The Old Man, the Young Boy and the Bomb in the Supermarket

If you look carefully, if you ignore that one is about 80 and the other 5, that one is almost 6 foot and the other not yet 4 foot tall, they look almost the same.  At least if you watch them from behind, holding hands, and walking across the parking lot.  There’s something about the slouch of their shoulders, their heads held high, and the easy way they walked.  You just knew that they were related.

That day, they were wandering the Whole Food aisles, currently checking the produce section, noting the bright reds and yellows of the peppers, smelling the garlic, and wondering about the names of the leafy greens.  “There isn’t much red in that red leaf lettuce,” five year old Isaac commented.  “I think they should find another name.”  The Old Man nodded his assent.  They marveled at the size of the melons.

“That one must be 50 pounds,” Isaac exulted.

“Could be,” said the Old Man.

Then they came to the coffee aisle.  From long experience, they knew that this would be the culmination of their journey.  One by one, they sniffed the various beans.  “What do you think about these Italian beans,” asked the Old Man?  “How about the Morning Blend?  The Costa Ricans seem a little weak to me.  What about you, Isaac?”  Isaac was excited by their test runs but he was also onto his grandpa.  He knew that the Old Man liked French Roast best.  So he carefully modulated his responses to the others, building to an exuberant affirmation.

“Grandpa, the French Roast is by far the best.”

“Are you sure?”

“Are you kidding, Grandpa.  No contest.”

“I think so, too,” said the Old Man, incongruously hoping that Isaac would someday grow into a French Roast devotee.

The Old Man had a long history with supermarkets.  For reasons he couldn’t fully explain, they made him happy.  He wasn’t a foodie, after all; far from it.  He didn’t cook, either.  He liked restaurants as a place for intimate conversation and hardly cared about the quality of the food, itself.  OK, he cared a little, but it was companionship, not food that drew him there.  Even when he was alone, he loved supermarkets.

As he and Isaac continued their meanderings through the produce section, he remembered those wonderful days with Nathan, his son and Isaac’s father.  As a young man, he so enjoyed lifting Nathan into the seat of the big shopping carts and zipping around the aisles.  Nathan would giggle uncontrollably as his dad let the cart go by itself and, just as it was about to crash into the cans of peas, catch him, save him.  Later, Nathan would smile that sheepish smile of his and wave at passers by.  They would wave back—“So cute,” they’d tell the young father—and then look admiringly at him.  It was 1972 and there weren’t lots of men wheeling shopping carts in those days.  Even fewer with little children.

Assuming he was reading the women’s eyes correctly, he knew he was seen as a hero—one of the few times in his life that he would ever achieve that exalted status. Those supermarket adventures were some of the happiest moments of his life.

By the time Nathan was four months old, his mother and the Old Man had divorced.  Since his mother was not interested in taking care of an infant—or anyone else—he had taken on the role of mother and father.  He certainly hadn’t planned it; nor had he prepared.  He couldn’t remember a single time when, as a boy, he had taken care of his baby sister.  That is, until she was about four or five and he ten.  Then they had played together and he felt responsible for her.

He felt responsible and profoundly attached to Nathan from the moment he was born.  Yes, he was a pretty traditional guy with expectations of freedom and support.  But Nathan was a fact.  He needed someone to hold him and feed him.  He did it.  There was nothing noble or even particularly generous about a young father stepping in.  That’s what he would tell people.  “It was just…  What else was there to do


But let me get back to my story. The old man and his grandson had wandered back to the produce section where they were going to buy some baby cucumbers, lettuce, and peppers for this evening’s salad.  When they arrived, it seemed quieter than usual.  Without knowing why, the Old Man and Isaac found themselves whispering.  Then, as if on cue, there was a huge explosion at the other end of the store.  It was deafening and the billowing smoke made it hard to see.

A cascade of potatoes spilled onto the floor and tripped them up.  As they fell, the Old man said “Let’s stay down here.”

Isaac’s eyes were wide with wonder and fear.  “On the ground, Grandpa?”

“Yes.  Let’s hide under these shelves, just in case there is another explosion.”

“Was it a bomb, Grandpa”?

“I think so.”

“Will the bad people find us?” Isaac asked.

“I don’t think so, Isaac,” said the Old Man.  Not that he was so sure.  There could be crazy people with guns, with assault rifles, for all he knew.  Like everybody else in America, he’d seen enough slaughter on TV to know what was possible.  He knew that the random assassins that now roamed American streets cared nothing for young children or old men.  He could only hope that he and Isaac were hidden enough to be safe.

From their hideout, Isaac and the Old Man heard people screaming, shrill with anger and pain—and rage.  It seemed like everyone was mad at someone else.  Even from their hideout, you could hear that people were running for safety and sometimes shoving others out of their way.  But you could also hear people tending to the injured:  “Just stay down; I’ll get help.”  And “It’ll be alright.  Breathe.  That’s it, nice and slow.  We’ll get you out of here.”  Strangers helped and held one another.

Soon there were sirens outside and the sound of professional sounding men ordering others to walk slowly and to keep moving away from the store.  That’s when Isaac piped in, his voice no longer tremulous:

“I think we’re safe now, Grandpa.”

“I do, too, Isaac, but we’re going to stay here a little longer.  I want to make extra sure that there aren’t any more bombs or bad people out there.  We’ll know it’s time when policemen come and tell us so.”

As much as Isaac wanted to see what was going on, he remained still and quiet, folded into the Old Man’s arms.  And the Old Man, much as he yearned for the All Clear call from the rescue team, cherished the closeness of the moment.

For the eternity that turned out to be twenty minutes, they waited in their vegetable cave until policemen rushed through the store, ushering them out, and assuring them that there was no more danger.  During that entire time, Isaac never let go of the Old Man.  But his eyes seemed clear and he craned his neck to see as much as possible from their hiding place atop the potatoes and beneath the mushrooms.  You couldn’t tell if he was more frightened or excited.  This was an adventure they couldn’t have cooked up.  It was horrible but the Old Man was grateful to have seen it through with his boy.

After emerging from their hiding place, they followed the policemen’s instructions, not stopping to gawk or talk, and walked directly to their car.  Fearing that Isaac’s parents might have learned about the bomb on the internet or the radio, the Old Man called to reassure them that they had come through the horror without injury and without any obvious signs of trauma.

Fortunately, they hadn’t known where The Old Man had taken Isaac.  Every week, he and Isaac traipsed all over the city, exploring one new place after another and traveling the Red Line rails as much as possible.  So Isaac’s parents hadn’t worried at all.

Hearing the news, though, they wanted him home right away.  The Old man understood.  He would have wanted Isaac close, too.  He would have needed the reassurance.  They headed home.

The Old Man drove home slowly, while Isaac peppered him with question after question.

“Who did that, Grandpa?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe we can find out on the news—when we get you home.”

“Did a lot of people get hurt?”  The Old Man had been able to shield Isaac from the medics and the stretchers that had filled the far side of the store.  So Isaac hadn’t seen the torn bodies, had barely heard the wailing families next to the ambulances.

Still, the Old Man felt the need to be honest.  So he said simply and without elaboration: “I think so, Isaac.”

“Why would anyone do that?”

“I don’t really know, but there are some people who are crazy and some people who are so angry that they want to hurt others.”

“I don’t feel that way.”

“I know you don’t, Isaac, and I’m proud of you for that.”

“I’m really mad at the bad guys, though.”

“Me too.”

Once home, Isaac couldn’t stop telling his parents, who had both gotten there before their wartime veterans, about the explosion, where they hid, and what they did.  They held him.  They cried a little.  They were grateful without words.

After a while, the Old Man decided the family needed their moment, needed their privacy, and he set out for home.  As he drove, he felt a profound sense of loneliness and loss.  Even though it was the right thing to leave.  Even though he was grateful to have survived the bomb and to protect his grandson.  Even so, he wasn’t ready to let Isaac go.  He began to shake a little.  He ached for Isaac’s presence.  And his tears slowly made their way from his eyes to his chin.




Let Us Ban Guns in the United States

The character-driven 2016 presidential campaign has given short shrift to vitally important issues, chief among them, climate change.  But threats to the peaceful transition of power has also pushed gun control toward the top of my list.  Civilians in the United States own more than 300 million guns—over 1,000,000 purchased since President Obama took office—and the most per capital in the world.  Under “normal” circumstances, 33,000 people kill others or themselves each year. With Trump and his Alt Right compatriots threatening to reject election results and, in some cases, to storm the barricades, the threat level may have risen exponentially.

In the short run, guns will remain on the street, in individual hands, and in the hands of self-appointed militias, who believe themselves to be fighting for their liberty in the tradition of Revolutionary War heroes.  Should a succession crisis arise, the United States government would have to deal with treasonous threats—and, of course, treasonous actions—by meeting power with far greater power.  In the long run, we need to deal with the economic and social discontent that fuels the threats.  In the intermediate run, we need to get the guns off the street and out of the mountains.

You would think that the case for gun control is both known and broadly shared..  Some is but some isn’t.  Advocates of gun control cite the violence in the streets, the danger of accidental shooting, and suicides in our homes.  They point out  that criminals and mentally ill people should not be allowed to own guns. Duh. They frequently make allowances for hunters.  And they accept what they have come to see as the Constitutional right to gun ownership guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

During the second debate, Hillary Clinton assured us that she believes in the Second Amendment and that she only seeks sensible safeguards to gun ownership.  This fearful, compromised bowing down to a false interpretation of the Amendment has become second nature for virtually all American politicians.  In spite of the fact that both Clinton and the majority of Americans want gun control, the prevailing belief among politicians is that you can’t propose banning buns or even severely limit their purchase.  It would be fatal to their careers.  In effect, they have acquiesced to a powerful political minority, led by the National Rifle Association’s Congressional lobbying and public intimidation campaign—allied to a general right wing agenda, and supported by millions inflamed, largely male voters who believed they are being sacrificed to the interests of corporations, minorities, and immigrants.

The gun lobby is hardly satisfied with the acquiescence in this line of thinking.  They maintain that Clinton and all those like her are pretenders.  Once in power, the Clintons of the world would seize the guns of patriotic Americans.  Two-faced politicians would deprive true Americans of their ability to protect their liberty.  This, the protection of individual liberty, has become the true north star of the Alt Right.  The gun lobby and its protectors bellow that regulation is simply the start of a slippery slope toward the banning of all guns.  Banning guns robs loyal citizens of their fundamental, Constitutionally sanctioned rights and leads ineluctably towards an oppressive federal government.  It’s a simple, cause and effect formula.

On this one point, I hope that the Alt Right is correct.  I hope that we can ban guns from civilian use, with the possible exception of hunting.  The case for banning guns doesn’t seem hard to make.  There isn’t enough time and space to document the argument in this essay, but I can summarize it.

To state the obvious,, guns enable violence.  Second, do not help us defend ourselves.  There is almost no evidence—amid much research—that guns deter violence.  .  Third, the apparent truism that the Second Amendment was written to protect the individual’s right to bear arms, is false, or at best a tenuous, modern reinterpretation of the Amendment.

Until the 1970’s, the NRA had been an association of hunters, dedicated mostly to gun safety.  As Jeffrey Toobin has written, during that decade,  “The NRA and conservative lawmakers engineered a coup d’état at the group’s annual convention in 1977 brought a group of committed political conservatives to power—as part of the leading edge of the new, more rightward-leaning Republican Party…The new group pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms…At first, their views were widely scorned. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger,” a Republican, “who was no liberal, mocked the individual-rights theory of the amendment as ‘a fraud.’”

That coup d’etat, with sturdy support from an obedient Congress, established the norms that persist today and overwhelm majority opposition.  The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Until the 1970s, the interpretive emphasis was on militias, not individuals.  The United States had been a loose confederation of states, each jealously guarding its own interests.  Having come together to fight the British monarchy, they were wary of federal power—the establishment of a new monarchy.  To guard against the powers of a central government, they argued for states’ rights.  And to protect the integrity of states, the Bill of Rights, written by the nation’s founders, empowered state militias.  Individuals could own guns in the service of these militias, which could be mobilized when states rights were encroached upon.  This is the key:  Individuals could own guns in the service of militias.  And, of course, to hunt.  This was the 18th century, after all, and people hunted for their food.

We are now a nation — no longer a loose confederation of states.  There would be no contest between the federal armed forces and local militias, no matter how many assault rifles they could mobilize.  What’s more, the thousand or so militias currently active no longer correspond to state boundaries.  With the obvious exception of the Civil War, the democratic process established in the 18th century has allowed us to resolve our differences through debate and voting.  Throughout this period, political majorities win and minorities fume but, eventually the minorities become the majorities.  The cycles of liberal and conservative victories represent our triumph, not our failure.

According to the standards proposed by both the Constitutional Originalists, like Antonin Scalia, and those who see the Constitution as a living document that must adapt with the times, there is no logical, legal argument that favors individual gun ownership, and certainly none that favors assault rifles and other military weapons.  The Founders wanted to arm militias.

We, the people of the United States, have a right and, I believe, a duty to ban the civilian use of weapons.  It will save lives and it will thwart violent revolution. With the possible exception of our own American Revolution, revolutions have not solved anyone’s problems.  In the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, to name a few, violence begat violence; and violence, in turn begat tyranny.

It will be difficult, but not impossible, to ban guns.  It will require a sustained grass roots effort throughout the country.  It will require our belief that it is the right thing to do.  It will require stamina and courage for a long struggle. I invite all of you to think with me about how to build much greater momentum so. In the fight against guns.





Carving out common ground with blue collar White guys

There seems to be a virtual consensus among the journalistic punditry about the heart of the Tea Party: white men who are frightened and angry.  They lash out against any insult or imagined insult.  And, this portrait gets worse as we look down the economic ladder.  Once again, the poorly educated guys have the worst cases of White man’s disease.

But this portrait is drawn from a great distance.  It tells the story about the “other,” who is objectified and diminished in the telling.  There must be exceptions, but virtually every writer I can think of excludes himself or herself from this picture.  I can’t entirely do that.  I don’t share Tea Party opinions and I don’t vote Conservatively.   But I can identify with some of the feelings that drive these men.

We had no money when I was growing up in the Bronx and Levittown.  Later, as a teenager, when I delivered flowers in Manhattan, I would be directed to the ‘service’ entrance—I thought of it as the ‘servants’ entrance—and told to take ours shoes off in order to carry the heavy pots into the Park Avenue apartments.  I felt humiliated and angry.  I felt the same when I was caddying at a fancy golf club.

I  must have been forty years old, and very much a successful professional with a house of my own, before I could walk into a clothing store without worrying that the salesmen would look at me and say “what are you doing here.”  When we were teenagers, friends would borrow their parent’s cars and drive up to Great Neck to gawk like tourists at the “mansions.”  What I felt was not envy but anger.  I wanted to throw rocks.  I didn’t but that desire to get even—for what exactly, I don’t know—was palpable, and it’s not so hard to feel it to this day.

I imagine that many of the people who analyze the White guys come from backgrounds like mine, but they don’t write that way.  They hide whatever identification they might feel.  Maybe identifying ‘down’ would be humiliating.  Maybe it would put them in touch with uncomfortable feelings like raw anger and shame.  So, with some trepidation, I would like to offer my not-so-distant understanding of why the White guys are so angry.

To begin, it they are filled with a feeling of having lost something and entirely unclear whether they will be able to regain a stable and secure place in American society.  The loss of blue collar jobs to Asian factories and the decline in blue collar wages have become the iconic image of the declining White man in America.  But, however important it is to earn a descent living and to support your family, there is more to the economic situation than money.  There is knowing that you can help lift your children out of this depressed life.  There is the stability, emotional as well as economic, that a steady, long-lasting job brings—and takes away when it is gone.

There is also the sense of protection and belonging that came with union membership.  That, too has eroded.  And with it the ability to fight for one’s rights and livelihood.  Everyone can be angry, but if you have a union that “has your back,” as the returning veterans currently say, that focuses your anger through campaigns and gives you a chance to win against all those rich snobs, then the anger isn’t so bad. It can yield positive results.  Organized anger, even though it upsets people in suits, is superior for an individual White men, who now must hold it himself, knowing that he, alone, can’t fight and win the battle for dignity and security.

His declining standing in the family seems equally important and less understood.  With the flight of stable and sufficient income, men can’t easily claim their traditional place at the head of the table.  When women earn almost as much, as much, or more, then the challenge to family leadership is legitimized.  When fifty years of women’s rights activity has entered every marriage, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, then it’s a new game that men have not yet figured out how to win or even how to fight.  Among other things, it’s not clear who the judge or the sheriff is.  Who will resolve the fights?  By what rules?  By all accounts, the women are more adept in this court.  Men are humiliated by their incompetence.  When they are humiliated, they may turn to violence.  But that victory is always horrible to the women, sickening to all, including the children, and at best a pyrrhic victory for the men.

They may retreat to bars, to drugs, to binging on sports, to a kind of despair.  They can’t see a way out of their dilemma.  It’s a dead end.  It looks endless.  They feel defeated.  The more they fall to these despairing activities, the less standing and nurturance they have at home.  The less nurturance, the more they retreat, the more they are alone.  No family to have their back then piles onto the loss of unions and solidarity with other workers.

Family loss may (or may not) be most intense among the poor and working class men, but it is surely not limited to them.  There is a similar sense of displacement among middle class and often enough among well-to-do men.  How many doctors and lawyers, for example, spend long days at work, commanding respect from nurses and administrators, then go home to their families who, after years of the long work hours, feel more neglected than eager to have them.  These professional warriors are not welcomed home, not given their proper place.  So they stay longer at work and become more alienated from families, and so the cycle builds.  This is why they often vacillate  between feelings of alliance and distancing themselves from their working class brethren.

While these immediate losses at work and at home are the most devastating, the cultural changes that surround their personal lives confirm and compound their sense of being left behind.  Take sports, not participatory but couch-based sports.  The players, the heroes, no longer look like them, at least not enough of them do.  They are often Black and Latino.  That’s certainly true in basketball and football.  Not so much true in baseball and hockey, whose popularity has seen a resurgence these days.  Take entertainment.  More and more singers and actors are people of color; and even the White entertainers are too often liberals, who really don’t understand the White guys.  More snobs, like the Wall Street crowd.  Too damn many successful people look and act different.  The class divide has been exacerbated.

The very idea of success is passing the White guys by.  Success is for somebody else.  It looks and talks and dresses like somebody else.  Not even the army offers a redemptive image—not like the heroes of World War II.  The army guys return, often beaten, traumatized, without sufficient support for work and health.  They may be publically lauded as heroes but, if you listen to their stories, that’s not their experience.  Nor can the veterans point the way towards a successful life.  They’re not the road out of the White guys dilemma.  They represent another way that the road out is closed.  Success remains hidden.

I’m no different than the analysts in my dislike for the road taken by these White guys, the votes for Trump, the nativism and racism, the fascination with guns, the domestic violence, the disdain for education.  But I do appreciate what has brought them to this place.  I do understand their attachment to the Trumps and the Tea Party as symptoms, not causes of disaffection in America.  We have to find a way to join forces—with them—to attack the real problems that have disenfranchised them.  It is up to us, too.  If we don’t, if we keep our distance, then we are very much a part of the real problem.