THOLOS OF ATHENA

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

THE FIRECRACKER MAN

My friend, Benny H— and I had lunch today at Luby’s. Benny sells firecrackers. Has a huge firecracker stand just up the road from a small town northwest of here. It’s not one of those big new steel buildings with air conditioning in it, which are gradually taking over all the firecracker business in the country. Pretty soon, Benny thinks firecrackers will go the way of everything else and end up in the hands of Walmart, and all the little guys like him will be out of business.

But for now, Benny’s stand is the old style wooden structure, with hatches that open in the front, where people walk up, swatting the bugs away from their faces, and pick out their fireworks. Over five or six years, Benny’s fireworks stand has grown from a single-hatch structure roughly eight feet long, to one with six hatches that is probably fifty feet long, festooned with lights and little triangle flags fluttering in the breeze. He has cornered the firecracker business in his little neck of the woods.

Benny’s about sixty years old, his beard is thick and grizzled. He walks around in a squat compact body with a paunch that comes of being addicted to key lime pies and black forest cake. He is not your average firecracker salesman. Not that I know what your average firecracker salesman is like, but, for some reason, I don’t believe they tend to be yellow dog Democrats with the word “Peace” emblazoned on their gimme caps, or sporting buttons on their shirts that say things like, “He Lied They Died,” and “I didn’t vote for his daddy either.” And I seriously doubt very many firecracker salesmen would call themselves agnostics, or be caught red-handed attending services at the Unitarian church.

Before the Iraq war broke out, Benny and I took the train to San Francisco and marched in the big peace parade. A month later, we got in his old car and drove to D.C. and marched in that one. I think I’ve about gone broke marching for peace over the last couple of years, but I just felt like I had to do it.

Benny doesn’t hesitate to offer his opinions about things, especially politics. Once he gets revved up, he transmogrifies into something like three parts stump preacher and one part auctioneer. When he really gets going, his eyes water, his nose runs and flames shoot out of his head. It’s quite a sight, really. At that point, people tend to steer a wide circle around him. Women gather up their children and run the other way.

Nor is Benny afraid to tell certain people in the Republican camp what he thinks of them. Back when the Neocons in the Texas Lege were in the midst of their redistricting fiasco, lead by Governor Perry, Tom Delay, and various other hammerheads, you may remember that fifty-plus Democrats hopped a bus to Ardmore, Oklahoma in an effort to prevent a quorum and obstruct the vote. For four days, the “Killer D’s,” as they became known, hunkered down in a Holiday Inn, subsisting on fast food from the nearby Denny’s. Delay, who is now under investigation for a truckload of criminal shenanigans, called out the state troopers and even tried to shanghais the Department of Homeland Security to help round up the wayward Dems.

When a group of Republican hecklers showed up at the motel, a rag-tag assortment of Democratic supporters, including Benny, drove up to show their solidarity with the Killer D’s. Benny said he was standing with his little group, facing an angry horde of Repubs, some of whom had even brought their children with them to heckle and hurl insults at the Texas lawmakers.

At one point, Benny broke ranks and walked over close to one of the shouters, a guy dressed in a blue blazer, Sanzibelt slacks and Florsheim shoes. He had a scowl on his face. Several kids were standing close to him, Benny said, and even they were dressed in nice little shirts and ties and leather shoes. They, too, had scowls on their faces and stood there shouting, just like the grownups.

“Where you from?” Benny said to the guy in the blue blazer.

Blazer blinked, looking kind of nonplussed. “Dallas,” he responded. “Where you from?”

“Aw, I’m from down around there.” Benny paused, looking from the blazer to the kids, all forming a little chorus line. Suddenly, he said, “Say, where’d you get all these baby bigots?”

Benny said the guy kind of came unglued, huffing and gasping for breath. Couldn’t seem to get a word out. Benny chuckled, turned and walked back to his group.

After we ate at Luby’s, we went driving around in his pickup, an old Chevy Apache with mismatched fenders. As we cruised through some of the wealthier neighborhoods, I said, “Something odd’s going on here.”

“What’s that?” Benny said.

“Well, where are all the yard signs for the Republicans?”

I just wasn’t seeing as many this year—or bumper stickers, either, for that matter. I don’t think it’s my imagination. I’ve really been watching this phenomenon—if that’s the right word. Maybe it doesn’t rate being called a “phenomenon” quite yet. But I do know that in past campaigns, you couldn’t drive through these Taxed-Less neighborhoods without seeing one Republican sign after another.

On the other hand, I pointed to quite a few Kerry/Edwards signs—even in front of some of the wealthiest homes. We both agreed they looked sort of strange there, as if some alien virus had broken out.

“So what do you think it means?” I said, referring to the low number of Republican signs.

Benny said, “Aw, well, don’t get your hopes up. Nothing’s changed. They’re still gonna vote for the bastards. They just don’t necessarily want to advertise it, that’s all.”

“Why not?” I said.

“Well, because by now, I think most people can see what rats Bush and Cheney actually are. At least people with any sense can see it. Especially after the first debate, where Bush finally had to go up against somebody who had all the facts, and could stand up straight and tell the truth about this war, not only because Kerry’s obviously light years smarter than Bush, but because he was actually in a war, while Bush was out running around getting drunk, terrorizing people in his car, and shirking his National Guard duty. So, there he was on national TV, flying without a script, without Rice or Rove or Cheney there holding his hand—and let’s face it, all that preening and prancing around on the deck of an aircraft carrier just comes off hollow as hell when you’re standing alongside a real war veteran—and after all the stumbling and stammering through his memorized sound bytes, well, Bush just looked like a big kid with a cowlick, without a lick of sense. And anybody that tuned into that debate could see that for themselves. Unless they’re as dumb as he is. In which case, you could put a jackass in front of ‘em and they’d still swear it was a cutting horse. So—“ Benny scratched his head. “What was I saying?”

“You were saying they’re gonna vote for Bush, even if they don’t put out yard signs.”

“Oh, sure, of course! All these Republicans around here are gonna vote for their boy—it’s like they’re sayin’, 'Well, he may be a doofus, but he’s our doofus.' See what I mean? But some of ‘em—well, maybe even most of ‘em—still have a tiny smidgen of decency left in 'em, even though it’s buried pretty deep—you know a lot of ‘em probably voted for Eisenhower, and he was a very decent man, a towering war hero. Old Ike would have been appalled at the cretins that are in charge now. So all these folks around here have got just enough sense to be slightly ashamed, but not enough to do what’s right. It’s like masturbation. They’re still gonna do it, they just don’t want everybody knowing they’re gonna do it, see? Heh heh. Hee hee hee.”

“I see,” I said.

What I can’t see is what the payoff is. After all, it seems to me that if anybody oughta be truly scared of this administration, it oughta be rich people. So maybe they don’t give a rat’s ass that Bush lied about WMD’s, that Cheney, Rice, Powell, Rumsfeld, are all liars, who have turned the whole civilized world against us, and maybe they don’t care that young Americans are dying and getting maimed for no good reason. And maybe they think all those Iraqi men, women and children getting slaughtered on the other side, is just fine and dandy.

But that still leaves us with self-interest. What’s happened to that? Rich people still want to make money, don’t they? And I suppose they still want to live in big houses with swimming pools, and have their Hummers and their cell phones and their Hispanic housekeepers; and they still want their sons to grow up to become rich fat cats like Daddy, and they want their daughters to join sororities and marry rich white boys, like Mommy; and I know they’re not ready to stop using up the world’s water supply watering their golf courses and their voracious lawns. Yet, they go right on supporting this Kamikaze President that is leading the country straight into a pit of bankruptcy, whose program of perpetual war will only continue the process of breaking the country, and destabilizing the world. Meanwhile, the death and destruction we’re visiting on Iraq will go on generating more terrorists, not fewer, thereby increasing the chances that we'll be attacked again.

It doesn’t take an economic guru to figure out what effect all this craziness and instablity is likely to have on the U.S. stock market—perhaps for years to come. In fact, if we continue driving insanely down this road, the whole notion of the market as being a dependable investment strategy over the long-term may be finished. Of course, most of us normal people could give a fuck less about that. The rest of us are too busy dealing with every day reality, like trying to pay the water bill when the car breaks down and the kid gets sick and there’s no health insurance and you’re trying to make ends meet on a paycheck from Walmart.

But I just keep wondering why all these rich people are voting for Republicans, when they have so much more to lose than the rest of us. They’re not all crazy, are they?

Well, there’s plenty of poor people voting the same way, which really is the flip-side of the mystery, almost as mysterious as why the Log Cabin Homos are hanging out in the enemy’s camp, where they’re hated and reviled. What is it with all these folks going around shooting themselves in the foot? What is the payoff?

“I’ll tell you what it is,” says Benny. “The payoff is this. They get to keep their illusions. The illusions are more important than reality. It’s the illusion that they’re winning even when all the facts are telling them they’re losing. It’s the illusion that God, gays and guns matter more than education, health care and a living wage. Most of them have never been winners in their lives. Especially the Evangelicals. Now, for the first time, they’ve got a president who does their bidding, actually panders to them. Imagine that! The leader of the free world actually validating all their craziness! So you’ve got the corporations getting everything they want, the polluters are having a field day; Bush has fired all the scientists, so there’s no global warming to worry about; Halliburton is making a billion a month in Iraq; we can run amok in the world and there’s no World Court that can rein us in; in short, every cross-eyed, gap-toothed lunatic and money-grubbing greedhead in the land has moved to the front of the line. The only ones left out, as far as I know, are believers in Sasquatch, UFOs and Star Trekkies. Well, the only thing they lack that all these other crackpots have are lobbyists. Ah, give ‘em time.”

Benny paused a moment to chuckle and catch his breath. We drove along past manicured lawns and stately homes. Then, I heard Benny chuckling again. “Did you know the Republican National Committee has sent out a mailer to residents of Arkansas and West Virginia telling them that liberals would seek to ban the Bible if elected?”

“No, I hadn’t heard that,” I said.

“You need to keep up Harper. These sharks never sleep. Karl Rove works around the clock. The Evangelicals are telling their minions to vote ‘Christian,’ i.e., vote for Bush. Meanwhile, the Pope has weighed in, ordering all the members of his flock not to vote for any candidate that supports abortion rights. Yessir, they’ve decided that God is a Republican. And Ken Lay is the new Jesus. Only, instead of giving up his own life so that others could be free, Kenny Boy sacrificed all his worker’s lives, so that he and his disciples could grow rich and fat.”

Once again, Benny sighed and shook his head. “I tell you, religion hasn’t been this fucked up since the Salem witch trials.”

By the time we got through driving around worrying about everything, it was time to eat again.

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