One of the unwritten rules we follow and one I’m sure you’ll agree with, is never discuss politics or religion in a bar. It just makes sense. For veering into those red hot topics is dicey under normal circumstances, like tossing a match on a tinderbox, but add to the discourse whiskey and beer and before you know it you’re backing away from a bonfire. Especially in today’s climate. The poles of contention are too far apart, like the North Pole and the South Pole, and just as far removed from the Equator of compromise. So whenever I hear a conversation at the bar erupt as opposed to unfold, and politics is the issue, I immediately step in and try to tamp down the flames. To change the subject. “C’mon, guys,” I’ll jokingly drawl, to the patriots both Left and Right, “you know the fucking rules… no politics in bars! How ’bout we switch to sports or maybe Swiss cheese even?” And it usually works. In fact it has to work or we have a problem.
I remember a guy I had a while back who happened to have been an advisor to Dick Cheney. And was obviously quite proud of it. Well, given my own political leanings (somewhere to the left of middle if Sean Penn’s the middle), my mind was racing a mile a minute with points to make. I mean this was the mother lode for crying out loud! “Jesus, where do I begin?” I thought, when I found out who he was, then,” Nowhere,” I quickly decided knowing the outcome. Because it would’ve gotten ugly. So instead of saying what I wanted to say (“Dick Cheney belongs in prison!”) I reached out and grabbed the man’s hand and offered a truce. This preemptive peace strike.
“Sir,” I said, “you seem like a pretty nice guy so far so I better tell you up front that I’m a Democrat. What you might call a Kennedy Democrat. (He had already slammed Ted Kennedy earlier in the conversation.) That said, how about we talk about everything else but politics. You buy that?” And thankfully he did. He shook my hand, he smiled, and warmly agreed with me. In fact, so well did the rest of the evening go that I said as he was leaving to sum up the encounter, “I don’t care what anyone says, you’re not such a bad guy for a goddam Republican. Even a Dick Cheney Republican!” To which he replied, “And you’re not so goddam bad for a Kennedy Democrat!” End of story, point made.
But to further make the point of that story in keeping with the “unwritten law”… the law of banning politics and religion in bars (especially religion in this case)… I’d like to share a moment that happened last Friday. One beautiful moment. And if this doesn’t prove the point then nothing else will!
We had what I’d call a terrific Friday, the joint, to quote Fats Waller, was “really jumpin'”. My bar was packed, the tables were filled and half the room was singing along with the piano man. Which was great! From Billy Joel, to fifties doo wop, to Sinatra and Tony Bennett, not to mention Axl Rose’s “Sweet Child of Mine” for God’s sake, the man was covering a span of some fifty years. He had a song for everyone. And as I leaned against the back bar observing this harmonious sight, a sight any bar would welcome if its aim was good cheer, my eye was drawn to a particular table of eight. They were, at least I surmised, all Middle Eastern. It was a birthday gathering.
Now forget the fact they were well-behaved, that obviously goes without saying, more important is the fact they were bathed in the glow of camaraderie. (Which can’t go without saying as you shall see here.) So out of curiosity, and because our waiter is Moroccan, I asked if he knew who they were and where they were from. He seemed to know them.
“Is table 10 from Morocco?” I asked, when I poured their next round.
“Some, yes,” he said with a smile, “and some no,” he said, smiling even broader.
“Oh yeah? Then where are the others from?” I pushed further.
“The rest they are Israeli… is beautiful, yes?”
“Is beautiful, hell yes,” I said with amazement.
And it really was beautiful. Damn, it was beautiful. And not because I’m some kind of idiot who expected a border war to break out over the place settings, and was shocked that it didn’t, but simply because here in microcosm was how the world could be. Or how it should be. If only politics and religion didn’t fucking blind us! I mean here you had Muslims dining with Jews, I couldn’t tell one from the other, and neither apparently could they where it really counted. They were all one. It was friendship they were here for… celebration of the human spirit come together in a birthday… and the only differences I saw were the drinks they were drinking. Which they handled perfectly.
So a little while later and after I’d pointed this out to a friend who was sitting at the bar with me, he filled me in on something I’d failed to notice. As I said, the place was really “jumpin”. This friend, who happens to be John Cassaday… the famous X-Men comic book artist who was just as impressed as I at what he was seeing… handed me a bev nap on which he’d scrawled the following.
The only other song they clapped for, besides “Happy Birthday”, was “God Bless America”.
“You’re kidding,” I said when I read it.
“Believe me I’m not,” he said, “isn’t that cool?” (Fucking way cool!) In fact I’m getting a chill right now as I type this. And I don’t mean to be corny.
The piano man actually did sing that song, it somehow got thrown in the mix, and everyone did stand up and cheer at song’s end. That much I remember. I just didn’t know it was the only song, besides of course Happy Birthday, this group had applauded. And I thought it was terrific. But the more I ponder the significance of that, now a few days later, I’m wondering if this isn’t why that song had so moved them. See, America offers a space for these folks to live and love side by side… no borders either physical or spiritual… and maybe they were giving thanks for that common ground. That opportunity. A place for the ingredients of difference to mix in the “melting pot”. Oh, I know, we have our share of haters here, of Jews and Muslims in particular, but they’re just a tiny speck in the overall mix. Not enough to spoil the stew in that pot. Just as the hate-filled terrorists are a small part of their greater whole. So again, maybe what they were saying that night by applauding that rousing song, all of them, was gratitude for what that song represented. The chance to be. To be what they came here to be which is free Americans. And if that is indeed the case, if that’s why they were applauding, then let me applaud all of them and bid them all welcome.
From “sea to shining sea”… true end of story. And let politics be damned!!!
See ya’ next week-end.