This much is indisputable. Texas is redneck territory. The flipside: Texas is also becoming browner, gayer, and more feminine every day. I had never really thought of my place in the state, or even in my adopted hometown of Fort Worth specifically, until I went to vote last May at my kid’s elementary school. “Democrat!” I boomed, even before the senior citizen working the Republican table in front could finish asking me, friendly enough, “Republican or Democrat?” I was angry with him based on my immediate assumption that as a white man of a certain age and political party he was an undoubtedly rich misogynist racist. “What’s wrong with me?” I groused to myself while checking off boxes on paper with my pencil like a paranoid idiot instead of using the machines. I’m so sorry. I’m a monster.
At the time, I considered myself to be in pretty good shape. I was running about three miles every third day and rucking once a week –– that’s marching for 45 minutes or longer with 20 pounds on my back and stopping every 10 minutes to do 50 pushups with the weight still attached. I felt like I could handle any nazi, no matter his (or her) size (or age). That was then. I had started rucking because a pinched nerve in my neck prevented me from lifting free weights. After the rucking, and some yoga, chased away my neck pain, just as the exercises were intended –– not for building muscle –– I went back to the gym. This was about two months ago. It was eye-opening. I was as weak as when I was a high school sophomore. I don’t think I could handle a 16-year-old in docksiders now. (Plus, his flaming tiki torch would present a problem all its own.) I need to keep my big mouth shut.
I feel like I need to worry about this kind of stuff living where I do. Just to be clear, I’m talking about choices. Having light skin and getting caught alone in Stop Six late at night or being black and trying to do anything, really, in public –– like ask for directions or grill some burgers –– is different. Skin color isn’t a choice. What you wear is.
It really hit me one Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. My family and I had just finished doing yard work, and neither my wife nor I felt like cooking and cleaning. To our 6-year-old son’s joy, Dana and I decided that nearby Texas Pit Oyster Bar would do the cooking and cleaning for us. Over the years, the little corner spot off Western-Center Boulevard in North Fort Worth has become one of our go-tos. I love the raw oysters and stuffed crabs, and my vegetarian wife and semi-picky son like the jalapeno poppers, the grilled cheese, and the dirty rice. We also like the solid service. There was just the little problem of the T-shirt Dana was wearing.
My wife isn’t a social justice warrior. She’s just good people. Vegetarian for the past 22 years –– strictly out of choice, not diet –– Dana is openly inspired by the major players in the civil rights movement. One of her biggest heroes, if not the biggest, is John Lewis. In return for a nominal online contribution not too long ago, she received a John Lewis T-shirt. It’s a picture of the Georgian Congressman across a waving American flag and the words “I stand with John Lewis, a real American hero.” She wears it often, especially around the house. Going out for lunch wouldn’t have been a problem if we lived in New York City, San Francisco, or even Austin. North Fort Worth is a different story.
Along with west Fort Worth, southwest Arlington, and the Benbrook region on election night 2016, Trump support, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, was “particularly prominent” in Keller and nearby Saginaw, a.k.a. the area right by my house.
While I haven’t seen any MAGA hats or shirts at the gym or Kroger (yet), I always come across those irritating “blue lives matter” bumper stickers or, as I call them, “new confederate flags.” I didn’t even think about asking Dana to change into something “nicer.” We were going to an oyster bar. She would have seen right through me and probably judged me for it. “Babe,” I would have pleaded in response. “I can barely bench press 225 pounds 10 times now. How am I going to be able to defend your honor if someone gives you gruff for your John Lewis shirt? And think of how emotionally scarred our son is going to be watching his dad back down from a bully.”
The answer quickly came to me. My wife does not stand for any b.s. At all. One time on a crowded subway in New York City, I saw her jump up from her seat and scold a gang of teens who were tearing a movie poster from its place beneath a metallic frame on the subway wall. (This was before cell phones.) “You won’t have to live with that mess every day,” she yelled. “We will!” They soon backed off and scurried away seconds later at the next stop. My wife doesn’t need any man’s muscle, including mine –– unless I’m loading the car with suitcases for a trip or popping the cork off a champagne bottle. Mimosa o’clock, y’all!
I have to admit, I was pretty relieved pulling up to Texas Pit. Out on the picnic tables on the meager sidewalk which constitutes the patio, a black couple was sitting having a smoke –– like Congressman Lewis, and them, our son is also black. OK, I thought. But maybe they’re still conservative. We Marianis won’t really know if we’re truly welcome until we step inside. We walked past the couple without exchanging hellos or even glances. I took a deep breath and entered –– after my wife and kid. I was holding the door for them, not using them as human shields, I swear.
We had been to the oyster bar a few times before, and I guess I really never stopped to notice the people sitting around us. Had I, I probably wouldn’t have been as leery of popping in with a John Lewis-adoring wife as I was. Having lived in North Fort Worth for 11 years and having hung out at pretty much every restaurant in the general vicinity, and there’s a bunch, I am going to go on the record as saying that Texas Pit Oyster Bar is one of the most wonderfully diverse eateries/bars in all of North Texas, because we’ve been back a couple of times since then, and it’s been the same lovely scene: all ethnicities crammed together amid plentiful nautical-themed bric-a-brac for some good, inexpensive eats. (The stuffed crabs have also remained on point.)
More than feeling relieved, which I was, I felt at home, among my own, among civility and kindness and open-heartedness. I started to think about the gym again, about how diverse it is there, too. And the Waffle House across the street, with the young black cook who always asks us how our food is. (“Delicious!” remains our standard reply.) And Overtime Bar & Grill on nearby North Beach Street. And even Luigi’s Italian Restaurant on Western-Center. Diversity is all around me. There’s really nothing to worry about. No one’s going to come after me for broadcasting the fact that I believe in inclusiveness. As my wife will tell you, I’m a little paranoid. A lot a little paranoid.
It was somewhat different during the Obama years, when I regularly wore Fort Worth Weekly T-shirts. I was also benching 225 for three sets of 10 with only three minutes rest between sets. The only reason I’m risking another pinched nerve by hitting the gym hard these days is to be able to start working out in public while wearing Weekly T-shirts again, assuming that everyone knows our product skews liberal, or “toward the truth,” as I should say, which we do. (Hundreds of investigative stories since 1994. Zero successful libel suits.) I can’t now. I’m too weak, physically. I’d be opening myself up to a confrontation like a bloody, flopping fish in shark-infested waters. I have a family to provide for. I need to remain whole. I’m also running out of alternative workout tees.
The truly jaded might suggest that I document any clothing-related attack on my person to become a viral sensation, like the young white woman in the MAGA hat who went to Disneyland recently looking, just begging, to be acknowledged by her fellow tourists. (She wasn’t, to her sincere disappointment. In her tweet, she seemed to suggest that the Hispanics at the park were afraid of her.) Through my video I could prove that right-wing nuts are as crazy and violent as we think they are.
I could also hide under the covers for the rest of my life.
As weak as I am, I am still physically stronger than my wife. I simply am not as prone to kicking ass as she is. I don’t know how to use my strength. I will not hurt a fly. Literally. I will capture it in a cup and usher it to the great outdoors. I will never hurt it. Human beings are so precious, even the worst among us. I can’t imagine going after another person to injure or harm him. Even when I was boxing, it was just to win, never to hurt. That is partly why I’m having such a hard time understanding what is happening to us. A couple of months ago, a man accosted two MAGA hat-wearing teens at a Whataburger. I loathe nazis and nazi sympathizers as much as the next normal person, but even if they called the man the n-word or something, attacking children is unacceptable. Plus, they’re children. Some of them don’t even have developed-enough brains to be able to tell their Chuck Schumer from their Amy Schumer. We non-nazis need to be better than that.
We need to be better than the nazis –– both the open and the closeted ones –– in every way. “Hate is too heavy a burden to bear,” Rep. Lewis tweeted the other day. “Love is the better way. #goodtrouble” (That’s his cool new hashtag. It means getting in trouble –– or, you know, being forcibly arrested –– for a good cause.) Even if you’re a Republican, even if Donald Trump is responsible for your bigger yacht or fancier make of German automobile, to continue supporting a leader who thrives on divisiveness is essentially asking for another civil war. Brown people aren’t going anywhere, try as some of you might to keep them out of our country or deport them. They’re already here, and you can’t deport them all. As my old pal Jesse Sierra Hernandez often joked to our white friends, “How’s your Spanish?!” Hey, DT. How’s yours? More appropriately, how’s Branson’s? Or Barton’s? Whatever the little devil’s name is. I’m not looking it up.
“Not all Republicans are nazis,” of course, “but all nazis are Republican” (my best friend Jeff Walzer, circa July), which brings up another not-so-old saying: Liberals hate Donald Trump because he’s racist. Conservatives hate Obama because they’re racist. Trump is plainly endeavoring to join with Vladimir Putin in creating an all-white coalition to sweep Europe and the West, and avowed nazis are openly running for U.S. government. Not as Democrats or Independents. And not as Greens, whatever they are. The swastika-clad among us are aiming for ballot spots as Republicans. The nazis’ fear must be pretty pronounced. What they’re afraid of, as best as I can gather –– and there are only so many white-power websites you can visit before you begin to look at your computer the way Mike Trout sees a hanging curveball –– is that white skin will one day be erased, subsumed by a hue of brown ostensibly mixed with some yellow and hopefully red. Allow me to indulge in a little Freud. Are we saying that white men and women now, living today, are afraid that their white children and grandchildren will not –– what? –– find anyone with non-white skin to be attracted to in the future? Or something equally ridiculous? I can’t think of any other reason for caring so much about skin color.
I’m not forgetting about white privilege, about all the doors open to people like me merely because we are of the dominant race. And, if applicable, the dominant gender. I understand that the nazi will say, likely through a haze of meth smoke, that the white man earned his place atop the food chain, that white is might, and that white is genetically predisposed to greatness. The truth is that Whitey arrived in the right place at the right time. It’s nothing but dumb luck. We also cannot rightfully tally Whitey’s achievements without also acknowledging his failures, of which there are too many to list here, but I’ll go ahead and throw out the Crusades, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, my attempts at writing poetry, and this harrowing sideshow of a U.S. presidency. I don’t mind losing my place in line to someone who never would have had the opportunity to even get in line without people like John Lewis. I’m a simple man, though, just like the Skynyrd song.
There’s also the difference between a protest shirt and a free shirt you receive for contributing to a politician. As I also realized, no one –– not in 2018, definitely not in 2018, other than maybe some nazi scum –– could have looked at what my wife was wearing and said, “Civil rights are bad. I strongly disagree with them.” John Lewis is a hero. There is no doubt about that. He had his skull fractured by police in Selma for praying and was bruised and battered by two white men in South Carolina for trying to enter a whites-only waiting room. As a young man, he risked his life –– repeatedly –– merely to be seen as a human being. What he did was patriotic in every sense of the word, and this is where Dems and Repubs cross streams. The bowl into which they are relieving themselves is Christianity. The difference is that one party is towering from the scientifically objective perch of a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body when she’s pregnant. The other is shooting from the linoleum, trying to convince her that he knows what’s best for her because he’s white and male and white males have always been right. The Bible doesn’t say anything about when life starts. Pinpointing conception as the beginning is merely a modern rhetorical construct to control and hurt women. What I’m trying to say is that I would feel more at home at John Lewis’ church, whatever or wherever it is, than at the one within walking distance from my house, no matter what my wife or I were wearing. North Fort Worth Baptist Church would see me only if I were togging an “I just look illegal” shirt or one with the Black Panther on it, just because. Who’s going to pick a fight with a physically weak fly-saving liberal at Jesus’ house?
Trump enablers are sad because they can’t get dates and are being kicked out of fancy restaurants in D.C. and shunned by friends in the Hamptons. I REALLY DON’T CARE. DO U? I also don’t care how physically intimidating he or she is, I would laugh at any young black person in a MAGA hat. “And what planet are you from?” I would ask kindly. (I’ve always thought of young black Republicans as extraterrestrials, now with Kanye West as their leader.) I would have to at least applaud him or her for voting on November 8, 2016, or at least presenting the appearance of having voted when most African-Americans stayed home. Though no one keeps track of local numbers –– I called around for days but got no answers –– the national turnout rate among black voters, according to the Pew Research Center, declined for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election. Maybe this was a form of protest. If so, screw you. Same goes for protest voters, too. To sort of make myself feel better, because I’ve found that tricking myself forces me to do (good) things I normally wouldn’t (#lifehack), but mostly to spite protest voters, I greet every new rightward shift in public policy with the tiniest spoonful of delight. Cut off your nose to spite your face, Protest Voter Jimmy? Well, you’ve just earned another right-wing Supreme Court justice, another child torn from his mother’s arms at the border, and another few thousand people deprived of health insurance. Hope you got a lot of jollies marking that box for Jill Stein. Jerk.
On Fourth of July weekend, my wife and I stayed at a great bed and breakfast on the Near Southside. The place is called Three Danes Inn, and you should stay there, too. We were sharing roof with two white, presumably rich seniors evidently from nearby Burleson. (I overheard them raving about some vineyard there in intimate detail, so I’m just putting two and two together.) As the couple sat in the drawing room enjoying some vino, I stood in the adjacent dining room and made a big production out of congratulating one of the owners for his black-and-white “Beto for Senate” yard sign, referring to Dem Beto O’Rourke, the rockstar state congressman from El Paso with his eyes on Ted Cruz’s U.S. Senate seat. The co-owner, ever gracious and tactful, played off my compliment. “Yeah,” he whinnied. “The state Democratic convention was in town last week,” which it was, and yadda yadda yadda, nothing political. Fine, I thought. No problem. I already got my cheep dig in. Though I am as weak as a child now, I am still not afraid of old white people. What are they going to do, bury me in $100 bills?
At the B&B was the last time Dana wore her John Lewis T-shirt in public. It was the Saturday when we were leaving, on our way to the lake to do some kayaking and lunching, which we never do, the lake part. Lunch, we love. We try to do that every day. Our kid was with his maternal grandparents, and Dana and I were trying to treat each other as a hot date rather than a stable life partner. Before we checked out, she changed into something that was decidedly less political but that was, I would say, borderline Trumpian: a red-and-white-striped shirt that says, “Party in the USA” in blue. Whatever the “USA” is now, it appears to belong only to right-wing gun nuts. I was as much relieved as a little shaken. I was glad that the prospect of a confrontation was lessened now, but I hated to think that my Wonder Woman was backing down because we were going to the lake, understanding that the people who own boats or who go boating are mostly white and, presumably, socially conservative. On the drive north along Jacksboro Highway, I repeatedly flexed my biceps, triceps, and forearms as I gripped the steering wheel. I sized up my size. Still puny, I realized. Still a high-school boy.
The entrance to Augie’s Sunset Cafe was a sort of relief. Stacked in all of their glory were several dozen Weeklys on a rack. The cover image was of two black men shaking hands above a sign that reads, “NOTICE. NO GANG-BANGIN ALLOWED IN THIS AREA! CRIPS & BLOODS STOP ROBBING AND KILLING ONE ANOTHER.” Dana and I took our seats on the patio facing the water, from which I spied a young man out on the dock with a confederate flag tucked into his pocket. He looked a lot like the guy who kindly let me pass just moments earlier as he was resituating his oversized pickup truck in the parking lot. At our table, Dana and I were greeted by a delightful young woman whose ethnicity we couldn’t exactly place. Maybe Hispanic, maybe a little Asian, whatever she was, she was great. The several picnic tables around us were occupied by white folks. The seats facing me were taken by two young couples with toddlers, the one adult male with his back to me wearing a black T-shirt. Everyone looked kind of MAGA-y. Don’t ask me what that means, because I’m not quite sure. All I know is that their skin was bright white, and they were wearing cargo shorts and flip-flops. Being at Eagle Mountain Lake, that was MAGA-y enough for me.
I loosened up after a couple Corona Lights. I began to raise my vision a bit. I even thought about coming down on the woman behind us who was smoking. (I thought Fort Worth was all nonsmoking now.) And that’s when I saw it.
The guy in the black shirt with his back to me had shot up to chase after one of the kids, and like a song you waited all day to hear on the radio, the front of his shirt appeared. “Beto for Texas,” it read. At the lake. In deep-red Tarrant County. I wanted to go hug him, but I knew I would be making my wife uncomfortable on more than a couple levels. Throughout the rest of our meal –– the crab cake sammy with homemade tartar sauce really hit the spot after an hour of twisting my lower lumbar region into a pretzel while “kayaking” –– I fixated on him. He couldn’t have weighed more than a buck-60, which reminded me of most of the same-sex couples I see in public. If they’re not afraid to hold hands, I shouldn’t be afraid to wear a Beto shirt. Or a Weekly one. Back and forth the Beto dude scuttled amid the picnic tables and other customers but never within polite-yelling distance of my wife and me. I even thought about pretending I had to pee, just to be able to make myself visible seeing the front of his shirt and to let him know that I loved it and that he was not alone. My whole mood had lifted. Or maybe it was that third Corona Light. And whatever I was going to do, it had to be a scene, a statement that, while Tarrant County remains comfortably red, there are more of us “libtards” than you fellow Augie’s diners think. How’s everyone’s Spanish?!
The scene I had envisioned never materialized. Still, I got to compliment him. It was a whole half-hour later, as our respective parties were piling into the parking lot to waddle into our cars to leave. He was standing about two cars away from me.
“Great shirt!” I yelped at him.
Without even looking up at me, he raised his hands as if he had just won a foot race. “Thanks!” he finally said, his baldhead, thin frame, and black-black sunglasses making him seem like some sort of off-duty security guard. “Now we just got to vote!”
My tongue slightly twisted –– let’s blame the Corona Lights –– all I could come up with in return was, “That won’t be a problem,” a lie. It’s going to be a problem. It’s probably the biggest problem standing between us normal folks and another four years of misogyny, racism, and cronyism from above. Well, that and gerrymandering. That’s going to be in the way, too. Still, the sooner we wake up to the cruel reality that Barack Obama can’t run again, the better off we’re going to be in energizing the minority vote. I can’t spend another four years in hiding, and while my neck isn’t hurting anymore, there’s a deep pain in my shoulder that just won’t go away. l