Usually, we have to make an effort to understand. But sometimes a flicker of understanding comes unbidden.
My sister-in-law and I have a happy tradition. Every Christmas when we’re with our family in Des Moines, we bust out of the holiday scrum and storm around for 18 holes on a frozen golf course north of town. We’re the only ones out there—not even sure we’re supposed to be there, sometimes parked by a No Trespassing Sign—and it’s pure freezing joy. Can you tell?
And afterwards, we always repair to this plain little country roadhouse for a beer and a shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey!
Five or six years ago when this tradition started—just before Trump—Jeni and I knew we were in a country bar, and surely sensed that, yeah, the regulars there are probably not Obama voters. And maybe they would have somehow guessed we were city people? But who cared—it was a warm bar, and the bartender called us “hon” as she smiled and poured us another.
Couple years later, we sensed a little shift in the mood of the place. We felt more self-conscious as strangers in there—and thus, as, Possible Democrats. Or was it our own hyper-political paranoia?
Then, a couple years ago, we saw a shift, in the form of a life-size smiling, thumbs-up-giving Donald Trump cutout propped up in the corner. We thought about posing next to it for a selfie—tee-hee—but we didn’t, not wanting to make trouble, our judgment plenty sound even in the Fireball glow.
Well, Jeni drove past the bar a little while ago.
“It’s official,” Jeni said. “We can no longer frequent this place.”
Now we’re going to have to go to some upscale bar, where, though they have Fireball, it’s not already sitting on top of the bar when you sit down. It’s down below, and part of the price for it is the ever-so-slight disapproval the bartender expresses by taking one or two beats longer to “find” it. The same look you get when you order A-1, at Morton’s. Also at this upscale place, people won’t “have” drinks, they’ll “do” drinks, as in, “I’ll do a mojito.” And the bartender will squeal, “Perfect!” It will be terrible.
But the roadhouse is off-limits now, because based on the contents of our heads or our voting records, we aren’t welcome, any more than a Black person was welcome at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s in the Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960—any more than a Black person is welcome in some bars in Chicago, today. Sure, the color of our skin would allow us to “pass” at the Trump 2024 National Headquarters Bar. But even aside from the idea of financially supporting these truculent bunker-dwellers, how much Fireball would it take to give you the glow in such a sinister situation?
I can’t speak for Jeni, but for a straight white guy like me, this sense of unwelcomeness is a very unfamiliar feeling indeed—but one I’ve felt more frequently and vividly over the last few years of motorcycling through rural backroads around my country. Feeling eyes on you, in bars and greasy spoons. Wanting to avoid conversation, to drink your beer and get out of there. The feeling of being in hostile territory.
Now, I’ve been the rare white guy in a Black Baptist church, at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH headquarters, in West Side political meetings, at many of my wife’s school functions. I haven’t always felt comfortable, I’ve sometimes been looked at strangely, but in the end I always felt, essentially, welcome.
And now I’m welcome in another way, as some of my Black and gay friends might say: Welcome to the club.
Postscript: And lest Writing Boots readers assume my reporting is infallible, I sent the above piece for Jeni to approve, and she texted back this picture, reminding me that we in fact did pose quickly with the Trump cutout, in our Fireball glow, on the way out of our favorite roadhouse for the last time.