Dennis the Menace

August 2015

The most poignant moment of my year occurred tonight in the Orlando airport as I slurped boxed wine from a pint glass while waiting for a delayed flight.

Dennis (“the Menace”, he humblebragged)–a drunken, bearded, thoroughly unmanicured tugboat deckhand from Kentucky (even I feel like I must be making this up), materialized near me and my colleague, Serena, as we stood quietly absorbing airport merlot during a thunderstorm.

Dennis began slurring smalltalk, which I reciprocated, at first only to shield shy Serena from an uncouth interloper.

After a few desperate rounds of Trivial Pursuit: Ex-wife Edition, I gestured toward a bank of cable news monitors ambiently disseminating pathologies and, after deciding between a screen about a massacre and a screen about an election, asked Dennis, “do you think Joe Biden will run for President?”

“You know who I support? Trump. ‘Cause he’s a business man and he’s going to make America money. He says what he wants and nobody tells him what to do. And he’s going to fix goddamn immigration.”

Out of curiosity, I asked about Trump’s business bona fides. Dennis was iffy on specifics.

Sensing that the money talk was halfhearted foreplay, I pressed on, “so, would you say that immigration is the issue you care most about?”

Dennis shook his head, no.

“What’s the issue you care most about?”

“I’ll tell you. I lived in Germany for six years. If you’re elderly or mentally handicapped–I don’t like to say ‘retarded’–you’re taken care of. Whether you take the bus or need a cab.”

“You mean, you don’t have to pay for transportation?”

“That, or anything else–you’re taken care of.”

“What’s Donald Trump’s position on healthcare?”

Dennis’s face, until this moment clenched with certitude, went slack.

“You know, I can’t tell you that.”

To state the obvious—that he’d admitted not knowing his man’s position on the topic he cares most about—would have been unnecessary and unkind. I noted a tacit moment of internal reconciliation, or at least movement, behind Dennis’s unmet gaze as I waited for him to continue speaking.

Dennis reiterated his experience in Germany, and I asked if he thought we had a moral obligation to care for the elderly and disabled; he was not iffy about this.

“Is there anything else, besides healthcare, that you really care about?”

“You know, I’ve got to be honest—fucking ragheads running gas stations paying no tax.”

Here we go! After a touching, empathic interlude—red meat. I argued that Arabs were a small minority among 7-11 owners, and that there certainly were more conniving and consequential oilmongers to get red in the face about.

I reintroduced myself as a gay-loving San Francisco Jew atheist (ok, I left out the atheist bit) and shook Dennis’s hand, telling him that he was the first Trumpista I’d met. I made it clear that we agreed about healthcare, and that I hoped more people like him and me could find common ground, as we just had, despite what televisions tell us about each other.

Dennis is a tugboat deckhand from Kentucky, with an irrational fear of Mexicans and Arabs, who drinks more than he should, doesn’t clean under his fingernails, will say “raghead” but not “retard,” and more or less believes what he sees on Fox News. We had a brief conversation, I recognized a part of myself in him, and felt hopeful that we could create a better world together.

Icon by Simon Child from the Noun Project