There are many great American contributions to civilisation: eight flavours of Dr Pepper, cheese-in-a-can, bacon bits, baconnaise, marshmallow as a salad ingredient, ads for products whose side-effects include “sudden death”, local sales tax, which makes every price end in .23 cents, take-a-penny-leave-a-penny*, “uh-huh”**, Adderall, beer’n’clamato, Piggly Wiggly, the post-nuclear-cockroach-like refusal to die of the Dave Matthews Band, the “clean getaway”***, Brookstone****, watching CNN at the airport, deadmalls, scary clowns, banning scary clowns, Oberlin*****, the small ads in The New Yorker******, the influence of David Foster Wallace. But among the greatest has to be the bar-in-the-round.
You know what I mean — a bar where everyone sits at, ’round, all four sides, with the staff in the centre. Yes, the Cheers bar, OK.
The layout is rare in the UK and Australia — in the US, it’s a product of the Dutch influence in New York — and more’s the pity, because with the architecture comes an ethic; if you pull up a chair next to someone else, even two or three chairs away, you need to make some sort of conversation. It need be no more than a few lines — if all you want is a sit and a bit of a think******* three exchanges will do it: “evening”/”evening”/”this is some weather huh”/”death is a flower and I am its garden”/”you got that right — Bud Light, please”.
It allows conversations to start among strangers, gives you an out at any time, imposes an idea of civility. Of course, most of the people involved are those who have the time to linger in a bar, so 40% of the conversation involves obscure hypothetical plots to rob a mail train, and conspiracy theories, but this may well be a not-inaccurate reflection of the obsessions of the general population. The Cheers bar is a place where you get your buzz******** on, until whoever’s been drinking shots starts throwing punches.
This one was in the wilds of north Philadelphia, where I’d gone to catch up with a gang called “Kilroy Rising” who’d announced they were having a tour of “Deplorables” (after the Clinton remark) around a dozen states, some mix of Bikers for Trump, convoy etc etc. Turned out to be another fizzer, even though I was late, due to a wayward GPS — “the taxi company is jamming the signals” — and there wasn’t much left, save for a few bikies. This is starting to be a pattern: big Trump rallies, a huge amount of online activity, and not much, otherwise, on the ground. Seems to me to indicate how much of such right-wing activity is not really oriented to steady action, but to the preservation of fantasy — something easiest done online or at a mega-rally.
So I waited for the Uber in the bar, in a place where it looked like no Uber had ever been, got a beer, and sat amongst the eight or so people there, most of them watching the news, which featured Trump’s detour yesterday, off the campaign trail to open — for a second time! — the “Scion” Hotel he’s made out of the Old Post Office in DC, on Pennsylvania Avenue. Scion, get it? The Trump brand is being retired. The Trump kids are running the old firm. In the single most Democrat area in the land — DC has three electoral college votes — Trump spent most of a day when he is running six points behind, selling his business and hitting back at the dozen women who have accused him of sexual assault. In Florida, he did a rally at a hotel and spent 15 minutes talking about how great the hotel was, how they’d put in inlaid marble, etc, etc, and got staff up to say how good a boss Donald was.
“He’s an embarrassment.”
“The man is crazy.”
“So you mind if I asked who you’re voting for?”
“With a heavy heart …”
The sole woman, in double denim and a baseball cap, gave a fake yowl.
“Dammit, why couldn’t God have sent us some better candidates …?”
She later described herself as a small businesswoman — and still later was on the phone begging her son to drive over and give her some more cash.
The general opinion of the good ole boys about Hillary ranged from mere dislike, to a spitting hatred when she came on the screen — “dammit, that w-w-w-w-oman!” — but it wasn’t hatred from the same source as you’d find at Trump rallies — that the Clintons are part of an Illuminati conspiracy to create a single cocaine market in North America under instruction from international banking concerns — but a simpler, base resentment across class lines, the professional elite lording it over the everyday masses, and a powerful sense that the Democrats were offering nothing that would make it worthwhile voting for them.
“See look at Obamacare,” said Steve, a sub-contractor. This was the day that premium rises were announced — in some states by as much as 50%. About 80% of people would have that covered by government subsidies — but Steve wasn’t one of them. “I have to find 900 dollars a month for Obamacare — or pay the fine and get no healthcare at all.” Nine hundred a month for basic, non-emergency healthcare. Even then, there’s a deductible — the amount you have to pay before insurance kicks in, which can be anything from five to 10 grand. So Steve is voting for Trump. “It’s not just Obamacare. I think Hillary has no honour, I think Benghazi showed that” — gah, Benghazi — “but it’s … well, what have the Democrats done? But Trump he’s just … ehhhhhh.” He went back to his beer, topping up the buzz.
It’s places like this, people like this, that give you pause — about the polls, about the forecasts. The suburbs of Philadelphia are ground zero for the defeat of Trump — you can’t win Pennsylvania without them, and Florida-Ohio-Pennsylvania was the Donald’s major path to victory — and Hillary is beating him here by 12 to 15 points, largely due to a stunning 20-point gap between male and female white voters in Pennsylvania. There weren’t many women in tonight, and that’s a telling fact; tired women at home, caught between work and childcare and housework, not drawn to Trump (but not promised much concrete or visible by Hillary, either), while men sit ’round a bar, deciding what we should do about Syria. Spoiler alert: show strength.
But mmmmm, ahhhh, yeah. There wasn’t a Hillary voter in the room. Or was there? There’s a lot of talk about silent Trump voters, but it might be the other way ’round. Maybe this wasn’t the place where you’d admit that, in the quiet of the booth, you’d pull the lever for “Her”. That would suggest an entirely opposite result — that her victory would tend into the eight- or nine-point mark, a real blowout. But who knows? Im struck by the fact that I meet so few Hillary voters and enthusiasts, and it reminds me of a recent UK election. No, not Brexit, which is a bit of a furphy, but the 2015 election, when Ed Miliband was polling well — and the only niggle in your mind was the fact that you couldn’t find anyone to speak of him in glowing terms. I wont be surprised if I’m surprised on November 8.
The Uber arrived. It was the Uber of a certain style, a black mini-entrepreneur, a big gal, with water and sweets in the back, Uber and Lyft stickers, a business card that offered bookings, airport runs, and interstate trips, and the Jackie Brown soundtrack.
“Hillary! She’s my girl!”
“What policies do you like most?”
“I dunno, but she’s my girl!”
On we go, through the suburbs of history, steered by a wonky GPS. Uh-huh.
*despite repeated attempts to abolish it, the penny remains US currency, even though production of each penny allegedly costs more than the coin’s face value. Take-a-penny-leave-a-penny is a tray beside the cash register in stores, in which one leaves pennies given you in change. If your total comes to $10.03, say, when paying, the cashier will simply take your 10, and then three pennies from the tray, to even up the register. These days, people leave nickels and dimes in the tray as well. Ironically the spread of single-tap card payment makes the chance of rationalising coinage and sales tax out of reach forever.
**if you get into a “thank you” cycle, say, two strangers opening a series of doors for each other, where a back and forth of thank-yous is required, then at some point, “you’re welcome” or thank-you is no longer required, and “uh-huh” (accent on the “uh”) suffices — but from the server only. If the accent falls on the second syllable, displeasure is indicated.
***an ablutions regime in which one uses both toilet paper and a wet wipe routinely. Created by an ad campaign by wet wipes manufacturers in which a family argued about the best term to use for the process: “the go-go”, “no, Southern hospitality”. There are currently four different toilet paper ads which discuss the defecation regimes in great detail, including one illustrated by a cartoon turd coloured lavender.
****a chain which sells executive toys, picture frames, silk ties, uh massage chairs, and a range of equally obscure products. No one knows what it is for. It’s like a prank that got out of hand. Heir to a chain called “The Sharper Image” which sold executive toys, and Trump steaks.
*****liberally liberal college in Ohio, Lena Dunham’s alma mater. Student union recently banned sushi as a form of cultural appropriation.
******mail-order Montana steaks, DVDs for your cat to watch, authentic hand-knitted berets, erotic conversation with qualified dominatrices.
*******the phrase “bit of a think” appears to be unknown in the US. I’ve used it several times, and the nominalisation^ process has always been met with total incomprehension.
********buzz seems to be a distinctly US concept, spread to a degree on Australia by advertising. It’s unknown in the UK or northern Europe, where the object of drinking beer is to get hammered as fast as possible.
^nominalisation: process of turning a verb into a noun