George Bailey, the regular-guy hero of Bedford Falls, New York, as portrayed by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” is one of my role models. I know I’m not alone in this. While I never saved my little brother from drowning (I don’t have one) and I’ve never been known for distributing cash among my neighbors (but I would if I could), I’ve always admired how George was able to balance the big dreams of what he thought his life should have been with the reality of what it was. And how, by his actions, he intuitively made his little world, the one he privately complained of being “stuck” in, a better place for himself and for everybody around him. It would be ridiculous of me to suggest that I’ve had anywhere close to the same effect on my little world as George had on his, but I’ll tell you what: I’ve done no harm, and like George, I’ve been blessed in having made a lot of friends around town, though I hope I never have to ask them for $8000, ’cause that would be awkward.
And of course, everyone knows that George never leaves Bedford Falls. And me, I have found myself as an AARP-eligible adult landed on a comfy couch right here on the same 60 x 100 plot of land in Valley Stream, Long Island that I started out on 54 and a half years ago. I have a beautiful, funny, successfully employed wife and a smart, good-looking son with who is finding his way through adolescence pretty well despite a school system and social system totally unsuited to his particular genius (which is fixing every single mechanical thing on the planet that has broken). I have a good job, a nice little house, more toys and diversions that I ever have time to get around to (like this blog). I have a big happy yellow lab who is my personal ambassador to the human race and three cats for entertainment and interesting conversation.
Just like George Bailey, I could have done a whole lot worse. I’ve really had a wonderful life and I have no intention of throwing it all away. But I also have no intention of letting it be taken away from me piece by piece by the Forces of Pottersville, at least not without a fight. This is me fighting.
I first saw, “It’s a Wonderful Life” when I was about 14 in 1977, around the time the 1946 movie became public domain and Channel 11 in New York would show it over and over before Christmas. I started telling everyone in my family and anyone who would listen that they had to see this movie. I dare say I was in on the ground floor of the revival that made it Everybody’s Favorite Christmas Movie. And I dare say I do a dead-on Jimmy Stewart impersonation, which I promise I’ll do for you when I branch out into podcasting. I was immediately charmed by the story, the town of Bedford Falls and George Bailey’s character. And I guess the lesson that George learns from his nightmare in Pottersville became part of the unshakable truths that I’ve built my value system on: Success has nothing to do with money or career status and everything to do with the cumulative effects of being a good person and trying to do the right thing. I don’t know if George had anything to do with me never moving more than twenty miles away from where I was born, but that’s entirely possible.
George had his chances to get out of Bedford falls (‘and see the world!”), but he realized early on that the big dreams he had a young man were not as important as being a good guy, which is the most important thing of all. He didn’t necessarily want to be where he was, but until Uncle Billy handed Mr. Potter an envelope with $8000 in it, he didn’t take that dissatisfaction and frustration out on anybody around him. He treated people the way you should treat people. Despite his desire to “shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet,” George took comfort in people and places and protocols that had remained the same in Bedford Falls throughout his life. He knew where he stood with everybody and everybody knew where they stood with him. Me, too.
George could’ve done something more with his life than holding together the Bailey Building and Loan. (It’s always presented with a pejorative: “Broken down”, “measly”, “penny-ante”). I probably could have been something “more” than a junior high school English teacher if I had applied myself a little more as a younger guy. Before I started phoning it in and getting crappy grades in high school (just like my beloved Dude does now, bless his heart), I was supposed to write great things or be a famous something or other. By the time I was going to Queens College at night to cobble together the credits for an English BA, those dreams of writing novels, or sitcoms in Hollywood, or being a famous FM disc jockey were all pretty much dead, and after two years in the production department at New York Magazine, finding out how unpleasant life could potentially be in the editorial department, I got my master’s and went into teaching ’cause I knew I’d be good at it and I could finally get out of my parent’s house. Those aren’t noble reasons to enter my profession, I’ll admit. But you know what? I followed in my mother’s footsteps, and I’ve helped thousands of kids learn to read, write and think a little better and a little deeper in my “shabby little office” for over 23 years.
So George and I find ourselves with something else in common: Our professional lives are a tribute to a parent that instilled a sense of values and beliefs in us that neither one of us could ultimately escape from, simply because it made so much sense. George keeps the Bailey Building and Loan going so people have someplace to go without crawling to Potter. I ultimately decided teaching was a better use of my life than helping to produce a magazine that would be thrown away when the next one came out (though it’s a mostly insane existence from September to June every year, which my archives will tell you doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for blogging).
Plus, I couldn’t help noticing that some of the people who wrote this magazine were terribly impressed with themselves and their Manhattan lifestyles. I spent Sundays waxing floors with a friend of mine from Valley Stream because I wasn’t making enough money. That friend was smarter, funnier and more original than anyone at New York Magazine, but they would never understand why. They wouldn’t get him. In the end, I needed to be with real people. To “fritter my life away playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic eaters.” as Mr. Potter puts it to George. It was good enough for my mother, and it’s been good enough for me. And I love garlic.
And of course, when not at work, when it’s safe to speak my mind, I continue another one of my mother’s traditions (besides an addiction to Jeopardy, which she actually got from me, and blasting WQXR Classical in the kitchen while cooking dinner, which my Bose Soundtouch has taken to a whole other level, thank you Trisha): The tradition of Good Old-Fashioned Democratic, Bleeding-Heart Liberal Politics.
Growing up, I soaked up both of my parents complaints about that Crook Nixon in the 70’s and that Buffoon Cowboy Reagan in the 80’s. I saw the damage they did, (and later felt that damage more acutely as an adult while W. wrecked the country in the 2000’s). By virtue of working in the New York City high schools, my parents were immersed in diversity before it was even close to a thing. They believed that without labor unions, “the bastards” would rob you blind. They took their children to the Adirondacks and grew flowers and vegetables in the backyard and studied the comings and goings of the ducks on the creek and thus turned us all into environmentalists, around the time it was becoming a thing. My parents always rooted for the underdog and they despised guns and the abuse of power. They were devout, religious catholics who practiced their faith in their lives and knew Billy Graham and the evangelists were full of shit.
Mom was more vocal about all this, as she was about everything. My dad was more of a “do as I do” guy. But I’ll tell you what: If my mother, Joan Marie Duffy, were alive today, she’d be screaming bloody murder about what’s going on in this country. She’d be a voice of Resistance on Twitter, probably with a couple of thousand followers, probably using the expletive “fuck” in all it’s forms to comment on the disgusting developments of the past year. She can’t so I do. They’ll vote with Potter otherwise.
Because as we all know now, this is what happened: The GOP knew Trump was disgusting, and they pretended to complain about him at the start of the primaries but they knew that their primary voting base was equally disgusting, and the more primaries he won, the less they complained (and the more free air time he got on cable news for the Hitler rallies). And the more disgusting things he said, the more the people in this country who had already been thrown into their own Pottersville Of The Mind loved him for it.
A lot has been said and written about the people and the vibe in the Nightmare Pottersville of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (For example, the friend who I used to wax floors with thought it seemed like a lot more fun). One has to admit, Capra’s vision of dystopia is a bit over the top, from the amphetamine-driven boogie-woogie piano player in Nick’s Bar to the over-capacity dance halls on Main Street to Burt the cop opening fire into a crowd. I personally always found it amusing that there even was a Pottersville Public Library, never mind the fact that Mary Hatch was an old maid who was just about to close it down. I think it’s more likely that the town council, all in Mr. Potter’s back pocket, probably would have closed it as part of an austerity budget designed to line their own pockets.
But I think that the point Capra was trying to illustrate with all this silliness was simply this: The rich assholes pit everyone against each other. People lose trust. They turn on their neighbors. They come to believe that not giving a shit is much easier, which it is, and why make the effort to make your town or your country better if those rich assholes are pulling all the strings? Fuck ’em all. Nothing matters. Just lay down a few bucks for some mindless entertainment, get shitfaced and forget about how much better your life could actually be if you got educated and exercised your First Amendment rights, ’cause it ain’t never gonna happen, bub. You’re just too lazy, and they’ve got you by the balls.
Nick the Bartender showed compassion for George Bailey as he breaks down on the bar stool. Nick the Boss is the twisted dictator of his own little band of small-time assholes, a big fish in a toxic pond of deplorables who gets off on spraying Mr. Gower in the face with a seltzer bottle, ostensibly because Mr. Gower deserved it, even though he’s obviously paid his debt to society and is a threat to no one in his current condition. He has no patience for Clarence the Angel, even after George suggests he has a mental disability. If you’re different in Pottersville, you get thrown out on your ass in the snow.
And Mary Hatch? Why is she an old maid? Capra is suggesting that it’s because there weren’t enough decent people left in Pottersville. She couldn’t find George not because George didn’t exist but because people who, in a fair, compassionate society, may have been more like George were instead being reprogrammed into mean, suspicious, wounded and dangerous animals like Violet Bick, Ernie the Cab Driver and George’s own mother have become in George’s Pottersville nightmare.
As the media narrative goes, in the Rust Belt states where Trump won the electoral college; Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the people were fed up with the status quo and didn’t trust Hillary Clinton. Some of that may be true, but here’s how I and many other people have come to see it: Some of those people are exactly what Hillary said they were, the famous “Basket of Deplorables”. They’re pissed off because they have come to believe that people of color and immigrants are treated better than they are by society at large, ignoring the small fact that those people of color and immigrants happened to have spent the previous ten years working their asses off to get educated, learn trades and build up businesses instead of watching “The Apprentice” in their double-wides and smoking crystal meth in the Wal Mart parking lot. The Deplorables are bitter, nasty, poorly-dressed, poorly-educated, poorly-spoken people who resent everyone, blame everyone but themselves for their troubles and saw Trump as a way to take all us liberal coastal elite smart asses down into the Pottersville Pit of Despair right along with them.
But these people had been like this for years, as anyone who ever watched “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!” or “Duck Dynasty” for five minutes can attest. And Fox News stoked the fire against The Black Guy for eight years, convincing the most hardcore stupid among them that Obama wouldn’t say Merry Christmas because he was a Muslim, even if he was saying it on every other news channel.
And if these people really had that much power in the electorate, how did Obama get elected – and win those states – twice? Those elections, in 2008 and 2012, were won with voter turnout, and with the votes of intelligent, compassionate residents of Bedford Falls America who saw right through The Republican Lie that bankrupted the country at least three times in the last 100 years. There’s way more of us than there are of them and that remains true right now. But especially after Obama’s re-election over the guy with the dog strapped to the roof of his car (who honestly doesn’t look nearly as bad in retrospect), we thought we’d finally turned the corner. The new, diverse, young optimistic America was ready to drive policy and public opinion away from your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea.
The Republican Party was well on its deserved way to being irrelevant on the morning of November 8th, 2016. And then, it happened: Your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea was declared the winner of the Presidential Election.
My take on why: There were people on the fence about Hillary. I could understand that to a certain extent. I supported Bernie in the primaries because I’m a socialist. I know Hillary wouldn’t take that personally. I had no problem with her prospective Presidency. I figured she’d still have to deal with Republican control of the House at the very least and probably would be limited, like Obama was after 2010, in what she could actually get done, but that I’d agree with 90% of what she wanted to do. I’m sure lots of people felt the same way about her.
But the bastards saw their opening: Besides their usual voter suppression tricks, they leaked the emails that made Hillary look like the politician that anybody with a brain already knew she was. They pushed the server story over and over, despite the fact that it wasn’t really a story at all. And of course, with Putin’s help, they planted lie after lie on people’s Facebook pages and bot after bot on their Twitter feeds.
And those people who were on the fence about Hillary, but at the same time thought that Trump was a disaster, they figured no sweat, there’s no way the same America that voted for Obama twice is ever going to turn 180 degrees and elect a racist, ignorant buffoon. They stayed home and didn’t vote at all because the Forces of Pottersville had sown their doubts about the intentions of the Big Clinton Machine.
As for those that did vote, contaminated by those Putin-inspired doubts, I suppose they found themselves walking into the voting booth like Uncle Billy walking into the bank. They got distracted by the drama of the moment and handed Trump and the Republican Party the United States of America stuck inside a folded up newspaper. The majority of the country woke up the next morning rifling through the garbage can incredulously, with a sense of panic growing by the second, while they smirked at us from behind the door, knowing that they had us where they always wanted us.
And here we are, a year later. The evidence in the public domain that Trump stole the election with the help of the Russians is overwhelming, so one could only imagine what’s in Robert Mueller’s filing cabinets right now. I can’t begin to imagine how that whole thing is going to play out. (But most people realize it would be hard to have a Civil War with no Mason-Dixon Line to stand behind). And, just in time for Christmas, the rich assholes who paid for their Republican candidates, from Trump on down – they got what they wanted: Their big, fat, immoral corporate tax cut. My parents always warned me: The bastards will rob you blind if you let them.
Our accountant is a decent fellow. I’ve known him for many years. We both love dogs. But he is a Trump supporter and a Hillary hater. And I know if I asked him, he’d tell me (passionately) that we’re going to do great on this GOP tax cut, although I don’t see how that could possibly be. (My usual reaction when I hear a Republican say anything). Statistically, It turns out that my wife and I, by virtue of getting up really every working morning, keeping our mouths shut, and being really, really lucky, are rich; a notion that’s “rich” in itself as we’re always broke. We may not be part of the doomsday scenarios of what this tax plan will actually do to the middle class, because again statistically, we’re not in it. Despite losing the deduction of the $9,000 we pay in school and property taxes, not to mention losing the deduction for state income tax here in the Incredibly Expensive Empire State, our very successful accountant will probably tell us that we’re going to come out ahead, or at least even. We’ll wait and see.
The problem for me is that the, “I’ll be fine so screw everybody else” mentality is exactly why America has been allowed to turn into Pottersville. It’s very nice if we pay less federal income tax. It would be even nicer if I could be assured that people less fortunate than us will be able to stay in their houses, never mind heat them. It would be really nice if people in Puerto Rico could put food in refrigerators and turn a light on when they use the bathroom right now. It’s what my mother would have been screaming about right now, but no one making decisions in the federal government seems terribly concerned.
And it It would be especially very nice to know that this mass redistribution of wealth upwards will not be followed as it always is by municipal budget cuts, reduction of school aid, home foreclosures, small business layoffs and personal bankruptcies. We’ve seen this movie before. We know where they’re going with this. Cities and towns all over America cutting back transpotation service, library service, after-school and elderly programs, public assistance for the poor, drug and alcohol treatment. Then they start telling you that you’re getting too much in Social Security and we just can’t afford to support all these people on Medicaid and Medicare. But look! The stock market is doing great! Corporation are making record profits! There’s never been more choices of shit to watch on TV!
Fucking Pottersville. All over again.
So what do you do if you go to sleep in Bedford Falls and you wake up in Pottersville? What do you do when your beautiful, compassionate country has turned more mean and more ugly in a year than you thought possible? What do you do when America is starting to feel like Nick’s Bar and you just want to sit quietly with a friend, sipping at your flaming rum punch, heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves, but the motherfuckers are harassing you at every turn and it’s looking more and more like you’ll get thrown into the snow with everyone else who doesn’t fit their Nazi, Deplorable prototype? If they don’t get me because of my political views, maybe they’ll just smirk at me from behind a cracked-open door when the next big hurricane wipes away everything I have, despite paying FEMA $2000 something a year to protect against that. Or maybe flat out kill me with radiation poisoning, in which case, I suppose they win. That’d be just like something they’d do.
Well, for one thing, you take Barack Obama’s advice: “Don’t boo. Vote.” While I regularly employ my First Amendment rights and Internet access to tell Speakers McConnell and Ryan and the Liar-in-Chief to go fuck themselves, I realize they aren’t bothered particularly by my provocations. Though it would be fun to get into a shouting match with Paul Ryan and watch him get all flustered and hysterical.
I do hope all the people who are screaming outrage and hashtagging themselves with #The Resistance are people who voted in the last Presidential Election, but statistically, I know many of them did not. They did put a nice dent into the Republican Lie this past November, which was nice to see. (And especially nice to see Alabama rise up to stop Roy Moore just this past month). Even here on Long Island, voters booted out Republican administrations in Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead that were as hard to get rid of as cockroaches.
And in the year that starts tomorrow, every seat in The House of Representatives that has stood by and done nothing as Trump has wrecked the country by executive order, enriched himself and his family at taxpayer expense, and proven himself to be batshit crazy – every seat in that political body is up for grabs, gerrymandering and voter suppression notwithstanding. Alabama has shown that anything is possible and maybe people aren’t quite so stupid after all. So if you read this and you agree with me, vote. And if you read this and yout think I’m a naive hippe liberal that has no idea how the world really works, vote. Because it’s your right. I’m going to bet the odds that more people think like me, and would much rather live in a place like Bedford Falls. And that the criminal tragedy of the 2016 Election and all bullshit that’s been thrown at us will still be very fresh in people’s minds come this fall.
In the meantime, consider Zuzu’s petals, the metaphor. When George finds Zuzu’s petals (in that cool little pocket sewed into his suit pants for which I couldn’t imagine another purpose) he knows he’s home. He knows everything is going to be OK, even though he’s still missing $8000. (“Isn’t it great? I’m goin’ to jail!”) As long as he has his family, and the people and the life he loves in Bedford Falls, it will all work itself out.
Zuzu’s petals represent home. Here in our home, we don’t watch 24-Hour Cable News. We get our daily Trump Disasters on a need-to-know basis from Twitter and respond in kind, often using a form of the expletive “fuck”, just like Mom would have. We watch Stephen Colbert mock the Fat Dotard, the Turtle and the Smirker, reminding us that they might have the power to poison our air and water, and possibly deport our neighbors, but they can’t kill our spirit, the American Spirit. It runs way too deep, and goes back way too far to ever die. We’ll be back in the fight tomrrow, no matter what happens.
The people who brought you Trump and that Tax Nonsense, they weren’t listening to Martin Luther King when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” They thought they didn’t have to listen to him because he was black.
But we were listening, and we believe it.
Zuzu’s petals are the birds and ducks living around Duffy’s Creek, and the garden of colors we let loose in the summertime. Zuzu’s petals are driving down to the Long Beach Boardwalk on a warm day or going out to sit awhile with my elderly father at the nursing home then going for a hike up in Stony Brook. Zuzu’s petals are watching my nephews become husbands and fathers and knowing Joan and Francis Duffy’s family will live well past my own expiration date. Zuzu’s petals are stopping in to our favorite businesses around Valley Stream, where they know us and we know them, just like in Bedford Falls. Zuzu’s petals are in the food we cook, the music we play, the one-liners we trade, the neighbors we wave to, the church we go to, the roof over our heads and the hot water coming out of our faucet. Everything that is good in our lives, that still stayed good this year, despite all attempts by the Forces of Pottersville to turn us into a bitter, selfish assholes just like them.
So I wish you a Happy New Year and offer some unsolicited advice of how to survive a difficult time that may get more difficult before it gets less difficult:
Keep Zuzu’s petals in your pocket. Any pocket will do. You will have hope for a better future, and hope for a better future is really all you need to get out of bed in the morning.
And treat the place where you live like your own little Bedford Falls, even if the sign says Pottersville. Being a good person is the ultimate measure of success. As I regularly tell my son, please don’t be an asshole.
Your reward for being good? You’ll be at the front of the crowd, your heart filled with joy, together with all your good American neighbors, and together in spirit with all the people who made you who you are and imbibed you with that spirit, when we all rise up to tear that fucking sign down for good.