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I was a revolutionary, p.15

I Was a Revolutionary, page 15


I Was a Revolutionary

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  I still think his position is as biased by his urban background and by the new conservatism as the work of older historians was biased by their rural background and traditional agrarian sympathies.


  The Assistant takes a break to get more coffee. He’s fading and there are still several hours to go. He should have just worn a beer helmet that holstered twin venti dark roasts this weekend. His research chapeau.

  The Populists saw the principal source of injustice and economic suffering in rural America in what they called “the money power.” In Hofstadter’s analysis, this was evidence of irrational paranoia, of “psychic disturbances.” Moreover, Hofstadter argued that these denunciations of “the money power” were deeply anti-Semitic. . . . The problem with this analysis, aside from the paucity of evidence, was that anti-Semitic rhetoric was hardly a monopoly of rural Midwestern Protestants in post–Civil War America. The Protestant elites in East Coast cities were probably more anti-Semitic, and Irish Catholic immigrants in Eastern cities had no love for Jews either.


  While Hofstadter’s misreading has a quality of grandeur, the source of his difficulty is not hard to locate: he managed to frame his interpretation of the intellectual content of Populism without recourse to a single reference to the planks of the Omaha Platform of the People’s Party or to any economic, political, or cultural experiences that led to the creation of those goals. Indeed, there is no indication in his text that he was aware of these experiences.

  —LAWRENCE GOODWYN, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, 1978

  This being Hofstadter’s most pointed-out flaw as a historian: an aversion to consulting the historical record.

  In a liberal society the historian is free to try to dissociate myths from reality, but that same impulse to myth-making that moves his fellow man is also at work in him.


  The Assistant wakes under the gentle hand of the Historian. “Hey there,” she says. “You okay?” He’s fallen asleep on top of a picture of Hofstadter he printed out from the Internet. A bead of drool has dampened the paper and now dried, giving Hofstadter the impression of entirely elective plastic surgery gone awry. The Assistant nods, not quite verbal yet. He does not feel rested. It was the kind of nap that only makes you more tired. “Closing time,” she says. “Buy you a coffee on the way out?” It does not feel humanly possible to ingest more coffee than he has the last three days. He shakes his head and begins packing things up. He hands her the legal pad with today’s findings on Hofstadter. “Your notes have been very helpful. You found some great stuff,” she says. “I finished a draft of the proposal. It would be great to have another set of eyes on it, though. I wonder if you might look it over before I submit it to the publisher tomorrow morning. I’ll e-mail it to you tonight.” He tells her sure and they leave together. “I’m beat,” she says, yawning. “But it’s a good kind of tired”—speak for yourself—“like we earned it.” She thanks him for his help. “Obviously I couldn’t have done it without you.” She moves a centimeter toward him, which for a quick second feels like the beginnings of an embrace, but she stops and just pats him once, awkwardly, in the general vicinity of his shoulder. “Go get some rest, okay?” she says and turns to leave. Watching her go, he feels the slightest nostalgia for the godforsaken Bag.

  Back at his apartment, the Assistant climbs into bed, intending only to redeem what he can of his truncated nap but wakes thirteen hours later. His body has performed some weird kind of intervention. Look, homie. We love you very much, but you’re not taking care of yourself so we’re unplugging you for a while. We’re doing this for your own good. He staggers over to his desk, which is a repurposed card table he bought at Walmart for twenty dollars when he started grad school two years ago. He checks his e-mail and finds seven from the Historian. The first of which arrived yesterday evening with the proposal attached, and they appeared steadily every few hours throughout the night and morning, sometimes with a new draft attached, sometimes with a thinly veiled entreaty disguised as a joke and full of exclamation points and ha-ha!s. It’s the e-mail trail of a crazy person; her body has not performed an intervention. The most recent e-mail from less than an hour ago, 6:27 a.m., said something to the effect that she needs to submit the proposal by 8:00 a.m. and could he pretty pretty pretty pretty please for the love of God read it ASAP! She would be soooooooooooooooooooooooo grateful!

  Quickly he opens the attachment of the latest draft and reads. He’s disappointed when he remembers the core of her argument, which is really Hofstadter’s specious argument, denigrating the Populists. Maybe the book will become famous and he can perform a respectful takedown of it in a few years with his own work on the subject.

  As he reads on to the second page, she makes the case for the importance of her book, its relevance to the field, and gives a synopsis, outlining the structure and timeline for the completion of the book. In the section titled “Research Plan,” she provides samples of the sort of evidence she hopes to incorporate into the project, and that’s when he sees some of his notes. He’s still a little groggy, but it’s strange. One note in particular seems off. “They are in fact reactionary betrayers of the term populist who want to carry forward a regressive agenda that will overwhelmingly harm the majority of the population.” Who the hell said that? It’s attributed in the proposal to William Allen White, the famous newspaperman from Emporia, Kansas, ardent Republican and fierce critic of the Populists. But he didn’t say that, did he? Then it hits him: White didn’t say it—the Assistant did. Or, rather, he wrote it. Friday night, when he was watching the news story on the Tea Party rally, he’d been scribbling on the pad and written down the thought, carrying on an imaginary argument with his dad, perhaps the germ that led him to Grassroots vs. Corporate Roots the following afternoon. He must have written it on his pad close enough to a William Allen White quote for her to have mistakenly attributed it to White. Surely she wouldn’t have knowingly done so. There are other quotes from his notes, correctly transcribed but taken out of context, and they’re presented in such a way as to move the Historian’s thesis a notch above conjecture. Your notes have been very helpful.

  The Assistant had been an English major as an undergrad and recalls something he read long ago in a Brit-lit survey, Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, in which the great Romantic argued that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” If this is so, the Assistant realizes, then historians are the autocrats.

  Next to the keyboard, the Assistant’s phone suddenly buzzes. For a moment he thinks the Historian has given up on e-mail and changed tactics, but it’s not her. It’s a text from Mom. Each morning she sends him a Bible verse for the day. The Assistant and God have been at an impasse since he was sixteen, and while he used to find these messages annoying, now he sort of looks forward to them. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Colossians 3:12. Then a second text arrives: Missed u this weekend. May B nxt? Thinking uf u. Luv Mom.

  The Assistant wants to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient. He also wants to be honest and responsible. The clock on his phone, the only accurate clock in his apartment, says 7:31 a.m. He thinks of the Historian and her crumbling book deal, desperate to leave a place she doesn’t want to be, crying into her wine each night in her little yellow bungalow. Maybe the notes aren’t wrong after all. Maybe this is how history works. Maybe interpretations are like assholes. The clock: 7:33 a.m.

  Sorry for the delay—totally crashed when I got home! he types in response to the Historian’s last e-mail. Just a couple of minor things. He points out a typo and a comma splice. I’m glad to have been of help, he types. B
est of luck—fingers crossed!

  He stares at the screen, the cursor blinking, and then he hits SEND.


  Ricky had wiped down the counter and was checking the level on his well liquors when his first customers—Doris, Charlene, and Kathy—walked through the door. Instinctively, he looked at the clock, 5:17, and then at the calendar, which was from the previous year, 1992, but was flipped to the correct month, July, so he moved the corresponding date ahead one slot. Second Thursday, he realized. It would be a late night.

  The bar—the Doc Holliday Inn and Lounge, which had never included an inn of any sort, and which most people just called Doc’s—was located on the far western edge of Dodge City, just past the less frequented of two discount supermarkets on Wyatt Earp Boulevard but not quite to the closest of several industrial slaughterhouses. In the late seventies, these packinghouses—Cargill, National Beef, IBP, ConAg, D&L—had followed tax incentives west to be closer to feedlots and to escape union contracts in Kansas City and Wichita, making boomtowns of Dodge, Liberal, and Garden City the way oil and railroads had a century prior. They drew a large pool of unskilled laborers to towns that had been losing population for decades, providing them with a constant source of employment. But the work was difficult and dangerous, and turnover was rampant. Some quit immediately, some after a month, but there was always somebody new to fill the spot. Few lasted a year, let alone several, but those who did shared a kind of bond, the hard-won cachet it took to work whatever horror show came along the chain day after day, to live with joint pain so unrelenting you could no longer lay your hand flat. It was this specific niche—the lifers of the nearby D&L plant—who were Ricky’s regulars. Most nights a handful of them would swing by for a postshift shot and a beer, and one or two might even stay late to watch a game and work himself through a pack of Winstons and a dozen dollar-and-a-quarter draws, but tonight was payday, and just about everyone showed up when the checks were cut.

  They arrived in the manner their labor divided them. First in were the packagers, this trio of women who worked the line, preparing the shrink-wrapped cuts for shipping to wholesalers. They were followed by Bob, a stunner, whose job was to lead the cattle into holding pens, put the captive bolt to their skulls, and pull the trigger, as well as Ray, a line supervisor. The shacklers, stickers, and steamers—a group of six who together hoisted the unconscious cow from the kill floor to the overhead rail, slit the jugular, drained the blood, removed the hide, and hosed down the carcass—followed shortly thereafter. Then there was a break in the flow of arrivals, twenty minutes or so, because though everyone showered and changed clothes after their shift, the splitters’ and eviscerators’ work, separating the edible from the offal, was especially dirty, and despite the equipment—the chain-mail apron, the armguards and mesh gloves, the hard hats and industrial goggles—filth would inevitably find its way around, so Dolan and Byrd needed extra time to soak and scrub a second lather of Lava soap onto their skin. Last to arrive were Hector, Dan, and Carlos, the butchers, who showed up after everyone else because they were the artists, and so they took their time. They could usually be found in the locker room late, towels around waists, wet hair dripping onto the slippery tile, comparing knives and techniques, bragging of cuts.

  What was it about Doc’s that they liked? There was nothing special about the place, and that’s what made it special. Unlike other bars that tried too hard, Doc’s was not seeking to win their affection, which made them want to give it away all the more. It was small, with a capacity of forty that it exceeded only on the weekends. Its walls were paneled wood grain and dotted by the occasional clock or piece of racing memorabilia bearing the sponsorship of a beer company no one was certain still existed: Falstaff, Utica Club, Grain Belt. Pushed back against the wall opposite the bar were four booths, the carmine vinyl of which was stretched and torn, some holes slapped over with duct tape while others exposed their foamy camel-colored insides. There was a pool table in the back, and one could get a clean shot from all but three angles where the Death Wish pinball machine prevented full extension of the cue. To be “Bronsoned” was to find your ball in this no-man’s-land, and every player avoided it like the plague. There was a jukebox stocked with records that hadn’t changed since Ricky took over in 1979. In the way of food, there was a chip rack, fifty cents a pop, and a red Hot Nuts machine that dispensed at a quarter a turn. Ricky made use of a small stove in the back, where he’d cook burgers using ground chuck delivered straight from D&L and serve them to customers on thin paper napkins the width of a sanitary pad. It was the only thing on the menu, and there was nothing like a long night of drinking to convince customers they were the best burgers in town.

  The ladies sat in their usual spot, three stools front and center, elbows up on the bar. Doris no longer drank, but she’d stop in for a while because her husband was sick and bedridden, which made the house feel oppressive. She’d have an occasional shot glass’s worth of pink champagne if there was cause to celebrate, though she usually just sat sipping a tumbler of tonic neat. Kathy and Charlene waited on a round of SoCo. Afterward, they’d switch to beer because they’d need their wherewithal to accept or deflect the inevitable advances of the men, especially Dolan. Who for the time being was sipping a can of Pabst as he sent the cambering pinball over Charles Bronson’s leathered scowl. Byrd sat in a booth, talking to the only other black man in the bar, a shackler named Asie, a fact he’d become conscious of only two days later, as he stooped to pour gas into his mower, thinking back on the night and what had happened, and how it was strange that it didn’t feel strange or isolating that he and Asie happened to be sitting by themselves for a time. The butchers stood at the pool table, debating which of the three would have to team up with Dolan in the first game of the night.

  Bob lowered himself onto his favorite corner stool by the television, and Ray and Sal occupied the neighboring two on the short side of the L-shaped bar. The Scotch-taped stools were as familiar as their recliners at home, accepting the curvature of their butts like regal death masks. Bob had given them a ride because Ray got hit with a DWI coming home from Doc’s the previous Saturday. Feeling a sense of indebtedness for the lift, Ray called out: “Give us a trinity of the High Life at this end. Drafts. Put them on my tab.” As Ricky pulled clean glasses from the dry-rack, Ray rocked side to side on his seat. “My hemorrhoids send their regards, Ricky,” he said, then nodded at Doris, Charlene, and Kathy as if to say, “Ladies . . .”

  Doris was in her late forties, still good at her job, but not one to project sexual fantasies onto. She was the self-appointed lookout for the two younger women, and because everyone had eyes for Charlene, Ray focused his flirtations on Kathy, who at thirty-six was half pretty and had an ass he sometimes fantasized beating with a flyswatter. “Kathy with a K,” he said to her now, “when you gonna let me make a dishonest woman of you? We won’t tell your husband.” It was harmless. The fact that nothing would ever happen with Kathy was what made this permissible. She knew it too, which is why she could answer “I don’t eat red meat, Tonto,” and still make Ray laugh.

  Bob wore a white undershirt that stretched over his big belly and tucked into a pair of dark dungarees, which were held up by a pair of crimson-and-blue clip-on suspenders. He removed his ball cap, setting it beside his beer, and turned his attention to the only television in the bar, an old nineteen-inch Magnavox with rabbit ears that picked up a handful of stations, most importantly channel three, which broadcast Royals games. Bob was a loyal fan and this was George Brett’s final season with the team. Out of respect, he’d made a pledge to watch every Royals game he could. And while he’d never betray these feelings to the others at Doc’s, where he sat stoically sipping his beer, he was grateful for having had the privilege of watching a player like Brett—three thousand hits, flirting with .400 in ’80, the World Series in ’85—compete, grateful and mystified at the way Brett’s excellence on the field had somehow made his own unremarkable
life feel a bit better. Foolish but true, he knew, and perhaps that’s why he felt a sense of loss as he watched Number 5 assume his familiar lean-back stance in the box and chase a low-and-outside for a third strike.

  He finished the last of his beer and pushed the empty glass toward Ricky.

  “Another beer, Bob-O?” Ray said.

  “Not this time.”

  “Come on, stay a while,” said Byrd, who’d left Asie in the booth to come order another round.

  This was all part of the ritual, the routine. Bob only ever stayed for one beer, but the fun was in pressuring him to stay for a second. The wild incentives. Charlene will show us her titties. Or: I’ll buy one for the whole fucking bar if you stay for another. But Bob would never bite. He’d just put on his cap and, already on his way to the door, simply raise a splay-fingered hand over his shoulder as a goodbye.

  “One day I’m gonna have that kind of discipline!” said Ray. “I feel like we should be clapping.”

  “He ought to have a plaque on the wall,” said Byrd in his slow manner of speech. “Here drank Steady Bob, model of moderation.”

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