Charlie
Torrance, California
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. He’s a veteran. Served in Vietnam, but “…never got to go in-country. Never saw a damned thing. Just the planes”, he says wistfully… wishfully.

He’s lived here in Torrance since the early 70’s. 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 80’s 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 isn’t 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 boo’s, 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 “Mama’s Don’t 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, “It’s a place where that crap isn’t supposed to happen.” I mentioned something about the attacks and he corrected me.

“No. That crap they were singing. We are not that. It’s not the Afghans. It’s not the Arabs. That’s not who we are. We’re supposed to be above that. We’re supposed to be more than that.”

“Yeah,” I say, “but what are we?”

“America is the place where those who don’t 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 think counts…”

His voice trailed off and he took a pull on his beer.

“Aw, hell” he says, “I’m not saying it right”.

You said it just fine, Charlie. Just fine.

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