Working Class: The Man Who Welded Two Elephants’ Asses

Bob Willis (left) with his helper Roy in the engine room of the Ice Plant , circa 1962.
Bob Willis (left) with his helper Roy in the engine room of the City Products ice plant in Dayton, Ohio circa 1962.

My father liked to say with a sly twinkle, “I could weld two elephants’ asses together and make them stick… if you could make them stand still long enough.” Self-effacing humor was his style, not braggadocio. As often as not he lost himself in laughter before he ever reached the punchline.

He was a good welder. And carpenter. And plumber, pipefitter, electrician, mechanic and millwright. He was even a certified steam plant operator at the end of the Age of Steam. He was an industrial worker, though he never stood on a production line. He was one of the maintenance guys who kept the machines running. He told me once with Zen-like clarity, “When I walk into that plant every morning, I know something will be fucked up. That’s why I have a job.”

Bob Willis was a working man. Was he working class? I never heard him acknowledge that categorization. He mistrusted class distinctions of any kind. I do, too. That’s no surprise, as he set my moral compass in so many ways.

The working class label was everywhere in the 2016 election. Its cachet is likely to fade over time along with Donald Trump’s populist credibility. Before that happens, I want to explore what it means to be working class. It’s not as simple as the pundits, pollsters and political operatives think.

My father was a working man, and he was a Republican. He lived all his life in Ohio, except three years in Europe during World War II. His European experience is another story, a tangent I plan to follow in due course. For now, consider the demographic convergence: white working class Republican from Ohio, and a war veteran to boot. Had he lived to be 95, he could have met the gold standard for Trump voters this year.

I doubt it. More than once during the 2016 election, when it looked like the Grand Old Party was cracking up in fratricide under less-than-friendly fire, I thought about my dad and sighed, “They don’t make Republicans like him anymore.”

John Prine hit the nail on its head in the song “Grandpa Was A Carpenter”: “He voted for Eisenhower/’Cause Lincoln won the war.” My dad believed in Lincoln’s vision of equality in America, and he put his faith in Ike when he crossed the English Channel for the invasion of Normandy. He respected both Presidents’ pragmatism. He was a liberal Republican, if you can believe such an idea today. And he was not afraid to change his mind.

“I voted for Richard Nixon three times,” he told me after Watergate. “Now I know I was wrong.”

He wasn’t hoodwinked by Ronald Reagan, either. He mistrusted Reagan’s plan to scrap Social Security, and he openly opposed the Gipper’s military conspiracies in Central America. He’d become something of a pacifist by then. I remember his outrage after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he celebrated mass in San Salvador. “We have no business getting mixed up with the kind of thugs who would do something like that.”

My dad had a heart attack in 1986. I visited him in the hospital on the day that news broke about the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration secretly sold illegal arms to Iran to raise money for anti-Communist guerillas in Nicaragua. Republicans selling missiles to the Ayatollah Khomeini – imagine that!

I told my dad about it in what turned out to be the last conversation in our conscious lives. He had other things on his mind. He shook his head knowingly and said just one word. “Bastards.”

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For This Voter With A Disability, The Choice Is Clear

I will not snap a selfie with my ballot on Nov. 8. I voted two weeks ago. I’ve paid close attention to this election all year. Uncharacteristically, I have avoided speaking about it in public. Then I read this stark challenge in a Washington Post editorial: “When the republic was in danger, where did you stand? History will ask that question.” I doubt my words will change anyone’s vote now, but for the sake of history, I need to explain my decision.

I am a voter with a disability. The disability began in 1973, the same year I became eligible to vote. Looking back, I know I was fortunate to come of age then, just as disability rights emerged as a political movement. In that movement I learned how to make a political statement when I said publicly, “I am a person with a disability.”  It was an affirmation, a commitment to working for equal rights and opportunities in a society flexible enough and tolerant enough to embrace the vast diversity of human capability and experience.

In 1984 I was inspired when Jesse Jackson told the Democratic National Convention, “I’d rather have Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair than Ronald Reagan on a horse!” In 1990 I was proud to go to the White House to witness the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, when President George Bush said “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Now it’s 2016, and one of the candidates for President is boasting about building walls, not tearing them down. Inclusion versus exclusion is a central metaphor, and people with disabilities have achieved a dubious status in the political debate. Hilary Clinton includes us in every stump speech when she invokes an America that will be “stronger together.” And Donald Trump includes us in the long list of “losers” whom he disparages and disrespects from his bully pulpit: immigrants, Muslim-Americans, African-Americans, women, even war heroes.

Trump revealed his true attitude about disabled people at a 2015 rally in South Carolina when he mocked the speech and gestures of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has a neuromuscular disability. The video clip of Trump’s cruel performance provoked immediate public outrage. Excerpts cycle repeatedly in election news stories and Clinton campaign ads, so you’ve probably seen it. If not, excellent documentation, context and analysis was published Aug. 2 in a Washington Post Fact Checker.

After the “Role Models” ad was released in July, Trump felt compelled at another rally to excuse his imitation of Kovaleski. He wasn’t mocking the reporter’s disability, he said. He was mocking his “groveling.” Trump repeated the words “grovel” and “groveling” nine times in the span of a few seconds so everyone could hear his dog whistle: groveling is what disabled people do.

A Bloomberg Politics poll published later in August found Trump’s mockery of the disabled reporter to be the single-most-disliked moment of his campaign. That was two months before the Access Hollywood tape surfaced in October. It captured a rare moment of candor in which Trump bragged about his prowess as a celebrity sexual predator.

After I listen to the Trump tapes, two takeaways haunt me. First, Trump’s performances embody humiliation rituals that reinforce his sense of power and superiority. He needs to belittle others so he can feel big. Second, he needs the complicit laughter of his audiences, from Billie Bush at Access Hollywood to the seething mobs at his rallies, to feed a bottomless need for attention. This guy is a bully. We know all kinds of people he would throw under a bus to get a laugh. Then the next day he would tweet, “Just kidding.”

Some partisans say Trump’s behavior is simply a shtick, not how he would govern. He’s being politically incorrect, the argument goes. He’s telling it like it is. Let Trump be Trump. To them I offer the final lines of W. H. Auden’s poem “Epitaph on a Tyrant”. It was written in the 1930s for an earlier generation of demagogues, bullies and narcissists:

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried, the little children died in the streets.

This election is no joke. Donald Trump should not be given a bully pulpit of any kind. He must never be entrusted with the powers and responsibilities of the Presidency of the United States.

For this voter with a disability, the choice is clear. I’m with her. I’m with her for the most important reason: she is not him.

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Giving Thanks for Paris, Where a Life of the Mind Finds Life in the Streets

On this day devoted to giving thanks I want to return as a grateful flaneur to a story from the Left Bank. Since launching this blog in 2007, it remains my most favorite post. I was sad the day it dropped off the bottom of the home page. Maybe no one would ever read it again. So I re-posted it on Thanksgiving, that year and most years since, claiming it as a family tradition. Along the way I prefaced it with a quotation from Walter Lowenfels, the Old Leftie poet and labor organizer whom Henry Miller immortalized as Jabberwhorl Cronstadt in Black Spring. “One reader is a miracle,” Walter said. “Two readers are a movement.”

Let me give thanks again today to Ms. Modigliani, my first reader; to all of you who stroll the site, who are my kind of movement; and to Paris itself, its people and its streets, which have given me a freedom of place that cannot be extinguished by terror and hate.

[Photo by Ms. Modigliani]

I remember the book I held in my hands that day. I remember the feel of its time-warped, water-stained pages. I remember its murky, moldy river smell, call it the book’s bouquet, suggesting years of storage on the banks of the Seine. Had I bought it then, I could feel and smell it now and know it from a thousand other books in my studio. Its touch and bouquet would transport me into the midst of its terroir, several blocks of the Latin Quarter only a stone’s throw from the river, where it was printed and published, sold and re-sold, read and debated, discarded and read again in other hands — for three centuries. Like the fish that got away, it looms ever larger and more mysterious just below the surface of my memory.

It was a 1745 edition of Voltaire. The price was 45 euros. I had as much cash in my pocket, but that seemed exorbitant for a book slowly composting like leaf-mold. Voltaire never meant that much to me. I was hoping to stumble upon an affordable antiquarian volume of Rabelais. Still, 1745 was 1745, and I liked the smell of leaf-mold…

“You don’t need to buy books,” Ms. Modigliani said after snapping the photo. “You don’t need to read them. Just touching books is what you really want.”

She was right. Until then, she’d always been a little dubious about my passion for collecting books. Charitably, she overlooked the impracticality, the apparent futility of a blind man acquiring (and housing) countless printed volumes he could never read. Patiently and generously, she read to me more than a few obscure books over the years. As we made our way through the bookstalls along the Seine, she gamely surveyed the titles for me, translating snippets of this text or that. She almost succumbed to the passion herself as she haggled with bouquinistes on my behalf. Nonetheless, she couldn’t ignore the incongruity that I might pay more for a musty old book than she would spend for chic new shoes. It seemed, well, profligate.

So it was a moment of deep insight and acceptance when Ms. Modigliani said, “Just touching books is what you really want.” I felt understood then, and loved. How could buying any mere physical object compare with that?

I didn’t buy the book. We walked down Quai des Grands-Augustins to the Institut de France, then turned left onto Rue de Seine. There was Voltaire! Chancing upon his statue unexpectedly must have been an omen. I took a picture as if to prove to myself that I truly was a free agent in this situation. Then I heard a cold marble voice mocking me. Maybe it was an oracle from the terroir. “You should have bought the book.”

[Photo by a blind flaneur]

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Peace for Paris

Jean Jullien. Peace for Paris. Image posted on Twitter on111315.

Via NPR 111415: “In the aftermath of the coordinated terror attacks on Paris, people around the world have been taking to social media to share their grief and show support for the French people. | One image, in particular, has become a kind of icon of international solidarity: a simple, but powerful, black-and-white ink drawing of a peace sign — with the Eiffel Tower at its heart. The picture popped up online last night, and since then it has been shared, liked, tweeted and retweeted as people attempt to cope with the tragedy. | It has become known as the “Peace for Paris” symbol. And its creator, illustrator Jean Jullien, awoke Saturday morning to discover that it had gone viral.”

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What Is Success? Fare Thee Well, Allen Toussaint

New Orleans composer, producer and piano doctor Allen Toussaint died last night following a concert in Madrid. He was 77 years old. I learned his name first as the songwriter of “What is Success?” recorded in the 1970s by Bonnie Raitt. It wasn’t the first time I heard is music, I just didn’t know who wrote the hits for the Rolling Stones, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, and many other R&B singers. Wish I could be in New Orleans to dance in his Second Line!

Allen Toussaint – Tipitina & me | BBC 4 documentary


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