William Rivers Pitt | Rocks and Sewage, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love 2016

The first Tuesday of November 2004 came up drizzly and raw in Boston. I was living downtown at the time, a stout golf shot from Copley Square where John Kerry’s presidential campaign had set up for the evening’s election celebration, so I decided to pay them a visit. In between the eastern wall of the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church sits a smallish park, and Kerry’s people had festooned it with an intricate maze of fences and barriers to corral the coming crowds. Large projectors painted the library wall with the broadcast from CNN, as well as an Electoral College map of the country. Out in front stood a long stage with a forest of microphone stands.

I did not have a pass to get inside the fences, so I snuck in a side door to the Fairmont Hotel where the Kerry campaign had set up their final base of operations. The lobby was filled with well-dressed swells waiting for the show. Finally, a woman in a preposterous hat told me she had to go home, and pressed her VIP pass into my hand. I walked outside through the main doors like someone important and joined the mob just as night overtook the city.

It was wet and windy in the park, but I found a good spot with a view of everything and began waiting for the returns. Various musicians — Bon Jovi at one point, four gospel singers dressed in red at another — punctuated the suspense with song. Eventually, the numbers started to come in. New England, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania all went blue in rapid succession, and the crowd was up on its toes. Slowly, however, a tide of red flowed all the way down to Florida and began creeping west toward the Mississippi River. Ohio, all-important Ohio, remained dark as the red walked its way across the map. It covered Indiana and Iowa, crossed the river, took Colorado and Nevada, and the mood turned grim.

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Finally, the moment of truth arrived. Dead silence gripped the assembly as Ohio finally flipped to Bush, and that was that. I wiped the rain from my eyes, turned on my heel and left as the gospel singers came out for the fourth time. They sang a mournful “God Bless America” to my back as I walked out onto Huntington Avenue. A young man on a skateboard rumbled passed me bellowing expletives at the impassive windows of the Prudential Mall. Denying George W. Bush a second term had been the priority of many people since the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision came down on December 12, 2000. All those efforts had failed and were swirling in the gutters with the rain and the refuse.

My bar on Dalton Street was still open, the air inside steamy with beery breathing as the returns continued on the battered television in the corner. Kate the bartender looked like someone had burned down her house. She didn’t say a word, grabbed my mug, and poured me off a draft of the strongest IPA available. I don’t remember tasting it, and then it was gone, and then another joined it, and suddenly I needed to be home. I paid and pushed back out into the night to the sound of Bush congratulating himself with Dick Cheney at his side purring like a cat well-fed on the cream.

On my way home, I stopped at the 7-11 to grab something easy to eat. On a whim, I chose a can of Chef Boy R’ Dee beef ravioli, the comfort food of my youth. I eschewed a bag and carried it in my hand down the Southwest Corridor to my old, drafty apartment building. I was gripping the can as if I could tear it open with my fingernails as I tried to figure out how I was going to write about all this. In the words of Tyler Durden, I wanted to breathe smoke. I wanted to break rocks with a hammer. As it turned out, a rock almost broke me.

I came to the back door of my building and went for my keys. At that moment, a shadow among the shadows detached itself from the far wall of the alley and the side of my face suddenly exploded in pain. I went down on my knees as a large chunk of sidewalk pavement clattered to the ground. The shadow moved closer, sensing easy prey after having bashed me with a rock. At that moment, I rose to my feet with a martial howl that sent the shadow scampering. I chased him down the block brandishing the ravioli can like a war club until I realized that running hurt because my face had been smashed, so I stopped. The shadow escaped, but I still have the rock and the ravioli can.

The cops came — my shouting probably woke the whole neighborhood — along with an ambulance, and they checked me out while taking my story. One cop was particularly diligent as he scribbled in his pad — “So it was beef ravioli, not cheese ravioli, right?” — until they finally let me go home to my couch and some ice packs and a deep curiosity about what the hell could be next. After the swelling went down, I went back to my bar with the paving stone and a story to tell. After I finished, Mike the chef said, “I read that in the paper!” Sure enough, there it was in the Boston Herald police blotter: “Man Foils Mugging With Beef Ravioli.” The cop took good notes.

I’ve been thinking of that night often lately, and of another memory as well. In the summer of 1989, I worked on the maintenance crew at a camp in central Colorado near Buena Vista. It was an unspeakably beautiful corner of the world, the air was crisp and clear, and the work itself was great; I put on twenty pounds of muscle building dormitories and swinging a sledgehammer in an atmosphere mostly devoid of oxygen. You didn’t need a flashlight at night because the stars were so bright.

There was, however, one fly in the ointment so to speak. The camp’s septic system operated on the theory of gravity; anything and everything flushed down a toilet made its way through a series of pipes to arrive at an Olympic-sized pool down the hill from the campsite. To repeat: anything and everything flushed entered this pool, where some deadly maroon bacteria would break it down until it all leached into the countryside. It smelled like Satan’s own latrine, and on certain occasions became the sole responsibility of the maintenance crew.

Whenever the camp was overbooked, which was often, the pool became overwhelmed. When the pool became overwhelmed, it fell to the maintenance crew to deal with it. So, there were several days that found us floating on this demon lake in tiny metal rowboats with pool skimmers and barrels, tasked with unburdening the system one scoop at a time. We were in the middle of nowhere, and our supervisors made it clear that if we fell in, we’d be dead before we got to the hospital. I learned many things floating on that rancid puddle of doom, but this above all: Corn does not digest, and pool skimmers are a poor tool.

These two stories have been much on my mind as we careen toward concluding the quintessential absurdity that is this 2016 presidential election. With less than two weeks remaining, there is to my mind a distinct similarity between covering this thing and getting beaten with rocks as I shovel sewage, but in truth, that’s nothing more than poor-me hyperbole. It’s exhausting and dispiriting, to be sure, but the fact is that covering any campaign — even a berserk one like this — is a privilege and an honor … and they all end eventually, don’t they?

Those stories, however, mean more to me than that. If that rock had been thrown an inch to the left, it could have killed me or done serious damage. It put me on my knees, but I got up and kept fighting. I could have been like Michael and rowed my septic pool boat ashore, hallelujah, but I kept skimming the filth because the campers up the hill needed it done. I didn’t quit, neither did my crewmates, and as we hosed off the boats we took pride in an act that no one saw but everyone benefitted from. Even us, because everybody poops.

The moral? Get up, keep shoveling. Blood and stink wash off, but endurance and perseverance are always their own reward.