I walked from work to the market this evening, needing to pick up some beef broth to stretch the soup I’m taking to a potluck later tonight. On the sidewalk outside the market stood a man, gray and probably cold in the zero degree dusk. He wore a coat; I could not tell how thick or protective. He held a sign saying something like “In need” or “Please help”; I can’t remember the exact wording, but the message was familiar.
What I can remember is the hashtag on his cardboard sign: #MAGA, written vertically down the right-hand side.
I walk toward him. “Does a sandwich sound good?” I ask him, thinking of the pre-made sandwiches inside the market. Quick, easy, nutritious, no utensils required; I don’t know what supplies he carries with him.
“No, what would be better is a baguette and some cheese; I can make my own sandwich,” he tells me. “Cheddar. And those little mayonnaise packets, I don’t know if you know where they are. And a bag for everything.”
I smile. I’m taken back by the specificity of his requests. Beggars, if he is indeed that, can be choosers. And fine. Homeless or no, he is under no obligation to prostrate himself before a would-be food-giver. I kind of admire him for asking for precisely what he wants.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I tell him. Inside the store, I select a square of cheddar, a baguette, and 2 mayonnaise packets. And my beef broth. After paying, I carry his items out to him in a paper bag.
“Thanks,” he tells me.
“Sure,” I respond. “Your sign. What is the America we would return to if we ‘made it great again?’” I ask. I hope my tone is simply curious, because curiosity is what drives my question.
“Oh, America was great. It was undoubtedly great.”
“Okay. When?” I ask. “When was it great, and what made it great?” I hope my voice is not badgering. I hope I am keeping it friendly.
“Lots of times throughout our history,” he says, launching into a litany of times; among the eras he lists, the only two I can understand are “defeating the Soviet Union” and “after World War II.”
“What made America great after World War II?” I ask him. My tone is, I hope, still conversational. His answer is difficult to follow, difficult to hear. He is starting to get agitated, and I have seen this response before, in a family member. I am aware of my own possible projections, and I try to keep my voice neutral.
“Was America good for black people after World War II?” I ask him.
His face changes. His eyes dart away. He seems disgusted by my question. “Was it good for black people?” he repeats, and launches into an answer I cannot quite follow.
“Good for black people,” he mutters, as though he can’t believe he has to explain this to me. “Was it good for Colin Powell?” Not waiting for me to answer, he buzzes through several details about Colin Powell, jumping from idea to idea, telling me Powell went to Vietnam, fought there, returned to the US, declared it would take some certain number of soldiers to do, well, something. He is speaking fast, agitated, immediately angry, defensive, throwing facts (or what he must believe are facts) into the air. “Colin Powell. There’s a guy who made something of himself.” I agree; yes, Colin Powell has accomplished a lot.
“Was it good for me? Was it good for you?” he asks, and this time, he waits for an answer.
“I wasn’t alive after WWII,” I tell him, thinking we are still using “it” to refer to “America.”
“Was it good for black people,” he mutters again. “Was it good under Saddam Hussein?” At this, I look to the sky, assessing my current situation in which the rules of engagement and conversation are unclear. I thought we were discussing a time when America was supposedly great, and now it seems he is asking me if America(?)…was good…under Saddam Hussein? I am sure Hussein was never ruler of the US, for I’ve had the presidents memorized in a song since the 7th grade, adding names every 4 (or 8) years since; but the futility of the interaction under our current circumstances becomes clear; the cognitive gymnastics more than I care to attempt at present. A rapid cost/benefit analysis convinces me to move on. We are standing on a sidewalk, I with 2 boxes of beef broth in my arms, the potluck soup I need to stretch awaiting me back at the office, shoppers passing us by.
“Have a good evening,” I tell him, and I walk away. He does not meet my eye. Our interaction has lasted only moments.
Was it good for black people? His scoff follows me. Was it good for women and girls? Was it good for lesbians? For gay people? For transgender people? For minorities? For human beings with brown skin? Was “America” good for the native people who existed on this plot of dirt long before we bestowed upon it a bastardization of Amerigo? Has America ever been a place that is great for everyone? What is it that so many believe we must return to, and why? What and when is this charmed time when things were better? And better for whom? Under what circumstances? I know my answers to these questions, but I ask them still because they beg asking.
I am far from posing original questions. Many of us began asking these and questions like these as soon as we saw the red hat, made in China, and the accompanying hashtag. Our answers to these questions, individual and collective, like our dismissal of them and our agitation at their asking, reveal far more about our relationship to greatness than a hashtag ever will.
My soup was delicious, as was, I hope, his cheddar sandwich.
(photo credit Kegen Benson, original photo on Instagram @kegendean, used with permission)