We had brought the drywall contractor to the customer's home, but we had not made him drink the beer. A homeowner might believe he or she would be better served by the sober, but many miles of flawless wallboard seams and acres untold of paint placidly applied attest to the good work and good will and good service rendered by lightly intoxicated practitioners of the finishing trades. So would it happen on the job I describe, but the customer wished to know when it would happen or how much it would cost.
“Will you be finished by Friday?” perhaps she asked. Or maybe, “Will it go over fifteen hundred dollars?” Either way, the answer commenced: “I'd like to tell you....” That is, realistically, it would be finished when scheduling and sobriety and ambition fell into a stable orbit. It would cost what it cost, labor plus materials, and if you could do it cheaper, why'd you bother to call me? But Frank was smooth. He always let 'em down easy. “Well, I'd like to tell you it will be done Thursday for twelve hundred....” The but was implied with such a beery-breathed force that no further elucidation or refinement was required. Frank was a customer relations expert, a great musician working the spaces between the notes to profound nuance.
The question has come to me. Its presentation varies: asked or demanded, begged, whispered, hammered home with too many exclamation points or question marks. It's a very good question. I'd like to tell you the answer. Well, yes, and I'd like to tell you what you can do. Should do. Might do that would be worth the time it would take to boot your computer or dial a telephone number or stick a stamp to a letter you wrote. I'd like to tell you there's a product you can buy, a solvent apply, a person or office or committee that, hired or engaged or directed or forced or frightened into action will get this job done. I'd like to tell you!
Frank and I, we're not bad guys, just bad liars. The job will take longer and cost more than the customer, operating on some inherent homeowner faith-based initiative (we have a budget, we have a schedule) wishes. We'd like to tell you what you want to hear, but you probably don't want to hear the unpleasant truth we'd tell you.
More than four hundred readers have e-mailed, written or called me in the past ten days, responding to my column of September fifteenth. Four or five found my message or its delivery wrongheaded, tasteless or “typical liberal rhetoric.” One, an attorney, faulted me for decrying wife abusers, pointing out that many men, most particularly he, were regularly abused, humiliated, worked over, bankrupted or emasculated by women. A gentleman from a southern state reminded me that poor blacks had it coming, most refugees were criminals. Another warned that I have “have lost the sight of Twin Towers in a smoldering heap, with thousands of lives up in smoke,” and invited me to join him “in a call to repentance to The Creator of The Universe.”
I answered the hundred or so that seemed most desperate for some human connection, for an acknowledgement that their passing my door had left a trace. Except for the tiny proportion of dissenters I previously noted, everyone agreed with me that our country has been hijacked by selfish, petulant, shallow persons of privilege and practitioners of the religion of Mammon. My readers weep for our children, our land, the diminished and hurting creatures with whom we share the ravaged planet. Women, especially older women, singled out my unflattering description of Barbara Bush. Old ladies are as angry and embarrassed to have her stand as a representative of their sex and generation as middle-aged men are disgusted to share time and space with her dull-witted son.
But so many then asked the question, “now what can we do?” Of course if you still find some logical connection between the Saudi Arabians who steered those jets into Manhattan and our never-ending assault upon Iraq (Rumsfeld says twelve years or so should clean things up pretty well), you just keep pumping three dollar gas into your Hummer and flying the yellow ribbon. If you don't see a connection between our crushing national debt and the tax holiday for millionaires and billionaires, you just tune up your residential security system, bar the gates and watch those unprepared, lazy, stupid renters and trailer dwellers go under the flood again.
If you feel powerless, if you despair, if reason and humility and decency and proportion appear to have been squeezed out of the conduct of government and business, if you suspect your own school board might soon require the teaching of evolution come with a warning label, if you wait in vain for the Democrats to remember they once opposed wars of aggression, domestic suppression and the unfettered accumulation of vast wealth by a favored or connected class, you may have become so desperate for hope, for encouragement, for a turn toward clean air and healthy daylight that you petition some inadequate, unknown, unconnected, powerless, partyless opinion monger from Maine for help.
One reader reminded me that Neil Young said “it's better to burn out than it is to rust.” Another said he turned in good times and bad to Bruce Springsteen, in particular to the assurance that “I ain't a boy; no, I'm a man, and I believe in a promised land.” As the politicians say at the end of their commercials, “I approve this message.” And I'll suggest a poster to hang up while you listen to those lyrics. Find a picture of Woody Guthrie holding that old guitar of his with the hand-painted sign on its top side: “This guitar kills fascists.”
I choose my words carefully: America veers dangerously close to becoming a fascist state. We fretted for decades about the communists; we should have ignored their patched and leaky submarines and paid more attention to the domestic cancers growing in our corporations and government and political parties. Bob Woodward, Watergate hero, now writes books glorifying George Bush. Things ain't now nothing like they used to be.
So I'd like to tell you that you can petition your government, that letters to congressmen will give them courage to oppose this domestic state-sponsored terrorism we live under. I'd like to tell you the press is a watchdog. I'd love to recommend a major party presidential contender worthy of your support. Well, that ain't me, babe.
You can't blame me, I'm stickin' to the union. Woody Guthrie has been dead for a generation, but because he didn't know fear, didn't worship wealth or respect authority or believe or tolerate lies, his life, his work, his songs endure. He was an odd little man, a vexation to his wife and children, an unlikely agent of change. He was sometimes crude. Another word for crude is direct, just as another word for “spin”, another reader reminds us, is lies.
So you're Woody Guthrie and you sing in union halls and at fairs and in bars and wherever people will listen. You don't have to paint that message on your guitar but you do because you need to say what you feel, even though they'll call you a communist, say you're un-American.
Cindy Sheehan got herself arrested in Washington today. Her boy is dead; the man who sent him to his death isn't smart enough to question the lies his handlers give him to stutter out, and he doesn't have the curiosity to question or doubt his own intentions or abilities. Neil Young wrote a song George Bush and you and I and everyone should listen to and think about whenever we get just that little bit too sure of ourselves in this uncertain, unsettled, dangerous work environment: “Why Do I Keep Fuckin' Up?” (I'll trust editors at the more squeamish venues where I'm presented to substitute a trio of asterisks for the three letters after that suggestive F.)
Karl Rove said she's “a clown.” Heckuva job, Karl, you soulless, black-hearted, corrupt propagandist, fixer, liar. Did I say “repulsive”? Did I say “clown”? I'd sooner eat jail food with Ms. Sheehan for a month than stand three urinals upwind from Karl Rove after he bought me dinner and drinks and a Potomac sunset cruise.
I write small essays that annoy middle-of-the-road Democrats, Godly persons of most denominations, business boosters, and at least one lawyer and one redneck and a couple Rush Limbaugh fans who've progressed to an uncharacteristically middling level of composition if not correspondingly rich degree of insight. My work occasionally embarrasses my wife. My children don't read me. I can only hope some odd bits of the cluster bombs I build nick a fascist or two before being repulped for the post-consumer waste paper market.
Listen to Bob Dylan's song about Lenny Bruce. “he sure was funny and he sure told the truth and he knew what he was talkin' about.” Do what Lenny Bruce did and Woody and Bob and what, on a good day with the wind from the right quarter and the thesaurus running smooth in the groove, some say I come close to doing before I unravel.
Forget polite. As Bob said to the band when the outraged folkie at the Manchester Free Trade Hall faulted him for changing his style toward the blues and rock and roll back in '66, “Play it f***in' loud! (Asterisks pre-applied.) Don't let lies omissions and coverups stand unanswered.
I'd like to tell you somebody will save us, but I've been in the trade long enough to know nobody rides up to save a laborer from the hard pick and shovel work or rescue a drywaller from lifting great weight. Talk, write, agitate. No retreat, no surrender.
Paint it on your Honda, grandma: THIS CAR KILLS FASCISTS.
Chris Cooper (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Alna, Maine. He writes a twice-monthly column for the editorial page of The Wiscasset Newspaper. Those essays are now posted on the newspaper's website because of the demand generated by Common Dreams readers.