I was on duty during the first presidential debate, taking it in on my taxi radio. These months leading up to the election are bad times for a political junkie like me. That term is no mere figure of speech: I don’t “enjoy” the media; I need it. I can’t get enough of it, despite its failure to deliver anything approaching a pleasurable experience. Well, perhaps it did early on, but after all these years I’ve been glued to the Internet and television, it’s now a fix. Hit me baby, one more time.
The debate had just ended when three men got in my taxi who needed a ride to a high-end housing development down Hinesburg Road. They were well dressed and boozy, and boisterous in that glad-handed manner particular to some middle-aged, wealthy white guys. I kept the radio softly percolating as we made our downtown escape. God forbid I miss even a second of the endless post-debate analysis.
Glancing over at the half-eaten slice of pizza sitting on the dashboard, my seatmate asked, “What’s your favorite pizza in town?”
“I’ll tell you,” I said, half engaged and half keeping up with the radio buzz, “this pizza right here is excellent.” I reached up and grabbed a fresh bite. “It’s from that new joint on the site of the former Longe Brothers market, on Howard Street. It’s called ‘Bite Me,’ which you gotta love.”
“What’s so special about it?” he asked, his tone slightly prosecutorial.
“Well, it tastes good,” I replied, always the master of the obvious. “And I think they advertise that it’s all organic.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Sure it does,” I retorted, inspired by the debate I had just heard. “Aren’t there federal FDA regulations about what foods you’re allowed to call organic?”
“That’s just not true.”
One of his two friends in the back joined in the fray. “Hey, cabbie — this man knows what he’s talking about. He’s a lawyer.”
Fine, I thought. You win.
The same man behind me then changed the conversation. “What’s that on the radio?”
“Oh, it’s just political talk. Obama and McCain just finished their first debate.”
“Obama is a moron.”
Of all the things this guy could have said, that remark pushed my buttons like no other. I respect John McCain, but on November 4, I plan on voting for Barack Obama. The guy actually makes me feel proud to be an American, to live in a country that has produced a person like him. I have no problem with principled political disagreement, but to dismiss Obama so crassly — I couldn’t let it pass.
“I’m interested,” I said, turning off the radio. “Why do you feel that way?”
That was a lie. If “interest” denotes a genuine desire to know and understand another’s viewpoint, it was feigned. I was spoiling for a fight.
“Well,” he replied, “for one thing, he wants to raise my taxes.”
“Yeah, that’s true. He does plan on raising taxes, but only on folks making more than $250,000 a year. It’s mostly about rolling back Bush’s tax cuts to this tiny income group, cuts that have created deficits that our grandchildren will be paying off. And anyway, do you make that much?”
“I do,” the guy shot back without hesitation, “and why the hell should I pay a penny more? I worked hard and I earned it.”
“How about,” I yelled back, “because it’s a privilege to live in a country that provides you the opportunity to make a small fortune, and you want to contribute to the general good of our society?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, snarling with sarcasm. “That’s like what Biden said last week — that it’s ‘patriotic’ for high earners to pay more taxes. What a load.”
By the grace of God, I managed to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the ride. I had no one to blame but myself for this ugly conversation, as it was I who had initiated it. By engaging this man disingenuously, I reaped what I had sown. This is what I had sunk to: shouting words at another person, having lost any sense of his humanity. I’m not a conventionally religious person, but that’s what sin feels like to me.
The driveway of the home we pulled into belonged to the lawyer in the front seat. The two men in the back got out as he handed me the fare and a $10 tip. “Here’s an idea,” he suggested. “Why don’t you and my friend both agree to pay additional taxes? Wouldn’t that be fair?”
“That’s a stupid idea,” I said, still mired in whatever I was mired in, “and, as an attorney, you should know it doesn’t hold up. Your friend makes 10 times what I do. We don’t exactly have the same ability to pay more in taxes. I mean, c’mon, man.”
“Hey, buddy,” he said, opening the door to take his leave, “I was just being funny. That’s all it is.”
“Uh-huh,” was my delayed reaction as I watched the three men enter the house, perhaps for a nightcap. I shifted the taxi into reverse, but before backing out, I reached down, turned the radio back on and cranked it up loud. Crystal meth to my ears.