Insensible Cities

An Engineer Who Knows History

Raleigh, NC’s City Limits Saloon is typical for the kinds of places I’ve been playing for the last five years: a honky-tonk that looks like a steakhouse inside, smells like disinfected vomit, and is full of the feeling that Johnny Cash doesn’t like you thanks to the giant, stained-glass image of him flipping you the bird—the icon of such cathedrals. But before the flock gathers in the evening to listen to me and my band sing the gospels according to Hank, Waylon, Willie, and Merle, this church offers very little in the way of diversion. Luckily, the place is only a couple miles from some nice bookstores, so after soundcheck I strapped on my walking dunks and headed out into the heat, 104°. Years ago, I shed my anxiety to impress strangers with a clean-shaven look and a pleasant body odor; these days I get by on a sweet smile and gym shorts, and this apparent lack of give-a-shit normally wards off unwanted interactions while I enjoy the solitude of hiding in plain sight. But every now and then someone sees through my pretensions and decides I’m a man who needs an education.

Directly facing the campus of NC State, I recognized Mitch’s Tavern from several years ago when my cousin Adam, then an aspiring film actor and an underwear model, took me, an aspiring college dropout and a model for what not to wear, out to rub elbows with other twenty-somethings and their respective aspirations. This time I came alone, during the day, for lunch, planning to get the Reuben. I sat down at the bar and planned to look at myself in the mirrored wall, but in between me and my reflection was a framed sign reading, “Everyone is entitled to my opinion.” Underneath the text was a name signed in Sharpie.

I stared at the signature for a moment, and I wondered to what archetype it belonged: A bar manager who over-drinks and goes on about his favorite college sports team? A cantankerous racist ready to spout propaganda to unsuspecting patrons? A middle school teacher who formally disputes the wording of each question at every Tuesday Night Trivia? Turns out I had it right with my second guess: the devil himself was sitting right next to me.

“It never ceases to amaze me,” the man said, wiry and bespectacled, proudly leading with his NC State alumnus ring, “how many beautiful young girls CNN can find to read the news.”

“Mm-hm,” I chewed, reading Polybius’s Histories. It’s tempting (read: amusing) to analogize the ancient Roman Republic, contending then with Carthage in the Punic Wars, with our own American Republic, contending now with the apprehension of some Caesar crossing some hypothetical Rubicon, but I have no interest in current events. The 21st century is the story of socio-entropy on a global scale, and the whole thing amounts to the beating of a few eggs—call me when breakfast is ready.

“I wonder if that girl knows what she’s actually saying,” he continued, “that the government is trying to tie all our hands behind our damned backs with media manipulation.”

Uh-oh. My eyes remained plastered to page four of the translator’s preface, and my jaw stayed the course against the corned beef as I deliberated on how to respond. After a few seconds, I went with, “Mm-hm.”

“I mean,” he immediately persisted, “do you remember the [such and such] bill from last year, when [so and so] said how a hundred million dollars were gonna be taken out of ‘funds’ to pay for it, but she never said anything about that money being taken from Medicaid. If they’d have said that, I doubt the people would’ve supported it so easily. You know what I mean?”

I had no idea what he meant, honestly. I knew Medicaid is for poor people like me and Medicare is for old birds like him and Obamacare is ostensibly for everybody and hey Obamacaid might make for a cute pun for a pundit and Jesus I haven’t taken my eyes off my book and this guy is still talking to me.

“… just hilarious how they call a bill one thing when it does the exact opposite.”

“Huh,” I’d finished chewing. “Kinda like the Clean Air Act.”

“No,” he responded. “It’s nothing like the Clean Air Act. I was an engineer for the EPA for thirty years, and I helped write that bill.”

Crap. Now I’d done it. Okay, Hesiod, let’s give this man about fifteen minutes of genuine filial piety, thank him for his service, and then get the hell out of here so we can go play that smelly church where they hang brassieres from a clothesline across the front of the pulpit. I closed my book. “Please forgive my ignorance. What was that like?”

To be fair to me, the 1990 amendment of the Clean Air Act is how some scientists used the acid rain hoax to leech substantial tax dollars. Apparently it wasn’t such a waste of money when Nixon signed the 1970 Extension. Just ask this guy.

“Scientists were all pretty honest until the sixties.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Well, we figured if everyone else can rob taxpayers, why can’t we? We’re the smartest people in the world: we deserve more money than welfare moms.”

“You made more money than a welfare mom?” I said. “Damn, I should’ve been a scientist.”

“Don’t even get me started on the Civil Rights Movement.”

His fifteen minutes were up, but fuck it.

“Tell me about 9-11,” I said.

“Nobody wants to hear the truth about 9-11, but you have to think about who stood to prosper from such a thing, and it certainly wasn’t Osama bin Laden. It was Israel. By their nature, the Jews thrive on turmoil.”

“That’s actually true,” I said. “My buddy just married a Jew, and last week I went over to their house for homemade chili… never again.”

“… And Abraham Lincoln was the worst goddamned president we ever had.”

“I never understood the whole vampire thing,” I said.

“You wanna talk about vampires? Lemme tell you about how black people took over the South after the Civil War. Did you know there was not a single white politician holding office south of the Mason-Dixon line for forty years after Robert E. Lee surrendered?”

“It’s just like professional sports,” I said. “They let black people in the NBA, and now nobody wants to watch hockey.”

“Segregation was a goddamned insult. We gave black people their own separate places just because they didn’t wanna be seen with white people. Gave them the balconies in all the theaters, the best seats in the house.”

“Wow,” I said as depression set in: “I’ve truly never thought of it that way.” I take pride in being something of a trickster, never allowing sentimentality to skew my vision from beautiful irony, but this man, this formally educated man of science, represented a pivotal blow from the fist of nihilism, because the only thing more impossible for me than to lose all faith in humankind is to hate one person for being ignorant. I felt like a marionette staring at a real boy. If only I had the emotional capacity to care, the grace to cut the strings of reason.

“Bet you didn’t think you’d meet an engineer who knows history, huh?”

He had settled up ten minutes before but stayed to continue talking at me while I finished my pint. I shook his hand before excusing myself to use the restroom, but when I returned I found that he had not yet left.

“You see that sign?” he pointed to the aforementioned fixture behind the bar. “That’s my signature.”

“You don’t say,” I said as I started to leave, him following behind like a stray cat that trails someone who’s given it food. I opened the door for him, and before walking out myself I turned to see several of Mitch’s Tavern’s patrons staring at me, making guesses at my affiliation with the man whose opinion to which they were all entitled.

“It’s okay,” I announced. “We’re lovers.”

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.