Monday, April 29, 2019

Extinction Level Stupidity

You've almost certainly seen these types of donation jars sitting on the counter of a convenience store or some other business. They're all pretty standard, these donation jars have a picture of the person in need, a brief but heart wrenching biography, and a plea for help in the form of asking for loose change or a couple of bucks. For me personally, when it involves kids I try to avoid looking at the picture or reading the story.

The world is incredibly cruel to children and if I think too much about it my thoughts go to unhappy and dark places. No, I'm not talking about hurting anyone or myself. My dark places are philosophical in nature with me wondering about human stupidity and other metaphysical ideas.

Without delving too deeply into my ruminations, one aspect that I find darkly hilarious involves how many of these people who deploy donation jars as a way to pay medical bills are totally against any form of government-run healthcare. When I write “these people” I naturally mean poor working class folks who either have crappy health insurance or none at all. It's strange world, so there might be an exception or two but rich folks don't have to deploy donation jars to pay medical bills.

Several years ago I watched a documentary about a nonprofit medical organization that went into poor towns in places like Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina to provided much needed health services. This organization went beyond basic checkups to include simple surgeries to making dentures and providing artificial limbs.

If this nonprofit organization was operating as a business then they would have been making money hand over fist. Because these good old country folks would stand in incredibly long lines for days for a chance to get the medical care they desperately needed. During this documentary the filmmakers showed several examples of folks who had traveled long distances to see a doctor or dentist because they had no other means to pay for those services back home.

Here's where my normal compassion and empathy breaks down. While this documentary was made five to ten years ago, the people in these regions voted overwhelmingly for that bastard Trump. We're also talking about folks who are overwhelmingly white and live off welfare or Social Security disability. These simple people – and I don't mean that in a good way – like to believe they are rugged individualist who mistrust, but more than likely outright hate, the federal government. Even when they depend on Uncle Sam for the money to run down to WalMart, Dollar General, or Family Dollar.

No, they cringe at the idea of the government being in charge of healthcare and the possibility some atheistic, liberal bureaucratic bean counter “death panel” might want to kill grandma because of her failing health. The nasty little secret these working class and even middle class conservatives refuse to understand is that for-profit health insurance companies regularly decided which patients get medical services and who doesn't. Contrary to the Alaskan Trailer Trash Mama (Sarah Palin for those who don't remember) her Death Panels are pure capitalistic affairs. She did at least get the bureaucratic bean counter part right.

But despite all the evidence that its better to have some form of government intervention to provide healthcare to everyone, these good old folks will continue to enlist the aid of convenience store donation jars and nonprofit organizations to get basic medical care. Because it's better to stick it to elitist liberals and suffer than even try what all the other developed nations have had for decades.

Monday, April 15, 2019

On A Dark Lonely Highway

Unless you lived in the coast areas of South Carolina from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s you can not understand the magnitude of the growth that occurred in that region. The best example is of course Charleston which went from a sleepy little Southern town, pretty much disconnected from the rest of the country, to a multicultural, sprawling city that also happens to be one of the favorite vacation destinations in the United States. The astronomical increase of real estate values in Charleston alone during that period signifies how the coast of South Carolina went from a rural backwater to a place where rich elites want to be seen living.

Other areas of the South Carolina coast had significant growth but couldn't match Charleston's cultural sophistication. The area called the “Grand Strand” – typically centered around Myrtle Beach – had a similar growth in population, attractions, and businesses but desperately held on to its backwater weirdness for much longer. This is where I enter the picture after having served four years in the United States Army.

I was driving home to Georgetown from a date around two o'clock in the morning back in September of 1990. Back then U.S. Highway 501 was still a badly maintained, four-lane road with the property on either side still mostly undeveloped. Sure, one of the places on that highway was the community college I had just started attending, a few gas stations, a couple of fast food places and a seedy country club/golf course that had been superseded by other ritzier places. Even with those establishments, the property on either side of Highway 501 was overwhelmingly a swampy forest filled with snakes, alligators, rabbits, and even a bear or two.

Curiously enough I find the situation on 501 even worse now, the highway has long since been widen to six lanes with the land now overrun with businesses ranging from overpriced suburbs, mega-churches, to outlet malls. The worst being outlet malls since they are created to draw in the traveling but generally mindless sheep, better known as spoiled tourists. Personally, in most cases I would prefer the company of an eight-foot hungry alligator than such humans.

Back in September of 1990 there was one business on Highway 501 that surpassed weird and bordered on the surreal. For reasons I could never figure out someone had opened a fireworks store that ran twenty-four hours a day.

Understand, this was not some trailer on wheels nor a minor building stuck on a small plot of land. This was a large steel building painted a glaring white with huge plate glass windows. The building itself and the parking lot in front of it were brightly illuminated with numerous light poles of the type used at Walmart or any other massive businesses. This fireworks store was not something new, it had existed for several years going back to the time my lackluster mother made trips running from Conway, South Carolina to Myrtle Beach to see her drunk and worthless boyfriend.

The fireworks shop had caught my attention back then but every time I mentioned something about stopping there to look around, my mother, who naturally had her own grownup agenda, adamantly refused. So this twenty-four hour fireworks shop faded into the background as my younger siblings and I were forced to endure our mother's pursuits.

By that God-awful early morning in September of 1990, my curiosity of the fireworks shop had long since died. I was in my twenties and pursuing my own amorous pursuits, the difference from my mother's being that I was single and that I wasn't dragging any tired and hungry kids on these jaunts.

The girl I saw the night before was one that I had met working as a lifeguard at the Myrtle Waves Water Park. An attraction that has long since been closed, bulldozed, and paved over with a NASCAR-themed restaurant being built on the property. What's funny is that I recently learned that the NASCAR restaurant was closed years ago. Given the nature of property values in Myrtle Beach, it was probably quickly bulldozed, paved over, with something equally obnoxious built in its place.

My date's name was Emma and we met in the water park's lazy river. I was walking through the waist deep water playing lifeguard and she and her girl friend/roommate were laying on a double inner tube. We started talking and about an hour later I asked her out to the usual dinner and a movie. Both of us were in our twenties, which meant raging hormones, and as far as I knew neither of us had a significant other. What that all means was that things were moving quite fast.

From the movie we went walking on Ocean Boulevard, which involved a little old fashioned necking on the beach. Eventually I drove us both back to her apartment all the way over in Conway where things were supposed to get even more physical. Unfortunately, when Emma and I arrived at the apartment her roommate had left a note on the kitchen counter saying, “Bob called from the Gulf.” Those five words sent all my quickly developing plans and fantasies totally sideways.

I didn't learn right away but it turned out Emma did have a boyfriend, a guy who was normally stationed at Fort Bragg up in North Carolina. But who at that moment in time was over in Saudi Arabia guarding a fast growing supply point out in the desert. Emma's initial reaction after reading the note was a thin nonchalance with her wanting us to play tonsil hockey on the couch before going into her bedroom. Never the sharpest knife in any drawer, I had enough smarts to sniff out the change in Emma's attitude. And as long as Emma still wanted to play doctor, I wasn't about to ask any awkward questions.

Things proceeded between us as I had hoped up until Emma's phone began ringing. She answered and from the look on her face a few moments later, I immediately knew everything was over. It was Bob and he had called to beg some sort of forgiveness and of course, Emma started crying saying she had never stopped loving him. Just hearing Emma's side of the conversation I was able to piece together all the important elements of their relationship.

Barely five minutes later, I'm leaving Emma's apartment with her still on the phone now making plans to move up to the Fort Bragg area when Bob got back from Saudi. Feeling extremely bummed out, I began my long drive back to Georgetown and my own bed.

The disappointment was still strong but as I turned onto Highway 501, I slipped a Buffett CD into the player and began singing along. As my mood lighted, I came up on the bizarre fireworks store on my left. My long dormant curiosity flared when I spotted the flashing “Open” sign in one of the large windows and saw a single store clerk calmly sitting at the counter reading what looked to be a magazine.

I initially passed the strange building but turned around and drove into the parking lot. Except for a single car in the parking lot, which was most likely the clerk's, the place was deserted. In fact as I drove up to the front entrance the clerk didn't even look up from his post. As I stepped out of my car, little voices in my head started buzzing around like gnats reminding me of several Twilight Zone episodes along with a multitude of science fiction stories all centered around people who enter strange places.

I entered the fireworks store half expecting it to be some elaborate facade like something from a movie set. It wasn't, just as I had seen after numerous trips between Conway and Myrtle Beach over the years it was a huge store with long clean aisles of nothing but various types of fireworks. What still bothers me even now was the near surgical-level of cleanliness, to the point I would have felt comfortable eating off the floor.

The clerk, a clean-shaven guy who looked to be in his thirties dressed in what I would call business casual attire look up from his magazine long enough to say hello and that most items were buy one get another at half price. He made no attempt at small talk nor asked just what in the hell would I be needing fireworks a little after two o'clock in the freaking morning.

Yes, I should have immediately asked the clerk why has this store been open twenty-four hours a day for years but honestly, I was getting really spooked. Something wasn't right about the place with the Twilight Zone quality growing exponentially. As I browsed the aisles it wouldn't have surprised to see hideous monsters dressed as stockmen emerge from the store room pushing loaded carts of colorful explosives.

As far as firework stores were concerned, it was the Sam's Club and Costco of such items. Every conceivable type of fireworks were on display going from simple firecrackers and bottle rockets to larger items that probably needed professionals to safely set off. Naturally, the air temperature inside the store was quite cold and as the minutes ticked by with me strolling the aisles, I felt close to shivering. At some point I knew my curiosity was more than satisfied and that I needed to buy something and get the hell out of the place.

I grabbed a packet of bottle rockets and walked up to the counter. The clerk, who had stayed silent during my browsing, simply asked how I was doing as he rang up my item on the cash register. It was then that I saw what magazine he was reading, a copy of the Economist, which surprised me in a way. I somehow imagined it would have been a copy of Playboy or even Hustler. It was a possibly cruel but definitely unjustified assumption, I just couldn't see an intellectual type working at an all-night fireworks store in the middle of nowhere South Carolina.

Yeah, I have to mention again how surreal the fireworks store seemed. But my curiosity was definitely quenched and I knew as certain that bears take poops in the swampy woods on either side of Highway 501 back then that I would never reenter the place. Just to throw a little extra weird icing on the unearthly cake, as I was pulling out of the parking lot I spotted the clerk talking on the telephone looking intently in my direction.

For the next two years I passed that fireworks store going to my community college and then back home again. Yes, there were several times I saw the parking lot with numerous cars, almost always near a holiday like Christmas, New Years, or the Fourth of July. Occasionally, as I pursued my single guy life back then, I would pass the place at night and see someone sitting at the counter but no customers. Eventually the fireworks store again faded into the background as it had when my mother was doing her stuff.

After moving up to Columbia in 1993, I didn't get anywhere near Highway 501 for several years. By the time I did travel that road again the entire nature of it and the area in general had changed. The fireworks store was long gone, a victim of the highway being expanded to six lanes. Whatever purpose of having an all-night fireworks store was, I have this nagging feeling it wasn't to sell drunk locals and tourists sparklers and roman candles. While I may had struck out with Emma, this cat did survive a close encounter with his over active curiosity.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Assuming the Worst

“Never assume anything, it makes an ass of you and me,” is the nifty little maxim I learned from one of my NCO's while serving in the United States Army. Yeah, it's a cliché but one whose truth can't be denied since young and dumb soldiers, like I was back in the 1980's, can really screw up a situation by making stupid assumptions. While over time I generally learned not to presume anything when no real facts were present, over the years evidence seems to suggest a lot of people never assimilated that lesson.

Now most assumptions are harmless, such as an acquaintance of mine recently making the statement he didn't understand why the Columbia, South Carolina area didn't have any used books stores. While we do not have used book stores on every street corner, I was able to name off three such businesses to him off the top of my bald head. While this person's assumption was harmless, the look I received after casually telling him about the used book stores I knew about was not one of gratitude.

I had overturned his mental applecart and derailed his usual argument that the country was going to hell in a handbasket. Yeah, don't ask me how he was connecting the lack of used book stores with the demise of Western Civilization in general and the United States specifically. It's a long and complicated story with more than a few sprinkles of White paranoia mixed with barely hidden racism and a touch of alt-right fascism. The fact remains that I disproved this person's assumption causing him a momentary revelation that he was not as smart as he presumed. No worries, like most individuals these day, this acquaintance brushed off this small fact and quickly returned to his usual right-wing Chicken Little attitude.

The thing that honestly worries me is that this acquaintance makes assumptions on subjects that actually matter. Given my description of this person you have enough evidence to understand he is a Trump worshiper who totally accepts any information he sees or reads from the usual right-wing outlets. This includes baseless and conspiratorial propagandic theories like that several mass shootings here in the United States were perpetrated by left-wing types in an effort to overturn the Second Amendment. Something I heard him repeat in hushed conspiratorial tones to his cohorts.

Circumstances require that I have daily interaction with this person and others like him who hold the same views. It's beyond surreal to listen to these people talk about subjects they have absolutely no factual information to base their opinions. They speak in certainties and absolutes that defy not only commonsense but logic because each and everyone of them have tools, such as smart phones, that would easily allow them to find the truth. This will sound cruel and arrogant but I've heard five-year old children carry on more rational and intellectual conversations.

Yeah, the human race has had to deal with barely sentient “Bubbas” from the beginning of civilization. The difference now is that there is next to no wiggle room to put up with their ignorance. Such people are easily manipulated with appeals to stunted patriotism or frenzied religious belief. One of democracy's fatal flaws is the uninformed mob being lead by their emotions, or even worse, a charismatic demagogue. Millions of people have been killed over the centuries using such tactics.

The United States has always has certain percentage of individuals that wallowed in willful ignorance and blatant hate. They have been responsible for some of America's worst crimes against Humanity. But these people now have a leader that refuses to condemn the worst behaviors of his followers. This demagogue and his followers almost daily edge ever closer to unleashing their anger and rage on anyone who dares to speak against their view of the world.

An important British politician of the early Twentieth century once said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we will not see them lit again in our lifetime.” I'm taking a few liberties with the meaning of his words but honestly, I believe they fit the situation we now find ourselves in this country. Unless a miracle jumps up and bites us on our ass, I believe things are going to get far worse. We're living in dangerous times folks, I'll make what I feel is a safe assumption and write that you might want to begin thinking about the unthinkable.