I worked five shifts at the bar between Saturday and Saturday this week, and saw some things that really got me thinking about the nature of this nation. I knew this already, but my week on the sidewalk really brought it home: this is a truly ridiculous country, in every positive and negative sense of the word.
The week began with a swarm of union delegates arriving at the hotels down the street. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) was holding its 39th International Convention at the hall down the way. For those not in the know, AFSCME is part of the AFL-CIO, and is one of the largest unions in the country. It represents some 1.4 million workers through 3,600 locals in 46 states. On the table at their convention were a variety of resolutions, but none more significant than the election of a Secretary-Treasurer, an incredibly important position in any union. Two main candidates were in the running – Lee Saunders and Danny Donohue – and at the outset of the week, the conventional wisdom had Saunders winning in a walk.
Supporters of Donohue, however, had other ideas. The election was slated for Thursday morning, and starting on the Saturday before, Donohue’s people turned my bar into a makeshift headquarters/decompression chamber while they plotted an insurgent campaign to get their man in. A great many of them smoked, so the sidewalk where I stand post became a very small, butt-littered public square, and I was able to gather exactly what was going on. By Tuesday, the excrement had hit the wind machine after a tense confrontation on the convention floor, and by Wednesday, all available data suggested the race was tied. Only a few of Dohonue’s people came in Wednesday night; they all had to be sharp for the vote in the morning, but the few I did see told me there was absolutely no way to tell how the thing was going to shake out.
When I got to work Thursday afternoon, a clutch of my new regulars were gathered at the corner of the bar staring quietly into their beers. I asked what happened, and they shook their heads; Lee Saunders had defeated Danny Donohue 652,660 to 648,356, a margin of 4,304 votes. Some 3,900 blank ballots had been turned in, several more had been double-marked and were therefore invalid, and a third minor candidate named Mark Foley had pulled 1,489 votes for himself.
The margin was excruciating, but as the evening progressed, I watched those guys slowly but steadily shake it off. None of them had ever done anything like this, never organized a campaign of any kind, and certainly had never made a run at a well-entrenched and heavily-favored opponent. Coming within 4,000 votes of victory was, they realized, a tremendous accomplishment. Now they had an organization, willing volunteers, and a very viable candidate, and the next election for Secretary-Treasurer was only two years away. They would be ready next time, and I wouldn’t bet against them. Later that night, one of them came back to the bar and gave me a little green pin representing his local. I’ve been wearing it ever since.
Later on Thursday, two men and a woman came to the door. Both men smoked, so I had a number of chances to talk to them out there on the sidewalk. The one with the shaved head was a Marine who had just been released from Bethesda Naval Hospital. The reason for his hospital stay was a long, jagged scar across the middle of his left forearm, the result of a bullet he took while deployed in Afghanistan. His friend was also a Marine, and was actually the corpsman who tended to the first fellow’s wounds on the battlefield.
I listened to their tales of combat, which they were more than happy to tell, and was awed at the way they were able to laugh about experiences that would have literally frightened me to death. At one point, the wounded one was talking about IEDs. “Oh hell,” he said, “I’ve been blown up a whole bunch of times. Who hasn’t?”
“Me,” I said, and he laughed, because he could, because he’s still here.
Both men were wildly and enthusiastically happy to be home, and the wounded man was looking forward to a medical discharge; after three tours in Iraq, a fourth tour in Afghanistan, a bullet wound that left his left arm almost completely without strength, and “more dead friends than I can count,” his final word on the subject was, “Yeah, I gave at the office.” At the end of the evening when they left, I shook their hands, thanked them for their service, and for something like the sixth time that night, offered them a heartfelt welcome home.
Ridiculous. The whole thing, and in every way.
Here is a country whose still-lingering greatness was born on the backs of workers who unionized against the will and wishes of the great powers of capitalism. Yet here also is a country where the vital lessons of that effort have been largely disparaged and forgotten, because the truth of those lessons still discomforts those great powers. This week, the progeny of those early organizers used the democratic process to make progress for themselves and their fellow members, and even in defeat were magnificent.
Here is a country that makes men of such courage that they volunteer to die thousands of miles from home, who scramble to save each other when the bullets are flying, and can still smile about it. Yet here also is a country that takes men of this caliber and throws them – not once, not twice, not three but four times – into a meat-grinder based on lies and the desire for profit and power. If the man I met hadn’t been shot, like as not he’d either still be in Afghanistan, or would be gearing up for a fifth trip to the other side of the world.
Happy birthday, you ridiculous nation. You are a great and terrible place, and you must do better. Not just because you have to, which you do, but because you can. You have the necessary pieces, and you have the potential. I know, because I saw it all week long on my sidewalk.