Scotch

J. David Liss

I 

The train was about to pull out of Union Station, the conductor talking and talking over the loudspeaker system so that nobody could make a phone call. I’d gotten on board early and found my favorite seat — the aisle seat at the front of the car facing back. I liked being able to see the faces of the people riding with me, even if it meant looking back where we came from. 

The front of the train always has a four-seater, two facing forward, two facing back. A middle age white woman took the window seat facing forward, diagonally across from me. 

A younger white man boarded the train a little late and was looking for a seat. He would have taken the seat across from me but I stared at him. At first he liked that because I’m sort of cute to guys. But then he felt uncomfortable when he realized it wasn’t that kind of stare, and he kept walking. If he would have sat down, I would have said to him, So tell me how the other half lives, because you look like the other half and I want to know how you can live with yourself. I did that once and it is very effective at getting white people to move their privilege somewhere else. 

Am I a racist? Does it count if you hate lobbyists? I really do. Doesn’t matter their skin color. I start off not liking them. Hey, this is who I am. It’s worth getting to know me if you’re going to hear any story I tell. No justice, no peace.

Our rally had gone well. The weather was too hot, but we had plenty of water stations along the demonstration route. More than 15,000 people showed up to march for social justice. It was mostly brothers and sisters. 

The speeches were excellent. The organization of the event was flawless — I say that, knowing that self-praise is no praise. Organizing for the resistance is exactly what I wanted to be doing. It leveraged my bachelor’s degree in political science and my master’s in communications; it paid, although not a lot, and it’s what I believed in. I wanted to fight injustice— and our nation plus Russia had elected a president who was dishing out injustice by the bucket. The irony was not lost on me that I was having the time of my life because a neo-fascist was running the country.

The train ride back from Washington to New York would be relaxing. I would buy a beer in the café car, kick off my sandals, and if the train wasn’t too crowded, put my legs on the seat in front of me. I wasn’t wearing pantyhose under my skirt. It was too hot and there weren’t a pair that matched my skin color, which was dark. None of the companies made the right color pantyhose for the African half of African-American. This was a conversation I periodically had with Selma, my significant other. Yes, she was named after the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She came by her activism honestly, from protest-parents. 

I came by nothing honestly until I became honest. East New York, Brooklyn, 2003:

Me: “Why we movin’ closer to Pitcairn Avenue! I don’t wanna move again.”

Momma: “They raise the rent again.”

Me: “They rais’in the rent because they push’in us out. They gonna sell the damn building when we gone.”

Momma: “Well, maybe you daddy send some money. He got plenty. Meantime, that’s how it is. If you ever get a boyfriend, don’t bring him to the new place when I’m not home.”

Daddy wasn’t ever going to send money. We both knew that. And I knew something that Momma didn’t – that I wasn’t ever going to bring home a boyfriend. Or, maybe she did know, even then.

“It’s 7:00 at night. Wanda, where you going?”

“The Senior Center, Momma.”

“Why? You not old.”

“The group Make the Road by Walking is leading a program on community activism.”

“Why you going to that? Did you finish your homework?”

“Yes.”

“Why you going?”

“Why’re we moving?”

“I told you, they raising the rent.”

“We can stop them. But we have to organize.”

“We can’t stop nuth’in!”

“Not by ourselves. But as a community we can.”

“Hmm. How you hear about this?”

“Shonda.”

“The basketball coach. Hmm.”

“What do you mean by Hmm!”
But she just turned back to the sink to wash the dishes from the dinner I cooked.

When Shonda got fired from the after school program (I was the one they caught her with), everyone was angry. She was a great basketball coach and we had felt lucky that a former Rutgers player and WNBA draftee chose us. Both sides seemed to blame me, and made Momma’s life harder. They said that I was 18 and getting ready to leave the school – why did I have to mess things up for everyone else! 

The only thing I felt a little guilty about was that I had tricked Shonda into the equipment room. Then, what happened, happened. 

I knew my time in East New York was about done. White, straight people, and white, gay people, and white, black people (blacks with money) moved in, and folks like me got pushed out. All of them, whether white or black, gay or straight, spoke the same language. Their vocabulary had words like urban renewal and community reinvestment and local culture. But no one who’d been living in East New York for his or her life understood any of those words. We understood we couldn’t afford the rent anymore.

But I’d become fluent in their language. I’d gotten notice of my scholarship and it was a done deal and I headed to U. Penn. Full boat, baby. Tuition, room, board, book money. Momma was proud as a lioness. She was also glad she didn’t have to feed me. Money was tight. She appreciated that I was getting to go to college for free. College was almost an abstraction for her. $70,000 a year for classes didn’t register with her, didn’t make sense. But someone paying for food and a room for her little Wanda for four years was something that she was really grateful for.

Every night, Momma would return to a home that felt to her like it was occupied by someone she didn’t know. I think down deep that the problem wasn’t my being a lesbian. I think it was that by the time I was 17, Momma and I spoke different languages. I was practicing a new language in my head all the time. It was Ivy English, not East New York English. Momma had no one to talk to when I was home.

At Penn, I met Selma at an Audra Lorde Project meeting, where all the activist black girls meet. Was it love? Maybe. We talked about getting married. But marriage was an abstraction to me, like college was for my mother. Selma and I would talk about growing old together protesting injustice across America until it was gone, then getting rid of injustice abroad. I didn’t see what role marriage played in that.

II 

The conductor came over the loudspeaker so jarringly it brought me back to the present, to the train. We were leaving the station and the car was filled with white people in suits. Natural enough. These were the folks who walked the halls of power. Folks like me walked outside the halls of power, in the streets holding signs, not briefcases. Out on the streets there was a different kind of power. My job was to make sure there was more power in the streets than in the corrupt white buildings on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. 

I looked at the faces of these men as they stared at their computer screens or read their briefing papers or sent e-mails to their home offices. I knew what they were doing — joking with each other about the button they just pushed, the lever they just pulled in service to their paymasters. 

I found something to be angry at in each face. That guy in the grey suit on his cell phone — what is he smiling about? His taxes went down because another million people just lost their health insurance?  

That self-satisfied, heavy-set guy with the blond hair, wearing a black suit: what’s in the e-mail he just sent? Is he congratulating himself and his company that a serial polluter was put in charge of cleaning the environment? Is he reporting that they will be able to dump their toxic waste in neighborhoods where black people live? 

That slim white man with the grey hair and trimmed grey beard. He’s staring at his computer with a look of total…total sorrow. He’s crying. What? 

Why would a white man in an expensive suit be staring at his computer and crying?

There was nobody in the seat next to him. He was sitting by the window. I had seen the empty seat when I boarded the train but didn’t want to be next to him. 

When I take the train that leaves New York at 3:38 a.m., the coach cars are full of black folk, mothers with children, and some guys. It’s a Regional, not an Acela. 

These are people who are traveling because they need to. Some are going to relatives in the south for a place to stay while they look for work. Some are following construction jobs while they leave their families in New York. Some folks are truly down and out, panhandling enough money to get a ticket from Penn Station in New York to Penn Station in Newark, then seeing how far they can get before they’re thrown off. It’s better to sleep on the train than on a bench in Penn. And when they get thrown off, they’ll just be in another railroad station anyway, where they can sleep on another bench. 

Most of the conductors are brothers. On these early trains, before the businessmen board, they’ll give their luckless brothers and sisters a break and let them sleep. I’ve seen them throw the homeless off at 30th Street Station but give them a $10 bill as they leave the train.

On the Acela back from DC it’s a different world. The train is filled with well-dressed white people, women as well as men. They remind me of the girls I went to college with, who joined We Are Here because they wanted to dabble in social justice and had heard about it from Alicia Keyes promos. That usually lasted a couple of months, then they went and joined sororities. I chose Penn because those were the women I wanted to show up, even if it was just for my own scorecard. And there were a lot of them at Penn.

This guy. He looked like every stereotype of the ruling class. Late 50’s, relatively fit, well-tailored navy blue suit. It was hard to see his eyes. I think they were blue, maybe green. I couldn’t tell because they were filled with tears. But he wasn’t squinching up his face the way people do when they’re crying. He was typing with his eyes wide open and tears were just welling up and falling down his cheeks. He wasn’t even trying to wipe them away. He was completely silent, no sobbing, no heaving chest, no moaning. He typed and tears rolled down his face.

Finally, he lifted his beer from the tray table next to his laptop. There was a napkin underneath it that he used to wipe his eyes and blow his nose. Then he headed to bathroom in the front of the car, right behind where I sat. He was coming in my direction and I quickly looked away so as not to give the impression that I was staring at him. This was out of character for me.

But I didn’t want to engage with this man. His sadness was like a prism bending the light around him. I wasn’t able to see what was inside him, the greed or vapidity or idealism or pragmatism that made him one of the people who go back and forth between New York and Washington. I couldn’t see the why of him, the thing that made him one of the sojourners/supplicants/gunslingers who go to the Capitol for business.

Behind me the red light went on that showed the bathroom was occupied. He had locked the door and was using the john. 

III 

So, here’s my biggest problem: I can’t live with a mystery, and I can’t live without one. Honestly, that’s why I think I won’t marry Selma or anyone else. 

When I first met Selma, I needed to know why a black woman with means took on a life of protest. She didn’t need to fix the status quo. Her parents had figured out how to navigate it. Why did she do what she did? Answering that question was as important for me as the fun and conversation and sex.

As we got to know each other and then lived together, I saw the instinct to hate injustice in her. I saw that — as much as her family appeared to have made it in white America — they were always afraid that it could and would be taken away. She was fighting for the least among us because she didn’t see herself as that far removed.

The more I understood her, the more I appreciated her. And the more I felt as if I had the answer to my question — what makes Selma tick — and needed to find another problem to solve. I didn’t necessarily like that part of myself. I recognized it as selfish. I was making our relationship about my needs, not our needs. But I needed a puzzle to solve and Selma was solved.

So, as soon as the red light went on I slipped into my shoes and walked over to the empty seat next to the man. This was a huge breach of privacy, but privacy was a myth so the hell with it. 

There was a middle age white woman in the seat across the aisle and I turned to her in a manner that was totally lobbyist-like, and said, “Is this seat taken?”

“I don’t believe so.”

I could tell that the woman had no clue if there was anyone in this seat, or for that matter, that there was a crying gentleman sitting eight feet from her. 

I flashed a professional’s thank you smile and sat. When she had turned back to her computer screen, I nonchalantly reached over to the laptop and swiveled it in my direction. I wanted to see what the crying man had been writing. It was a journal.

July 8

“John, look at all these bottles of really good single malt scotch. People keep giving them to me as gifts and I don’t really drink that much. Take a couple home when you and Marybeth leave. My two favorites are Longmorn and Lagavulin. Take them. The Longmorn is the best, in my opinion. It’s complex and stays interesting for a time after you sip it. The Lagavulin is smoky and peaty and delivers an immediate delicious sensation. Of course you can take them. Really, I’m not going to drink them. They can last for years in an unopened bottle, but if I were to open them they’d only last about six months. That’s why I haven’t started them; I’ll never finish them in six months, even when friends come over. Take them. Your friends visit and you’ll have a couple of good scotches to offer.”

That’s one of the daily conversations I have with someone who’s not there to answer me. My son John died last year. His cancer had metastasized before it was diagnosed. We had a long, losing battle that ended last July. I talk to John many times a day. I hadn’t realized how much of my life and time had been built around my expectations for him. Every time I walk into my basement and see the boxes of comic books, I think about how they were going to go to my son. I sometimes lament that I’ve stopped buying new ones, that we never finished collecting comics that had Jewish themes. I feel empty when I think about the collection of Marvel-DC crossover comics we painstakingly gathered over years of going to conventions. I’ve lost interest.

I’ve lost interest in baseball, which John got me to watch. He loved the Yankees. He was so informed about them, about baseball, about sports. The fact is, anything John was interested in, he learned about and thought deeply and sharply about.

I stopped fencing. I got John into fencing and coached for a number of years after he went to college. But it’s too hard to coach without being able to share with him the crazy antics of the kids in the class. It’s hard to go to Capitol Hill for my job without being able to share with him the meetings and conversations, and fit them into our political discussions.

I miss the level of understanding we had for each other. We could communicate a lot with a glance. 

I was always proud of the work I did, helping get the Affordable Care Act passed and, to this day, fighting to keep it viable. But without having John to share that with, it somehow feels empty.

It’s so ironic that I’m someone who spent his career fighting to make sure that everyone could have access to healthcare, but my son died in spite of having the best healthcare in the world. Why did I bother? 

He had lost his son to cancer. 

I knew other people who had lost children. Mostly the cause was drugs, or a bullet on the street — sometimes from the gun of a gang member, sometimes from the gun of a cop. I had held their hands and prayed with them and marched with them when their frustration could not hold still. I had seen death touch families. 

But seeing this white man in a suit crying because he missed his lost son somehow caught me so unexpectedly. I did not associate someone who looked like this guy as being in Death’s palm. Death wasn’t a guest in their houses. The death of a son wasn’t the subject of their Sunday sermons. Injustice equals death. But his son died, died so young. Where’s the justice there? Here was this man, in death’s one hand while I stood with people in death’s other.

This fucking guy was writing about expensive single malt scotches and collector’s item comic books and fencing and shit that should make me want to hate him. But I didn’t. He had a language that he spoke with his son, and Superman and Aaron Judge and Speyside vs. Lowland were vocabulary words that were part of that language. And now he had no one else he could talk to.

He was so lonely. I got it. I got it when you were the only one who knew the lyrics to a song that was playing in your head.

I was crying. Not sobbing out loud with heaving chest, just looking ahead with tears falling down my cheeks.

Then I saw the red light turn green as the man unlocked the bathroom door. I quickly got up and headed up the aisle to my seat. I passed him as he headed back to his seat. I didn’t say anything. What could I say? I was reading your laptop and I’m really sorry about the loss of your son? 

But he looked at me as we squeezed past each other and saw the tears on my face. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine. Thank you for asking.”

He got back to his seat, reread what he wrote, then closed up the laptop. He took a book from his briefcase and started to read.

I was back in my seat facing the other passengers as we barreled past Wilmington. Philadelphia next stop. They were mostly white people in suits. Natural enough. These were the folks who walked the halls of power. 

The conductor walked by. He’d been seeing me on this train at least once a week for the last year and we kind of knew each other and always had a friendly conversation. 

“Sistah, you okay?”

“Yeah Al, I’m okay.”

“Looks like you’ve been crying.”

“People cry.”

“I know, baby. We all do. Can I get you something? Some water?”

“I’m okay, Al.”

The woman in the seat diagonally across from mine said, “How about some scotch? I just got this one. Take it.” I suddenly realized that I very much wanted some scotch and took it, a small bottle of Johnny Walker that they sell from a cart. 

“Thank you.”

The crying man was watching me talk to Al. He got out of his chair and walked over. He handed me the book he was reading, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. “Please take this. I just finished it. I’m also trying to deal with a loss and this helped a little.”

I took it. “Thank you. I’m sorry for your loss.”

He nodded.

He returned to his seat. I followed him with my eyes as he walked past all the people in their seats, kind faces looking at each other or at the passing scenery.