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Or What I Learned From My Race-Car Grandpa Who Had No Bankers

The Economy of Dead Sperm

by CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM

My grandfather knew about bankers. With his father, my great-grandfather, he built a machine-shop business in Cleveland, Ohio, based on the idea that you offered a product in the free market – machined ball-bearings and such – and if there was a demand, you succeeded. My grandfather paid for his house in one of the outlier suburbs of Cleveland, what was then countryside, with cash from his wallet. No mortgage on the house. I’d like to imagine my grandfather – who drank too much, he was a happy drunk and had to be chased out of bars with a feather, and raced cars in his off-time – telling the banker: ‘I have just enough money here for this house to pay everyone but you.’ The middleman parasite is the heart of economics in the US today, so my grandfather wouldn’t have come off well.

He had a barn where he hid Ferraris – he was an amateur race car driver – and it was the same house that I loved as a child, visiting from New York City every summer. He had a wild old unshaven Model T Ford that he raced around the two-acre property under the cawing of the crows in the big trees, with us kids, the cousins, hanging like pubic hair for dear life and wanting the thing to topple. And ol grandpa would bash the machine into first gear from third and rage the engine and we slivered to right and left on the knoll of his property, the grass getting torn and the neighbors wondering. When I was five years old, a moment I’ll never forget, my grandfather had me in the passenger seat of his Ferrari, which he had bought and rebuilt – engineer and entrepreneur that he was – from someone who couldn’t love Ferraris.

So there were we. Blasting. The old man shifting through the gears, the car shivering, the engine screaming. No seatbelts, no cops. The six-year-old kid in love with the old man behind the wheel. A motorcycle gang pulls past us on the vast avenue. The old man, now young as night and the car at his beck, tells me, “How much you bet we race ‘em?” I said, “Urkay.” And so grandpa mashed the car into the wind and it was that first moment of speed in my little life, the car showering its sparks of scream, my grandpa with madman grin grabbing the road, the car shaking, true, beautiful, all love and compassion and light weighted on his face, the darkness of his love of speed, his eyes like sun. “There,” he said, and the motorcycle gang faded like dead sperm.

I’m thinking of my grandfather these past few days, thinking of the trauma to be visited on the American taxpayer in the proposed bail-out which is said to save the United States from itself. I’m thinking of that simple radiance of the fact that he refused to take a debt on his house. Cash up, cash forward. Nothing for the bankers. Fuck the bankers, fuck the loan-artists, fuck those who will tell you there’s a deal on the horizon as long as you sleep. I think of my friends in Utah, living on their own wits, mostly off the grid, in the bygone idea that American values are built not of government telling you how or where to build your house or sustenance or solitude. I think of my friends Kiley and John, who are as old as my grandfather and as young as America, eking out their existence as carpenters. They have built a home apart from the grid, high atop the desert, where the canyons answer their need with sun and rainwater in monsoon they collect off the roof. More power to them. Kiley and John will answer, in the end, to the sun, and to the water. They have gotten almost nothing from debt. Their product, their home, is the work of muscle, waiting, accident, honesty. Which makes them anti-American, in the current configuration. They believe in the dream: Why should they answer one penny of their tax-dollars to the greed-fuckering on Wall Street?

The bigger picture is this: There is no real economy beyond people llike Kiley and John. No real economy beyond the shaping of the bottom-line of the quotidian from one’s hands. I think of my grandfather, whose machine shop made a thing that could be felt, palpated, held in the hand. The future of America is not in the degenerate United States where nothing of worth is offered. The future is our return to the machine shop of our forebears, to the light of the eyes of men who made things worth holding.

CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM writes for Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s, and many other magazines. You can contact him at cketcham99@mindspring.com

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