Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Candidate I Could Have a Beer With, Part II

I don't like to think of myself as a racist. I grew up without thinking ever about the subject, didn't need to, but the hateful crap that my in-laws shout about makes me feel guilty about all those times I ignorantly nodded along with someone's vague view of blacks and foreigners, always stealing someone's job or other. In college, I hung out with a few black guys, and didn't find them any more or less worthy than anybody else. Hell, one dude basically got me through P. Chem. But you know, that place was it's own expensive little world, and nowadays I hear my father-in-law's voice in a lot more white people, and it makes me uncomfortable. It's gotten to the point that when I do meet a black guy--pretty rare--I fall all over myself trying to treat him like a normal person, which you know, isn't normal at all. I don't like to think of myself as a racist, but I have to admit, that's kind of fucked up.

Anyway, it had to be this sort of thinking that got me talking to this Barry guy yesterday. Here he was standing outside of my lunch hangout, a gangly scarecrow of a man, talking to one guy with a camera, and another one with a handheld gizmo that he was taking notes on. I walked up to the door, and stumbled a little. There have been a lot of strangers around, but like I was saying, I didn't want this particular guy to think we aree all a bunch of backwards hicks over here. Like a moron, I hold the door open and asked if they're coming in for lunch.

It took Barry a second to really register what I was doing--the air felt heavy for a second there as his partners stared at me--but then he gathered himself and said, "sure, why not." Joining me at the counter, and after we introduced ourselves, he told me that he was visiting, doing some "politics work" he said, and maybe I could tell him a little bit about life around here.

"You want a beer," I asked?

"All right, Bob. Say, do you usually get a chance for a long lunch?" He was being diplomatic. No let's face it, he was being patronizing--he enunciated everything like a teacher trying to draw out a six-year-old, and when he wasn't speaking, he slowly rotated his head in a vaguely upward direction, to listen I guess, but seeing far, trying to fit the kindergartner's story into the scheme of his big grownup's world. But he had a smooth, deep voice, and to be honest, it's nice to have someone act like they give a damn for a change, even if they don't, and it did evaporate my nerves straight away.

I explained: "They give me Wednesdays off. Save's 'em a few bucks on benefits to keep me short of full time. I'm hired as a contractor, sort of."

He pursed his lips and nodded. "And what services do you contract, Bob?"

"Geology. I advise some different companies in the Westmoreland Group about mining operations." The guy with the Blackberry was taking notes. I was uncomfortable all over again.

Barry took the smallest sip from his glass. "This," he said, is really excellent beer," and then pushed it away, leaving it untouched for the rest of the conversation. (It's not excellent beer at all.) "Coal is a vital industry, you know. Domestic, plentiful, big donors, important lobby. I can see how skilled geologists are important to the industry. I believe Westmoreland is a member of the National Mining Association. Tell me, Bob, do you work with clean coal technologies?"

"Basically, my job is to keep track of runoff patterns that result from mining operations. Take some measurements and surveys, make some estimates, turn in a report every couple weeks. Clean? It's coal."

"And how does the runoff affect the local towns? The wildlife?"

"Most of the mass ends up in the back woods, really, so it doesn't get a lot of attention. And we try to keep existing waterways going, sort of. But there's a lot of shit--excuse me--that comes out of there."

The truth is, I hate my job. The towns don't go away, but there are valleys out there full of rubble, yellow streams running off of them that stink more or less, depending on how recently the mines dumped. I stopped looking at Barry and stared at my glass. The guy with the camera snapped my picture just at that moment. Thanks pal.

"Do you drive a lot, Bob?"

"You bet."

"How's gas prices?"

"Through the roof."

Barry, still holding that visionary stare, tapped his lips a couple of times. "Now Bob, you pay a lot for gas. The way I see it, we have a basic tradeoff here, wouldn't you say? We should clean up coal mining, and inspire the industry to abandon mountaintop projects." He was making connections. As Barry got animated, he started thumping his forefinger on the table with each point he made. "We should invest in clean coal technologies, technologies that require the industry to better study the runoff patterns and minimize environmental impact. We should look toward exploiting our fuel resources in a safe and friendly way! Wouldn't you agree?"

I nodded weakly, imagining how my bosses would buy this, but I had to admit that even if it didn't accomplish anything, they'd probably need me to take more measurements and file more paperwork. I nodded a little more certainly.

"What's more, if there were alternate technologies--and I'm not just talking coal here, Bob, not anymore, but wind and solar, and geothermal" he wiped his arm across the sky, "there would be jobs for not just geologists, but all kinds of technical people. Can you imagine it?"

I supposed I could. Barry talked about jobs for a good while, moved into the cost of housing, and religion, feeling out the corners of my life with Oscar-worthy empathy, and pontificating out a grand story every time enough concepts had gelled together to make one. As he got going, his stature seemed to expand, his chest inflated and an imaginary wind lifted his brow. Every now and then, he decorated the perforamnce with a passable regular-guy laugh, and most of these landed in the right place, but I wasn't really adding much to the conversation by the time I got to the bottom of my glass. I thought again about how ridiculous I must have looked trying to act casual when we walked in. At the end of it all, Barry God-blessed me (an expression which always makes me uncomfortable), and the guy with the handheld asked me to sign something. Barry marched straight-backed and loose-limbed out of the restaurant as if he were performing a stage exit. I could practically hear the brass section crescendo and then fade with the closing of the door.

I stuck around for awhile after he left, thinking it all out. When I finally did get home, my wife was pissed at me for being so late. I told her about the conversation. "Did you say 'Barry?'"


"Do you know who that was? Jesus Bob, you're probably going to end up in a political anecdote."

I don't really follow politics, and my wife knows this, but here was my rare spotlight. I did my best to grunt something confident but noncommittal.

"Well," she went on, "what do you imagine he'll do about all of those things?"

"Do? You know Hon, I think he's going to do pretty much the same old shit. But it sure sounds nicer coming out of his mouth."

She thought about this for a second or two. "Bob?"


"Let's not tell my Dad about this."

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