Walking into the Bi-Lo to get a few things, I encountered a man standing at a table half blocking the entrance to the store. I could tell he was trying to sign people up for newspaper subscriptions to the Chattanoga Times-Free Press. "Excuse me, sir," he said.
"I already subscribe," I said and started to push my cart past him.
"That's good," he said, "But this is something different. We're partnering with Bi-Lo to give away a gift card worth $250. It only takes about a minute to sign up."
"Okay," I said, and I reversed course back to his table and began filling out the form.
He made a comment on my t-shirt, and I explained to him that I had participated in a city clean-up and that they had given us these shirts. "Chattanooga's a clean city," he said, "Except for our minds." And he winked at me. His next comment struck me as even more odd, but I thought maybe he still thought he had to plug the newspaper subscription to me. "You politically active?" he asked.
I paused. "I guess not. Not really."
"Me either. I just decided to stay out of it." Then he quoted Aristotle, a quotation I don't remember.
"I mean, I try to keep up with what's going on," I said, "But I'm not camping out at the Courthouse."
"That Occupy movement was co-opted from the get go," he said, and I agreed, having had the same discussion in a heady fashion at a dinner for the president of the American Bar Association earlier this week.
"Well, they did one good thing," I said. "They caught a hit-and-run driver."
"That so," he said, and nodded. "Well, good." And then he shifted gears. "You know, I'm no Marxist or Socialist..."he started, and I got distracted for a moment by the grocery store that waited in front of me, but then I tuned back into him and he was saying, "And Obama's campaign slogans have been used by Socialist organizations all over the world. He's send them and us the clear message of his Socialist agenda."
I couldn't process that quickly. That wasn't where he thought I was going. He thought he had lost me, that I was so clueless that I couldn't even follow him. So he said, "Have a nice day, sir."
And I walked on, to my limes and ground turkey and tortilla chips and whatever else I was buying. But the more I walked, the more he bothered me. I started to wonder if he was giving that spiel to every customer that he could corral on their way into the store. And I started to get mad. Does the paper know, does the grocery store know that he is pushing his personal politics in a low-toned way on people who stop to sign up for a gift card raffle?
As I was leaving the self-checkout, I thought I might go over and speak to him, but when I looked that way, he was talking to a large African-American woman seated in one of those motorized shopping carts, and I thought, forgive the stereotype, if he's telling her that Obama is a Socialist, he's really pushing it. So I left.
But I couldn't let it go. He had gotten to me. It's a blatant question in a lot of ways, that "Are you politically active?" The negative response is not an easy one, or shouldn't be. Or at least it wasn't for me. And remind me again, I asked myself, you're not politically active why? You have what good reason for not working toward the fulfillment of laws and consciousness-raising? I had sat, two night before, two seats down from the wife of the president of the American Bar Association, who had argued passionately that the underfunding of our courts was undermining our justice system. They were spreading that message at every stop during his 330 days of travel in his year as ABA president. They had a cause.
When I got home, ready to start making a cheesecake, I almost had the immediate amnesia that follows such an encounter, that kind of "oh, well, I've got better things to do" rationalization. But still, I couldn't let it go.
So I did what any non-confrontational, marginally-engaged citizen would do. I got on the Chattanooga Times Free Press website; I got on the Bi-Lo grocery store chain website. And on both websites, I wrote a version of the following message: The gentleman who is running your in-store gift card promotion for the newspaper and the grocery store is telling the people who stop that Obama is a Socialist. If I ever encounter this again, I will cancel the paper immediately and find a different grocery store. Not kidding. Then I added "Sincerely," and my name. I told them I expected a response.
Finally, I believe, in timid ways, I think that I have reached the age where if I say it, I mean it, and I will follow through. Advocating with my wallet may not mean much, but I've learned that if I decide to do it, I can stick with it.
Politically active, sir? Yeah, I guess I am. A little. A very, very little. Thanks to you.