October 29, 2001
Charlie is a 57 year old airline mechanic. A towering man with
a shock of white gray hair and hands the size of canned hams. Hes
a veteran. Served in Vietnam, but
never got to go in-country.
Never saw a damned thing. Just the planes, he says wistfully
Hes lived here in Torrance since the early 70s. He
could have used the GI Bill to go to school but he liked working
on planes and there was work to be had. He and his wife had married
just before he went into the service and felt like their lives had
been on hold long enough.
Charlie and I are sitting at a bar in an absurd restaurant nestled
at the end of a strip mall. The waitresses wear 80s era bikinis
with fringe attached to the bustline and butt, cowboy hats, and
faux leather chaps. A country/bluegrass band knocks out tunes on
the postage stamp stage. Absurdity aside, the place is warm and
friendly. The crowd on this Thursday night is mildly raucous. The
regulars easily engage in conversation with strangers. Within five
minutes of taking my seat at the bar and ordering my diet coke I
am a regular, too.
This crowd, in this part of Torrance, is a bit of a surprise. Torrance
is the bastard cousin of Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes. It extends
for miles inland but has a narrow strip that runs down to the ocean,
wedged between the two better known towns. This particular section
of Torrance has pretensions towards being PV. The houses rocket
up into the high six figures. There isnt a dented, busted
up old Toyota in sight
except in the parking lot of this establishment.
A television set plays silently above the bar with no one really
paying any attention to it. Then a picture of Osama Bin Laden comes
on and the place erupts in boos, hisses, and shouted obscenities,
momentarily catching the band off-guard until the banjo player sees
Osama on the screen. The band seamlessly segues into a version of
Mamas Dont Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
changed to Soldiers Go On and Blow Yourself Up A Few Afghans,
drawing tremendous cheers from the audience
Charlie and I had been talking, shooting the bull. As the conversation
rambled on in that way that only they can in a local bar or a college
dorm room I got around to asking Charlie what America Is. He shook
is head and laughed a sad little laugh. Referring, I thought, to
the September 11th attacks he said, Its a place where
that crap isnt supposed to happen. I mentioned something
about the attacks and he corrected me.
No. That crap they were singing. We are not that. Its
not the Afghans. Its not the Arabs. Thats not who we
are. Were supposed to be above that. Were supposed to
be more than that.
Yeah, I say, but what are we?
America is the place where those who dont have any
hope can look at us and know that there is something better. Where
they can come and we let them in and anyone can be anything they
want to be
or at least have the right to try. A place where
people, like them, he says, waiving towards the television,
living under those goddamn Talibans can come here or learn
from us and live in a place where they count
and what they
His voice trailed off and he took a pull on his beer.
Aw, hell he says, Im not saying it right.
You said it just fine, Charlie. Just fine.