On the Road to DC: Washington, DC — On the day of Trump’s inauguration, we met two American university students, both Muslim. They’d been at the inauguration all day holding signs saying “Muslims for Peace,” and inviting passersby to stop and chat. We spoke with one, Sarmad, a 21-year-old from Centerville, Virginia. Here are edited excerpts: Continue reading
On the Road to DC: Natchitoches, LA — Chris Arnade, photographer and storyteller, did a piece not long ago on the role of McDonald’s restaurants as small-town community centers. It was a series of photos and quoted snippets from people in struggling economic circumstances who had, despite geographic and social differences, all turned to McDonald’s as a place to gather. The concept spoke to me, especially in the context of my own conversation mission. After more than a week on the road to DC, our sampling of the country still felt monochromatic, and we wanted to get further outside the bubble we were purportedly popping.
And so, in that spirit, we pulled off I-49 at Natchitoches, Louisiana to look for some lunch, and some spontaneous conversation. The immediate off-highway options were the usual fare, but nestled in between a Wendy’s and a Popeyes, in a town with a very small Latino community, was a newly opened family-owned Mexican restaurant called El Patio. Curious, we poked our heads inside.
Our waitress’ name was Edie, a young thirty-something who had come to the US from Venezuela, and we struck up a conversation in Spanish, as she had only recently moved to Louisiana from Miami and was still learning English. She helped me find what I was looking for on the menu, and we exchanged some pleasantries.
By the time we were done with our meal, the place had cleared out and I felt less guilty about taking up Edie’s time. Assuming I could predict her answer, I asked in Spanish, “So what do you think about the political climate here? If and when you think about it?”
She clarified, “You mean, what do I think about Trump?”
“Yeah, sure. Let’s start there.”
She looked left, looked right, and then leaned in so as not to be overheard by any of her Mexican co-workers. Then she stunned me. She told me if she wasn’t on a visa and could have voted, she would have voted for Trump.
“Okay. Interesting. And in a word, why?”
“He seems like the best choice economically.”
“And why is that?” I asked.
She looked miffed, as if my question didn’t read as sincere. “Well it’s Trump. He’s a very successful businessman.”
I asked Edie about the immigration issue, expecting to hear a concession on the subject, but again, she popped my bubble.
“The wall seems like a good idea. I support the wall. A country has the right to know who enters its borders. I’m here legally. I have my papers, I stood in line. So did my brother. People are coming in from Mexico illegally all the time. Why should there be a shortcut there? In Venezuela, we want to know who is coming in to our country. It’s fair for the United States to want the same.”
“I see. And what do you think about Trump, the man?”
“A little too aggressive, in my opinion. Not very presidential. Almost like a dog, always barking and trying to fight.”
“But you don’t mind that?”
“I mind, I think some of the things he says are wrong, but things he plans to do could be very good. People voted for him to make the economy better, and he knows business.
“But ‘the lady’ [Hillary] was no good. She never spoke to me. She never touched me. She was everything I think of when I picture a smiling, typical white lady.”
She went on for a short while on that subject, hitting on some of the favorite digs against Hillary Clinton—specifically that she was disconnected from the struggle of the working class—all while referring to her as “la señora,” or simply “the lady.” But Edie had work to do and we had taken up enough of her time, so I thanked her for sharing her thoughts with me and wished her well.
We said our goodbyes, but before leaving she asked me a question in return. She wanted to know what we thought of Trump, and by ‘we’ I took her to mean all Americans. “We’re divided,” I said.
“Well, that much is clear,” she replied.
On the Road to DC: Birmingham, AL — We met George Rudolph, a Vietnam war veteran, at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama. The park is kitty corner to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where in 1963 four young African American girls died in a bomb blast planted by the KKK.
One of those killed was Addie Mae Collins, the sister of George’s wife, Sarah, who was also seriously injured. The event is considered a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.
I walk up to George, whom I’ve never met, and ask if he’ll talk to me. His response is instantly friendly. I tell him about our ‘conversation road trip’, and ask him his thoughts on Donald Trump.
“Well…he won the electoral vote; that’s what he won. He didn’t win the popular vote. Hillary got that. [So] he might be president…but he ain’t none a’ my president.
“Man, any time you get up on a table and say you can grab a woman in her private parts…what give you the right to do that? But people still voted for him. So, my thing is, I wish him well, but he ain’t none a’ my president.
“When Obama was in there in the White House, man he had class! I ain’t never seen him all riled up, gettin’ mad or hollerin’ at somebody. This man [Trump], hell, he gonna be known for that if things don’t go his way! See, he’s used to havin’ his way. He got all that money.
George walks us toward the church, and toward a memorial sculpture called “The four spirits”—a tribute to the four girls killed in the ’63 bombing.
“You know about that church over there? Them girls got killed. One of them girls was my wife’s sister. Let me show you, I’m gonna show it to you.
He points to the statue of the girl sitting on the bench.
“That’s Addie Mae. That’s my wife’s sister right there. “
Then he points to a photograph embedded in a stone bench, also part of the memorial.
“That picture you see on the end, right here? That’s my wife. Her name’s Sarah. My wife survived that bombing. She was in the church that morning when that bomb went off and four girls got killed. She lost an eye in that bombing, but she survived it. Now she suffers with PTSD, just like I do from Vietnam.
“See, that was a powerful bomb. I was in church, I was in church on the south side, and when I heard that explosion, man, I said ‘God, no!’ And later on I thought, ‘how could anybody live through that?’ But she did; Sarah lived through it.
“There’s a lot of history down in this park. You see in this park, this is where…I don’t know if you heard of Bull Connor. He was the chief of police. He was the one that was givin’ the orders, turnin’ the dogs loose, and the fire hoses. He’s ridin’ around in a white tank, turnin’ them dogs on men.
“A lot of history here in this park, and over there in that church.
“This is a historical landmark. President just signed it, it says ‘Historical Landmark’. You are here in a historical place. If these grounds could talk…a lot of people…a lot of blood was shed here.”
I ask him what advice he has for people who disagree, to help them come together.
“Well, they’ve got to have love, see? If you ain’t got no love in your hearts… you got to have love.
“I can’t hate you for your color. You can’t hate me for my color. See, the Creator don’t look at color. He look at that heart.
“We must love each other. Until we bring that love back, this world gonna be messed up. You got to have love.”
“I got to love you. Then I got to forgive you. You see, that’s another thing. We got to have forgiveness. You hear me? You got to have forgiveness.”
“Walkin’ around hatin’ you, man…how can I hate you and say I love Him who I’ve never seen? You got to have love, that’s what’s lackin’.
“People don’t have love in their hearts. They just got hatred. All this killin’ is senseless, like right here in Birmingham…we set a record with homicide, man. People just doin’ this killin.’ And it’s wrong.
“When I went to Vietnam, I didn’t like that. I didn’t volunteer for that. The only thing I know is I got a piece of paper saying where I got to go.”
George turns away to hide his emotion.
“You see that’s another thing. What is war good for? War ain’t good for nothin’. Sendin’ some young man over there in Iraq or Afghanistan…what is the purpose? What are you accomplishing, being over there? Nothing. Then when you lose a loved one, then that family is messed up. They lost a son or daughter.
“So we got to have love, man. We got to have a whole lotta love. That’s something I think Trump is lacking. You know he got that money, and the arrogance, and he figure it’ll be his way, where he gets to say ‘you fired!’
“It’s gonna be rough, man! But I ain’t gonna look at that inauguration. I ain’t even gonna look at it. There’s a lot of hate goin’ on there. The KKK ain’t never went nowhere, but they comin’ out now, ’cause you see Trump is talkin’ their language.
“Like I say, that man’s in charge (points upwards). The president elect can’t do no more than what He let him do. ‘Cause that money can’t save him. You can’t take that money with you. That money there to help people. You can’t put it in that casket.”
Our conversation starts coming to a close, as other people call to get George’s attention.
“You say you gonna drive up there? So you gonna be there for the actual inauguration, that day, you’ll be there? That’s gonna be something to see. Well, you be careful, you and your son.”
We end the conversation with a hug, and I thank him for being so responsive to me when I walked up to talk.
“Yeah, that’s what it’s all about.”
Now, in writing up this conversation, I’m reminded of a quote from Maya Angelou:
“Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
Road to DC: Washington, DC —
I met Sarah on the Metro heading home after the Women’s March on Washington. I asked her what the march meant to her. Her answer traced her journey from anger and sadness to action. Here are some excerpts: Continue reading
Road to DC: Chapel Hill, North Carolina —
As I pulled our car into the parking lot of our roadside hotel in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a voice called out across the way. “You’re not coming all the way from California, are you?”
It’s usually the large ‘Pop the Bubble— a conversation road trip’ magnet on the side of the car that draws questions, but as the miles of our journey stack up, our CA license plate will do the trick too.
The voice belonged to Ron, a maintenance contractor for the hotel, who was standing outside under an awning in the light rain, smoking a cigarette.
“We sure did,” I said. Ron was surprised, and a little impressed.
“That’s quite a journey,” he said. And so I told him a little about why my Dad and I are on the road.
“We’re just trying to make connections,” I said. “Seems these days the news we see and the people we vote for would have us believe the two sides can’t ever get along. I’ve met all sorts of people on this trip, and there’s not one I haven’t gotten along with one way or the other.”
“If your car breaks down and the person who stops to help you has a Hillary sticker, are you going to refuse the help?”
This seemed to speak to Ron on a deeper level, and he launched in without any further prompting from me. I stood and listened, a deeper sort of listening that this trip has illustrated the power of. I nodded along as he bounced around between philosophies and anecdotes.
“I’m pretty close to deleting Facebook,” he said, nodding along to my point. “I mean these days it’s just politics or come to Jesus posts. I like a silly cat video now and again. It’s awful to see how angry people get about all of this. Trump and Hillary don’t think about us as much as we think about them.
“I saw a post the other day, a friend of mine got unfriended because her friend was a Hillary supporter and my friend voted for Trump. I mean, what about your friendship? How many years have you known each other? It all goes out the door because she voted one way and you voted the other? If your car breaks down and the person who stops to help you has a Hillary sticker, are you going to refuse the help?
“I do believe in the wall. And I want the wall on airplanes and boats and rivers, any way that people get in.”
“My transmission crapped out last week. Politics doesn’t have anything to do with the problems you face day-to-day. You think Trump or Hillary would give me the $1,100 I need to fix that? They wouldn’t think twice. But my buddy who’s owed me fifty bucks for a while now hears about it and immediately tells me to come find him for the fifty. How should I care in that situation who he voted for?
“Personally, for me, when it came down to it, Trump was the only option. Maybe Bernie, if I had really gotten involved and out there. But Hillary, I mean it was over when Bill was in office. When you allow your spouse to cheat, that says something; if the person you marry can’t just be with you, that person should not be in the white house.
“But why do we let it affect us? I have a friend who if I bring up my issues with Hillary, says, ‘don’t you say that, don’t talk about that.’ How can we not even talk about it?
“And I mean that same friend doesn’t like Hooters, either. I mean, it’s a restaurant.” I must have made a face here because he quickly abandoned that digression. “I mean that doesn’t matter, whatever.”
He took a breath. I decided to wait a beat to see if more would come. I was not disappointed.
“And you know, I do believe in the wall. And I want the wall on airplanes and boats and rivers, any way that people get in. People seem to forget that the word ‘illegal’ is right in there in ‘illegal aliens’. This country and the help it gives its people is for us. It’s for me, for you and your Dad, doing what you’re doing. Not for the ones sitting back with their hands out saying, ‘no hablo.’ You gotta be a part of it. I served, I’m a veteran, and I’m home now, trying to get by. If I get called back, I go to war again. But I do what needs doing.”
His phone rang then, and our moment alone was over. Work was calling, and Ron had boilers to install. We shook hands, I wished him luck fixing his transmission, and we went our separate ways.