Yesterday I was settling down to work at one of my favorite coffee shops. I am back in my hometown for the summer, waiting for one of my lease to start up in a city that I actually want to live in. Until then, I am walled into a suburban hell, with suburban people who drive their overpriced suburbans.
I was probably halfway done with my coffee when I got the ominous feeling that someone was talking about me. It’s amazing how well we can all tell when someone is talking about us — it must be some kind of survival instinct that protected us from getting mauled by the neanderthals across the river or something.
I knew what the man was talking about. He was a larger dude, wispy beard, and carried himself with a certainty so firm that he would never have to consider any other ideas but his own.
He was pissed about my Bernie Sanders sticker on my laptop, and he was bitching to the barista about it.
“I just saw that Bernie sticker,” he told the poor man forced to make his coffee, “It’s so sad. That generation is just so sad.”
I had my earbuds in, but I wasn’t deaf, nor was I an idiot. I was kinda shocked that people were actually this rude IRL. I wanted to jump up and get in his face, and ask several dozen questions about unequal wealth distribution’s historical association with economic recessions. But I didn’t. Instead I took out my earbuds, and calmly looked at him. We connected eyes briefly, and he immediately turned away, talking to the barista about something else.
And it left me fuming.
My hometown is nestled in the southwest corner of Ohio. Just far enough from Cincinnati that nobody has to think about poverty, but close enough that families can jump into one of their 3 cars to drive down to the gentrified “safe” parts of the city. It’s a walled off world, with six shopping centers and no homeless shelters. An echo chamber of lawyers, engineers, and doctors who see a $150,000 salary as “middle class.”
Earlier this summer I was working at a McDonalds — with my same laptop, and same Bernie Sanders sticker. I was compiling some list of short stories, or some Little-Known Facts About Cats, when a man sitting across from me gave me a look, and started talking.
“It certainly seems like you are enthusiastic for Bernie.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “I am.”
“Can you tell me why? I’m just curious.”
And so I talked to the man with greying hair and a tucked in button down shirt. I told him about my personal struggles in paying for college, and how I truly felt that healthcare — that is to say, the right to live — is a right for every single person. I told him about how my Dad lost his job, and how heavy the weight of unemployment was to our family — especially for someone who had worked so hard his entire life. The man nodded, and interjected to ask a question or two.
“I know some people think my generation is lazy,” I said carefully, “But things are actually hard. We’ve had to build our careers on foundations of sand.”
Working on the internet, that feeling is particularly apt. I told him that.
“Yeah, I know things weren’t quite this hard when I was younger. I got lucky,” The man nodded.
I asked him some questions about his thoughts on the upcoming election — never once asking him if he would end up voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. He seemed undecided, or maybe just for the purposes of dialogue he was.
After maybe about ten minutes, he wished me his best, and I went back to work and he went back to reading the Enquirer.
Regardless of our beliefs, dialogues bring us together.
With the man in the coffee shop, we will never understand each other’s world. I will never understand why he hates Bernie, or why he finds me “sad.” His beliefs are just monoliths to his own self-confidence, paraded by people with no context or detail. It’s a grey, flat world he lives in, to be honest.
But with the man in the McDonalds, we acquired something from each other. Even if — deep down — he feels the exact same way as the man from the coffee shop, he took away a piece of my world. And I took away a piece of his. If I saw him again, I would greet him with a smile — even if, ultimately, we 100% disagree on everything.
Our nation is divided today not because we ourselves are divided, but because we are separated. Suburbs of the wealthy sit away, gated off from the poor. Racial stratification keeps certain groups in certain areas, and people are cut down hard fault-lines. We are all building blocks of our own echo-chambers — temples to our own “greatness”.
We don’t need to agree. We don’t need to “educate” each other. We just need to talk. We need to look people in the eye — recognize their beating heart and pulsing mind — and allow ourselves to share a common space, for even a short time.
We don’t need to agree on the issues, we just need to agree on our common humanity.