Ill at Ease in Zion
Sunday started off after a good night’s sleep with a quick read of the Austin newspaper. Wanting more news than the ten minutes of reading the Austin American-Statesman Sunday edition has in it, I went off to the local coffeeshop with my computer and read a bunch of articles I’d been sent by various listservs and friends. Read the weekend edition of CounterPunch, too. By then it was noon and I went off to do something useful.
Gal who works the counter at the sandwich shop I spend too much time at has a slumlord landlord who let her yard get chock full of poison ivy. Showed up at her house with chemicals and equipment and gear and 90 minutes of work later the poison ivy was all dead, or going to be that way in about two weeks. Told her she owed me lunch for all that, and we were both happy with that deal. Nobody much else in this town of almost a million persons could have solved her poison ivy problem the fast and effective and safe way I did. The reasons for that are many and long and unattractive and I’ve dealt with them elsewhere and they don’t need to be repeated here. But I was glad to help her out and to make her happy by doing so.
Went then off to a buddy of mine’s new business site. Dennis runs the only decent automotive machine shop in this town, and he’s a solid guy who I’ve done business with for decades now. He’d called me a couple of days earlier about poison ivy question mark on his new site, could I come and look at it, and I drove there and sho’ nuff, lot of it there. Seeing as I was already loaded up, I went to work and sprayed. Got most of it done, told him that it was on the house, but that if he wanted some chainsaw work done, like a basal pruning on the trash trees there, well I’m available for about $200 a five hour day with a chainsaw. Got told sure, come on out. So I made Dennis happy and got some good work lined up now to keep the wolf from the door for a spell. And you know, when a buddy of yours takes a big stretch in buying a building for his business, the right thing to do is to lend a hand when it counts, right up front, with all the time-eating jack with factors that go with a new building and a move into it. And it’s also a celebration of sorts, lending him a hand is, that he’s going to make it, and you are lending a hand to be a small part of it. Might be the urban equivalent of a barn raising, or the nearest there is anyways to one nowadays. I suspect that it is a bluecollar thing, that insofar as it still happens it only happens in bluecollar America. I did my share. Dennis and I were both happy.
Went then off to a showing of The Gatekeepers, the new documentary on Shin Bet’s commanders interviewed, organized by J-Street Austin’s chapter. Movie has gotten rave reviews but didn’t have any surprises in it to me, or to anyone else who is knowledgeable of things military. Movie just shows the truth of DeGaulle’s fine statement about how the army can’t see any farther than the top of the next hill. J-Street organized a discussion afterwards at La Madeline next door, moderated by Glen Frankel, ex-Tel Aviv bureau chief for the Washington Post.
I’ve attended several J-Street events over the past two years and I confess, a big part of why I attended them was to see about meeting some cute bright with it Jewish gal. But that didn’t pan out here with the Austin chapter and I doubt that it’d pan out with any other J-Street chapter either. Hell in my mid-50’s I’m one of the younger members, and there isn’t a single member any younger than 40. Doesn’t say much for the future of that organization, that its membership is most all social security age. The demographics are about the same for J-Street as it is for the local Democratic Party regulars—affluent west-Austin well-intentioned much older than average white professionals. Their Q&A was pretty lame, and it showed a distinct lack of political will and drive in their individual makeups. Again, like the local Dem regulars. Between the bad demographics and lame members I don’t see much of a future for either organization.
J-Street is a second-tier player at best and nobody much is going to expect much out of them, sadly. But I saw something there at that meeting that was big and mattered. The attendance was almost 70, which was very good for an event like that. Most of the attendees went off to the nearby La Madeline for the discussion afterwards, mostly I suspect because a lot of what the Shin Bet heads said was pretty disturbing to them—several Shin Bet heads compared Israel to apartheid South Africa, one to the Nazis even. Numbers like that overfilled La Madeline’s meeting room where we were scheduled, and the get-together expanded to take over the back half of the mostly empty restaurant.
Restaurant was mostly empty that Sunday evening, but there was this one gal studying away in the back corner on her upper-division college accounting course. She got displaced by the J-Street meeting, and I saw that that was going to happen before it did, and I went over and talked to her. I apologized to her about interrupting her studying, and suggested that she talk to the management about getting a comp meal in exchange for the inconvenience, that restaurants do that sort of thing all the time. She replied that she didn’t want to bother with that, that she wasn’t being inconvenienced any, that she was about to leave anyway. I told her that she wasn’t going to get anything in this world if she didn’t ask for things she wanted, and she ought to ask for something here. I left it at that, and went to move tables and chairs. At the end, as things were breaking up, I went over to the manager and told him about our displacing the student at her studies, that I suspected she was a regular there, and could we arrange some sort of comp meal for her the next time she was at his restaurant? The manager replied that he’d already taken care of it, that he’d given the gal a twenty for the inconvenience. I slapped my hand down on the counter, and said “God bless you, that was nice and fine, and I’m so glad you did.” I laid on the complements thick, and they were all genuine and heartfelt on my part, and I could tell he appreciated hearing them, and that he didn’t get too many like that too often. Made his day, I think. And it was a third good deed for the day I did, on a goof-off day when you generally don’t do anything useful or worthwhile, and I felt pretty good about it all. Almost.
Went over to the J-Street president, a gal I’ve known for a long while, and told her about the gal we’d displaced, told her that the manager had given her a twenty, but suggested that her as J-Street go talk to the manager officially and see about comping her a meal anyway. Charlotte was somewhat hesitant about the possibility/logistics of the gal getting a comp meal, but I argued that it was straightforward and very doable. She also waffled some on the issue of the manager taking care of it already—I pointed out that it made J-Street look good to thank the manager again and to comp the gal a meal on the J-Street nickel. Charlotte is smart and saw the virtue of my arguments and said she’d take care of it.
But Charlotte hadn’t seen the gal studying, hadn’t seen her have to pack up and leave on account of the J-Street gathering. And it hit me that nobody else there had, or if they had, it simply didn’t matter to them that they were inconveniencing someone trying to study for school. J-Street—the people in it are the heart of liberal Austin, liberal Austinites, die-hard liberal democrats, liberal well-intentioned well-meaning politically active and in tune American Jews, and not a one of them noticed their inconveniencing that gal studying hard. That sort of not paying attention to the world around you is bad. What is worse, and how much this was the case I can’t say, was if they saw what was happening and they just didn’t care that they and their group were going to inconvenience some gal studying hard for school, that that didn’t mean anything to them.
Forty years ago a crowd of these sort of American Jews would have certainly had someone in it, probably several or more someones, who would have noticed what happened and who would have had the heart to do something about it. They would have had the smarts to see how important it was to do the right thing by that gal and by the restaurant manager and in doing so earning their respect for your organization and the people in it. Blue-collar politically with-it Democrats would all have caught it too, back in the day. But nowadays, no, that’s all gone. Out of the 70 liberal well-intentioned well-educated cultured politically and socially engaged persons there, I was the only one tuned in to what was going on around me and who had the sense and decency and get off my ass to do something about someone we’d done wrong to—wrong to without intending to, or being able to not but wrong to anyway. Liberal and decent America being like that, that’s bad. Got to wonder if a conservative Republican Baptist businessman type group would have done any better.* Don’t know, can’t say, mostly I doubt it, but you know, there are some pretty observant folks in some parts of the business world so I’d go with maybe.
So that’s us, the baby boom generation in full adulthood. Our most liberal and decent are unobservant of the world around them and are uncaring of strangers. It aint pretty and you can’t hide it. I’ll bet, though, that it is more than just my generation, it is America and Americans across the board these days. At least us city folks, and that’s most all of us. That’s my bet, and if anyone younger than me says otherwise, well, I’m listening, but I’m from Missouri. Show me. A big and important part of our awareness of our world and of ourselves and our actions is gone for most all of us here in the USA, that and a fair part of our decent humanity to others, too. How and why it left us is another story for another day, a story that I probably ain’t sociologist enough to tell anyway. But our individual failings go a long way in explaining our nation’s. No hiding that one, either. And for all my good deeds that day, ones to be proud of, ones that yielded great personal satisfaction, ones that did real good for friends and strangers both, well in the end I was feeling discomfited by it all, and feeling yet again ill at ease in Zion.
*I have to give the Southern Baptists another good kicking. Seems as Baylor University has made Ken Starr, of Whitewater and Lewinsky fame, their new president. There is something very seriously wrong with them and Baylor University to make that evil turd a university president. Somehow that piece of news didn’t make the local paper, or nationwide like it ought to have, either.
Daniel White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org