. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


George Kress, of Winder GA

The Minneapolis Airport today was stacked so deep with returning travelers that the security lines backed up across the walkway into the connecting building. I left my people at the curb in a rush with barely a kiss, though we were hours early: it was lucky, too, that I’d been anxious. In front of me an older white couple–a very large man and a smaller woman, random gray hair and a henna flip–were joking about the weather in Minnesota. I asked where they were from and we were off. It was one of those real conversations where so much gets said but it’s all in the shadow of the threat of a break should any of us stumble into the wrong tone. After the pressure to keep it going lifts it’s hard to remember what the event was, apart from the dodged bullets.

An encounter like this is an opening, but what kind? Does it eat its tail or does it matter, diluting what would otherwise be a future aversion to that kind of stranger? Once someone I met on an airplane googled me a decade later to say that he was still praying for me. Another time I got an email years later from a woman whose depression I helped lift by talking about class and loneliness and being educated out, then recommending Carolyn Steedman. On the way to Australia last year, I was adopted by an anesthesiologist from Sidney named Ian, a tiny man. He was a competitive ballroom dancer whose heart had just been broken by a golddigger, and who thought he might die from it–he’d even consulted cardiologists about it. He was traveling to competitions rather than dying–that’s what he said. He had invited me to be his guest in the Admiral’s Club because I helped him to find our gate. While there I got an email from a friend whose husband had just dumped her and she was in a heap: I reported this to him and told him I thought about love for a living, and out came the story about his broken heart and his friends not understanding how he could love this woman with all her aliveness, and I could give him that, patience with his need to be near her life drive, and with the difficulty of detaching from his optimism, compromised as its object might be. He had been a widower; she made him feel effective. Eventually she started internet dating on the sly. I always fancy that a remembered encounter might rezone the imaginary a bit. On the other hand there’s that post-adrenalin amnesia.

Minnesota led to Colorado Springs which led to Atlanta, which isn’t as good as Colorado Springs (but it was great because “the snow comes down hard and the next day it’s gone”). Snow and ice led to global warming (“they” have “agendas” to create crisis); faux global warming crisis led to faux health crises like Alzheimer’s (there were always “loonies,” what’s the big deal?). I sort of concurred, musing that the rhetoric of crisis is often used to describe long-term conditions. But I mentioned that as usual the poor would suffer from it all much worse , and talked about Jim’s cancer, the incredible labor and expense of it all, and how haunted I am at every minute imagining what would have happened if he were poor and/or alone, as surely I and so many are and will be.

At that point the conversation became more possible. Health care in Atlanta is in crisis for the poor: recently only one hospital was left to take care of the uninsured, and almost went out of business. It’s losing 11 million dollars a month. The state stepped in, now there’s equal opportunity immiseration for the institutions. The wife suggests that meanwhile, the poor keep not buying insurance. Me: well, why blame the poor for not buying insurance they can’t afford? Why should the rich live longer than the poor? She says, “Exactly.” He says “That’s the way it’s always been,” but before I could jump in to say that the endurance of injustice isn’t a good argument for it, he said: “I went to two tours in ‘Nam and I tell my kids, don’t talk to me about the poor till you’ve lived with them, lived on a half a cup of rice and some beans for three days.” I have to admit that he seemed to grow taller to me as he told this story–but we were turning a corner, and I was bending to get my bags too.

We talk about global misery, Asia and the Southern Hemispheres. He moves onto politics. “I tell my friends, get used to it, Hillary’s going to be the next president, Madam President, and that’s the way it should be because look at the difference between Bill and Bush, when Bill was in office we all made money and Bush is bankrupting us all.” He said, “the way I see it, the middle class pays for everything. With a Republican, we give all our money to the rich; with a Democrat, we give all our money to the poor. And a rich man never opened a door for me.” I laughed in delight and said I’d tell that to my students when I was trying to teach them about class, and later he gave me his card so I could quote him by name: George Kress, of Winder GA.

At some point, because this is all a blur, I asked if he had a problem with Hillary (since I do, politically) and he said, I don’t have a problem with women taking charge, and his wife grins, play pushes at him, and says, that’s right you don’t, because you took care of your brothers and sisters and you learned some things, and I said, what did you learn? “My father died when I was 14,” he said. His father cut aluminum sheet for walls and roofs and put George to work when he was six years old: “six years old with cut legs and crawling into places the men couldn’t go, it’s not right.” And “I told my children what do you want, to be down there sweating or using your heads?” And his wife says, “We have five college graduates.” I said, so you didn’t build the business for your kids to take over? George: “Hell, no!”


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