I was drinking Peruvian coffee when the bell to the door rang. The coffee was lukewarm and I was itching for a cigarette. The coffeeshop used to be a place where you could sit and smoke cigars. That was before smoking bans. I itch, but I don't mind. I haven't smoked in years.
The sun was low, shining through cloudy fingerprints on the glass, palm prints next to the brass door handle. It was golden inside. The barista, a woman, a Peruvian immigrant, a rarity in a America let alone Iowa, looked up as the glass membrane to the front of the shop broke, metal bell jangling. A stray black hair slunk down from her scalp and into her face. Her lips parted wordlessly as she tried to decipher the unusual scene. Chatter from outside wafted in.
Bodies in silhouette jostled. They had cameras. Boom mikes. Who are these people? I thought. Why are they here? Who is that?
A man in a crisp suit sauntered in, a broad but nervous smile on his face. Don't show your nerves buddy, I thought, we'll eat you alive. He didn't have a tie and the top two buttons of his oxford shirt were unbuttoned. A staged casualness to make the farm people comfortable. Sure.
He took a glance around the shop. He thought it was small, I could tell. He wasn't going to linger. Fantastic. He pointed at a part of the mural on the wall, and made a comment to the press that I didn't hear. Camera flashes whitened the room. Chk chk chk chk. I turned back to my coffee.
The barista leaned forward, stretching out her arm across the counter. Her other hand brushed mine as she supported herself. Words were exchanged. Her arm shook. She flashed the same easy smile she had for all the customers. She leaned back, wiping summer induced beads of sweat from her face. I felt a hand on my back. The old I'm-gently-reminding-you-I'm-dominate gesture. No, you didn't, I thought. You don't want to talk to me.
I turned and looked the candidate in his face. He was thinner than what appeared to be on TV, but they say that about everyone. I could smell expensive deodorant mixed with earthy sweat and a hint of unbrushed teeth. His eyes drooped slightly, his posture a little hunched. I almost felt sorry for him. He thrust his hand into my personal space.
"Howdy," he said.
Howdy? I thought. Who says that? He spent too much time at Harvard or wherever it was on the eastern seaboard he grew up. Why the assumption I'm some sort of John Wayne clone just because I live in Iowa? These people.
"Hi," I said. I took his hand. He started shaking it, expanding his broad smile even more, showing congeniality on a level only slightly more subdued than a pageant queen. His face crinkled, especially around the eyes. His skin was like paper. It looked like it could tear and flake away. Were they all this fragile? Is this the material we have to work with in order to forge Presidents? Aren't they supposed to be made of stronger stuff? Wasn't Reagan made of granite? Clinton of axle grease and teflon? Wasn't Theodore Roosevelt made of 40 proof whiskey and gunpowder? Truman of uranium and bullet casings? Even that polio victim, F.D.R., was made of steel and bamboo. When did we get stuck with these paper candidates that could fly away like kites and tear in a storm? Or maybe it's just the passage of time that accretes their hardness, every wrinkle becoming rugged instead of aged--a development of sagacity instead of decay into frailty. Maybe we just shouldn't worship the dead ones like Apollo and we'd never be disappointed.
I looked into his eyes as I felt the skin of his palm and fingers, human flesh with a pulse, not just pixels and sound bites. Did he see me? Or was I just a warm, breathing, voting body? Was his interest in me just that I was a collection of watery self-aware cells originating in desirable geographic coordinates? Did he actually see me? Did I stop at his cornea or did I get through down into the depths of his mind? Would he remember me? I saw black discs, then he turned slightly and I saw my tiny reflection. I squeezed his hand. I felt the bones move. His pupils widened ever so slightly.
He didn't pull back, but I knew the pain got through. His smile dulled slightly. His skin flushed a little pink. He shook my hand again limply.
I squeezed harder. I gritted my teeth. Do you see me now? Do you hear the message I'm telling you? His grip strengthened in response. I felt the skin of my palm fold and press together. Good. This one has some balls at least.
We released each other's hands.
"You got some grip there, friend," he said, slapping me on the back and chuckling towards the media behind us.
"Yes, I do," I said.
"Can I count on you to come out to the straw poll?" he asked.
"I'll never vote for you," I said. His smile twitched. "But I'll buy you a coffee," I added.
He stood for a moment, half-uncertain.
"Sure," he said. He took a seat next to me. An aide started to protest but he silenced her with a quick glance.
"We can talk," I said.
"I'd like that," he said.
I patted him on the back.
I used to live in Ames Iowa, during the run-up of the 2000 campaign. The place was crawling with presidential candidates. I saw Al Gore speak (I love Al Gore now, but holy crap was he a deadly boring speaker back then). I saw Elizabeth Dole speak (frightening policy positions), and later got to shake her hand. I mashed her fingers and asked her a trick question that made her blush. I acted like a dick towards her the human being, but I'm still kind of proud that messed with the candidate. I wanted her to remember that not everyone agreed with her, but candidates never seem to really acknowledge that people have diverse and complex opinions. They try to please everyone and end up satisfying no one. I guess this story is a bit of atonement for my behavior that day over a decade ago.