Tuesday. June 23, 2015.
Had my morning ruined when a gathering of old grumps drove me out of McDonalds before I had even half-finished my coffee.
Plan was, after dropping Mrs M off at the bus depot, to set up shop at a window table and do some writing. I'd spread out my notebooks, powered up the iPad, and set to work, when I began to notice that the quiet hum of desultory but friendly morning conversations at the other tables and booths was being drowned out by another kind of sound. The harsher, more insistent, angrier, and louder barking, growling, whinging, complaining, chest-thumping, and territorial bellow of American men talking about politics.
I've been in groups of liberal men sounding like this. I've been the one making the sounds. But these days, when you hear it around here, it's usually conservatives doing the sounding off. Talk radio listeners and Fox News watchers imitating the shouting and yapping and bullying of the hosts, guests, anchors, talking heads, Rush, and O'Reilly.
I don't understand what pleasure anyone gets from sounding like this, let alone listening to it for hours at a stretch. I give myself headaches when I do it myself. And it's just as irritating and unsettling to listen to others do it even when they're shouting and yapping things I agree with. It's why I don't watch any TV news or bobblehead shows. Chris Matthews makes my temples pound. The other day in the parking lot of the grocery store I pulled in next to a car whose radio I could hear well before I'd reached the space. The driver, a man in his sixties, probably waiting for someone to finish shopping, was listening to some blatherer shouting into his mic at full volume. What enjoyment was he getting from that?
The shouting and bullying in McD's this morning was being done by a group of old men, six or seven of them, all of them white, taking up a row of tables along the wall of windows perpendicular to the windows against which I was sitting. They appeared to be in their sixties, all but one, at any rate. That one, grayer, paler, thinner, and frailer than the rest, was much older, well into his seventies, maybe in his early eighties. One of the others' dads, possibly. The others were of various shapes and sizes, but they were all dressed a if for outdoor work, in heavy-duty t-shirts and jeans or work pants and bill caps. And maybe some of them were on their way to jobs but no one seemed to be in a rush to finish his Egg McMuffin. It was early, for a college professor on summer vacation, seven-thirty, but past the time when most people with construction jobs or the like have to clock in, but it was a little too soon for a coffee break. So I guessed they were all retired, although a couple of them looked shy of sixty-five, and given the economic facts of life for older workers, it's likely some of them weren't voluntarily retired. Judging by their shared air of complaint, they weren't enjoying their retirements, not this morning, at any rate. But who knows? I need to keep in mind that all of us enjoy a good grouse session from time to time and they all might have been having good time together, the togetherness of it, the grousing and the Egg McMuffins being equal parts of the fun.
They were half the length of the dining room away so, loud as they were I couldn't hear their words, only sense their anger and resentment. It was annoying because it was distracting but I tried to shut my ears to it, concentrate on my work, and mind my own business. But there was one voice, louder, more insistent, more shouty, more bullying, more resentment-filled, and yet at the same time jollier than the others, and try as I did, I couldn't tune it out. I still couldn't make out all he was saying but some words got through.
I had to look over and see who this loudmouth was.
He was seated at the far end of the row of tables, as if at the head of a dining room or kitchen table, leaning back with a look and attitude of self-satisfaction. The way he was holding forth and the way the others looked at him as he did made it clear he was the president of this congress of grumpy old men. He was large, up and down, across and around, tall, with big shoulders, a big head, and a heavy but hard-looking gut. His cap was pushed back on his head and he grinned as he shouted and complained. His eyes were bright and alert with self- and general awareness---the eyes of someone who knew he performing and was enjoying his own performance and confident everyone listening was enjoying it as well. (My students see eyes like that at the head of the classroom regularly.) And anyone with eyes like that knows instinctively when someone new joins the audience.
He caught me looking.
He didn't acknowledge it but he knew and, ham that he was, he raised his voice so I could be sure to hear. There was something friendly in it, too, as if he was inviting me to join in the conversation.
"They got you by the balls," he said, "That's how the Democrats work it. That's how they are. That's how it was under Stalin. That's how Stalin and all those guys did it."
I didn't bite. I wanted to. I was sorely tempted to. I was close to saying. "You're old but you're not that old. What memories do you have of Stalin?" But I kept my mouth shut---for the moment. Instead, I decided to leave. I closed up my notebooks, shoved them and the iPad into my briefcase, did the juggling with my cane and my effects necessary to carry everything and not spill my coffee, and started to go. Then I noticed the sudden quiet. I looked over. They were all looking back.
The big guy had noticed I was getting ready to leave and he'd guessed why and wasn't the least bit sorry. He was looking right at me, grinning. The others had noticed him noticing and were looking to see what had caught their leader's attention. Their expressions were more quizzical but still hostile. They knew it too. My packing up and leaving was due to them and they were insulted without knowing exactly why, but just on general principle.
So I had to say something.
It should have been “Have a nice day.”
But it was, "How's that Medicare working out for you?"
They looked stunned.
Probably not because they thought I'd made a point. More likely because I had in effect called them old. They were stunned I was being that rude.
I should have stopped there.
"And the Social Security checks, they arriving on time?"
They looked even more stunned, although I thought the very old guy, the one who might have been someone's dad, smiled appreciatively. That's it, I thought. Game, set, and match. And it might have been if I'd been faster on my feet.
But the big guy had time enough to recover.
"Security?" he said with a snort and a laugh and a sneer all together.
He had me there. Nothing secure about Social Security these days, in more ways than one.
I left defeated on two fronts.