He walked up to the table in the ballroom at which I was sitting alone, pulled out a chair and asked, “mind if I keep you company?”
It was a rather brave move. I don’t have the most welcoming face and I was purposely trying to look even more uninviting to each and every person who passed by, hoping they’d pick up on my non-verbal signal to leave me the fuck alone. I was running on no sleep, had a hangover that would put Bukowski to shame and was in no mood for small talk or to suffer any fool. But I was at a convention and small talk is sort of the point of these stupid things, so against my better judgment I relented.
“Free country,” I muttered, figuring if I was kind of a dick he’d have second thoughts. But I’ve never been lucky and so in no time his ass was in the chair across from me and he was smiling a dopey smile.
I braced myself, especially since the last person I found myself stuck talking to here was some polka-dotted shirt weirdo from California who told me how he ordered cowboy boots online just to wear while he was in Nashville, where I was spending the week to attend a podcast convention. Several months ago, I started a podcast for kicks with a friend whom I had grown up with in Buffalo and the convention was a great excuse to check out the city and party a bit — especially since I could write everything off.
“So how’s everything going?” he asked in a way that seemed a little bit too familiar right off the bat.
“Meh,” I replied. “What’s up with you?”
“Well, I’m just happy to meet interesting people like yourself.”
It was such a dorky answer that I threw up in my mouth a little. I was cranky and in the mood to throat punch a nun, and this guy who I had known for a mere 38 seconds was calling me ‘interesting.’ Let’s settle down, Tiger.
“Where ya’ from?” he asked. I told him Albany by way of Buffalo and then I asked him the same.
“I’m from Idaho.”
“Idaho? Holy crap, you traveled all that way for this?”
“Well, I host a journalism podcast and I am following a story not too far from here in a small town north of Chattanooga. So, I am kind of killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.”
With that he caught my ear given that I’ve been a journalist my entire professional life. And when he told me that his show specifically follows stories that examine religion and faith and Christianity and crisis — and that we was particularly interested in the evangelical support for Donald Trump — he caught my attention even further since I am in the middle of writing a book on how rank-and-file Catholics in Buffalo are dealing with their faith in wake of a clergy sex-abuse scandal of proportions so epic that, like Boston, it has become a national story.
“I always figured that Trump’s evangelical support was rooted in abortion politics,” I said. “Certainly, he hasn’t led a life — morally speaking — that any evangelical in their right mind could support given his affairs, divorces, hanging around with porn stars, his ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ comments. But the abortion issue being as important as it is to the Christian Right, of course they are going to hold their nose and support the person who is going to nominate Pro-Life justices to the Supreme Court. That’s just politics.”
“Not necessarily so,” he replied. “While abortion is certainly part of it, polls have shown that evangelicals also supported Trump because they believe he would keep the country safe militarily and his border policy to combat illegal immigrants.”
“That strikes me as odd,” I replied. “I get that Trump would be supported by voters who want tougher immigration laws, but why would that be a concern to Christians specifically, especially when those policies seem to have some race-based overtures and have led to children being separated from their families? That doesn’t seem too Christian to me.”
“Well, these are the very kind of issues I have been exploring,” he said. “It’s kind of a weird time for the Fundamentalist movement.”
“It’s a weird time for America,” I replied.
“It is,” he said. “It’s hard not to lose faith. It’s even harder these days to know what to believe.”
“Yeah, I lost my faith a long time ago. Not really in a religious sense, but more so in people and institutions — our government, definitely. Still, I’m not religious either. And I’m not spiritual. I hate when people say, ‘I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.’ That makes me crazy; leaves me thinking of tarot cards and all that other mystic hippie nonsense. I would say I have faith in God, though, or some type of higher power. I mean, you have to have faith, right? Faith is the mystery that there is something out there, and it’s that mystery that’s the fuel that keeps you going. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
“Faith is powerful,” he said. “There’s no doubt.”
And from there, we covered a lot of ground. We talked about Trump. We talked about Biden. We talked about writers. We talked about pundits. We talked about the 2008 financial collapse. We talked about poverty, and income inequality, and housing, and jobs. We agreed more than we disagreed. And we talked about God.
“Are you Christian?” I asked.
“Do you consider yourself a fundamentalist?”
“I do… Does that word scare you?
“I don’t really even know what that word really means. I’ll admit, it does conjure up images in my mind that I suppose aren’t exactly flattering if I’m being honest.
Maybe I’m guilty of buying the hype.”
“Well, if you have, there’s good reason. The Right has definitely pushed fear.”
“It has,” I said. “But my side’s not exactly without blame. ‘Wokeness’ has simply gotten out-of-hand. Rejecting ignorance is a good thing, but this whole movement has taken on a sort-of McCarthyism — at least in my view.”
“These are definitely strange times,” he said.
“Well, you seem pretty reasonable — I mean, for a fundamentalist,” I said, smiling.
He got the joke but added: “A lot of people I’ve met here (at this convention) have been pretty standoffish upon learning I’m Christian. They’re somewhat suspicious of me.”
“Well, that ain’t cool. That’s bigotry.”
“It’s OK. I kind of understand it.”
“It’s not OK. You know, both sides are really guilty of the same exact things, just in different ways. And none of it’s OK.”
We sat there for a moment not saying anything. It was getting uncomfortable. I started thinking this was going to end bad, like maybe he was going to begin preaching or even try to convert me. But nothing happened. And I realized I was guilty of the same bigotry I had just denounced mere minutes ago.
“Well, listen,” he said, smiling and getting up from the table. “It’s time for me to go. Take care and don’t be a stranger.”
It was a weird thing to say. I mean, I’ll never see this guy again.
But then it struck me: what was once rather strange to me was a little less so now and in the end I was rather glad this strange little man took a seat at my table.