On Behalf of Working People

Below is a speech I gave at a Democrat fund raiser back in 2004 or maybe 2006. I think the sentiments I expressed then are still relevant to the next presidential election, in particular because Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump represent in their own a way a desire by the American people for change.

I think Democrats find themselves in a peculiar position, because these days Democrats are the true conservative party because our goal is to conserve the liberal gains made in the previous century.

Below is part of a speech I gave at a Cheshire County Democratic fund raiser back in 2006 or maybe 2004. I can't remember; I'm no good with dates. Anyway, it contains my vision for the Democratic party to revitalize the word liberal. Well, I failed at that.

When I was a kid in Keene in the 1950s, grown-ups were referred to as Mister and Missus. An exception was the manager of the Latchis Theatre. His name was George Miller. Everybody, even little kids, called him George. He was a Black man, the only visible presence of Black America in Keene. These were the days when it was politically correct to use the n-word in casual conversation.

That all changed of course. Keene was part of that change. Among other things, we lost one of our own to the Civil Rights movement, Jonathan Daniels, since canonized as a saint in the Episcopal Church. It wasn't Conservatives that led the Civil Rights movement. It was Liberal America.

When I was a kid in the 1950s in Keene, New Hampshire, it was called the Elm City, and then all the elm trees died, a victim of early Globalization; ddt was used everywhere. Hunters complained that the game was disappearing from the woods. Keene even had a typhoid epidemic started from dirty water. The Ashuelot River and Connecticut River were polluted with raw sewage and chemicals from tanneries and other businesses.

In the next decade the EPA came along. The rivers were cleaned up. Air standards were made. Today the tanneries are either clean or out of business, most likely plying their trade in a third world country with the kind of pollution laws that American Conservatives would like to see back here. Nixon may have signed the bill, but it wasn't Conservatives that were the force for change. It was Liberal America that was the force for change.

One of my first jobs in Keene was at a mill that made furniture in a shop off of West Street. Men and women labored under the pyschological lash of piece work. The table saws had no guards. No one wore ear protection. I worked there for one day. I'll tell you what scared me out of that place. Many of the people who worked there looked like this. DEMONSTRATE A HAND WITH MISSING FINGERS.

Thanks to Liberal American, along came OSHA. Since the Reagan years I've heard Conservatives sneer at OSHA. Today people who work with fast-whirring saws are protected. Their chance of living longer with all their fingers and without hearing aids is better. Thank OSHA. Thank Liberal America.

I went to Keene State on the GI bill. Without the encouragement of big government I probably never would have gone to college.

As a college student, I worked at various times at Markem Machine Company, West Street Texaco, the laundry of the former Elliot Community Hospital on Main Street, but the job I held the longest and the one that had the most affect on me was as a driver in Keene for Ideal Taxi.

Driving cab in a small North Country town was not the same as driving in a big city, where the passengers were mainly local people of means or visitors from out of town. In Keene most of the passengers were people without access to cars -- welfare mothers, old folks, drunks, guys busted for DUI, the mentally retarded, the physically handicapped, the crazy, and regular folks down on their luck.

When the bartender at the Coney Island Lunch on Church Street, usually George Starvro, wanted to get rid of a drunk he'd call Gus our dispatcher, shout "Coney Island," and slam the phone down. You'd drive over to get the drunk. Sometimes the drunk would make it to the car on his own power; sometimes you had to stuff him physically into the back seat.

Most of my customers liked to talk, mainly about their troubles -- bad health, bad luck, bad habits, bad companions, old age, and the age-old human problems of the heart and the pocket book. My few customers of means, usually fares from the airport, rarely spoke. The contrast provided me with an insight into our class structure. The down and out reveal themselves. The more successful people are the more guarded they are, and the less you can know them from the inside.

I made a lot of deliveries in my taxi, brought groceries to senior citizens, medicine to the sick, six-packs to gambling parties in the North End.

One customer that sticks in my mind was a man I called Sartre because he bore a faint resemblance to the existential philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. He lived in the Ellis Hotel which was on the West side of Main Street south of the Colonial Theatre, and which by the 1960s was on the skids. Periodically, I'd bring Sartre a bottle of good whiskey (can't remember the brand) and a carton of Camel cigarettes, which was what I smoked in those days.

Sartre talked in a raspy whisper. He obviously suffered from a respiratory disease, probably emphysema. I never saw him outside his room. He was a small, finely-made man who always wore a rumpled white shirt and shined shoes. His room was messy, but comfortable, with books everywhere, appealing to a college student just starting to find his way in the world. I also saw papers and manila folders. I imagined that Sartre was writing a great philosophical tract. On the walls were paintings and artsy photographs that reminded me of Cartier-Bresson, one of my heros. However, I saw no family pictures or evidence that Sartre had loved ones. At night, outside on Main Street, I would see the glow from his room on the third floor. The light was never off. Sartre was a man waiting to die alone. By any objective standards Sartre's situation was appalling and sad, but I found it romantic. I imagined that Sartre had something to teach me about the world.

My neighborhood was right up Church Street from the Coney Island Lunch. I lived in a run-down apartment house with four other students -- Jeff Parsons, Jack Brouse, Dwight Conant, and Larry Howard. We were a compatible bunch, and our friendship has endured over the following decades. The Keene State campus was an exciting and vital place. We students argued the merits of our involvement in Vietnam; we protested policies of the college administration; we believed we could make America a better place. My creative writing class with Professor Malcom Keddy produced at least three writers who would go on to write books -- Marilyn Treat, who published a chap book of poems (last I heard she was a dean at a prep school) Joseph Citro, author of many books of the macabre, and me.

I liked the campus environment, so starkly different from what I saw from my taxi. Once a little kid swore at me, and his mother smacked him in the face and said, "That kid has the worst fucking mouth on him." An elderly woman I took to church every Sunday warned me: "Young man, don"t get old." She never called again, and I never knew what happened to her. For years I watched Sartre prepare for the white light.

One day Jeff Parsons and I decided to paint our apartment. We called the landlord who said he would provide the brushes and paint if we came by to pick them up. The landlord was George Miller. By the time I started college and began to rent from Mister Miller, he was an old man and quite frail. Mister Miller had come to Keene as a youth to work in the former Cheshire House hotel and restaurant on Main Street. He stayed in town after the hotel closed, invested in real estate and by all appearances became quite well off. For us college students it seemed only just and kind of cool that a Black man should become a slum lord in a small northern town.

Often at night driving in downtown Keene, I'd look up at Sartre's room. Seeing the light on was always a comfort to me. I made a few inqueries to learn about Sartre and hit a dead end, though I didn't try very hard. He'd become a figure in the world of my imagination, and I didn't really want to know the real person. I didn't realize it at the time but I was preparing for a life as a fiction writer. What I wanted from Sartre was wisdom, secrets, arcane knowledge. I had it in my head that a cultivated man, obviously sick and alone, would have some clues about life and meaning. I would bring him his whiskey and cigarettes and linger some. I'd make comments on his books, or about some current event, trying to get a conversation going. At first Sartre became annoyed. He probably thought I was hanging around in hopes of a bigger tip. And then I think it dawned on him that this young taxi driver was looking for mentors. One day he asked me if I was a college student. After that he would let me stay a few minutes before hustling me out with the simple words, "Excuse me, young man, but I"m tired."

Over the course of time I told him about myself, my background, growing up in Keene, speaking only French until I started kindergarten, almost flunking out of high school, my secret lonely walks on the trails behind Robin Hood Park, my time in the army, my desire to be a writer and find the right girl. I thought we were having intense if brief conversations. It wasn't until years later that I realized I was doing all the talking. Sartre told me nothing about himself.

Eventually, I found love at Keene State. I married Medora Lavoie in the spring of 1969. She was 19-year-old sophomore, I was 27-year-old senior. Some time before we set out for Stanford University graduate school in the fall of 1969, I was driving my Chevy down Main Street one night when I looked up at the Ellis Hotel. The light was off in Sartre"s room.

Flash ahead to the new millennium. The year is 2003. I'm writing a piece about taxi days for a book. My editor Howard Mansfield suggested that I needed a better ending.

So I went back to Ideal Taxi and the current owner, Joan Copely, let me drive a 4 PM-8 PM shift. As it turned out our agreed-upon date was Feb. 1, 2003, the day the Columbia shuttle went down.

My first customer was a young black woman from a housing project. She was going to Wall Mart; second customer, white woman, different project, same destination. Later I returned to Wall Mart and drove them to their tiny apartments. I brought their packages in, snooping to see what they had purchased -- bare essentials: toilet paper, paper towels, laundry soap, canned soup, canned meat, bread.

My next customers were "regulars," brothers in their thirties, one with long greasy hair and a scraggy beard, the other with a mustache that covered his lips. They were making a beer run to a local market. The fellow with the mustache had a truck but no driver's license. Busted for DUI. His brother had health problems, so he couldn't drive either.

Then Joannie and I drove out to a Tanglewood mobile home park because a friend had called Joannie saying that another friend, an old woman, wasn't answering her phone. Joannie and I went to check on the old woman. We didn't run the meter. The old woman was okay. Wouldn't say why she wouldn't answer her phone. Her dog barked all the time we were there.

It was dark now, and Joannie sent me to a Keene institution, the Eagle Club on Church Street only a couple blocks away from where I had lived thirty-five years before. My fare was a good-natured fellow. We talked about the old days. I told him, "I go a long ways back in this town." I brought him home to a sad little apartment in the north end. He tipped me a dollar because, "Hey, it's your first night on the job." He said I was lucky to work for Joannie.

Another customer was "a charge," a sullen young woman I picked up at a video store and drove home. She had mental problems, I learned.

In four hours of taxi driving I took in thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents in fares, plus two dollars in tips. None of my customers mentioned the Columbia disaster. In the course of conversation I raised the issue with two different customers, and they both dismissed the subject in the same way, letting me know they had enough troubles of their own to deal with.

The man behind the chain saw, the guy driving the truck, the woman taking care of old people in a nursing home, the old folks themselves, the young kids trying to make a go of it, the people working in fast food restaurants for minimum wage (Can anybody here tell me the last time the minimum wage was raised?), the janitors and the loggers, the administrative assistants, the crazy people, the guys busted for DUI -- somebody has to represent these people. It can't be the Republican Party, not because the people who make up that party are bad people, but because of what they believe. There is nothing in their philosophy that represents these people.
Somebody has to represent these people in the political arena, and I think you know who it is.