"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 27, 2024

When Barton's Holler Went Woke - A Biden Operative Goes Deep Hillbilly

Bob Muzelle had been a social justice advocate for decades, as far back as he could remember.  Of course not in Throgg's Neck where he grew up - that part of the Bronx was pretty Italian, lace-curtain Irish, and Orthodox Jew before it became overrun with Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. 

In none of these ethnic enclaves were there seders mourning the passing of Samuel Gompers and the great trust-busting socialists of the day, drunken brawls over Dewey and Roosevelt, and certainly no sympathy for Harlem.  Progressivism was not even a second thought. 

It was a working class neighborhood, hard by, patriotic as far as Fourth of July went, but the ties to The Old Country still bound tightly, and Bob's neighbors raised their glasses to Eire and Umberto II more often to Washington and Jefferson.   The Jews of course had nothing to celebrate, the Holocaust being such a recent memory, and they kept to themselves and their shops in an 'I don't want no trouble' peaceful coexistence with what, let's face it was an anti-Semitic corner of the Bronx.  

Somehow Bob moved away from that conservative, enclave and became engaged in the social causes of the day - the War in Vietnam, women, and the black man.  Over the years, through college and beyond, Bob's commitment to Neo-Progressivism became unshakeable.  Reform was his calling, and Utopia his goal. 

More than anything Bob was a fighter - that was one good thing at least that the multi-ethnic ghetto had given him.  His bloodying of the bully of 12th Avenue was but the first notch in his belt.  He of course gave up street fighting when he left the Bronx, but the spirit of what he liked to call 'aggressive defensiveness' stayed with him throughout his politico days in Washington. 

It was this tough, barroom energy that led his ‘Biden for President’ colleagues to issue him a challenge.  The agenda of diversity, equity and inclusivity had not reached into the hinterland, and there were potential converts and votes there.  Eastern Kentucky was one of the swing districts important to Democrats for the upcoming election, so Bob was dispatched to Barton's Holler.  

Barton's Holler was a nasty, dark, gross place of trailers, mud, coal dust, and the stink from the smelter on the river.  The holler was set in the crotch of two mountain ridges, too steep to farm, all but denuded for firewood, given to mudslides, and high enough to block all but the noontime rays of the sun.  It was a dismal, ugly, hard-bitten, miserable place.  

'Howdy', Bob said to the old men sitting on the front porch of 'Billy's', the general store owned by Billy Thatcher, retail in name only - bootlaces, mops, and 100 lb. bags of cornmeal on otherwise empty shelves. Billy still stoked the old potbellied stove to keep the place warm, but on warmer days like this one, he kept the screen door open and let the customers rest awhile in front. 

The Cowen brothers were playing checkers and never looked up.  Hack Wilson and his bluetick were asleep in the sun, and Billy was in the back room.  Bob just stood there smiling.  Finally Billy walked into the store, heaved the sack of cement he was carrying onto the floor, stepped from the cloud of coal dust, and nodded. 


It wasn't just that Bob looked like an outsider, he was suited up in cracker wear designed to fit in.  He had been told in Washington that these good ol' boys didn't like 'furriners' and best he dress the part; but everything smelled too much of L.L. Bean just out of the Amazon box, too pressed and stiff to help anyone fit in. 

Billy gave Bob the once-over, spat into a corner just beyond the sack of cement, and said, 'So?'. 

Bob smiled even more broadly, extended his hand, cleared his throat, and began his spiel.  He was here, he said, to discuss points of national interest, the Biden agenda, and how the President's re-election would promise well-being and reward.  

'Like what?', said Billy, jacking up his overalls and spitting again into the corner. 

Now Bob was on solid ground.  He talked of Bidenomics, energy renewal, a more generous, accepting and tolerant society, and the foundation of civil rights.  He smiled again, paused, and waited for what hoped would be a favorable response.   

'What about all them queers and trans-fucks?', Billy said, 'and them Bolshies'. 

Bob had not heard the term Bolshies since his father's day, but got the drift.  Bolshies, Commies, Socialists, same denominator, and here he was at long last in Indian country but a little nervous, in the maw of the beast. 

Bob explained about his President's efforts at inclusivity, and although he respected the past, one must accept and embrace those of alternate sexuality. 

'We don't want no butt-fuckers and cock-suckers down here', Billy said, 'so tell Joey we ain't buying his bullshit'. 

Bob knew he shouldn't have worn his Biden/Harris campaign button, but it was too late to take it off. 'I understand, Mister....' Here Bob stopped short.  He should have found out Billy's name before even stepping into this foul-smelling, cracker shithole. 

'None of your goddamn business', Billy said, spat in the corner, hitched his overalls, and walked away.   

There weren't many other places to schmooze in Barton's Holler.  Billy's store was just about it, but there was the church, always a meeting place in these backwoods places.  Had he come on a Sunday he could have heard a Bible-thumping, hallelujah, Praise the Lord, holy rolling sermon, a real sermon and far cry from that of his own Reverend Barker Phillips of the Westover United Church of Christ in Bethesda, marvelously secular in intent with Jesus only a backdrop. 

The door to the rectory was open, so Bob let himself in.  A place of worship welcomed all visitors. Pastor Bridges, a young, distracted-looking man, saw Bob and waved him to the old wooden Remington Carbine crate at a Victorian, cracked, engraved coffee table.  

'Sorry', the pastor said, 'Looking for my glasses', and at that swept around the room, half-blind, stumbling, arms out, until he finally found them, hooked around an empty bottle of horse liniment. 'Knew they were here somewhere'. 

The response of the pastor to Bob's spiel was no different than that of Billy sans epithets.  He hated the idea of...here he looked for the proper terms to describe the disgust he had for homosexuals...men who did it with men, and all the combinations and permutations of normal sexuality that God forbade in the Bible; and given that he hadn't seen a black man since twenty years ago when he attended a Baptist conference in Louisville (where he was surrounded by them), he was nonplussed at the idea of this racial summitry in the White House.  Of course he didn't put it quite that way, but Bob translated dialect into intelligent metaphor and understood. 

Two for two.  Two strikeouts in hillbilly land, cracker-town, the dismal hollers of Kentucky.  Should he try the school? Nah, why bother? And so, as a parting shot at this miserable, backward place, he left a bag of Biden/Harris buttons on the front porch of Billy's under the rocker where some old toothless bastard had nodded off. 

'How'd it go?', asked a colleague when Bob returned to his K Street offices.

'Pretty darned good', Bob replied, and tucked in to his outbox. 

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