Somewhere around 2000, I was living on a lake in Massachusetts.
One fateful day, I had a clogged drain that I couldn’t quite manage to snake on my own, and I had to call for a pro. I found a drain specialist in some print ad like a penny saver or whatever and called him in.
His name was Ray. He fixed me up lickety-split and in chatting with him afterwards, I found out that he had just opened this company and gone out on his own and that he was actually a fully licensed plumber.
So I suggested that he add that qualification to his advertisement, since it would carry more weight, and also that he could do, y’know, full plumbing jobs. Not just drains. He was aware of the internet, but it was still uncharted territory for him, so I made him an account on Yelp or something and wrote his first testimonial. That he was “excellent and quick and cheap as hell price-wise.” Because of that one thing I wrote, he got a ton of business. I never knew until years later.
Ray loved the lake. He just loved it. He couldn’t stop talking about how nice of an area it was and how peaceful it made him feel. And he wasn’t kidding about it. The second something opened up in the area, he grabbed it. It happened to be the house next to me. And he’s lived here for nearly twenty years. I moved to California for the better part of a decade and when I came back, Ray was still here. Here’s a picture I snapped just now, the view off my back deck. I have a little red shed on my property where we store all of our lake things, and behind it is Ray’s house.
Ray is a handsome, powerfully-built, single man in his mid thirties. He’s still a licensed plumber, and that’s how he spends his days and makes his money. He has sleeves of tattoos on his arms. He’s a proverbial “non-college white.” He’s super friendly, always says hello, and floats somewhere in the ether for me between acquaintance and friend.
Politically, he couldn’t be farther from me.
He’s been genuinely trying to wrap his head around politics for several years now. While he plumbs, working with his hands, he likes to play something to listen to. So, all day long, day after day, he listens to things like Fox News and The Drudge Report. Because they reinforce how he feels: angry and misunderstood and left behind. That’s their magic. Some people don’t want brightness of the future. They want the anger of now. And they want to know who’s to blame for it. And of course, that answer is simple: women and Blacks and Muslims. Duh.
So here in my peaceful, lakefront hamlet, my kids are running around the yard pre-election in Hillary shirts and Ray is wearing a ‘Hillary For Prison’ shirt. And some of you will wonder how I could stomach even being cordial to him. It’s tough some days, I’ll admit it. For him, too, surely, though he never shows it.
Over the years I’ve tried to nudge him closer to center but it’s tough. He was an ardent Trump supporter. And a bit of a kook. He’s said things to me like (in his pristine Boston accent) “I think the whole system is fahkin’ rigged, brother. Mahk my words: Within five yeahs we’re all gonna be livin’ in tents up on [our local shopping mall, built on an elevated hill], just fighting for fahkin’ watah and tryin’ not to eat eachothah.”
That was his five year prediction. Like, eleven years ago. Complete societal collapse to the point of rampant cannibalism. He’s only gotten worse since then.
But honestly, I just like him as a human being, as a person, and I know that he’s confused and terrified every day. The world moves quickly for him and he lacks the ability to grasp all of the moving parts of what’s going on. That’s not me being judgy either, that’s a direct quote from him in one of our conversations over the years. “Shit moves too fast, guy. I can’t keep track of it all, y’know? I fuckin’ don’t know what to think from one second to the next, to be honest.”
That’s a fairly common feeling, and all too often, people choose to let others do their thinking for them.
Two weeks ago, as the weather was beginning to make a break toward sunny here in New England, I’m kicking a soccer ball outside in the yard with the kids. Ray is walking to his car and I yell hello. He waves and comes over. He reeks of cigarette smoke and he’s drinking a Miller Lite.
“Ah…” I say, pointing to his can. “The Champagne of Beers!”
“Fuck yeah, guy!” He says. And then notices my kids. He’s not used to monitoring his own language. “Oh shit! Fuck, sorry!”
My kids back away slowly. A beer drinking, smoking, reeking, foul-mouthed Trump supporter is not usually on the menu.
“Knock it off!” I say to them, ages 13 and 11. “Say hi to Ray.”
“Hi Ray.” They sing in unison.
“Now ask Ray how it feels to have voted for an insane lunatic for President who wants to take away health care from all of us because we all have pre-existing conditions.” I say.
“How does it feel-“
“Whoa whoa!” Says Ray. “I nevah liked that guy! He’s a frickin’ nut.”
“You lying, two-faced, no-good-” I say.
Ray throws his head back in laughter.
“Eh. Nobody’s perfect.” Ray says. “You know I just couldn’t vote foah that Hillary charactah.”
“Why not?” Asks my 11 year old daughter, appalled.
“You evah heah of Vince Fostah?” He asks her.
She looks at me. I’m not sure she even knows what Ray said because his accent is so thick.
“No of course you don’t. Yoah fathah keeps you guys in, like, a fantasy bubble where everything is, like, balloons and fairy tales and sh- stuff. I get it. If I had kids I’d probably do the same thing. I wouldn’t want them to know about Hillary Clinton murdering people.”
My kids both raise their eyebrows and look at me.
“It’s true.” I admit. “Hillary Clinton, when she’s not fighting for legislation to protect the rights of women and children, is a ninja. A stone cold ninja assassin with a heart of ice. On dark nights she dons her black mask and jumps from rooftop to rooftop, murdering innocent Republicans.”
Ray just stares at me. Sometimes he can’t believe how good I talk.
“I can’t believe how good you talk.” He says, staring at me. “Jesus Christ. How come you ain’t in Hollywood?”
“I would have been, if Hillary had won.” I say.
“Oh fuck you.” He says, laughing.
My kids slap their foreheads. He’s hopeless.
“Oh shit, sorry.”
He knows my son likes astronomy and he has a genuine question about the asteroid belt.
“Hey you know that ring of, like, asteroids, and ice and stuff past, like, Jupiter?”
“The asteroid belt?” My son asks.
“Yeah.” Ray says. “So what’s the deal with that?”
My son is tickled and explains that it’s actually located primarily between Mars and Jupiter and what it’s comprised of and how it came to be. Ray is fascinated.
“You think the asteroid belt is cool, you should read about the Oort Cloud.” My son says.
“I love these guys.” Ray laughs. “Oort Cloud? It’s like talking to an encyclopedia.”
But the real reason Ray popped over is that he heard through the grapevine that my shower valve was broken. The outside lever snapped off and for a few days we had been using a wrench to turn the valve on and off. (Four kids and two adults with only one bathroom, so it can be challenging even when things are actually working.) Because the part of the valve we’re turning is plastic, it was deteriorating quickly, and being torn up by the teeth of the channel locks.
We had contacted several plumbers through Angie’s List, as helpless liberals do, but there was a bit of a log jam in the area and we didn’t want to pay emergency premiums. We were so desperate that I even inquired into plumbers with a ‘B’ rating. I know. I know. Perish the thought! But still, no one had availability. So we put ourselves on several cancellation lists and decided to wait. I’ve replaced several valves in my life and I have all the tools, and I mean all of them. Torches and solder and pipe benders and different sized copper cutters and every kind of tape and putty. But I fucking hate plumbing. I hate it and I suck at it and it takes me three times as long to do anything. Plus I was out of MAPP gas for my torch and all I had was propane and I can never seem to get the copper the right level of hotness to get a nice fillet of solder where it should be. Then I spend hours and hours plumbing when I should be doing just about anything else. Lady C and I made an agreement in our New Years 2016 planning session that I’d only plumb if I absolutely had to.
So anyway, Ray says: “Why didn’t you just come over and knock on my door?”
And I say “Because I was worried you’d be inside doing this.” And I raise my hand like a Nazi and start goose-stepping. My kids are looking at me wide-eyed. I start singing Deutschland Deutschland Über Alles and stepping around my front yard. Lady C opens the front door to tell me something, sees what I’m doing and shakes her head and goes back inside. Ray tries to wave to her but she’s gone.
Finally I stop and stare at Ray.
“What’s that, like Hitler stuff?” He asks. “I ain’t a Nazi, guy! I’m American. Pure blooded 100% prime beef red-blooded American!” He says, patting his chest.
“Amurican!” Says my son.
“‘Murica!” Yells my daughter.
“That’s right!” Says Ray. “Y’know? Like Don’t Tread On Me and Shit?”
My kids start cackling. My son asks me to make him that t-shirt in the Pajiba Store. Ray laughs. “They’re like little friggin’ clones of you. Look at ‘em! God help us all. I’ll be right back.”
He comes back with all of his plumbing stuff and spends two hours fixing my shower valve. It’s a particularly shitty job because the house is an old cottage and nothing is to code and he has to cut out a square of sheetrock just to get access and it’s generally a nightmare for him. I shudder to think how long it would have taken me. Months, maybe. But he does it and doesn’t complain and he plays classic rock the whole time out of respect to Lady C, whom he has a huge crush on.
“How’d you land a girl like that?” He often asks me. “She’s like the catch of the century. Classy. I wish I could have a classy girl like that. I’d vote democrat every day for the rest of my life if I could get a girl like that.”
“Vote democrat first and you’ll increase your chances exponentially.” I advise him.
“Fuckin A. I might.” He thinks.
Ray finishes up and when I go to pay him he refuses. That’s why I didn’t knock on his door in the first place. Because I knew he wouldn’t take any money. He has always been appreciative of me giving him that jumpstart via the internet when I had just met him and he was out on his own as a plumber for the first time. He’d never take a dime from me.
I offer to buy him thirty cases of The Champagne of Beers but there is something else he has his eye on.
“Guy, is your internet called Winterfell?”
“Yep.” We have that and King’s Landing because we’re bauce as fuck.
“Can I, like, jump on that? I had frickin’ Comcast and they fucked me and so now I got this T-Mobile hotspot but it’s a piece of shit and I can’t do my fuckin’ pool.”
His pool is a gambling thing which is some sort of NASCAR fantasy league. He’s obsessed with it. I don’t know what it is because he started to explain it and I held up both hands and pleaded:
“Stop! Stop! I’m getting dumber by the second.”
He laughed and pretended to punch me in the stomach.
I gave him the password and he was happy as a clam. He doesn’t know that Winterfell is the kids’ network. King’s Landing is where the pipe is. Obvs.
I helped him carry his gear out to his truck when he was finished and destroyed a brand new shirt of mine by getting solder flux all over it. I mean in like nine places. The internet said that you can get it out by using a mixture of water and baking soda and scrubbing it with a toothbrush, but the internet lied.
When all was said and done, the shower was working, Ray was greedily checking his NASCAR standings like a crazy person, and I shook his hand in thanks. And as my children watched I put my arm around him and said, “guys, this is what it means to be an American. Ray doesn’t hate me because I love Hillary Clinton and I don’t hate Ray because he’s wrong about literally every single choice he’s ever made in his life. We’re neighbors. And he has as much right to vote for an imbalanced, mentally unstable traitor as I do for the living personification of the American dream.”
“That’s right.” Ray nodded. “Except for the Hillary stuff or whatevah.”
“Let this be a lesson to you. Just because we have different opinions, that doesn’t make us enemies. If our country is going to overcome Trump, it’s going to take people like Ray and me coming together and finding common ground. Someday, we can all live in a country where we’re actually not humiliated on a daily basis by our government, and everyone has access to health care and education, and we don’t have to pretend to be afraid of people with a different skin color. We’ll settle our affairs with courtesy and respect and robots won’t kill us all.”
My kids nodded their understanding.
“You know, that’s actually beautiful, man. I hope we get there. Fuckin A.”
My kids shake their heads.
“Oh shit. Sorry.”
And with that Ray lights up a cigarette and goes on his merry way. Ray, somehow, in this day and age, both the face of the oppressor and the oppressed. Only in America. “Don’t tread on me and shit!” He calls back to us over his shoulder.
“I’ll try not to.”
I sometimes think of Ray and people like him as “the enemy” and wonder how we’ll ever get to that better future when people like Ray are so hell bent forcing the rest of us to stay in the past. My unwavering confidence and conviction about what’s ‘right’ irritates the shit out of him. His latent misogyny and homophobia and racism boggles my mind. And the road where we don’t just descend into outright civil war is fraught with landmines. But I really, genuinely like Ray and I have a hard time faulting him for reacting to a world that has kicked his fucking ass into the dirt since day one. I have a hard time faulting him for feeling confused and marginalized and made to feel utterly unimportant. He serves a purpose in society. He takes things that are shitty (pun intended) and broken and tries to make them better. I like to think I have a similar job description. My family is clean today because Ray is responsible and considerate and gives a shit, even when he doesn’t have to. And most importantly, Ray is waking up from his Trump addiction and seeing that disgrace for who he truly is, and if Ray can do that in a few short months? There’s hope. It’s tiny and far off and you have to squint to see it, but there’s hope.
There’s hope for us all.
Did you know that you can make ANY shirt at The Pajiba Store? Just pick a shirt you like and UPLOAD YOUR OWN DESIGN. We still get a bump for every shirt you make, even if it’s not Pajiba-specific.