Small Potatoes

Moses Singletary was scheduled to be the first “public comment” speaker at the Thursday evening Board meeting but, given trouble he had in starting his car, he was late, and so Marvin Swallows and Bertie McGinty went ahead and had their turn making their comments to the board.

Their comments, as was the procedure normally followed at board meetings, would be taken up at a future meeting, though by experience, no date would be set for that and, given the way the board worked, it was possible, and even likely, that they would never reach a decision about when they might get to scheduling a discussion, let alone actually taking up the issue in a future public meeting, by which time their comments would be buried among the “Old Business” issues on the agenda, which required the re-initiation of the chair and agreement of at least two of the other four members, for discussion, and so they had not gotten to any issues like these in the seventeen years I had been attending board meetings.

The board was officially called the Board of Selectmen but most of us, and nearly all the women in town, either called it Board of Selectpersons or the Select Board or more often, The Board of Incredibles, though not to their faces nor in our letters to the editor of the local paper.

The newly elected board chair, Brett Bogart, was the owner of a successful local business, Small Potatoes, located in the center of town, with, admittedly, the best fresh homemade French fries on the planet. Hands down, the best, served in neat European-style folded paper cones, with a variety of seasonings, all available at no extra charge. The shop was a fixture in the community and his family was one of some sway and influence.

The other four members were considerably older and pretty much set to retire when their terms ended. They got elected and re-elected time after time for reasons most of us couldn’t fathom, other than the fact that they were the least odious of those running, and we came to regret doing so almost immediately. Understandably, they had been content to be carried along with Brett’s campaign slogan and his approach to governance, “Our business is the business of the town,” though none of them could precisely articulate the meaning of the slogan, but most of us knew it meant something like, “Keep the status quo, support and protect, at all costs, the interests of the businesses in town and beware of outsiders or do-gooders who will bring ruin to what we have and which we cherish now.”

When Marvin Swallows began speaking, he raised, once again, his concern about the bell tower in the town square. “Anyone can see,” he said, “that it’s too near the sea wall and it’s cracking, eroding from below, on land that’s sinking each year in some places and rising in others, and soon, maybe in the next nor’easter it will fall, taking our houses with it and none of us can get flood insurance and we have to apply for federal assistance now to make the structural changes, and we can’t afford to just study it for another three years, because our homes are all we have and none of us are your town millionaires. So I make a motion that the Board…”

“… I’m sorry, Mr. Swallows, that’s out of order. This is the public comment period, you can’t make motions at this time, next, Ms. McGinty… next,” Chair Bogart said.

“Can’t you let Marvin finish,” said Ms. McGinty, “I’ll give my time over to him.”

“Sorry, no can do, Bertie. You’re out of order, too. That’s not the way we work. Next… Mr. Singletary.”

Bertie looked over to where the other board members were sitting. They looked away.

Moses looked surprised. He seemed to be trying to get his thoughts in order. He seemed to have forgotten his introductory remarks, he was reordering his notes and when he did so and rose to speak, we could all see his hands shaking. His voice was tremulous.  

He cleared his throat. Swallowed forcefully. “Chair Bogarts,” he said. “I’m not going to ask to give my time over to Marvin there so don’t cut me off, thank you. I have a petition here signed by forty-seven certified residents of the town, many of them right here tonight with a request for the Board to put the issue of the policy of the Board appointing or removing members of town committees, boards, and commissions, up for a vote on the next meeting agenda. You know I used to be a door-to-door salesman, salesperson, I mean, and so I know people pretty well and people know me, and I know the town pretty well and…”

“It’s Bogart, no “s” Mr. Singletary, and time is short. Please get to the point of the petition you have there.”

“I will Mr. Chair, but I have the floor, and this is the public comment period, and I am speaking for the public.  So please don’t interrupt me again until I relinquish the floor, as you so willy-nilly do to others. I will read the policy proposal, but I will say first and foremost, that this policy and every policy you may make is less of a concern to us than the board’s total lack of consistency with which policies are implemented. The board has an appalling record, for all to see, of following or not following policies and applying policies arbitrarily or retroactively to suit the board’s whims and preferences. And let me remind you that the board is elected by the people to do the administrative work the people have assigned to it and nothing more.”

“You are out of order!”

“No, you are out of order. Like it or not it, this is a public comment period, whether or not you like what the comments are or who is making them. However, in the interest of time, I’ll give the petition to the clerk for the record.  But before I do, I want you to know that we all see what’s going on here. Whether it’s affordable housing, or the water regulations, or COVID mandates, or zoning, or the climate committee work, things we all care about, your wishes or your will are not our command anymore.

“Moses, you’re not delivering the freaking ten commandments here. Get to your point, if there is one.”

“You want the point? Here it is. If you remember your history, Alexis de Tocqueville visited us in the 1830’s and wrote a book on what he saw. It was called Democracy in America in which he praised our form of Town Meeting democracy…

“Mr. Singletary you’re…”

“This is not a question-and-answer period, Mr. Bogart, it is for public comment, and I will continue my public comment…”

At that point there was, for the first time all evening, a round of applause from those in attendance. “You tell him, Moses!” they cheered, and they clapped louder, and Bogart called for quiet, and Moses kept on speaking and it was hard to hear what he was saying so he raised his voice and he said,

“… but de Tocqueville soon came to realize that democratically elected officials, like yourselves, when unchecked, would hold too tightly to their power and authority and democracy would be undermined and he said, and I quote, ‘I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all,’ I hope we can all prove him wrong. Thank you for your attention and with that I yield the floor.”

There was a long moment of silence. Looks among the members of the board were exchanged.

And then, in the silence that remained, forty-two of the fifty-three members of the public in attendance for the comment period picked up their things and made their way out the door.

They gathered in the parking lot, in the fading mid-summer light. They looked at one another. And one could tell that warm sense of hope that they had felt when they left the building was, all too quickly, evaporating into the cool night air.

Notes on the Celebration in Honor of The Essayist on his Ninetieth Birthday

The celebration in honor of a well-known essayist’s ninetieth birthday was held on the Saturday following his birthdate. A Saturday amidst the blistering heat of a northeastern July, an uptick in Covid-19 infections, fires in the west and in Europe, reports of a monkeypox outbreak among gay men, and news of the Pope’s visit to Canada to apologize for the church’s treatment of indigenous children.

Lily, the essayist’s wife, planned the celebration, addressed, stamped, and mailed the invitations, using names she gathered from the essayists address book.

Full vaccination required. No gifts. Regrets only. The invitation said and was signed simply in a firm hand, Lily.

At four, the room had filled with guests. The invitation had said, ‘four ‘til seven.’ Anyone who knew the essayist for any length of time had surely known that he was punctual and expected punctuality. He always made his expectations clear. He was a Marine.

He often told me, “If you’re on time, you’re late.” I took him figuratively though he meant it quite literally. “How does that work?” I’d ask him. “It just does,” he’d say.

No one spoke about the heat, or the pandemic, or the hearings on television, wearing masks, abortion, inflation, gasoline prices, Ukraine, or the media. All of that, they knew, was the essayists bailiwick. They found other things to talk about.

Prosecco in stemware and small hors d’oeuvres were passed on silver trays by young men and women wearing collared white shirts and black pants. The music from the speakers in the dining area set aside for the gathering was loud and conversation became difficult. Names were hard to hear.

“Guernsey?” I repeated, not really believing that could be the woman’s last name.

“No, it’s Gert Seavey,” she said.

I nodded.

I sat in a seat beside Lily. The essayist sat next to her at the head of the table. His three sons were there, sitting at another table. He looked over at them often.

After the dinner plates were removed, Lily stood and nodded to her three boys. The first one, the oldest, the one who had come in late, was the first to stand and speak.

““I just flew in from Paris, and the plane was late.”

“We all can see that,” said his father.

“I’m happy to be here, Dad,” said his son. “I have only one word to say to all of you that epitomizes my father best. Forgiveness.” Then he sat down. There was applause.

“Thank you,” said his father, so softly that only those of us closest to him could hear.

The second son spoke anecdotally, and then the essayist’s granddaughter raised her hand. “I love you, Boppa,” she said, “you are the smartest, funniest, and greatest man ever in the world.”

Her grandfather bowed his head. “Thank you,” he said to her.

Lily looked to the third son. He shook his head and didn’t get up, and so she walked to the end of the room, where it was the quietest. She asked the waiter to stop pouring wine.

She stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, and, because the curtains had not been drawn, she appeared briefly in silhouette surrounded in a halo of white light and seemed like a dark apparition in a dream or an afterimage following the sudden appearance of the Madonna.

She asked for quiet in a voice as soft as a dove and she turned to her husband, whose smile we all could see. From a pocket in her light-colored flowered dress, she read from notes she had written. She recounted how they had met and all of her husband’s many accomplishments in life and then she asked the essayist to come forward, and she kissed him on the cheek as they passed and returned to her seat at the table.

“That’s my first wife,” he said. “I always say that.”

The room quieted.

“You all know I have a tendency to be somewhat long-winded.”

“Nooohhh, Dad,” his sons said in unison.

“Please put your phones down and pay attention,” he said to us all.

He spoke without notes.

“There’s a line from Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, with an “E”, it goes something like ‘we can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire–a brain, a heart, a spirit.’”

“I dreamt last night that there are two paths forward for humans on earth. This earth, where we were born, where we live, and where we will die. The two paths are not mutually exclusive. And neither path is one that does our species credit.

“The vast majority of us are on a path we have no control over. Nine-nine percent of us, are on a path headed back in time to life at its most basic. Sweating in toil, planting the crops that will grow in the narrowing bit of land suitable for them, hunting what animals survive, and gathering the little water we need to live.

“Our disregard for water will be our undoing. Drought and flood and fires have already begun. You see it all around you. While corporations and governments husband our most essential natural resource for whatever profit they can make and power they can wield. We are watching the demise of most of what is human existence. We have set a rapidly degenerative system in motion by our lack of regard for the needs of society. One another. We have lost our social conscience.

“We had long survived as a species because we evolved as social animals. We need one another. But what we have done in the last two hundred years, as a result of our self-centered greed and avarice and our disregard for one another, has set us on a downward spiral which will consume us. Through starvation, drowning, unbearable temperature extremes, and the wars that will erupt and eliminate the rest of us, along with almost every other living species.

“We have brought this upon ourselves because we have not paid attention. We saw what was happening and we said that was somebody else’s problem and we kept on making plastic and burning oil and coal. How brutally ironic is it, is it not, that the lives of past plants and animals that inhabited this earth for millions of years before us, their very carbon souls, are what we are burning, and which will bury us and crush us under intense heat and unimaginable pressure back into carbon chains again, and that is all that will be left of us.

“It did not have to be this way. We have willfully disregarded the wisdom of the past generations who lived in concert with the land and the water and who were swept away by our greed and our guns and the rape of our natural resources. We laughed at their ignorant simplicity. Their traditions. We failed to learn from them and their respect for the mysterious power of nature.

“On the second, more narrow path, some few will survive. They will be the ones who had the privilege and resources unavailable to the rest. They may survive in small enclaves into a temporary future, perhaps using advanced AI computing and multidimensional printers to engineer some semblance of artificial nutrition and a livable environment.

But, surely, around them both, the earth and nature will heal itself, perhaps creating a natural re-arrangement of our DNA with the DNA and RNA from which we all came, and life on earth will go on. The Anthropocene epoch will end and surely, with it, other species will fill the gap.

“As Wolfe once said, you can’t go home again, and we cannot. Not when you have burned your home to embers and released the fumes into the atmosphere to smother you.

“So, pay attention. Love your family. Love one another. Love the life you have while you have it. Heal the earth in any way you can. Return to the simple life on the earth that created us in any way you can. Honor it. Eschew the false and artificial and disingenuous.

“That’s all there is and that’s all I have to say. Thank you for coming.”

And then the cake was plated and served. Coffee was poured. The essayist sat beside his wife and drank a glass of milk and then we said our goodbyes and went to our cars and drove back to our homes.