Confession: For six days ending on Monday I viewed next to no news.
Normally, I scan the Big Three newspapers every morning, as well as the federal news websites, Associated Press and Bloomberg. Also the email feeds from federal agencies. Even Twitter. It takes real work to stay even marginally informed these days. An occasional few days of ignorance is good for the soul.
All right, I did follow the Nationals’ scores.
Little earth-shattering occurred in those six days, just more knots in the continuing imbroglios. Vicious politics, deepening trade questions, uncertainty over the North Korea Summit. VA’s estimates of its new health care records system are already too low. Federal reorganization plans starting to gel. The Supreme Court did hand down two decisions that won’t settle any debates.
For four of the six days, I was alone in America. Or at least the stretch of America between Rockville, Maryland and Cleveland, Ohio. I spent two days in each direction getting to and from Cleveland, driving a two-wheeled vehicle, the manufacturer of which has become fully entangled in the trade and tariff debate. While in Cleveland, I spent time with fellow travelers participating in various events. Some wives had ridden on the “pillion” seats of their husbands’ motorcycles. My wife wisely flew to Cleveland.
Trust me, I’m no Pollyanna. But my trip — a first for me in the manner I did it — showed me that Americans are pretty gosh darn decent. Most people, though concerned mainly with their own lives, are glad to share a moment with you. Like the diner waitress in Gettysburg who complained that because the place is family-owned, everyone acts like her boss. Or the bartender in Ligonier, Pennsylvania who was happy to have just dumped an unkind boyfriend. She was looking forward to boarding her wealthy boss’s private jet — on which she is a full time flight attendant — for his next trip. To Africa. Or the two semi-retired guys from Chicago, about to join a group ride with 200 others. They were glad for the opportunity to smoke fat, fragrant cigars with breakfast, as we downed scrambled eggs on a deck besides the Cuyahoga River. Or the two fully retired guys in front of an unlikely, gourmet coffee shop in Leechburg, Pennsylvania one morning. I’d pulled up in front, wondering if I’d made a wrong turn. They invited me to take the third seat, a low stool, on the sidewalk. The shop owner made a fresh pot of coffee and I bought a cup. We all chewed the fat for half an hour before I rode off. The SUV driver on I-90 near Cleveland who drew up next to me at 65 mph, rolled down his window and shouted something while pointing at my bike. I pulled over, and sure enough, one of my saddlebags had popped open.
I found the house we lived in when I was born. The neighborhood is still neat and trim. Just the racial mix has changed. No one answered my knock. But the mom across the street, just getting home from work and rounding up her four sons, was happy to chat about the area, the schools. I said my name is Tom. “Why, I’m Thomasina, how do you like that!” she exclaimed.
Often I spend time explaining to people that, no, most federal employees are neither lazy bureaucrats nor power-mad zealots. I’ve interviewed thousands of committed, hard-working feds just trying to do what can be complicated and sometimes thankless jobs. I stopped for an hour at the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville. It drives home how citizens and government need to cooperate in times of disaster.
But for these few days I took a look at the citizens you try to serve, from the angle of a long traveler in a vulnerable mode of transportation. While gassing up in a marginal area of Cleveland one day, I’d been using my phone to navigate. A woman came up behind me and said, sharply, “Sir, let me tell you, in a neighborhood like this, don’t leave your phone out on your bike like that!”
Luckily the phone was still there, but of course not everyone is a model citizen.
As we head towards the celebration of the nation’s founding, we’ll recall the forging in bullets and blood. Imperfect as we most certainly are, I still hold that we’re a welcoming, broad-shouldered nation.