I’m sitting on a slab of cold concrete in the middle of what I think is a wheat field. The wind picks up a little and I am cold, it being early November. My shoes are caked with red dirt, and I start to sneeze. To my left is a good homie of mine and sitting across from us are two fairly pretty Okie girls. We are all somewhat drunk, having just closed down two bars — the Seven Shooter Saloon at the Best Western Territorial Inn and a mean, old place with a large wooden oil rig on the roof called the Gusher, where I procured a six-pack of Coors — that’s pronounced “Keers” — for 4 dollars and change. The empty beer bottle between us spins around a few times and lazily lands on me. The fairer of the girls looks at me and sort of smiles as she leans in for a kiss. I think to myself, If they are going to steal our goddamn election, I’m sure as hell going to steal their women.
You never realize what it means to live in a big, happy blue state until you’ve been to a red one, the reddest, in fact, of all those forlorn red states, Oklahoma, on this gravest day of 2004, Election Day. Living in Los Angeles, one never really gets to experience firsthand the sheer vitriol directed elsewhere toward the candidates and these truths of ours, which, to paraphrase, we hold to be self-evident. John Kerry, whom most Angelenos would consider a somewhat right-of-center candidate, is seen on television commercials in the Oklahoma City area as a puppet on a string (really, an actual puppet) for a boozed-out, thoroughly corpulent and very gay-loving Ted Kennedy. In the ad, whose production values made South Park look like The Incredibles, a red-nosed Teddy looms over a horse-faced Kerry, pulling his strings as a voice-over asks — and I paraphrase only slightly — “Do you want a same-sex marriage-voting, tax-and-spend Massachusetts liberal wacko running your country and keeping you safe from Arab terrorists?” The answer, as I see on most of the car bumpers in the state, is a resounding “No!” That's not to mention the infamous Bush-Cheney “Wolf” ad, which juxtaposes images of scary wolves skulking through a gray forest with a voice-over and title cards lying about how the liberals in the government are cutting funds to keep America safe or the numerous Oklahoma GOP spots that made me almost — almost — want to seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the teat of the Gray Elephant.
The constant bombardment by ad hominem ads and radio debates, combined with Oklahoma’s senatorial candidate, Dr. Tom Coburn (who is such a conservative that 43 looks in-step with FDR compared to him), and you have the makings of an uncomfortable time, to say the least, getting your political ontology to function in a normal, laid-back California, man, can’t-we-all-get-along manner for my week in the state around Election Day.
Living in L.A., you don’t see the way the right eviscerates the left until there is nothing but the hull of some ideas that get labeled by them as “crazy as shit and un-American as all hell.” That’s the way an ex-seminary student flying out of Dallas–Fort Worth describes the perfidiousness of the Democrats to me on November 5. He also says, “The country needs to work together.” Um . . .
I had no clue it would be like this. I knew nothing of Oklahoma. I had never been there, nor had a desire for, or an aversion to, the state. I only knew there would be good barbecue, a lot of twangy talk and that most likely, I’d be the only Jew in the whole state. The day before I left town, I drove to L.A. City College and voted on a computerized machine, but felt safe in the fact that I was in California, a blue state, damnit, so nothing bad would happen to my vote here. Right?
Two days later, I’m in Guthrie, Oklahoma, about 35 miles outside of Oklahoma City, for an art department coordinator job for a BET reality show, spending a massive amount of time behind the wheel of a gold Ford Expedition, driving from Target to Wal-Mart and back to Target and then back to the set, and back out again, flipping the radio between Oklahoma City’s NPR station and the local right-wing news channels for a sociological study in contrasts. Driving up and down the 77, I get the sense, even before the election, we’re going to lose — and not just the state — and when Election Day comes around I’m surprised at how well Kerry does. I go to sleep that night thinking of Ohio.
The next morning I find myself in the massive electronics department of the Oklahoma City Super Wal-Mart, which is not unlike chilling in Dante’s fifth circle of hell — that would be the one filled with the sullen. As I stand there, watching the discounted, slave-labor-made 36-inch televisions all tuned to Kerry admitting he didn’t win Ohio, I hear a few cheers go up from the drab faces of the shoppers and workers around me. I pause and am reminded of those sullen fifth-circle dwellers, submerged in the River Styx with their sighs rippling the water, and at that moment I wish I were at Barney’s, shopping the pain away.