Eavesdropping at Pete's Henny Penny
I once wrote that I live in a Northern California town so blue that my city council is mostly green. That remains true, but it gives the false impression that everyone where I live opposes the war, believes in global warming, and distrusts Dick Cheney. That's simply not the case. Pete's Henny Penny which is actually in the next town south is one of my favorite places to eat at least once in a while, because it mostly stays untouched by the whole wine country-greenpeace cultural hegemony that transformed farming country into tourist destination.
Pete's is an old coffee shop that not only dares to serve mostly red meat, they used to have a hand-lettered sign outside that proclaimed "We raise our own cattle."
Their menu is unapologetically uninfluenced by California cuisine. There's no radicchio in the salad and no sprouts in the sandwiches. The desserts are baked with white sugar and white flour. The homemade soups contain only ingredients whose names most of us can pronounce with confidence. The countertops are formica and the floor under the carpet is linoleum. The only suggestion that Pete's has been influenced by Sonoma County's growing gastronomic sophistication is the fact that they display a few bottles of quality local wine on the counter behind the cash register.
Not surprisingly, Pete's is a hangout for the old time truckers, contractors, and dairy farmers who once were my county's "regular folk". Earlier today, I took a seat at one of the single seat booths just across from the counter and found myself amidst a bunch of men eating alone. While I was in my semi-professional work clothes, all the guys around me seemed to be in gallen-kamp boots, jeans, and those woolen checked shirts. There was a heavy set man sitting at the counter over a large plate of something covered in gravy wearing a dairy association baseball cap. Another older wiry-framed man sat in the corner booth between the door and the register. His folded walker leaned against his table.
Actually, this ued to be right where Pete, an old Greek man, used to hang out, drink coffee, and yell at his help in front of his customers. A framed photo of Pete remains right next to that corner. Several years ago, Pete was murdered by friends of his stepson's ex-girlfriend. Thinking no one was home, they came to rob his house and found Pete there so they stuffed him into a convertible sofa and sat on it. Pete had a heart attack and died. Some part of Sonoma County died with him.
Anyway, as I ate my lunch, I wasn't paying much attention to the conversation between the older men around me. I just don't know much about Peterbilt trucks or dairy machinery, but when they started talking about politics I couldn't help but listen.
"You know these guys coming back with one leg and stuff should be getting first class care...."
"I don't know what they're giving them."
"Iraq's not a war. They're not calling it that at least. Maybe that's why they're not getting first class treatment."
"Well, you know Medicare only pays for twenty one days of your stay. It doesn't cover everything. Hard to say what you get with anything these days."
"I kind of like what Barack Obama has to say about this stuff."
"You think he might have trouble getting elected because he's black?"
"Who cares? Even if he doesn't have much experience. Those guys who've been there aren't doing too well as far as I can tell."
"Yep, doesn't matter which side. They're just looking out for the deep pockets and the corporations who get them money. None of them are looking out for us."
"You know who doesn't have a chance?"
"It's Madame Senator."
"She's not speaking out and she's not speaking up for anybody."
"People call me all hours of the day for money. Last night I had to tell one of them that I wanted to finish my dinner first."
"I gave to the boy scouts, because I was a boy scout. This environmental group called me asking for money too. Can you believe that?"
Their conversation slipped back into less public issues, I got up and left, but this is the way I interpret what I heard. They did make eye contact with me as I walked past them on my way to the register like they knew I'd been listening to them and like maybe they wanted it that way.
A sample of two is hardly reliable even if your Molly Ivins checking out the talk at the local diner. My other warning is that while a number of the traditional farmers and ranchers in my county have signs on their land like "Get the US out of the UN now" and "Bush Cheney 2000" (yes, still), a lot of them still come from the progressive populist ilk of those who marry their economic well being to mother nature. In fact, Sonoma still has a reasonably active Grange.
That said, this is what I'm thinking.
1) If I've seen a sign that the war is dead as a public issue, this might have been it. A year ago, someone at the counter would have spoken up to defend it.
2) these guys are ready for Obama! Fascinating.
3) Hillary's problems have nothing to do with her being female. I wouldn't expect her to do well with the farm crowd necessarily, but she doesn't seem to connect with them the way Bill could. It's really interesting that they were much more comfortable with Barack and that it had to do with talking straight.
4) No one mentioned John Edwards. These are the voters the guy has been playing to. Why isn't he getting to them out here?
5) They think the current administration has made a mess of things and it's trust with them is almost completely broken.
There was a time in my life when I used to refer to places like Pete's Henny Penny as "Real"and these sorts of old guys as "real" as well. That's partly because they remind me of my stepdad who as a farmer is a lot like them except for the fact that he's Japanese.
They believe in common sense, hard work, personal responsibility, but they also have a strong belief in justice and fairness. For instance, if you serve your country, your country should take care of you. If you get sick, the system should make it simple for you to seek help.
They also want leaders who honestly look out for and speak up for them.
There's been a lot of talk that a lot of these voters went over to Reagan in the eighties because that was the rhetoric. I remember my stepdad once telling me back then, "The difference between what you believe politically and what I believe politically is that you think government should take care of the weak and those who can't or won't take care of themselves. I think it should encourage people to take care of themselves and reward those who do shoulder their own responsibilities."
My stepdad never finished high school, but he probably caught the philosophical gap better than I ever could have by trying to quote god knows how many articles and books on the subject. I'm getting the feeling that guys like my stepdad are realizing that the talk of "self-reliance and personal responsibility" was just that. The folk who were big on it didn't keep their promises and it's becoming increasingly obvious to them who the current administration has been really looking out for.
As things get a bit rougher in the next year or two, I have a feeling these folk are going to get angrier.
They invested in a coutnry where hard work and good will counted.
They want their country back and they're starting to look in some interesting places to make sure that happens.
I suspect the challenge for many of the Democrats in 2008 will be to figure out why Barack Obama is connecting with the guys at the counter at Pete's? John Edwards is going to have to get on these guys' radar. Once he does, I suspect he'll do well, but they clearly didn't give the former North Carolina senator a second thought. As promising a tool as it is, I don't think you get there through the blogosphere. Senator Clinton's going to have to find a way to get their respect if not their votes. To do that, she's going to have to take a risk some time soon.
Otherwise, this is Brack Obama's nomination to lose. To be honest, I'm a little surprised by that, but if you remember that Mondale campaign slogan, "Where's the beef?"