|Illustration by Mitch Handsone|
“I’d heard there were people who still like Bush,” Hector Schechner told me over late-night coffee and oatmeal at Dolores’ Restaurant. “But I didn’t know any, personally, even among my Republican friends. So I figured I’d go try and find some.” In a very small car, Schechner traveled 48 states contiguously, for two months solid. Mixing with the reddest necks he could find. Eating their food. Performing in their nightclubs. Attending their high-school plays.
“It was the weirdest fuckin’ thing,” said Schechner. “I couldn’t find even one — not one person, in the whole country — who still likes Bush.”
“No way,” said I. “I know someone who likes him.”
“No you don’t,” said Schechner. “Listen. Every day I’d eat three meals at three different truck stops, the kind where you expect to find burly guys wearing ‘Kill ’Em All, Let God Sort ’Em Out’ T-shirts, stuff like that. But they weren’t there. The T-shirts, that is. I’d sit at the counter, read the paper, strike up conversations with truckers and waitresses. Horrible music on the radio. And out in the parking lots there’d be 18-wheelers with ‘Let’s Not Elect Bush in 2004, Either’ and ‘Support Our Troops: Impeach Bush’ bumper stickers.”
“Bullshit,” I said. “Everybody has to love Bush. It’s in the Bible.”
“No bullshit, Shulman! Not one person in this country believes that cracker Fundamentalist Puppetboy anymore! Not one! They know he’s a lying sack of shit, and they resent his fucking with their heads! Waitresses at the counters wore ‘Impeach the Moron’ T-shirts and ‘Buck Fush’ buttons!” Schechner took a deep breath and dug into his oatmeal. “It was very encouraging,” he mumbled.
I pulled out my notebook, sipped coffee and scribbled while Schechner ate. Schechner is a strange man, but he doesn’t lie without telling you that he’s lying. Even when he’s performing: He wears a toupée and a mustache onstage, but everyone knows they’re fake. Offstage, he’s a clean-shaven beige man in his 60s or 70s, of medium build and with a full head of closely cropped hair, black, white and gray. Schechner’s as ethical a man as ever I’ve met; he speaks with authority but not arrogance, and readily admits when he’s wrong. Good people.
He also reads well upside-down.
“That’s nice, Shulman — ‘speaks with authority but not arrogance, and readily admits when he’s wrong.’ Jesus. Is this for Reader’s Digest?”
“It’s just a first draft. It won’t make it into print.”
“Fuckin’-A, it won’t,” said Schechner. “Why not just change it to ‘Schechner’s wise beyond his years. His every gesture reveals the Wisdom of the Ages’?”
“Or I could just take out the bit about you not being arrogant.”
“Listen,” Schechner forged onward, ignoring me. “Do you want to know why it’s finally happening?”
“Why what’s happening?”
“The end of the Bush spell.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do.”
Schechner leaned in. “Region-specific souvenirs.”
“Region-specific souvenirs. People buying souvenirs for friends and family back home. It’s just like food-combining. You know — a garbanzo bean’s one thing, but a garbanzo bean with macadamia nut oil and mung bean sprouts is something entirely different. Likewise, certain combinations of region-specific souvenirs — usually some kind of food, some kind of cleaning product and something utterly useless — can subliminally enhance one’s ability to perceive, in general, and, in specific, to more efficiently detect bullshit.”
“You lost me,” I said.
“I didn’t say it would make sense,” said Schechner, straightening up and putting his towel on the table. “How old are you, now, Shulman? Thirty-five?”
“Forty-one in October.”
“Let’s round it up to 42. I’ve seen America, Mr. Shulman–at–42. And I don’t just mean this road trip. I’ve been doing standup comedy all over this country since before you were born. And if I’ve learned one thing, it’s this: In America, high-level bullshit-detection is almost always rewarded with poverty.”
“And if you plan on growing old in the U.S.A., you better learn to respect penniless wisdom more than wealthy ignorance. Because when you get old in this place, that’s all you’ve got.”
Our waiter added fresh hot stale coffee to our cold stale cups. It’s the same waiter I’ve seen at Dolores’ Restaurant since the early ’80s: probably about Schechner’s age, polite, articulate. Excellent waiter. I think he’s maybe a manager, but it always amazes me that anyone could work a night shift in a restaurant for 20 years.
We creamed and sugared and shlurped our coffees. I said, “So I need to respect penniless wisdom, or move to a better country.”
“That’s right. I’m trying to give you a compliment,” he said. “You’re a bright enough guy, with no marketable skills. By the time you’re my age, you might be wise. But you’ll definitely be poor.”
“Thanks. Does this have something to do with the souvenirs?”
Schechner shrugged vaguely toward the hills of Brentwood. “You see all the assholes living easy, eating well in big, clean houses?”
“Not all assholes. Plenty of people with money who aren’t assholes.”
“True. But most are. Assholes faking their ways through life, generating money and little else. These are not wise people, Shulman. They’re addicted to competition. They’ve forgotten how to perceive correctly. Their lives are like game shows. ‘Hi. I make money by telling other people what to do with their money. So now that I have money, I need to pay someone else, so they can tell me what to do with mine, because otherwise what is life?’ You see what I’m saying?”
I thought about it for a second. A few seconds. “No.”
In the parking lot, Schechner presented me with hot sauce from Louisiana, alligator-shaped soap from Florida and an inch-long cow-shaped something from Wisconsin. Or Iowa.
“Thanks. Bush bad. Souvenirs, good. What the hell is this one?” I asked.
“That’s the cow,” said Schechner.
“The cow. A cow. It’s a fucking cow.”
“I can see it’s a cow. But what is it? I mean, I appreciate that you bought it for me, but if I wanted to buy another one, what would I refer to this as?”
Stumped, we checked the cow for clues. It was mostly white, with black blotches, yellow horns and red nostrils, collar, cowbell and lipstick. It shared a clear plastic envelope with a two-inch square card. On the card, only the words COLORED GROWING DO NOT SWALLOW EXPAND 600% OF SIZE.
Schechner shrugged. “Cow,” we said in unison.