Last month, I threw a revolution and nobody came. The Northeast was having a snow day without me. In the place I’d relocated to, a warm bellwether far away, I don’t have movement friends.
My house party, an offshoot of the “people powered campaign-in-waiting” Organizing for Bernie, Draft Bernie, hosted a video livestream of OFB’s kick-off event with The People for Bernie Sanders. It was not a campaign event. Its organizers are not a political action committee. Sanders made no face time. About four hundred households nationwide were there, with Our Revolution president Nina Turner’s blessing, to show grassroots support for a potential Sanders run. Views were my own, food and drink out of pocket, note pad from my former employer, sign-in pens provided by giveaways from a dozen professional societies and healthcare vendors. A cheesehead pencil eraser from the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene was publicly funded.
Normally not my thing, my meetup was a Hail Mary. After six months in Atlanta, I’d failed to make friends outside work. Since moving here, my main activities outside transfusion medicine were weekend pilgrimages to historical landmarks. I followed one Pilates reformer group class with Alabama’s lynching memorial, solo grits in an industrial lot food hall with Flannery O’Connor’s grave. On-site, I can’t advertise political activity, and my 3 a.m. home calls authorize doctors to reverse hemorrhages with costly drug formulations. Neither can stop a country sick to death.
There were interesting people, none in my demographic.
There were interesting people, none in my demographic. Colleagues with young kids shared my takes. A engrossing jazz wonk I met on a coffee date via my college’s admissions office is eighteen. That kid goes to the same school as the son of a family friend, a boyish and punctilious cardiologist who played lacrosse with my first cousins at a Jesuit high school in suburban Baltimore. We talk of politics sometimes. His, which are left-of-middle and middle-of-the-road, are these:
“We have to get them out!”
The first time I heard him say it to my face, he collapsed onto our table in frustration, prompting his liberal physician wife to lift him from this extravagant pile. To redirect him, she asked me if people still used MeetUp.com.
I got to reading the memoirs of a man of the Jesuits with the know-how. He was Ramparts editor Warren Hinckle, whose gonzo journalism memoir was way too quotable to bring to work.
I honestly didn’t know. It never came up. Doctors didn’t meet people outside work. Work felt less and less like a vocation, the in-house conversations about healthcare as a failing business were becoming rote. In the little outside reading I could accommodate, I tried to ferret out new means of expression for the same ol’. Housebound with intractable bronchitis and pulled lats, I got to reading the memoirs of a man of the Jesuits with the know-how. He was Ramparts editor Warren Hinckle, whose gonzo journalism memoir was way too quotable to bring to work.
The prologue of Hinckle’s If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (1974) compares praxis to blood product:
“The protest movement of the early sixties was permeated by the overall sense of good feeling that one was helping one’s fellows (or, subconsciously, one’s lessers),” Hinckle wrote. “It thrived on the optimism which is the blood plasma of liberalism–confront evil authorities and evil laws, show people the wrong, and with adequate political pressure and education, the right law will be passed to correct the evil.”
Doctors are not terribly aggressive transfusionists, few of them great enthusiasts for an multiorgan system overhaul.
The same went with some doctors, whose dogged insistences that earth moves to good data had the quality of religion. They believe we change from within, that we are bound to industry as calcium and albumin protein to one body. Doctors are not terribly aggressive transfusionists, few of them great enthusiasts for an multiorgan system overhaul. Our plasma, we admit, comes thawed and processed. It is distributed to bleeding patients in disparate proportion, women siphoned from the donor pool to prevent a rare severe adverse reaction to transfusion, a lung disease called TRALI and pronounced like cable cars.
Hinckle, a San Francisco freak, again:
“I was astonished to find that there were Catholics abroad who actually thought that unyielding institution was going to improve itself and thereby improve the world.”
I was trained to pathologize, not to resuscitate.
No Catholic doctors I know go to church, which doesn’t mean that none do, but that a lot of ones I know believe evil seen and done is what it is. We represent the same old liberalism, washed over several hours to mitigate allergic reactions to the product. That liberalism is dying. I was trained to pathologize, not to resuscitate. The dead come to pathologists pronounced.
Let Hinckle crow a third time and rise from beyond the grave to hear my hating. Give ’em hell, bro:
“Like feuding Democrats, hardly a one of the sleuths had a nice thing to say about another one.”
Except we didn’t feud at work. Everyone was nice to one another, superficially. The feud was patients against us. The Jesuits who so bedeviled Hinckle were of a previous generation, and Boomer Jesuits late-in-life Dems for relative enlightenment and lack of purple. They received national media when they, via Twitter pulpit or America magazine, called for transparency on the sex scandals, sheltering immigrants, and celebrating all sexualities. They argued for human decency as incrementalists, just as the doctors did, maybe not as revolutionaries but closer than most.
I hoped with this party to meet at least one healthcare professional willing to act unprofessional enough to tear ramparts and demand we save people now–a romantic cause. Those I knew in New York who felt closest to religion were not, as a general rule, practicing. They were members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and knew wrongs when they saw them. Over the holidays, their metropolitan Atlanta chapter traveled to an ICE detention center in Lumpkin, the kind of accompaniment and activism that call schedules make impossible. The hospital structure makes extended conversations and encounters with patient families curiously troublesome. Meeting attendance outstrips my abilities. Ten-mile commutes from the medical area could take an hour. Lumpkin is 150 miles southwest. It was, however, my trigger. It was, believe it or not, forever since I’d heard someone suggest just going and talking to people as a political organizing plan. In the new year, I decided I’d use my very limited windows to do what I could do for the same, to learn if others experienced America as I had, or thought the same way.
How could I drink soda and criticize Coca Cola?
Party logistics highlighted divisions in the party. I hired a TaskRabbit house cleaner who came late from her second job and left mine early on the way to her hospitality industry full-time gig. The snacks in my apartment were bougie Indian street food, caprese, beet and balsamic, the wrong cheese and crackers buffeted by homemade guac and store-bought chips. Short on drinks, I buttressed inventory with a wine club pick-up someplace where each clerk knew my name. Light on beer, I drove back from the wine store to the CVS/pharmacy below my apartment. There was no parking, so I parked above my apartment and walked to CVS. There I bought so many recyclables I required a shopping cart to bring them back into my building on one trip. The walking route was roundabout, and on the way, I passed my car. Why didn’t I drive? What would offend? How could I drink soda and criticize Coca Cola? I guzzled life away from the planet by living.
It’s my sense like-minded ruminators talk themselves out of taking risks for America because they risk social exposure as a loser or a basketcase. I know I did. Each hosting choice would tell new comrades who I was, no heroine of anyone’s resistance, a sanctimonious social democrat with the hypocrisies of everybody else we fought against. Defaulting to self-flagellation, I told myself I am the consummate technocrat, Emmanuel Macron straitjacketed par un gilet jaune, just like the cover of a Métro magazine I’d found at a sickle cell anemia conference in the Paris banlieue. Every day is a lifestyle choice, and whether I chose sludge from an inverted grocery store honey bear or a fragile Middle Georgia farm jar, I did harm. Were I to post signs with directions to my party around my apartment complex, I would reveal myself as someone inviting people to a party, and also violate renter’s agreements, incurring fines I couldn’t afford.
Set spread, I listened to a ten-minute piece on the iPhone Calm app on “Comparing.” In the meditation, I visualized my disordered bookshelves, one of which has a cuddly platelet with googly eyes I bought after I saw one keen to stanch a wound on a co-worker’s desk.
The start time, 3:30 p.m., came and went. The livestream was to air at 4 p.m., and as of 3:45 p.m. no one came. I did not mourn. Calm, I reorganized my condiments and cutlery. Among my coffee mugs was PR swag from SCARBOROUGH, distributed at the band’s June 22, 2017 album release show at The Cutting Room in New York City.
“So many celebs here!” Joe said then, dressed like an Emory undergrad attending a Specials concert in 1979. “How many people here have been on Morning Joe?”
I’d always known I was a crank, but was beginning to wonder if I was a constituency of one at work and home.
No one yelled. I yelled. Each morning before work, I occupied a seat at MSNBC’s metaphysical roundtables, invited hourly to “join the conversation,” never participating, even when I emailed friends who worked at or around the fresh-brewed center to complain. Mika, skittish, spoke from a legal pad, in awe of the community Joe had created. I watched their pleasurable nowhere flourishes and rattles through a grate onto which someone had, like a hostage, earlier tied a pipe cleaner. I’d always known I was a crank, but was beginning to wonder if I was a constituency of one at work and home.
Then, half an hour into my open house, three people showed.
Had I asked for their permission to publish their stories, I would go into more detail. Here I abbreviate their stories, embarrassed to admit to them I cannot speak for them. One was a social worker nearing retirement, another a registered nurse. The third just lost his job as a contractor in a restructuring. Those cut with him were sent into the open insurance market, deadlines for the Obamacare exchanges now passed. Above them were posters: “Bury me With The Lo On” Polaroids by Thirstin Howl III, “Trump is the symptom/Capitalism of the Disease” May Day 2017, protest art of Sister Corita Kent, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Below them, Beastie Boys Book. Across was a Norman Mailer–Jimmy Breslin 1969 New York City mayoral campaign poster, framed by a small business owner who claimed to be the son of a Chinawatcher who contributed to the Pentagon Papers. He said he studied with Kissinger at Harvard in 1969. No idea where he was going with that as framing device, nor me now. He did a good job with the poster.
If three people were willing to cold-call about raw deals on a shit day, how many more would, or were watching alone, waiting for a call?
This encounter, along with my party and rare moments like it, was a life-saver. It’s easy to forget, thrust in front of dying and dead people, that all of us live in the craziness of America together. Everyone has a story of this place disappointing them and nowhere to tell it, some luckier than others to have somebody to whom they can tell it. Earlier in my life, low attendance would have disappointed me. Standards have changed. If three people were willing to cold-call about raw deals on a shit day, how many more would, or were watching alone, waiting for a call? The former surgeon general, internist Vivek Murthy, talks often of an isolation epidemic. I haven’t read the epidemiology, but I see the isolation daily, less at the bedside than at billing offices, and among ancillary laboratory personnel, some of whom were doctors themselves and emigrated alone to take lower class positions because they couldn’t afford school. They have great stories.
This is where revolution happens, in these groups, in these stories. Warren Hinckle worked San Francisco bars for stories, not some desk. The president of an expanded, improved Medicare for All organization told me years ago that he hates anecdote, which trivializes the power of patients’ stories. That’s why he pounds pavement, and he is pretty good at it. He probably would have come to my party, but he doesn’t live in Atlanta.
It’s hard to start a party as a newbie. No one wants to be the first to embarrass herself and admit we’ve lost the thread. So we stay in our silos. First, we ignore you, then we laugh alone in our apartments at six hours of You on Netflix to forget America fails from all sides. While You star Penn Badgley filmed exteriors for Gossip Girl, I worked a few blocks down Fifth Avenue “Museum Mile” studying East Harlem children poisoned by industrial chemicals and air pollution. The show was stale, a stoop on my commute to the hospital’s new office tower punctuated with a mattress discard spray-painted “BECOME THE DREAM.” That was ten years ago. The dream has yet to come. No one should have to work too hard to have one in the first place. We all deserve the same treatment, and better treatment than now, with any damn hors d’oeuvres we want. Maybe I’ll host that party. I’ll look like a moron doing it, but if my event makes one person feel less lonely in the high school cliques that are America, that’s fine by me. Then everyone’s invited to the party, and we win.
I have leftover chips.