TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Travels With Tony

Our first Uber driver was a former journalist, so the midnight conversation from Pittsburgh International Airport turned to the unprecedented attacks on the press by the president.

Wearied by weather delays, airport sprints and the uncertainty of our travels, India and I were content to let him deliver a treatise I knew by rote — the preposterous notion journalists intentionally get things wrong … the differences between the opinion page and the front page … the top secret cabal that keeps conservatives out of journalism school … the incurious nature of sheep and men …

We counted 11 Uber drivers, a microcosm of America, as part of our four-day trek around Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where India will attend West Virgina University in the fall.

There was beautiful Chinita with the splendid braids, who was recovering from a car accident and was driving because she could no longer handle physical labor … there were college students picking up money for tuition … and Russell, a West Virginia lifer whose Uber profile said he was a great conversationalist but wasn’t.

A former FBI agent from D.C. shared his insights into the bureau as he ferried us across Morgantown. Comey had botched things by skewing the trajectory of the election with the Hillary email announcement, he said. And the two fired agents who displayed unprofessional disdain for Trump? “They had it coming.”

I had one question. “Is Bob Mueller a straight shooter?” He looked over at me intensely as the light changed. “Absolutely. Incorruptible.”

My favorite was the retired ballerina, who had danced professionally for 21 years in the company of luminaries like Baryshnikov and Nureyev and now taught other dancers. She was tiny and lithe, blonde-gray hair in a ballerina’s bun, lively eyes, with a boisterous laugh I was delighted to coax out of her several times with prairie wisecracks.

Later, I wondered why she was driving. Boredom? Financial necessity? If so the latter, it wouldn’t surprise me. Art is so seldom justly rewarded — this wondrous thing that illuminates the very best in humanity, showing our species in full bloom, like tulips in the spring, providing hope, beauty, inspiration, perspective, truth and mystery. I wished I had seen her dance.

Jahm from Uzbekistan and I engaged in discourse about Russian history, from the Mongols to the Romanovs. A gold tooth flashed when he spoke from a bearded jaw. I mined the words from his rich accent like gemstones. That ride wasn’t long enough.

The longest ride, but not in miles, was with Thomas, a patriot driving a Nissan. Well dressed in a button down shirt and slacks, he was a former coal miner, failed restauranteur and air conditioning specialist who, at 58, couldn’t land another job.

Early in the ride, because we were from North Dakota, I assume, he floated a comment about the unfair treatment Trump was receiving in the press and said something disparaging about Hillary. “Well, I really wasn’t a fan of either candidate,” I said noncommittally, and that shut him down for a while.

But later, another entreaty about the media’s attacks on the president, and this time I took the bait. The president, I said, was acting on some conservative principles I could live with. “But I despair over what he’s doing to the office — the ugliness and divisiveness he encourages. His dishonesty. His intellectual laziness. The way he alienates our allies.”

And so it came, like a flood, the rebuttal. Thomas told me he listened to a lot of conservative talk radio and so seemed well-schooled on the Deep State. Along with his defense of the president, he opined that 9/11 was an inside job, Obama, the Manchurian Candidate, was a Muslim born in Kenya, and that climate change was a hoax.

I attempted to gently amend some of the more egregious misstatements. I cited facts about the death of coral reefs, rising sea levels, melting ice caps, the increased intensity of storms and the acceleration of CO2 in the atmosphere that coincided with the Industrial Revolution — the reality that the growing season in North Dakota had gotten longer in my lifetime.

“Most scientists agree climate change is happening,” I said.

“They’ve been bought off,” he countered.

“All of them? And to what end? Not everything is a conspiracy, Thomas. Read.”

He didn’t read newspapers. It’s all fake news, anyway, he said, repeating the president’s mantra, and then he went off on CNN.

“You’re killing me, Thomas,” I said, and that’s when I revealed my occupation.

“Why would you support attacks on the First Amendment, which is more critical to your freedom than any other part of the Constitution?” I asked.

“Journalists defend your freedom every day, just as soldiers do. You think six-shooters and the Second Amendment will save you from a corrupt government? You know what will? Truth. Facts. They’re out there. You just have to be willing to open your eyes.”

By then, we were at the motel. We pulled the bags out of the trunk and wished each other well. I slapped him on the back and said, “Keep an open mind, Thomas.”

He smiled and chuckled. I liked him. I really did. And I think he liked me.

“I’ll keep an open mind, too,” I added, as I turned away.

I tipped him well. But not as much as the ballerina.

© Tony Bender, 2018

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Tony J Bender

Tony J Bender is a writer from rural Venturia, N.D. He is the publisher of the Ashley (N.D.) Tribune and the Wishek (N.D.) Star. He has written a weekly column, That's Life, for 25 years, which is published by various papers. He has published two novels and three collections of his columns.

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