, Newburyport, MA

Local News

April 16, 2013

No filling station for old men


After a moment’s surprise, he squints upward before looking right at me: “Eleven?”

I remain silent, expressionless, so he tries to trump the question:

“Well, I know they serve for life, and that presidents are elected for four years, and representatives and senators for two.”

By today’s standards three out of four isn’t bad, although that still seems a low bar for a college student — and demoralizing for me since I know that he attends my alma mater.

Just then the nozzle clicks full, and I laugh aloud at a new twist of an old expression: saved by the pump!

Regrettably, he takes the laughter to be at him and offers a retort while preparing the receipt. Of all possible numbers, the charge is $50.50.

“Shouldn’t talk politics, man! Politics (expletive)!”

But the question is not political. It’s simple civics — and there’s nothing liberal or conservative about a number that is a basic fact of American government.

Much like me when I wouldn’t hear his endorsement of audio technology, he won’t hear my suggestion of what in this world matters and what does not.

Offering a conciliatory and deliberate “take care,” I roll away thinking only of how America has become — to borrow a recent book and film title — no country for old men.

Not because of generational taste, but because our perception of pleasure and purpose is so divided — so mutually exclusive — that any purpose at all is often taken as an infringement on pleasure.

If, as a canvasser working to undo “Citizens United” complained last summer, we now regard it “impolite to talk about politics,” where does that leave “of the people, by the people”?

And doesn’t it turn Lincoln’s third phrase into “for the inattentive”?

Result is not just an inability to distinguish politics from civics, ideology from history and opinion from fact, but between those who work for and those who work against public interest.

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