wastebasket? Can you imagine that? There I was, the Commander in Chief of all of the nation’s armed services and yet one of my generals took it upon himself to effectively take away my security clearance!”
“So what did you do?” I asked.
Franklin laughed loudly again. “You’ve obviously never met General Marshall. I said, ‘Yes sir, General Marshall, sir, it will never happen again.’ Anyway, as big a stickler as he is for maintaining secrecy, you can see how much trouble I’d get into if he found out that I told you more than I’m supposed to about heaven. So, sorry, but I can’t tell you about your dad.”
“I understand,” I said, in a voice that must have displayed a little disappointment.
Then Franklin winked and added, “So you’ll just have to ask him yourself some day when you get there.”
I smiled gratefully, acknowledging the “hidden” message in his last comment. Then I changed the subject asking, “So, can you visit any person you want to . . . I mean any living person.”
“No, there are very few situations in which visitations are allowed, one of which, as it happens, is if the person in question is rip-snorting drunk. I guess the idea is that drunks probably won’t even remember the visit, and even if they do they’ll probably just chalk it up as being the booze talking anyway. Very few heaveners . . . that’s what we call ourselves . . . bother with visits, of course. I mean, who wants to spend their time talking to some sloppy drunk when you know Will Shakespeare is always happy to chat over coffee at The Eternity Café, Leonardo da Vinci will paint your portrait for free on any Tuesday or Thursday morning on cloud nine and there’s always seating available for the Freddie Prinze, Jack Benny, John Belushi and Will Rogers’ show at the Paradise Bar & Grill.”
So I asked the obvious question: Why me? Why was he visiting The Last Chance Democracy Café when heaven had so many delectable ways for a soul to spend his time?
Here’s how he answered: “Because I have something to say to the Democrats of today, and this is one place where I know I’ll find the kind of Democrats who’ll listen. So when I noticed that you’d gotten loaded tonight, I figured I’d strike while the iron was hot.”
“Thanks for choosing us,” I replied. It was a stupid thing to say, I’ll admit. But, to be fair, I was under a little pressure. I mean, how many times have you had the spirit of a dead national icon drop in unannounced for a chat?
Franklin ignored me, turning instead to the point he evidently wanted to make.
“The truth is,” he began, “there are only certain times when liberal advocacy has a ghost of a chance of making any significant headway in the United States . . . times when a majority of people are willing to look past their own selfish interests and give serious weight to the good of the national community as a whole. I’m not talking about wars of national survival like we faced in World War II, when, of course, Americans always rally ‘round the flag. No, this is about the willingness of people to sacrifice to make major changes in order to build a better, more just society. I was president at such a time, of course. So was Eleanor’s uncle, Teddy Roosevelt. And what I came here to talk about is the fact that I’m convinced . . . almost dead certain, in fact, that you’re entering into just such a time again today.”
“Wow,” I said. Okay that was pretty stupid too. But at least I rebounded fast enough to add, “Why do you think that?”
“Because the lies have lost their power. Ordinary people are starting to realize just how badly they’ve been mistreated. Now, most of them don’t know all of the specifics . . . that economic inequality has reached levels unseen since the Great Depression, or that for all intents and purposes the country’s entered a new Gilded Age. But at a more basic level, everyday Americans are starting to understand that the game is fixed. They’ve lost faith that the American Dream still exists for people like them. You can see it in poll results, but you don’t need polls. Hell, you can feel it in the air. And it’s more than just being tired of the Republicans’ lies and incompetence . . . more even than that God-awful war Bush started. Even beyond all that, there’s a growing sense among ordinary voters that this nation is headed in the wrong direction . . . that fundamental change is needed.”
“So you’re saying we’re at the beginning of a new liberal era?”
Franklin slammed his fist on the bar top. “No! I’m not saying that at all. Nothing’s guaranteed . . . nothing ever is. Even the New Deal didn’t have to happen. There was nothing written in the stars saying things had to turn out the way they did. The nation could just as easily have turned to the right in its panic, finding hope in a tyrant . . . the fabled man on a white horse. Progressive change doesn’t just happen. Those who benefit under an existing economic order, no matter how unfair, never give up without a fight. Never! Certainly, there are always individuals who, like me, are accused of betraying their class in order to help the downtrodden, but they will always be the exception. Every major progressive stride that has ever been achieved in this country . . . every single one, has come about as a result of a knock-down-drag-out fight.”
I finally understood. “That’s what you were saying before about the power of political partisanship to bring about good, right?”
“Absolutely. All of these pundits . . . that’s what you call them today, right?”
“In my day we just called them bastards.” Franklin let out another good long laugh. “Anyway, all of these people insisting that the Democrats should just try to get along and work out compromises with Bush and the Republicans, make no mistake, what they’re really calling for is surrender, pure and simple. Because the plutocrats . . . the same people who finance the GOP today, have one heck of a sweet deal going and they’re not going to give it up without a fight. They never do. Bipartisanship didn’t create the New Deal. And it won’t bring about the kind of major change that’s needed to return fairness to America today.”
“So you’re saying it’s up to us.”
“You bet it is. You have a chance to change the world, but only if you’re willing to fight for it.” Then he grinned before adding: “And remember this: The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.”
* * *
Then I woke up in the chair in my little closet-office. And when I realized that I must just have been dreaming, I almost cried.
I’ve gone back and forth on whether to tell you the rest. You may think I’m nuts, I know.
The next afternoon when I came to work, before I’d told anyone about the dream, Samuel, who had closed out the bar the night before, was on duty. When he saw me he broke out laughing.
“Man, Steve,” he said, “I thought you were going to stay to do paperwork last night, not have a party.”
I asked him what he was talking about.
He started laughing again. “Come on, man, you downed a half a bottle last night.”
I confessed to drinking some Scotch, but not nearly that much.
Samuel scoffed. “Not Scotch, brandy. Last night when I took inventory we had one unopened bottle of Gran Duque de Alba left. Now it’s half empty.”
I just stood there for a few seconds; then I walked off without saying another word.
Like I said, you may think I’m nuts, but I just can’t shake the feeling that maybe, by the grace of some magic in the moonlight, at least a little of my dream that night may, in some way, actually have been true.
* * *
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 27 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001