Sanibel Island is a tiny slip of land off the west coast of Florida. It runs east to west for the most part and then turns north, like a lazy banana would recline on your counter, so you never quite get your bearings while you’re there. It was first settled in the 1830s as a utopian outpost of New York speculators—something like the lost colonies of the late 16th century, commercial enterprises all—and actually developed a hundred years later, when the logistics of construction made amphibious work crews from the mainland a profitable possibility.
It’s a retirement community writ large, everybody’s old and originally from the Northeast or Midwest except for the grandchildren on their bikes or at the ice cream parlors. So if you’re 50-something, someone, sooner or later, will call you “kid.”
That’s how Dominick, the retired pornographic film producer, referred to me one morning on the porch outside Rosie’s, the general store at the east end of the island, where the Sanibel Think Tank meets every morning from 7:00 to 9:00. “The kid says, ‘What happened to the right wing, they’re all gone, what’d you say to ‘em, Dominick,’ but I didn’t say a fuckin’ thing, I just brought the research, I got the facts, these motherfuckin’ liars got nothin’.”
The Sanibel Think Tank was founded twenty years ago by Porter Goss, the erstwhile congressman and CIA director from these parts—he had a house down the road—and it does function as something like a policy-relevant forum, where informed but dissident voices can trace the practical consequences of their political positions. It’s an informal institution, though, more like a salon than a place you go to prove your wonkish credentials. Old white men sit on facing benches on the porch outside Rosie’s and taunt each other about their manhood, their ethnic origins, and their digestion, and meanwhile agree that America is not so slowly sinking into the shithole we used to call socialism.
I stumbled on this astonishing event—is that the right word?—back in January, when my girlfriend and I were visiting her mother on Sanibel during the cold snap that gave global warming a bad name. I asked the proprietors, Irving the black guy with the baseball cap, and Joanne the single mother with the dazzling smile, “Hey, the sign says ‘Sanibel Think Tank,’ are these guys for real, do they actually talk policy?” They both laughed, Irving says, “Do they ever, you can join if you want, just be careful,” and he hands me their card, it says “We address all problems, we offer no solutions,” so I think these people are at least interesting.
In January, I’m bearing two copies of the New York Times—one for me, one for my girlfriend’s mother—when I ask if I can join the club, and I’m immediately greeted with friendly locker-room derision, “what’s this, we got a faggot liberal from New York, he’s not sitting next to me, what are you doing here,” and so on, but I persevere and soon learn that their fears of the future regulate everything they feel, it’s as if their local ailments—inevitable at their advanced age—are symptoms of global collapse, and vice versa. Everything they say is a reading of an aging, almost decrepit body: on this stage, the personal is political. I feel right at home.
I ingratiate myself by telling them that I’m their worst nightmare, I’m an old-school socialist and I teach impressionable children at the state university of New Jersey. They appreciate my honesty, and they really want to know what I think because they assume I’m channeling the mindset of the Obama administration. So we become friends, me and these old guys who retired as doctors or small business owners, all of them convinced the road to ruin was opened in November 2008.
I’m with Emerson, I have nothing against conservatism as such. Still, these altocockers are a little unsettling. Their fear is palpable, it’s permanent, it saturates the air between these benches, and we’re sitting outside, where the morning breeze carries everything else away. It translates as the kind of choking, inarticulate anger the Tea Party crowd has trademarked.
Soon I realize that across the aisle is a small vestige of social democracy—a marooned population one-tenth the size of the official Think Tank. Dominick and John Connors, a Boston scion, owner of beachfront property worth tens of millions on Sanibel and Martha’s Vineyard, sit across from each other and grumble about the lunatics on the other side of Rosie’s front door. They lean into the Times, USA Today, and the local rag, the News-Express, they exchange passages from their reading, and once in a while they’ll straighten up and toss out a challenge to the other side.
I get into the habit of starting with the founding fathers and moving, after a half hour, over to the social-democratic side, where the future is something you’re resigned to, or maybe even hopeful about, now that the grandchildren are gone and the Democrats have decided to push through the health care bill. Dominick and John are funnier, anyway, four-letter words flow faster between them, and they tend to attract a discrete audience of middle-aged couples made nervous by the strident voices of the Sanibel Think Tank.
But on this March morning, something is different. My habitual transition from one side of the aisle to the other seems more difficult. Today, anger and its antecedent have no address.
Dominick is sill upset by yesterday’s paper barrage from the other side, a viral web thing stating—not merely claiming, declaring—that Eisenhower deported 13 million illegal aliens in 1954. He’s got a shopping bag full of refutation, one of the documents he totes is a veto message from Harry Truman but it’s unclear what legislation he rejected, another is a denunciation of the very idea of immigration restriction, none of it pertains to the names, the dates, and the numbers in the opposition’s offensive. He keeps saying, “They lie, they just fucking lie,” I just nod my head, sip my lousy coffee, and tuck into the op-ed page.
And then Tom the banker comes over, to make nice and say goodbye. Dominick mutters, “All lies, they’re liars,” but he looks up, he faces the banker and says “where you goin’ Tom, not that I’d believe you,” then he turns toward me and whispers “they lie.” Tom is confused, he says “Goin’ to pieces, Dominick, that’s where I’m goin’.” Dominick turns to me again and now he’s not whispering, he says, “See what I mean, they lie about every goddamn thing.” He’s not amused by Tom’s playful evasion, and poor Tom looks to me for help. I just shrug, I turn my head, I don’t understand Dominick’s anger anymore than he does.
“Are you calling me a liar?” Tom finally says, and Dominick is ready this time, he says “Yeah, you lie about all this shit,” and now Tom is truly angry, he’s an old grey-haired dignified white guy in white shorts and a golf shirt, he’s a retired banker, but he says “Fuck you Dominick, fuck you, I don’t have to take this shit from you,” and he makes that shocking stabbing gesture with his finger as he says it, it makes me think of a gun about to go off. He turns and goes down the wooden steps into the gravel of the parking lot, somehow he looks defeated as he walks to his Lexus.
Dominick is on his feet, he says “Fuck you, you motherfucking Republican fuck, I’ll kick your fucking ass right here in this parking lot, you fuck,” and he goes down those stairs after Tom, who turns to face this new threat, but with resignation rather than defiance. I get up, finally, I say, “Jesus, Dominick, c’mon, man, this is politics, conflict and shit, c’mon, get a grip here,” and as I’m saying it I’m thinking fuck that, break that motherfucker’s nose, send him home to the grandchildren with that story to tell, the lazy social democrat roused himself enough to kick my ass at Rosie’s this morning.
But it’s already over. Tom gets in the Lexus, Dominick turns around and around as if he doesn’t remember how he got this far into the parking lot. I’m standing on the steps, looking toward the rump of the Sanibel Think Tank on the other side of the aisle—there’s only three of them, their heads are down, they’re reading the paper. None of us knows what happened, nobody wants to narrate.
Except Joanne, who comes out and says, “Dominick, Irving says if you were black they’d a shot you.” We all laugh, we sit down again, relieved, and then John arrives, and so we retell the new story of old angry white men on the verge of mayhem in a parking lot. We’re absurd and we’re hilarious—we’re satisfied. Irving decides to intervene at this poignant moment. He says “That’s not what I said. Joanne says, ‘if these were women, they’d never speak to each other again.’ So I said, ‘if these were black people, somebody’d be dead, somebody’d have a gun and shoot you for sayin’ shit like that.’ That’s what I said.”
These essentialist possibilities make we want to return to Sanibel Island. For the number of old angry white men on the verge of mayhem gets proportionately smaller and smaller—all of us should be thankful for this—but the category includes me. See you on the beach. Or in the parking lot.