Letter from the heartland: Fried in capitalism’s frying pan

Dear friend,

An early morning ritual around here is to visit the local “meat and three.” Men come in three shifts: there’s an early early morning crowd that shows up when the door opens at 6 AM. The second shift comes in about 8. The late risers get there about 10.

The faces change but the conversation usually stays the same.

These are mostly retired guys, some former union members, and a sprinkling of Vietnam vets. There is a good bit of bonhomie and a lot of friendly ribbing. You need a pretty thick skin. The largest table there is a round affair and can hold up to 10 people at once.

This is known affectionately as the Liars’ Table

The seats here are hard to come by. I’ve been around here about five years and have only been granted access in the last two. The waitresses take a lot of grief from the habitués. All of it is good-natured fun.

Since most of the guys who come in are older, the talk invariably turns to health issues. And it is over this issue that the group is split.  Most really like the president’s plan for health care. They see what he’s trying to do. And in a town where the union was once robust, they know how important affordable health care can be.

A vocal minority sees Obamacare as just another attempt at government control. They also tend to have much better retirement from jobs worked outside the community. Several of these are transplants.

My heart goes out to the first group. These are guys who were banking on a retirement where they knew health care would be important, but they felt that the union would be able to protect them as they aged. The demise of the factories over a decade ago and the collapse of the union system in the area killed those hopes, however.

They see their wives needing cancer screening, but they can’t afford it. They themselves often need oxygen because of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), the reward from a life spent smoking, but they can’t afford that, either. (Note: We are on the edge of Big Tobacco land here.)

And, so, as they talk of these issues, the frustration and the worry finds expression in their hands as they fiddle with their coffee cups and peer into the black, thick liquid, as if searching for the answer in it.

These men, men who worked hard their whole lives, have been, to paraphrase Frederick Engels, fried in the frying pan of capitalism.  Even the lower middle class retirees now see rising health care costs rapidly diminishing their already stretched retirement funds.

Many of these guys faced a political Sophie’s Choice in the past two elections. They didn’t want to vote for the “black guy.” But they also didn’t want to vote against their own interests.

It still amazes me, friend, that there are people in the working class who will enter a voting booth and pull a lever for a candidate who doesn’t give two hoots about them or their situations.

But I digress.

Concern for one’s family still trumps everything else here; who will help if some catastrophic illness arises? The regulars at the Liars’ Table argue that the American government stopped being for and by the people years ago, so, while they like Obamacare, they think it will be stopped by corporate greed.

Yet, they cling to the idea that somehow, some way, the collective good and the common weal will overcome. That attitude’s perhaps the most attractive feature of this place for me.

Meanwhile, I hope your struggle goes well.

In solidarity,

Charlie M.

Photo:  The Liars’ Table. (Charles Millson)


Charles Millson
Charles Millson

Charlie Millson works in rural middle Tennessee with a food bank and ministers a small church. He's spent time teaching and ministering in the Memphis area and logged two years teaching in Romania, where he adopted his son, Shawn, 16 years ago. He's also the father of a 5-year-old bulldog named Bucky.