By Max S. Gordon
(This piece was derived from interview questions prior to the event “What Just Happened? Writers Respond to Our American Crises — 2019 Edition”, First Person Plural Reading Series, Harlem, New York, November 10, 2019)
Several years ago, I found myself in a car with a drunk driver.
I should be careful with my language - “found myself” isn’t the right phrase; I made the decision to get into that car. There were three of us passengers, two in the back and one up front. I was in the back. Before we got in the car, I wondered to myself whether I should be concerned about how much our host had had to drink, but he seemed fine and he’d promised to give us all a ride home.
I considered my options. This wasn’t just a thirty-dollar cab ride from downtown, or an hour on the subway — we were forty-five minutes away from home in the suburbs, we’d have had to take a Metro-North train and it was very late. A friend and I exchanged a look before we got in the car, and shrugged. Our look seemed to confirm what I was thinking: “Scott seems fine”, he’d only been “drinking wine”, he’d stopped drinking about an hour before. Someone else offered to drive as we stood outside waiting for him to find his keys in his coat, but Scott waved him away and said, “Get in!”
So, we got in the car.
On the highway, he began to list slightly to the right, then to the left. A few times, when the conversation interested our host, Scott turned to look at us in the back seat, then apologized when a car honked as he intruded on someone else’s lane. I dug my nails into the leather. Again, someone offered to drive and Scott assured us he was fine. Helpless glances were exchanged between the front and back seats, and twice he was encouraged to slow down. I willed the car to stay on the road and refused to give into panic; the tightness in my chest only released when I saw the exit sign to our neighborhood. When the car stopped, Scott was offered a place to sleep until morning by my friend, but he drove off with a good night before the offer could be repeated. I stood on the street for a full minute before I went inside and considered what had just happened.
A few things occurred after that incident. I and another friend from that night confronted Scott on his drinking problem. I can’t say that he no longer drinks, but that evening was a turning-point. Something had been wrong for some time, and a line had been crossed. What happened that evening affected his marriage and his children; he and his partner had been in denial about his alcohol abuse but now it was no longer a private conversation. Because Scott wasn’t a mean or loud drunk, he’d hidden it well for years. That’s Scott’s story.
But when I got upstairs, I sat down and had a talk with myself. This story happened when I was in my early forties, but the way I felt in that back seat, you would have thought I was seventeen, coming home from a party in high school. In those days, I had been in the student group Students Against Drunk Driving, and recalled the ubiquitous phrase from the time: “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” I’d managed somehow never to get in a car with a drunk driver in high school. And here I was in my forties in a car with someone who was driving and drunk.
I felt ashamed, and knew I had to consider co-dependency and self-betrayal, issues I felt I’d worked on in my life, but clearly not enough since this had just happened to me. I am a recovering alcoholic, which means that I have not had a drink at the time of this interview in fifteen years — hooray for me — but I can usually tell at gatherings when someone else is drunk. Sobriety comes with a strange kind of hypervigilance. You watch other people drinking and observe who sips slowly, who just has one glass because they have to get up early tomorrow and who drinks to get fucked up. You observe, without impairment, how the mood shifts when someone gets very drunk, you can see the disintegration. I knew better than to drive with Scott before I got in that car, but I also knew that confronting him was going to be an uncomfortable, potentially embarrassing experience for him and his partner, and the truth was, I wanted to get home. Self-betrayal always begins with a negotiation.
And also gambling, deception and sometimes even superstition. Yes, Scott was drunk but we had to be fine because everyone knows you can’t get killed in the car with a drunk driver if it is your first time riding with him, if the driver has kids, if it is a full moon, if it’s your best friend’s birthday. We put our lives at risk that night, and possible someone else’s, because we didn’t want to “cause a scene.” I vowed that night that even if I had to burn the house down — figuratively — I wasn’t going to stand by and hurt myself like that again. I was angry at Scott, but he was drunk; in that moment being angry with him was like being angry at a child who tries to start the car with a set of those rainbow-colored Fisher Price keys. The difficult conversation, the only conversation I had any control over, was the one I had with myself.
I’m sharing this story here because it describes exactly what I am feeling right now, about where we are. The United States of America, our constitution, and our democracy are in the car with a drunk driver. We’re on the highway, we are weaving between lanes, cars are honking. We need to get off at an exit, any exit, we need to get to some place safe, where we can stop, assess, change drivers. But the driver isn’t listening to us, he won’t slow down, and in fact, if you challenge him, he presses down on the gas even harder, laughs at the look on your face because your fear, the attention he’s getting, and the potential for destruction, are exhilarating for him. It turns him on. Because of his narcissism, arrogance and need for control, he refuses even to acknowledge that we’re in danger.
So, despite the screaming from the back, he barrels on, and you convince yourself that he has to stop eventually, he has to feel some empathy, he’ll run out of gas, the police or God will stop him, or if nothing else intervenes and you do crash, hopefully no one will be badly hurt. And you may be right. You might also be killed. And it is entirely possible that someone in another car dies and he walks away without a scratch.
When I was interviewed last year for this event, I talked about Donald Trump and how I related to him through my own alcoholism. I feel that the drunk driving comparison is apt because we are at a point now when we can’t look to him for changes, or answers, just more and more aberrant behavior. The conversation, like the one I had with myself after I got out of the car, is the one that we must have with each other as a nation and with ourselves as voters. In other words - and I truly believe this - he is too sick and pathologically narcissistic to appreciate the damage he is doing; he has no idea who he is or where he is.
Donald Trump is a man with a great deal of charisma, who has been financially successful. Through television he earned his spot in the celebrity freak show. And within a certain narrow paradigm, he has a set of tools and tricks that he has used most of his life to get what he has wanted. When things don’t work, he doesn’t consider the fact that the paradigm has changed and so he must, that he needs to find new tools. He just doubles down on what worked before, hammering away when he needs a screwdriver.
Now, because a lot of people still feel they have a lot left to lose, you have politicians who surround him and clap and speak to him in baby-talk, letting him believe that you can tighten a screw with a hammer. They enable him, they coddle him, and they let him get away with murder. In some ways, they are sitting in that car with him, but instead of trying to encourage him to pull over, they turn the radio up, play his jam, and reach in the backseat to open up another six-pack. In that way, through their codependency and greed and ambition, they have become just as sick as he is. We can’t count on them either.
This is a scary time: there are so few adults in the room. The Republican leadership feel like a group of kids in the junior-high school homeroom who keep trying to frustrate the new teacher, Nancy Pelosi, by getting her to cry; hiding her chalk, putting dog poop in her chair so that it sticks to her dress, calling her cruel names. She holds the room at first because she’s a tough cookie who’s seen it all, but there is an absence of dignity in their behavior, and a feeling that things are getting more out of control. Adam Schiff is the gym coach who keeps barging in and shouting, telling everyone to sit down or he will start handing out detentions. I think of our democracy, our national identity, as the smart girl in the back with glasses watching the pandemonium, papers and backpacks flying, and shrinks in her chair, quietly reading her book as the other kids fight. At some point, exasperated, she will gather up her notebooks and quietly leave, shutting the door behind her. She may not come back.
So, what do you do with a drunk driver? (Ironically, Trump doesn’t drink, but emotionally he’s an alcoholic.) If he tries to drive, and he’s drunk, you hide his keys. And that’s what needs to happen, because Donald Trump is drunk on power. It was one thing to be a real-estate mogul in New York, going to fundraisers and parties, and having a reality-TV show. He loves his rallies, which are closer to stand-up comedy routines than they are to real political discourse. He’s always liked being a star, not so much a leader. But being president is the ultimate high. We can’t expect that he will one day decide, “I’ve hit bottom, this whole president thing has gone way too far. I think I’m in over my head.”
Perhaps some day he will acknowledge that his life has become unmanageable, but in the lives of most addicts, so much can be lost and destroyed before that point is reached. If we love ourselves as a nation, we will acknowledge that this man is truly unwell and needs help. But first we have to help ourselves and ask — as anyone should, if they stay in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic — why we feel we deserve him.
When you ask me what keeps me up at night, another image comes to mind; the “traditional” 1950’s family together on summer vacation, Dad in the driver’s seat, Mom riding shotgun and reading a map, Son and Daughter in the backseat. At some point, it is clear that Dad is lost; they’ve been driving in the wrong direction for over an hour. Think of a time before GPS or MapQuest. Mom, who is following a map stretched out in her lap, delicately says, “I think the exit we wanted is back there. But if we get off at this next one, we can turn around.”
“Nonsense,” says Dad. “The exit I want is coming, it’s a short-cut about twenty miles ahead. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
“But Don,” Mother urges, “It says here, we were supposed to get off at the turnpike. If we stay on this road we’ll be going even further east and we want to go west.”
“I’m hungry,” Kip groans from the backseat.
“Me too,” moans Sally. Kip yanks his sister’s hair.
“I said for you two to stop fighting and allow your father to concentrate,” says Mom.
“I don’t need to concentrate, Joanne, and frankly, you are just as noisy as they are, going on and on with that stupid map. I wish you would all just keep quiet. I know exactly where I’m going. My family drove to this lake dozens of times when we visited this state and I am sure this is right way.”
“But Don,” Mother pleads. “The map!”
“I said be quiet!”
Later on, when it is late and dark, they realize Mom was right. But everyone is tired and hungry, so they end up staying in a motel. Mom tries to be cheerful and points out some interesting sites in the unfamiliar town, and comments on how tasty the diner’s meatloaf is, she should ask the chef for his recipe! Dad eats his supper without a word.
I’ve been envisoning this little scenario for a while, when I think of the Republican party. I think there were some people who genuinely believed in what I will call the “Trump experiment.” Despite the fact that the man has no military experience, has never been a governor, mayor, or even, from what I can gather, led a group of boy scouts to a campfire, someone believed that he would be fit to be president of the United States. We believed in the myth of his success, and we bought into the Trump brand. Some may believe their votes were well-intentioned. And still others chose him for cynical reasons, to cast a “fuck you” vote to the Clintons and Washington bureaucracy, and voted for Trump because they wanted to blow up the system and knew he would be a shit-stirrer in Washington.
But in too many cases, I suspect there wasn’t a clear vision, but voting on impulse; like a teenager who kills his parents in a drunken rage and wakes up the next morning wondering if he can convince Mom to make her special apple pancakes. He didn’t really want her dead, he wanted her different. And some of these people never wanted an end to America, they just wanted to be heard.
The problem is that now we need Dad, Republican patriarchal consciousness, to admit that he is lost, that we have to go back and make that right turn. It can be painful and humiliating to admit when we are wrong, but it can also be dangerous to keep pretending that we are going in the right direction, when we obviously aren’t. We may not all be in agreement on which route to take, but it is becoming clearer and clearer we need to turn around. And maybe this time, Dad needs to let Mom drive.
Analogies are helpful for me these days, because sometimes the reality of what we are living in is too harsh, too painful to look at directly. It’s like the psychological equivalent of staring into the sun: you need protection. Stories, allegories, metaphors give us some distance, a way to see and still maintain the distance we need to survive.
At his core, Donald Trump is a con-man; but he’s a hell of a talker. A lot of people underestimate his ability as a communicator, but one day, linguists and psychologists will study his use of language, its primitivity, his penchant for giving people nicknames which are more carefully chosen than most people imagine, and how effectively he gets his message across. His use of repetition: (“It was a perfect call, a perfect call.”) Even the occasional gaffes and misspelling may be strategic –bringing him closer to the “common man”.
But I think that, like most snake-oil salesmen, he will eventually underestimate the townsfolk. We are just reaching the point where we bought his product, used it, and it’s not getting the results that were promised; we rubbed it on grandma’s bad knee and she can’t even get out of bed now, Grandpa took some for his ulcers and he’s in the hospital, Dad never did get that hair to grow back on his bald spot, and Mom not only isn’t regular, she’s been constipated for three days. That’s why , I believe, some members of the cult of Trump will turn on him and the mob will run him out of town. At some point, when they realize the jobs aren’t coming back, when things cost twice as much because of tariffs, they will see him for who he is. My fear is what we may have lost before we reach that point.
Part of what has been so difficult over the last four years is that we, as a country, under the leadership of this man, have moved deeper into vulgarity. It isn’t as if we weren’t warned. The comments about Mexicans’ being rapists, The Obama Birther “movement”, and “Grab ’Em By The”…, are all individually obscene, each comment mortifying on its own. Any of those transgressions should have had the power, if we were listening, to stop us in our tracks.
But like checkpoints, once you pass one, you find yourself further in the new country, until you reach the next checkpoint. We have allowed so much vulgarity to go unchecked that now we are no longer bystanders, we have lost the right as a country to be appalled by this man. Any attempts to say, “Oh my, I can’t believe he said that” are disingenuous, and the rest of the world is judging us. We are approaching the moment when no one will believe that this was only a grand error of judgment, an offending sensibility, an aberration, a country hijacked by a monster. We are now the monsters. The more we enable him, the more he continues to defines us. We say we’ll leave, that one day we’ll “put our foot down,” but we all know people who say, “If he cheats one more time, I’m gone,” and we just nod and pour them another cup of coffee, because we know they aren’t going anywhere. Condemning Trump at this point, expressing outrage without action, is just a bunch of words, “Breaking news” on CNN. If what we’ve seen at this point isn’t enough to let us know who this man is, then something is deeply wrong, not with him, but with us. Which brings us back to our drunk driver.
The answer to vulgarity — as I plan to speak about this evening— is not more vulgarity, it is poetry. When asked about writing the novel Beloved, author Toni Morrison said in an interview, “There is so much more to remember and to describe for purposes of exorcism…things must be made, some fixing ceremony, some memorial, something, some altar, somewhere, where these things can be released, thought, and felt…The consequences of slavery only artists can deal with. There are certain things that only artists can deal with. And it’s our job.”
Last May, I wrote about Netflix’s When They See Us about the exonerated men who were once called The Central Park Five. Some people I know were avoiding watching the series because their feared it would be too painful. In When They See Us director Ava Duvernay did her job: she took a profound cultural obscenity, the incarceration of the innocent, and children scapegoated because of their race, and showed us, particularly in the episode devoted to Korey Wise and that stunning performance by Jharell Jerome, the triumph of the human spirit. What happened to those boys was so ugly and unfair and such an indictment of us as Americans and of American racism, some people don’t want to talk about it, don’t want to look. Just to read the court documents, to follow the story in its rawest form, can feel as if it will overwhelm us. But what an artist can do is make something beautiful, and there is a lot of beauty in When They See Us. Which isn’t to say that anything is being covered up or denied; real poetry brings us closer to the truth, not further away from it.
We seem to have a man in office who has no use for art, for poetry, for creativity. We never hear this man quote from his favorite writers, we never hear which political leaders have inspired him, we don’t know what music he likes, or if he listens to Bach, or Liszt, or Joni Mitchell or Iron Maiden. Maybe he’s been sharing this somewhere and I’ve missed it, but I feel I’ve been watching him pretty closely and I have absolutely no idea what inspires him other than money and power and ass. I even suspect he refuses to have a dog because his narcissism is so profound he doesn’t want even to compete with a puppy for attention. Poetry for this president is like holy water at an exorcism. He may have no use for it, but it is the only way back for the rest of us, the only thing that can restore us, wake us up from the dream.
I wrote about When They See Us because it is a story of redemption, not for the Exonerated Five, but for us as a society. We need to be reminded by our artists that there is always a path, if we are honest about who we are and what we’ve done. Poetry doesn’t give evil a pass, it isn’t perfume meant to cover up the stink of lies: that’s sentimentality, another form of vulgarity. Real poetry makes sure that evil doesn’t have the last word, it is the epitome of hope, a reminder that what is true will always prevail. In times like these, poetry is a decision that we make. The irony is, despite the human rights violations that lie at the bedrock of the American experiment, our constitution isn’t just a set of rules and regulations. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are deeply poetic. Just listen to the language — it is a road map if we’re willing to let it guide us back, if we can finally acknowledge to ourselves what is true in this cultural moment: we are lost.
(Thanks, as always, to Stacy Parker Le Melle creator of the First Person Plural Reading Series, Harlem, New York)
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996).
His work has appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive online and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology”, “Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘Can I Get A Witness’ and ‘Moonlight’”, “Resist Trump: A Survival Guide”, “Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the Desecration of Black Art”, A Little Respect, Just a Little Bit: On White Feminism and How “The Handmaid’s Tale” is Being Weaponized Against Women of Color, Sticks and Stones Will Break Your Bones: On Patriarchy, Cancel Culture and Dave Chappelle