A television is playing in a Birmingham bar. The talking head is shouting politics. Most folks in this joint are below thirty, and aren’t even watching TV. They’re transfixed with the opiate glows of their smartphones.
The bartender looks thirteen. He stares at the television screen and says something under his breath. Something sad.
“This country sucks, man.”
I know he probably doesn’t mean it. He’s just upset. But it stings just the same, and I wish he wouldn’t say such things.
Still, maybe it’s not his fault. I don’t know what his story is, I don’t know what his beliefs are, but perhaps this boy has missed a few uniquely American blessings in his accumulated years of harrowed wisdom.
Maybe if he could see a few wondrous things in this country he’d change his opinion about us.
Perhaps he’s never seen things like big, neon-pink azaleas bright enough to give you trouble breathing. Those don’t suck.
Neither do the Waffle Houses lining the interstates. The shoebox buildings with the canary-yellow tops and the interior globe lights over the faux-wood tables. Nothing sucks about those. I’ve neither had a bad meal at such an establishment, nor bad service. And no matter which season I visit a Waffle House, it is always cold enough inside to hang meat.
The Everglades at sunrise, no sucking there. The Suwannee River definitely doesn’t suck. The fat-bottomed cypress trees, swollen with bayou water. Spanish moss—which, as it turns out, is neither moss, nor Spanish.
My bartender needs to see these things. They would bless his heart.
If you ask me, the boy needs to ride a riverboat on the Mighty Missouri at dusk, watch the shrimp trawlers combing Lake Pontchartrain. Or listen to stories from the roughnecks who raised beef in Ottawa County, Oklahoma. He should meet the roughnecks who farmed the oyster beds of the Apalachicola Bay.
And he needs smoked ribs from Kendall’s Barbecue in Georgiana, Alabama. Food that comes out of that tin shack is worth crying over.
He needs to witness Charleston at sunrise. Yellowstone at sundown. He deserves the right to see the outerbanks of The Old North State.
What the kid needs is county fairs, livestock exhibitions, and children with prize-winning show hogs.
A porterhouse in Kansas City. The Copper Art Museum in Clarkdale, Arizona. A hot-air balloon flight over the Appalachians. A ballgame at Fenway. The little horserace they do each year at Churchill Downs.
String bands, playing beneath festival tents. Gospel music with Hammond organs. Music from the bayou played on button accordions by men with white hair.
The kid needs to hold a butter-yellow Case XX knife in his hand. And he ought to own at least one Stetson to keep the sun out of his eyes. He needs to taste chicken and dumplings prepared by a woman who has raised seven kids without the support of a husband.
He needs to meet the Walmart greeter named Phillip. The hospice chaplain named Marge. The family therapist named Jason. He deserves to meet the truck drivers, the pipefitters, the songwriters, the storytellers, the novelists, the oil painters, the shipbuilders, the dentists, the hair stylists, the brewmasters, and the small-town principals named Barbara.
I wish I could take this kid to a Church of God chapel in Senoia, Georgia. Or perhaps a Catholic Mass in Valentine, Nebraska. Or a synagogue in Yonkers. Or the Green Cove Missionary Baptist Church in Damascus, Virginia. Or the Thai temple in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
I wish I could take him to any church house that backs up to a hayfield. The quintessential American rural congregational house. The kinds of assemblies that pepper this country from Missoula to Uvalde.
And I’d like to carry the kid to an American funeral. Like my grandmother’s service. Wherein a string of a million-and-three cars drove with their headlights on. I’d like the boy to attend an honest-to-goodness repast, and eat the food of grieving people.
I’d like him to receive a hug from an elderly Norwegian woman in Minnesota. I’d like him to taste pierogies in Lancaster County. Chilaquiles verdes in Taos. Crab cakes in Baltimore.
I don’t care what the suits on television say, kid. Don’t believe them. Yes, we have problems in this nation. Yes, we have haters. Yes, we’re a gigantic dysfunctional family fit for an episode of Jerry Springer. Yes, we have division.
But we also have pediatric oncologists, Fort Bragg, national park rangers, historic sod cabins, longleaf forests, Pikes Peak and James Brown. The sandstone arches of Moab. The beach bungalows of O’ahu. The 960,000 acres of remaining American prairieland. We have nurses, EMTs, special-ed teachers, janitors, meat-packers, cab drivers and bartenders. That’s us.
America doesn’t suck.
Your television does.