A short time ago, in a democracy far gone away . . .
BROKE ONE: AN ORANGE WARS STORY
Friday, January 20, 2017 . .
It was a dark time in the galaxy. When last we left our hero (?), the force-sensitive nomad known as Droop Brokeballer, he was staring skyward from the planet of Scarif (the District of Columbia) as the terrible Trumperor Tangerine and his crony the Pencellor aimed their dreadful Death Star (the Trump Administration) at the Imperial research facility (the White House) in an apparent act of self-sabotage.
Droop was assigned a double shift waiting tables at this planet’s rough equivalent to the infamous Mos Eisley Cantina; one of the universe’s seediest dens of skullduggery and scoundreldom, fueled by Corellian brandy and feared by most. Brokeballer certainly didn’t look forward to serving food to the misguided minions celebrating the coronation of their orange, I mean, august Trumperor. But as a Rebel spy, he was willing to endure this assignment if it could glean any information that could help the cause. The very fate of the galaxy was, after all, hanging in the balance . . .
My Uber driver knew producer Chucky Thompson (or so he said). I asked him whatever happened to Frankie, DC’s hometown heartthrob whose 1997 Chucky Thompson-produced debut still stands as one of my favorite R&B albums. He proceeded to tell me a bit of family business that I don’t know if I was supposed to know. I left my phone charger in his car. Guess we both let something slip.
I saw my first “Make America Great Again” hat in line behind me at Smoothie King. It was the infamous red one; the one I would see the most that fateful day. Half of me thought, “Wow; they drink smoothies just like me. Maybe we have something in common after all.” The other half fully expected a racial slur upon eye contact. I paid for my medium Raspberry Collider and left for work, avoiding eye contact.
I entered the restaurant and saw that the entire wait staff scheduled to work that day was black; our rich ebony hues contrasting with our stiff, starched, stark-white shirts and aprons. I thought of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose legacy the nation had just celebrated(?) earlier that very week. Like Dr. King, I had a degree from an well-reputed historically black college. Yet, here I was: a black man about to serve a bunch of white folks who presumably voted for the orange man. From lunch counter sit-ins to lunch shift clock-ins, from the Big House to the White House, from “The Red Coats are coming!” to “The Red Hats are coming!” . . . how far had I/we come?
Free at . . . last?
“I want you all to taste the crème brulee. But don’t use the silver spoons. Use the black ones. They’re disposable. Hahaha!”
My manager has, suffice to say, an oddball sense of humor. He is from Southeast Asia and insists that for all of its flaws, America is the best place in the world to live. He playfully goaded all of his dejected employees the day after the election and personally called me to the host stand at the end of that night’s shift (“Come here, Hillary lover . .”) to tell me the story of how one of the best servers he ever had got stripped naked and dragged out of his restaurant by Texas Rangers over mistakes he made as a kid due to Bill Clinton’s crime bill. I replied that he could expect many more such stories once his boy the Trumperor made Rudy Giuliani the attorney general. That was enough to idle his ire a bit. For the moment.
I worked on election night with a Mexican chef. He’d recommended a film to me called A Day Without A Mexican. And as we watched the early results come in, he said: “Trump can’t win. If Trump win, half the kitchen gone.”
I haven’t seen that chef since.
Fast forward back to our Inauguration Day pre-shift meeting, where one of my short-sighted sistren made the mistake of asking my manager for “a pep talk”. She had heard horror stories from other black servers about rude and racist Trump supporters from the previous night and wanted to know what to do if she was insulted (or assaulted).
He proceeded to render us an impromptu civics/history lesson about how this was one of the few places in the world with a peaceful transfer of power, and how most other world leaders took office by having their predecessors arrested and/or killed, including Indira Gandhi (proof, apparently, that “female leadership wasn’t necessarily the solution”). He told us to encourage more of our friends to vote next time. And then he sent us on our not-so-merry way. But not before sharing this sweet nothing for my ears only:
“You like to read, right? Read Freakonomics. Everybuddy’s racist. [chuckling] Everybuddy.”
That guy. A regular laugh riot.
The first hour or so was quiet; deathly still. The restaurant was empty, as were the streets, presumably because everyone was at the inauguration just a few blocks away. I overheard my aforementioned coworker concede that she agreed that immigration was a problem, that illegal aliens were ruining our economic opportunities, and that maybe with his business sense, Trump would save our economy.
I didn’t say anything. She wasn’t talking to me. And anyway, I had a job to do. Namely trying to keep my own head together.
I kept thinking about something my dad would say when I was growing up. “No matter what you do, do it well. If you’re a garbage man, be the best goddamned garbage man in the world. Always take pride in your work.”
My work. For years, I was a science teacher moonlighting as a performing artist. A couple of years ago, I decided to put my interests together and create a career as a teaching artist. So I developed a program called #SpoofSchool which teaches students how to make parodies about their academic subjects. It’s taken time and sacrifice and I left a good job at a great school to do this, but between grants and gigs, I’m just now starting to see the money. In the meantime, waiting tables allows me the flexibility to pursue my dreams.
So here I am. Waiting tables. Trying to be the best goddamned waiter in the world.
The inauguration was, of course, broadcasted via the flatscreens at our bars, and a handful of customers showed up to blow the froth off a pint or two as Mighty Mouth began his speech. I sized them up, noticing their lack of red hats and their silent stares throughout the stentorian shit-talk of Demagogue Donald. I allowed myself a sardonic smile and thought, “I love my liberal-assed DC. Maybe all my guests today will be like this.”
They say it started raining as soon as he took the dais. I couldn’t quite tell, but I did notice the cadre of security mob up behind him shortly after he started speaking. My first thought was, “Oh shit, somebody’s trying to assassinate him already!” But they just did this odd back and forth dance that I never did get an explanation for. Maybe they were just trying to plant an umbrella near him in case the rain worsened.
As the “Fanta Fuhrer” held forth, I resisted the urge to extend a middle finger salute toward the screen. I tried to separate my personal feelings from the mix and objectively appraise his speech as a lover of words and a student of strategy.
How very diplomatic.
“Buy American, Hire American!”
Is that how you built your empire?
“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”
Right, because nowhere in history has patriotism been rooted in prejudice.
That was probably my favorite line from the whole speech. I still can’t believe he actually said that shit.
As I listened, at times I thought: “This dude is so full of it.” Which bothered me. Other times I thought: “This dude is dead serious.” Which bothered me. Overall, his words, per usual, just . . . bothered me.
“Bor Gullet can feel your thoughts. No lie is safe from him. Of course, one unfortunate side effect is that one tends to lose one’s mind . .” – Saw Gerrera from the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
If you heard the speech, I don’t have to tell you about all of the times His Entitled Eminence paused to await/prompt applause in his signature mutant medley of arrogance/awkwardness. It would have been comical if he wasn’t simultaneously pronouncing doomsday.
I have to admit that even a speaker far more gifted than Donald J. Trump would have found Barack Hussein Obama to be a hard act to follow. Shortly after the election, I kicked off an open mic I hosted with my best Obama impression, saying: “Well, uhhhhhhh . . . I did what I could . . . uhhhhhh . . . You’re on your own now, niggas. Deuces!” Drops mic. Walks off stage. Crowd guffaws.
Laughing to keep from crying.
As the camera occasionally cut to Obama, I wondered how much work it took for him to sit there with that serene force field of a face as the man on the stand berated his legacy and heartily vowed to undo everything he’d done. Obama just smiled the whole time as if he were indulging an off-key kid at a kindergarten recital. He seemed above it all; relieved his term was over while determined to go out without his enemies seeing him sweat. I admired his tact.
But who gives a fuck about shit like tact anymore? We just inaugurated the the Grab-Em-By-The-Pussy Man!
When it was over, the freshly-crowned Commander-in-Tweets having rendered his riveting run of “Make America _______ Again” epithets, the aforementioned bar denizens, stoic and silent throughout the speech, all applauded.
So much for “my liberal-assed DC”.
As the throng dispersed from the throne and approached “my” restaurant, I contemplated the fact that I’d heretofore coped with the existence of “The Silent Majority” by imagining them to be tucked away in far-off Crackerville coves of middle America; places where I’d never meet them.
But now I was about to meet them.
My first guests were a youngish white trio. They had beers, bacon cheeseburgers, and Hillary t-shirts. Protesters apparently. Bless their hearts. Stronger together, well done with cheddar.
My second party was a gaggle of black cops being treated by their boss. As conflicted as I tend to feel about police officers in general, in this climate I must admit it felt comforting to be serving people who looked like me. Plus the boss was a lady cop and she was kind of cute. I thought of Lil’ Wayne’s song “Mrs. Officer”. Weeeee-ooh-weeeee-ooh-wee.
My next party was a white quartet who asked about portion sizes and proceeded to share three dishes. I thought, “Awww. They share everything. Socialists. They must have voted for Sanders.”
Then came the Red Hats.
To be fair, they weren’t all red. A couple were white, and one was camouflage. Some had Trump-Pence t-shirts and signs, but more had dark suits with red ties or dresses with scarves in the design of the American flag.
Not knowing what to expect, I reminded myself that I was a professional, there to do a job. I remembered Barack’s face in that inauguration audience and promised I’d keep my poise.
But at the same time, I’m a man. And as the good doctor James Brown put it, “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud.” And if you come at me crazy, as Brother Brown also put it, “I don’t know karate, but I know cuh-razy!”
(Yes, he does.)
Me: Hello, everyone. Welcome to ________. I’m Drew and I’ll be taking care of you today.
Older white man: Interesting. I always find it interesting when people say that. Taking care of us? How exactly will you be doing that? Are you going to give us all massages?
Me: Sorry, but no. Not that kind of party. Anyway, our soup today is . . .
Guy was a real card. A regular joker, even. He behaved himself after that, though.
Woman: What a great speech. Can you imagine if it was Hillary giving that speech?
Man: If it was Hillary, we wouldn’t be here!
On my lunch break, I bought a replacement charger for my phone. One of them new-fangled joints that you shake to turn it on. The instructions said: “Do not short-circuit, disassemble, or destroy.”
Good general advice, I find.
I had tapas for lunch. Figured I’d support Spanish culture before it’s illegal to do so. I saw one black band in Trumpty Dumpty’s parade and wondered what was going through their young minds as they marched.
I returned to the restaurant for my second shift. More red hats everywhere. Now and then I’d see a black man in a red hat and think “How could you?” Then I’d see the front and it would turn out to be a Washington Nationals or Wizards hat. Paranoia; seeing red.
I saw Trump on TV signing a bunch of papers between balls. Signing our lives away, I thought. Do not short-circuit, disassemble, or destroy . . Then they cut to Obama handling last rites. “’Bye, Obama.” snarked a Red Hat at the bar, as if he were singing “Hit The Road, Jack” to the hated rival franchise when his team beat them in the playoffs.
Overall, I have to say my guests were in good spirits and showed good manners. They ordered beef bourguignon and bottles of red wine. They weren’t rude or particularly demanding. And they tipped well. I ultimately realized these weren’t “evil” people. I don’t regret having prepared myself for the worst, but these people weren’t “the worst”. We just happened to disagree greatly about the direction this country should be heading in. And about who should be heading it.
I heard a couple of horror stories from a coworker about seeing people shouting shit in the streets while she took a smoke break. But this is DC; you can see people shouting shit in the streets any given day. Maybe the message is that smoking isn’t good for you.
When I finally got off, I hit the streets. I was tired and wasn’t looking for trouble, but as a journalist, I did want to see what “my” city looked like after the invasion of The Silent Majority. Were the streets short-circuited, disassembled, destroyed? Would it be The Night of the Living Red?
Streets were blocked off to prepare for inaugural balls. The red hats were replaced with tuxedos and elegant evening gowns. Mostly older white people. As at Smoothie King, I still avoided eye contact. Tuxes or no, you never know.
Near K Street, I heard a black voice shout “FUCK DONALD TRUMP!” I saw a bank window that looked like a bullet had gone through it. In the lobby next door, I saw a dozen or so police officers sleeping on the floor. I guess they were “protecting and serving” in shifts.
I ended my day going home to rub salt in my wounds. Which is to say I went to The House nightclub and got a lap dance from a stripper named Salt. Hey, Make America Make-It-Rain Again.
The next day, I would work a double shift again. And the restaurant would be filled with red hats again. But this time they would be the red knit hats of the Women’s March. They would roar with hoorays when the news showed the millions of other women and supporters thronged in streets across the globe, standing in solidarity for their rights, identity and value. And they would boo and hiss when the screen would shift to You-Know-Who. (One woman even yelled, “Fuck him up!”)
And the day after that, the restaurant would again be deathly still; the AFC and NFC championships made somehow hollow and meaningless in the wake of this emotionally-charged weekend.