Zach blew into our lives here at The Last Chance Democracy Café like a spring breeze racing across a frozen countryside.
He started out as just one of the hand full of college students who drop in — a new bunch every Wednesday evening — to experience our colorfulness and gawk at the Three Wise Men. The kids think it’s funny — three old farts, half-crocked, pontificating on the decline of American democracy. They hang around watching the “entertainment” for an hour or two, eat a burger and slam down a beer. Then they’re off, in search of more glandular forms of diversion. But Zach was different. Zach stayed.
I noticed him sitting with his group at the bar that first night even before he spoke. He’s a kid who stands out; 6 ft. 5 and around 190 lbs, he somehow manages to strike a pose that’s both muscular and unassuming. And he has an interesting face, something rare in a young person. Young faces can be handsome, of course, even stunningly beautiful, but interesting usually requires the architecture of years. But with blond hair swept back recklessly, largish nose, delicate mouth and talkative blue-green eyes, Zach’s face qualified even at the tender age of 21.
Then something sort of, well, extraordinary happened: Zach made the unlikely, and ultimately fateful, decision to ditch his friends as they moved on to the evening’s next stop, and, instead, stayed behind at the café. Soon he found himself being pulled into a lengthy discussion with three elderly (and somewhat tipsy) partisans on the subject of economic inequality and its impact on American democracy (and a broad range of other issues).
Now, I’m fairly confident that if you’d asked him before he came to the café that night, he’d have told you that talking politics with three geezers wasn’t on his top 10 list of ways to have a good time. Studying to become a dentist (or more specifically to get into dental school), he had about as much interest in politics as Britney Spears has in the latest publications of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. (And if I misjudge you, Britney, just what is your current view as to the most probable cause for cosmic gamma ray bursts?)
But surprisingly, Zach found that he enjoyed the discussion and he quickly became a regular member of our Wednesday evening confab at the large round table in the southwest corner of the lounge, directly below the giant “Don’t Blame Me I Voted For The Guy Who Got The Most Votes” poster (we took it down after the 2004 election and replaced it with one reading “Don’t Blame Me I Voted For The Guy Who Didn’t Evade The Draft”).
And that’s when it happened: The Three Wise Men stopped being just a collection of grumpy curmudgeons, railing into the void over the slow destruction of American democracy. They became teachers.
And as everyone knows, or at least everyone with a lick of sense knows, a good teacher can change the world.
The Three Wise Men is my term, by the way. Hey, I run a cafe. You were expecting Steinbeck? Anyway, the whole thing with the wise men started by accident. Late one Wednesday, Tom, a retired economics professor, dropped in for a drink. A few minutes later, Winston, who had also just retired after 30 years as a district court judge, sat down at the bar. Then came Horace. Horace, who dropped out of school at age 14, worked most of his life as a trucker, somehow finding the time along the way, in dingy motel rooms and dirty truck stops, to read more history, philosophy and economics than any ten college graduates combined. He finally “hung up my clutch,” as he puts it, the previous June.
Helped along by a few nightcaps, the three strangers struck up a conversation. And befitting The Last Chance Democracy Café, mostly they talked about the declining state of democracy in America. From that night on, it became a regular Wednesday evening affair.
And, very quickly, they became the heart and soul of the place, not to mention its biggest attraction. I guess I was lucky; having spent almost a year meticulously planning and decorating the café in preparation for its opening, it ended up being the random chance of three old coots wandering in and sitting down at the same time that made the place something special.
Horace is the de facto leader — actually more of an unofficial den mother — of the wise men. With his receding salt and pepper hair, respectably sized potbelly and warm smile, he looks like the grandfather in a Norman Rockwell painting, or at least what a grandfather might have looked like if The Saturday Evening Post hadn’t banned Rockwell from depicting black faces in his magazine covers.
Each of the Three Wise Men enjoys the status of a Philosopher King here at the café — admittedly a small kingdom, but one featuring good food, ample drink and the company of as affable and fun loving a group of rabid-dog-liberal-Democrats as you’ll find anywhere. But Horace is the first among equals. Tom brings an almost unbelievable knowledge base to the table; Winston provides the piss ‘n’ vinegar; but it’s Horace who generally pulls the strings of our conversations together for Zach, as he did in this comment taken from our first episode,
“You see, the problem isn’t that some people are wealthy and most people aren’t. That’s both inevitable and inoffensive when kept within reason. The problem arises when . . . as is happening right now, wealth becomes so concentrated that it denies a fair share and even more importantly a fair chance to get ahead to everyone else . . . because when that happens, it also starts to corrupt democracy itself . . .”
As someone who marched with Martin Luther King, Horace has seen his share of hatred, but he’s never surrendered to it. He was one of the few black drivers to find work in the segregated interstate trucking industry in the early years following the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “In those days, I heard the word nigger more times during a single haul than my grandkids will in their whole lives, thank God,” he once said. “How I hated that word. How I hated the ignorance that caused it to be spoken. And I never backed down. But I also refused to hate them back, because if I’d done that they’d have won. And I wasn’t going to let them win.”
Horace’s greatest personal tragedy was the death of his only son in Vietnam; and that loss has had a profound effect on how he views the War in Iraq. As horrified as the rest of us at the café are over the awful waste of this most elective of wars, I believe Horace feels it more intensely; and though he’s generally one of the most even-tempered people you’ll ever meet, this is a subject that sets his blood to boil. This, for example, is how he recently discussed Bush’s cavalier approach to soldiers killed in action,
“And in the meanwhile,” said Horace, “the body bags just keep coming. That’s the thing. Bush can ignore them, hide from them like a coward. He can refuse to meet the planes, decline to attend the services. He can do all of that and more to try to hide the awful truth from the people, but he can’t stop those bags from coming and coming and coming . . . the brave sons and daughters of America, victims of his deceit.”
Except for his eyes, Tom has the appearance of a 100-year-old man, from his wrinkled gray-white skin to his Jean-Luc Picard hairstyle; but he has the eyes of a 16-year-old gazing at the prize of his lost virginity.
Tom is a great guy, a great friend and an all around quality human being. But you’ll probably have to know him for awhile before you figure that out. His “bedside manor,” shall we say, has never been his strong point: He’s the sort of person who will volunteer to help you paint your house out of friendship, then, once the job is done, look up and say, “God, I hate that color,” it never once occurring to him that this might cause offense.
Tom comes closest of anyone I’ve met to meeting the definition of a human encyclopedia. In fact, if you hang out at the Last Chance Democracy Café on Wednesdays, you’ll soon discover Tom is an indisputable genius, who has published a paper on virtually every conceivable subject. You’ll also learn that he has a photographic like memory, meaning he brings a remarkable grasp of the relevant details to almost any discussion.
It’s incredibly annoying.
Now, scientists will tell you there’s no such thing as a photographic memory — that it’s a myth. A few years back, Tom read all of the pertinent studies — some 700 hundred pages total, and he agrees completely with this conclusion. “No doubt about it,” he told me, “the studies definitely prove that there’s no such thing as a photographic memory.” And Tom ought to know, since he still remembers every word, every statistic and, for that matter, every comma in those 700 pages.
All this makes him a tremendous resource during our Wednesday evening discussions at the café, as annoying as it can sometimes be: Any statistic, any name, any quotation, or anything else, for that matter, someone at the table has forgotten, he can almost always quickly provide. Fair warning, though: At any given moment he is perfectly capable of launching into an hour long lecture on the economics of ancient Rome, or some similar topic. Indeed, one time he used a bad call at a baseball game as the starting point for pontificating for 90 minutes on the causes for the economic decline of the Netherlands in the 18th century.
But then that’s where Horace’s den mother skills come into play — keeping the rest of us at least somewhat on track.
Of course, in the case of Winston, there’s only so much even Horace can do.
How even to begin describing Winston? Passionate? His own man? Someone who speaks his mind? One who suffers fools not well at all? A man who likes his bourbon? The curmudgeon’s curmudgeon?
Maybe all of the above.
Short, stocky and sporting a pugnacious Churchillian face (the source of his nickname) — Winston is a virtual caricature of a crotchety old man: And he isn’t afraid to “tell it like it is,” as he did in this exchange sometime back when Horace made the mistake of saying the words,
“Now, to be fair . . .”
“God damn it!” barked Winston in response. “What is it with liberals and this fairness crap? Do you think conservatives spend one bloody minute worrying about whether they’re being fair to us? Hell no. they’re in a street fight — no holds barred. Meanwhile, we liberals try to follow the blasted Marquis of Queensberry rules. No wonder we’re getting our butts kicked.”
That’s Winston. He says what he thinks. And the more the evening (and the drinking) wears on, the stronger this tendency becomes. This, by the way, can come as something of a surprise to new customers in the café, who, when they first meet him sober tend to assume that — like blue cheese and moonshine whisky — he’s already about as strong as the species gets.
Then there was the time when Horace, Tom and Winston were all arrested at a sit-in protesting the War in Iraq. Winston talked one of the jailers he knew from his days as a judge into giving him a sheet of paper with the jail’s letterhead on it. He then used it to send a letter to the White House,
To: The Honorable George W. Bush, Occupant of the Big White House with all the Guards:
From: An Occupant of Another Big House With Lots of Guards:
Re: Hello! Wish You Were Here!
But there’s more to Winston than his talent for creative irascibility. He also has a unique ability to pack a ton of wisdom inside a very short comment, like the time he said, “If the government really doesn’t have anything to do with the accumulation of private wealth, then why do the wealthy spend so much money trying to control it?”
And that after downing several strong bourbons.
Steve is, well — he’s me, the proprietor of the café and the unofficial scribe for the Three Wise Men.
But that wasn’t always so. There was life before The Last Chance Democracy Café: A life without The Three Wise Men, the large round table, Zach, Republican darts, Liberal Burgers and the Bushspeak Machine. I used to be a lawyer. Actually, I still am, but back then I wasn’t a lawyer simply because I had a piece of paper saying I was one. Back then, I actually played one in a courtroom.
Law became my “chosen profession,” in much the same way many people choose political candidates — the lesser of two evils, or in this case the lesser of three evils. The year was 1974 and college graduation — with its much-vaunted entry into “the real world” — was bearing down on me like a planet-killer asteroid. What next?
As I surveyed my post college options, my upcoming shiny new poly sci degree offered limited market appeal: Only three options seemed reasonably possible: First, I could drive a cab (or something similar). Second, I could enter graduate school, earn a doctorate in political science, and then drive a cab. Or, third, I could go to law school.
Law school it was.
And I did well, graduating near the top of my class and all that. I landed a job at a respected law firm, and my legal practice soon took off. And although I never really loved practicing law, I threw myself into it like a teenager pursuing his first lust, to the exclusion of just about everything else. And politics, which had up until this time been one of the persistent passions of my life, disappeared almost entirely as a focus of my daily grind.
It’s a funny thing about a life’s passions, though: You can run away from them, ignore them and even bury them under a million tons of other more pressing, business — but in the end, they always hunt you down.
I would be 20 years on the run from mine.
As happens eventually to a lot of lawyers, as I headed into my third decade of practice, I found myself becoming profoundly burned out on the practice of law. I’ve told the story elsewhere, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it here. Suffice it to say that I struggled with this for several years, always keeping my head above water, but never finding anything approaching peace. During those same years, as I flailed around looking for some new meaning in my life, my interest in politics was gradually reignited.
Then came the theft of the presidency in 2000. And like so many other Democrats, political interest quickly turned into political fury. And then, gradually, as the Bush administration’s domestic and foreign policy agendas unfolded, fury turned into something else — fear, an overwhelming fear for the future of my country.
So one morning as I looked through the pile of legal correspondence and related documents sitting on my desk, it struck me how little they had to do with what I really cared about. It struck me like a hammer smashed against the very center of my head.
And I thought, fuck it. I’m done.
Eleven months later, The Last Chance Democracy Café opened for business.
My wife, God love her, after initially considering having me whisked away to a mental institution (who could have blamed her?), quickly threw herself into the project wholeheartedly and never looked back.
“Hell, if you had to have a midlife crisis,” she smiled, “I suppose this is less embarrassing than if you’d bought a Lamborghini.”
Actually, she had little to fear on that front: Not only did we have nothing close to that kind of money, the embarrassing truth is that I never learned how to drive a stick; and what could be dorkier than buying a Lamborghini with an automatic transmission?
In any case, after almost a year of exhaustive (and exhausting) research, planning and remodeling the café opened — to the sound of a resounding thud.
I have to admit that for the first few months, I felt a certain connection, kinship even, with whoever the poor bastard was at Time Warner who first said, “Hey, you know a merger with AOL sounds like a really swell idea to me!”
That’s how poorly the café was doing: That’s how dumb my idea was starting to look.
But maybe God is a Democrat (my guess is that God started out as an independent, but then got so angry at Bush for claiming to speak in God’s name that he (or she) changed his (or her) registration to Democratic). Bit by bit, business picked up at the café. And then Horace, Tom and Winston, and later Zach, started coming.
And we were off and running.
Every neighborhood bar has at least one of them — the guy who causes everyone else to groan when he walks in the door: The fun killer.
Ours is Bob, whose scowling face generally graces The Last Chance Democracy Café at least once a week. Scowling is Bob’s one true gift. He works in scowls much as Picasso worked in oils, Mozart in concertos and George W. Bush in deficit spending — a true master of his craft.
Bob’s a Republican, which in itself is no big deal. The Last Chance Democracy Café has quite a few Republican regulars. We always try to be accommodating to them — you know, by talking slowly and not using too many big words. Some of our Republican customers live close by and treat us as their neighborhood bar, overlooking our politics. Others simply love a good argument and know they’ll find one here.
Bob comes for a different reason. Bob comes because he’s a bully on the hunt for victims.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that he isn’t very good at it, and he usually ends up on the losing side of whatever verbal fight he decides to pick.
Tall and lanky, looking every bit his 55 years, Bob has a nondescript face — the sort you might expect to get if you bought one at Wal-Mart. He’s rich, by the way. He came into his money the good old-fashioned American way, inheriting his father’s bottling business 10 years ago. He’s managed to run the company only halfway into the ground since then, so he still has enough money to be a player in big-dollar GOP circles.
He’s what you might call a fully integrated Republican: He supports both the pro-big-business-silk-stocking and the “anti-sin”-Religious-Right branches of the party (he just doesn’t think the dictates of the latter apply to him personally).
Molly, one of the café’s servers (and part owners), works the lounge on Wednesday evenings when the wise men hold their weekly gathering at the large round table. With a tongue that’s more than sharp enough to hold her own against Horace, Tom and Winston, she’s a regular source of wisecracks, like this one taken from a recent episode,
Horace, ever zealous in carrying out his duties as the group’s unofficial den mother, had just said, “I think we’ve now come to the point of our discussion.”
Molly, who was serving Marvin one of our popular “Republican Pork Barrel Sandwiches,” snickered to herself. “I’m impressed!” she said loudly. “It’s still only a little after 9:00 o’clock. It usually takes you guys at least until 1:00 a.m. to get anywhere close to a point!”
“Don’t you have some gruel to serve somewhere!” barked Winston.
Molly walked off laughing.
Something along these lines happens almost every Wednesday.
Molly is a remarkable young woman in many respects. I urge those wanting to know more to read about both her and her deceased friend, Maggie, another remarkable young woman, in episodes 32.1 and 32.2.
How to say this? Marvin is a valued member of our Wednesday evening community in the lounge in much the same way as your weed whacker is a valued part of your personal property: You’re glad to have it, but it isn’t like you spend a lot of time thinking about it.
Marvin doesn’t say much. Mostly he just sits at the bar and listens to the conversation at the large round table. But as the proprietor of a café with a lounge, I’ve learned that there is often a good deal more than meets the eye with the silent bar sitter types. And I’d be willing to bet you an order of our famous Antonin Scalia Original Intent Fried Chicken that in the episodes to come, we’ll be hearing a lot more from Marvin.
Ned, who is one of my oldest friends, drops in at the café once in a blue moon, generally for lunch. He’s a minister with the United Church of Christ, and a dyed-in-the-wool liberal — both politically and theologically. Just to give you a feel for his world view, I asked him once what he thought of people like Pat Robertson who claim that God chose Bush to lead the country. “What, so Moses was busy?” was his only response.
Every nonchurchgoing liberal should have a friend like Ned, by the way. It puts religion into perspective, reminding you that there’s a lot more to religious faith than Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. There really is a religious left. And not all faith-based politics is hate-based politics. And secular liberals do the cause no favor when they lump all religiosity into the same reactionary basket.
Donald is an English professor who visits the café most Tuesday nights: You can always tell when Donald’s getting seriously soused, because he starts reciting poetry — really bad poetry he writes himself.
Here’s an example,
Who spent Vietnam on his tush.
He joined up with the Guard
But found drilling too hard,
So he went over the fence with a whoosh.
From an election he had just stolen.
He thought let’s give war a try
Now that it’s others who’ll die,
And through Iraq soon the tanks will be rollin’.