It had been a long day. The Boston streets were embedded in our feet, we were tired and hungry, and so we turned to the internet to find the optimal restaurant nexus of low dollar signs and high stars. Once we narrowed down our options we used live, real-time optical surveillance to use line length as the deciding factor in our decision. My wife and I walked in to the lucky restaurant of choice and became the very first people on the waiting list.
There were two available tables, both set for four diners, although each was just a pair of tables set for two, pushed together to make it easier to pass the salt. We asked about one of those tables, but no, they were being held in case a larger party appeared. When the second couple arrived behind us I suggested we pretend to be a party of four in order to be seated more quickly. We were hungry, if you remember. Luckily, as the line grew longer behind us and no parties of four emerged from the cobblestones, the waitress walked over to one of those faux-four tables, pulled them apart a few inches, and sat us down next to the couple behind us in line anyway. It was almost as if we were eating dinner together.
When my wife and the man next to her both simultaneously asked their table partners “Would you eat some calamari if I ordered some?” it kicked off an evening of conversation, food sharing, and friendly connection. We were away for the night, leaving our kids with my mother. They were away for the night, their children finally off to college and leaving them suddenly free and bumping around an empty house for the first time in years. We talked about college, we talked about our towns and communities, we talked about our involvement in our churches, and we realized, though they were a decade or more ahead of us in life, that we had a lot in common. Perhaps we might even be friends.
When my wife got up to find a restroom towards the end of the meal, that was when I heard it. I don’t know what it was in response to, and it didn’t really matter. The man diagonal from me, separated by a few inches of non-table, said “Probably something ELSE they’ll try to blame Donald Trump for!” And I was concerned. I mean, the lines have been irrevocably drawn, haven’t they? Conservatives vs. Liberals. Democrats vs. Republicans. Brother vs. Brother. And it sounded as though this man, with whom I had just spent a whole dinner getting to know, was suddenly a Trump supporter. This decent human being must have been putting on a mask for me, because how could he support such an idiotic and evil man and not be idiotic or evil himself? I probably shouldn’t have said anything. But I did.
“You know, it’s funny,” I said across the four-inch chasm that threatened to engulf me, “but my son blames everything on Donald Trump.” This is true by the way. “Anytime he has a problem, he yells at the president. His favorite deli is being renovated, and every time we go by it he shouts out how angry he is that Donald Trump took away the deli. If his toy breaks, he blames Donald Trump. Donald Trump is responsible for summer ending, too much homework, not getting ice cream every night, and stubbing his toe. And we explain to him that, while many bad things are indeed Trump’s fault, most of Edward’s problems have nothing to do with the Republican President.” And I told this story in a funny way, smiling, as if to tell them that I do not support Trump, but also do not blame him for every evil of this world, and that maybe we could still be friends. Again, I probably shouldn’t have said anything.
The woman next to me turned with a look of almost horror, and slowly and softly said to me, “You’re not…… democrats, are you?” She was having the same moment I had just had a minute prior. This nice young couple with whom they shared so many values and experiences were suddenly “the enemy.” It was hard to reconcile. I know it was hard for her to reconcile, because, hey, ironically enough we were having another shared experience. We had both been slowly taught by our respective echo chambers that the other side was wrong. And not just wrong, but dangerously, maliciously, evilly wrong. And it got very quiet and awkward, and my wife came back from the restroom, and the air was different. The mood had changed. Politics had entered civil discourse.
But we kept talking. I told them that I am not really a democrat. I didn’t mention that it was because the democrats are too conservative for me, but it didn’t seem like the best moment to bring that up. I told them that I have some traditionally conservative views, but that the Republican party isn’t really about conservative values anymore. And the more we spoke, the more we sort of agreed on things. And by the end of “Dinner: Part 2” we all agreed that Bernie Sanders ought to be president, and all four of us would have happily voted for him had he been on the ticket. They loved Bernie; they just hated Hillary more than The Donald. And they actually don’t like what Trump is doing now either when they really got into it, but they feel attacked and defensive and end up retreating to a position of support for him more out of tribal loyalty than anything else. And I understand that. And I think they sort of understood me too.
We left that dinner not feeling like we had gained lifelong friends. It was too late for that. Even with our further discussions, we still knew that we were staring at each other from opposite sides of a vast cultural battlefield. But I am so glad that we had “Dinner: Part 1” before the world-shaking revelations came to light. Because if we had started with the end, we never would have gotten to the beginning. And we need more beginnings. Maybe after this particular battle is over, when we have laid down our snark and our judgement and our hate and our blind allegiances, maybe we can have more dinners with strangers without worrying who they voted for. Or at least maybe it won’t matter as much as it did last weekend. I know that society has been in disagreement about, well, pretty much everything, ever since humans got together in the first place to try to live in community with each other. And I know that the push and pull of differing values will go on long after I do. But I do hold out hope that someday it will feel more like a disagreement, and less like a war.