If I Had A Beer With President Obama...



...the first thing I would do is ask for bigger glasses.

The thing about having a beer with someone, at least when it is not a symbolic gesture, is that the conversation doesn't really get earnest after a few sips. Its the second beer that changes the dynamics of a group, especially when none of them know each other very well.

S. and the Resident Diva had been out all afternoon, and had eaten dinner with one of S.'s friends. So I figured I would pop out for a burger and a beer and be back home in an hour or two. It just so happened while I was finishing my burger that one of my cigar buddies walked into the neighborhood restaurant I where I was eating last night.

If you are old enough to remember Rod Steiger, you know what this cigar buddy looks like, because he and Steiger share almost every feature - powerful, stocky build, full head of hair, wide face, the most forthright cleft chin this side of Kirk Douglas - except the eyes. I could say he is a "serial entrepreneur", the way a lot of people in Atlanta like to describe themselves when they have been in several business ventures, but if you were to ask him yourself, he would tell you "I'm in the car business."

Usually, when I see him in this particular place, one of the upscale casual dining spots that seem to pop up on every corner on the northside of Atlanta (more about that in another post), S. and I are together. So not only was he happy to see me last night, he looked to be even more excited by the prospect of me being alone. "Guess what I've got, buddy?" he said, before slowly reaching into his pocket to extract a cigar. "We should hit the rooftop when you're finished eating and light one up."

Ordinarily, I don't have any cigars on me, but it also just happened to be that I'd stopped by a cigar shop on the way to the restaurant to get a couple of stogies to go with my Sunday paper. So he really didn't have to much arm twisting at all - none, in fact, to get me to join him on the restaurant's open air rooftop lounge.

My buddy was a little keyed up, though, with stance that suggested he was not yet removed from his day-to-day life. We ordered a round of drinks. We talked about his new girlfriend. The waiter told us a joke while setting down our glasses. One of the valets, who for some unknown reason was wending his way through the crowd, stopped for exchange with us that had my buddy guffawing as the smoke from his cigar curled from between his fingers.

Now he was relaxed.

The waiter was back a few moments later, a lot sooner than I would have expected him, to settle up - the sky, he said looked like it was about to open up, and he wanted to collect the tabs from his customers before they made a mad dash downstairs when the inevitable Atlanta evening rainstorm hit.

Walking back downstairs with our drinks, we settled at the corner of the bar, where a tall man with an English accent was bantering with the bartender. Two minutes later, the three of us had acquainted ourselves. Ten minutes later, we were all deep into a discussion about rugby versus football when my buddy made some remark about the British that raised the guy's eyebrows.

The comment seemed as if it was about to kill the budding conviviality of the moment, so I said to the English guy, "you know, the one thing I've admired about the English are the way you guys have carried on since the days of the Empire. I guess one day we'll be joining you."

And just like that, we went from three guys having a drink together, talking about nothing in particular, to three guys who were engaged in a deep discussion. My buddy reared back and stared at me as if I'd lost my mind. "This is the greatest nation there ever was on earth."

I looked at the English guy. "I believe the British felt the same way years ago."

So then we were at it then, with a wide ranging three way gentleman's argument that somehow included Copernicus, Newton, Decartes, Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, Tesla, Napoleon. And just when we had all sufficiently satisfied ourselves that we were in the company of other learned men with whom we could agree to disagree, my buddy leaned in and reignited our original point of contention. "There's one thing I know that makes me sure that America will be the greatest country on this earth."

Both I and the Englishman looked into our glasses before looking up at my buddy, as if we had both come to the same conclusion - "we don't have enough beer left for this."

My buddy extended the pregnant pause after his declaration for what seemed to be forever, then leaned in a little, his hands raised. "This nation was founded under the divine right of God. We were chosen to be the nation that would lead the world."

"I believe the English used to believe that too," I said. "And the Ottomans before them. And the Romans before them. As a matter of fact, I can't think of any dominant nation in history that didn't do this."

The conversation that followed was more subdued but more contentious, with all of us mouthing the words "you can believe what you want to believe, and I can respect that" while wondering how the hell anybody who didn't see any merit in our positions wasn't locked up in a mental institution.

"The thing about all these belief systems is that they are really continuations of narratives," I said. "Sustainers of the myths and realities that we have melded together to explain the who and why behind our existence. Because if you tell a story, it has to make some kind of sense."

"All I'm saying," my buddy went on, "is that the greatest story ever told has been told over and over again, and it never changes."

This was new ground for me and my buddy. At the cigar shop we used to frequent, the conversations I'd had with him had never veered this far away from current events. "The thing is," I said, "as a writer, I am a person who shapes narratives. I am the storyteller. In fact," I said with a grin, "this exchange might make its way onto my blog.

And as the storyteller in charge of retelling what happened here tonight, I could make myself look like the good guy, and you guys like idiots. That's why I am wary of the stories that we base so much of our beliefs on, because the original storytellers, like all storytellers, told the story they told the way they told it for a reason."

There were no cameras. There was no press pool. And the people waiting on us didn't treat us like royalty, but like guys who needed to be ready to pay the tab when the check came.

It wasn't until we were about to leave, while we were connecting the dots between the great scientific minds of history and their seminal discoveries, that we seemed to find some consensus.

I had ventured a thought - "what was it that allowed these men to see more than others? Could it have been that they didn't bind themselves to the conventions of the day? Could it be that they were focused on thinking freely, rather than ideologically?"

My buddy said "they were free thinkers. They were men who had an enormous facility for exploring abstract ideas."

He looked at me a little funny, though, as we walked out of the restaurant, as if he'd learned something about me that he was going to have to take some time to process.

I'll give the president an "A" for effort, for attempting to use a simple, age old tradition to bridge the gap between Professor Gates and Officer Crowley. But he gets a "C" for execution - turning the potential for a level of personal intimacy between these two men into a photo opportunity was guaranteed to reduce any exchange between these two to polite pleasantries.

Cocktail chatter isn't going to solve the issues surrounding our nation's racial dilemma. Like the men who discovered planetary motion, or the existence of gravity, or the properties of electricty, we are going to have to abandon a lot of the things we believe in today to get to the bottom of the nation's racial divide.

The havoc these discoveries wreaked on the conventionally accepted wisdom of their day is the same havoc we are going to have to endure whenever we finally come to the painful realization that it will take no less than a complete reordering of how our world works.






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1 comments:

Blogger said...

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