Yesterday I drove over to the local shopping center to do a few errands, planning to treat myself, post-box-store, to some browsing at the bookstore. The parking lot was crowded already at 11:00 am, and inside the big box the checkout lines went back into the aisles. I hurried to get the supplies I needed, and then picked up a bottle of lotion in cosmetics. There were a lot of couples in the store, some with children, some without. Most of them seemed to have come into town for a little Sunday recreational shopping, and they were from the lowest economic segments of local society. I looked at the faces as they passed me: rough, hard-looking men wearing caps and overalls, camouflage barn jackets, snowmobile parkas in dark green, dark blue, brown; women with pinched, hard-luck faces and unwashed hair. The complexions were sallow and unhealthy, the bodies either hugely overweight, it seemed, or gaunt and nervous, most likely propelled through each day by cigarettes and coffee. Back at the checkout lines, people waited herdlike, dull expressions on their faces, their carts piled with plastic. I glanced over my shoulder, looking for kindness and a glimmer of somethign beyond emptiness; listened to snatches of conversation, hoping for a bit of liveliness rather than the predictable crudity and coarseness. On this day, I found neither.
I knew these people once: I grew up among them, went to school with their children. Parts of my own family aren’t far from this. Back where I came from, they had (and many still do have) hard but decent jobs on farms and in the feed mills, or maybe they ran a small engine repair shop or worked as mechanics keeping farm machinery going. Some couples ran small subsistence farms up in the hills. They were often shy when venturing into town to shop for a birthday present or fill a prescription, but in a small town community where everyone knew everyone else, and people needed each other, life was less stratified and people felt like they were part of a continuum and a natural order; everyone had a place and a legitimacy.
Oh, God, what’s happened to my country? That’s all gone in Vermont now. Today there are the people who have money and opportunities, and those who do not -- and wipe the tables for those who do. There’s a difference between milking cows and plowing fields all your life, and working on the lowest rung of a nursing home, or a cafeteria kitchen or fast-food joint, or on an assembly line if you’re lucky enough to have one of the manufacturing jobs that’s still left. Or maybe you can work on a road crew in the summer, and sit home all winter in front of the television, collecting unemployment and yelling at your kids and your wife because you’re bored and despairing and there’s not a chance in hell that tomorrow or next year or ten years from now will be any different. That hopelessness and resignation is what the people in the checkout lines had in common yesterday. They also agree on the omnipresent “They” -- the ones they blame for their troubles: the Company, the Government, the Rich.
I look in their eyes trying to see something other than emptiness; once in a while you do but not often. They don’t have health insurance or dental care, they hate intellectuals and liberals with a passion. Some of them were in the military and now have kids in Iraq. They believed in weapons of mass destruction, and probably still do.
They’re too easy a target. I want to blame and despise them, but I know too much. The script was written for most of them they day they were born; the educational system didn’t do a damn thing for them – and yet they cling to something called the American Dream, and stick red white and blue ribbons on their pickup trucks, all the while getting screwed over one more time.
From the box store I walked as fast as I could over to Borders. I walked straight through the new¬eworthies, the travel section and the romances and science fiction, into the far corner where an island of poetry books sits surrounded by a quiet reef of literature. I sat on a blond wooden bench and read Seamus Heaney like a half-drowned woman gulping air. Every now and then I heard a bit of conversation from the checkout line. Someone had run into old friends; they talked about their purchases. “People say the late quartets are the best,” a man’s voice said. “But I like the middle ones.”
After a while I chose Heaney’s recent Selected Poems, Opened Ground, and stood up. A serious young man walked in, and took my place on the bench.
In front of me in line was a spry middle aged man and his grandson, a little boy of three or four, who was clutching a children’s book. The man had on a hand-crocheted cap of turquoise cotton, and sparkly eyes. “You can pay for it yourself,” he told the boy.
“How do I do it?” said the boy, looking up, his blue slicker falling off his shoulders.
“With these dollars you’ve got in your pocket,” said the grandfather, pulling three bills out and showing them to him.
“But how…how do I do it?” pleaded the boy, in a rising, worried soprano.
The grandfather glanced at me and smiled, knowing I was listening. I smiled back. He got down and explained to the boy how they’d go up to the counter, and what the cashier would ask, and how the boy would hand him the book and then the dollars. The little boy still looked nervous, but the grandfather took his hand and said, “You can do it, it’ll be fine. And I’ll be right here with you. It’s easy, you’ll see. It’s just that this is the first book you’ve ever bought all by yourself.”
“Next!” said the cashier.
“Here we go, it’s our turn!” said the grandfather, glancing back at me. I smiled, and turned away quickly so he wouldn’t see my welling eyes.