Eavesdropping in Northern Michigan

This column appeared in the Northern Express on January 31, 2016

Next time, whisper.

Eavesdropping in small town bars can be hilarious, uplifting, depressing, and humiliating.  As such, on cold winter nights in northern Michigan, it is the most rewarding and cheapest form of entertainment.  Over the last six weeks, I’ve been pretty much homebound due to a long overdue surgery, but I did get out a couple of times and was richly rewarded for my efforts.

In each case I was treated to the kind of story that can easily become its own column.  In amongst the boring hunting, fishing, and skirt chasing exploits, you can learn a lot about our area by just listening to what people are proud to talk about when they believe they are among friends.   Granted, I have often wanted to jump in and engage these folks, but on the times I have done so, I turned the conversation from what the people wanted to say into what they needed to say to defend their positions.   So beyond that ugly incident in Tucson, I generally stay hidden behind my root beer and cell phone just to take it all in.

Exhibit I: The sobbing teacher

A small group was sitting behind me at a table in Petoskey.  I knew one of the people a little, so I could have easily climbed off the bar stool and joined the conversation without much effort.  But once the woman that I knew started telling her tale of woe, I knew I was better off staying at the bar pretending to care about some pointless soccer game playing on the big screen.

The woman is an outspoken Republican.  She’s been active in local GOP politics.  Since the GOP has spent the last many years undermining public education, attacking teacher unions, and generally degrading the teacher profession, it was never clear to me why any teacher would vote Republican. But here was a living breathing specimen…and she was unhappy.

After the usual proclamations about much she loved teaching and about how hard she worked, she began to complain bitterly about how her district had cut her to half time and then rehired her to teach those lost hours at half the pay.  Because those classes didn’t require state certification to teach them, the district found a loop hole in their union contract and could save about $50 a day with this scheme.

Any sympathy I might have had for the woman was washed away by her attack on her union.  Due to Republican efforts to destroy the collective bargaining process in Michigan, teachers were allowed to stop of paying union dues while still enjoying all the benefits of union membership.   So here sits this woman, proudly freeloading off the dues paying members of her school district, and ripping the union for not protecting her pay.

One of her tablemates asked her what she really expected the union to do since the Right-to-Work-for-Less legislation was passed in Michigan along with a number of other bills to disempower unions.   The woman became furious and began to sob as she proclaimed her right to union representation regardless of whether she supported the union or not.   Any number of people could have stepped in and comforted her, but it seemed a lot more just to let the blubbering hypocrisy finish its long journey to the deaf ears of her friends and me.

Reaping what we sow, apparently, is not just a Bible verse.

Exhibit II Who’s Da Man?

A couple of regulars had been sitting at the end of the bar in Charlevoix and bantering with the bartender about a wide range of issues.  It was one of those classic small town moments when people on both sides of the bar were working hard to confirm rumors, spread gossip, and float trial balloons about the next great scandal they had heard about from their nephew’s girlfriend’s step-father’s ex-wife.

Soon the conversation turned to politics.  Health care, immigration, aid to refugees, Iran, terrorism, China, etc., spun around the bar like Headline News played at double speed.   There was no real disagreement.   The United States was a disaster and getting worse.

Abruptly one of the regulars said, “That’s why we need Donald Trump. He’ll fix all this.”  His buddy asked, “What the hell are you talking about?  What does Trump even stand for?”   His friend replied, “I have no idea.  I just know it will be better than what we have.”   He got up, told the bartender to put his drinks on his buddy’s tab, and walked out the door.    His buddy looked up at the bartender and mumbled, “Trump, eh?” and went back to his beer.

I couldn’t help wondering how many times that scene had been repeated all over the Great White North, and how many people are so desperate to fix what isn’t broken that they silently become Trump supporters with no more thought than those two guys in Charlevoix.


Exhibit III: Acting in Flint

Hanging out in Charlevoix can often yield some interesting worldviews.  On the cold nights in January, however, only the bravest patriots head out to spread their wisdom.  I was casually listening to two guys talk about the Flint water crisis.  It didn’t take long for the conversation to get directly to the point.  “If they have to have their Black Oscars, they can fix their own damn water problems.”

I was halfway home before I had to give up trying to make sense of that quip, but it did lead me to wonder about outrage.   Even a cursory look at the Flint water crisis and the way it was caused and “handled” by the Snyder administration’s quest to run our state like a business, leads to outrage.  But where is that outrage?  Why is Representative Triston Cole silent on this issue?  Why isn’t Senator Schmidt demanding action to take down the Governor for his role in poisoning children? (Albeit, mostly black children, but I think they still count.)  Is loyalty to their party more important than taking a stand against what happened in Flint?  While the national press finally has taken notice of the disaster, our local Representatives are abysmally quiet.  Lee Chatfield has said it’s a problem that needs addressing,, but he awkwardly proclaims on this Facebook page that “Now is not a time to point fingers and assign blame.”  Exactly when will that time be, Mr. Chatfield? Standing by Governor Snyder is a de facto endorsement of the state’s actions in Flint.

As usual, the people of northern Michigan deserve better.

One Comment on “Eavesdropping in Northern Michigan”

  1. Mr. Crumbly April 21, 2016 at 10:02 am #

    Particularly enjoyed the sobbing teacher. The kharmic justice is staggering.

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