Monday, December 7, 2009

A Gun Show in the Heartland [ January 27, 2008]

So there I was at a gun show in Waukesha, Wisconsin, with my new friend Chris, the restauranteur, and his friend Catfish, apparently Madison’s most venerated white bluesman, and the weirdest thing of 2008 so far happened: I saw someone I knew.

I’d driven. Chris didn’t think three of us would be comfortable in his Mini, even though Catfish, who told us about thinking his putative buddies were going to shoot him when he refused to fight in Vietnam, is pint-sized. For much of the long drive, I felt very much a fifth wheel, as my two companions apparently go back a long way, and have in common a love of guns and fishing and a knowledge of Wisconsin geography. I kept my $1 sunglasses on because I found it quite bright, and tried while, they chatted happily about guns and fishing and places in Wisconsin of which I’ve never heard, to come up with lyrics for one of the two new songs I’ve just composed. Waukesha turned out to be most of the way to Milwaukee, and dismal — and, according to Chris, who’s preposterously well traveled and au fait on a dizzying array of subjects, fervently Republican.

The supermarket where I now buy most of my groceries (because I understand it to be cheaper than its competitors) has fluorescent lighting guaranteed to induce severe depression within around 20 minutes; one who spends too much time comparing the relative firmness of avocados, for instance, is asking for it. But the supermarket is a meadow on a sunny spring afternoon compared to the gun show, the lighting in which seemed designed to maximize the grotesqueness of its attendees. It was as though extras from some in-the-works Coen brothers movie had been bussed over en masse.

There were for sale multiple rackfuls of rabidly right-wing bumper stickers. One featured a photo of Hillary Clinton riven by a red diagonal slash and the inscription Life’s a Bitch – Why Vote for One? Chris, who’s not above mischief, and I were almost able to strike a deal whereby I would eat free in one of his excellent restaurants for a year in exchange for my circulating around the show pretending to solicit donations for Herself’s presidential campaign.

There was lots of Nazi memorabilia and an NRA recruitment booth. Everyone looked uglier in the horrible artificial light, but the young woman who served Chris the bratwurst he ordered when we got ravenous was vaguely pretty in spite of it. I had a $2 soft pretzel. While Catfish was failing to sell either of the vintage weapons he’s brought with him to sell, though many of our fellow Americans asked about them, Chris and I sat down to enjoy our victuals.

It was while we munched and chatted that I was unnerved to realize I recognized the guy sitting across from me, who looked sort of like the famous rock critic Dave Marsh, except older and even more bloated. Back in September, it was he with whom I interacted when I went in to get my Wisconsin driver’s license. He’d been friendly, and had advised that I’d better carry a photo of Bret Favre in my wallet if I wanted to blend in.

I didn’t see any racist materials depicting Barack Obama with a red diagonal slash through his photograph, but it’s not even February yet, and he isn’t the official Democratic nominee. On the long drive home, the word “pussy” was not heard in my Subaru Forester.

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