I used to wonder how people make friends in skyscrapers. When you work up on the twentieth, fiftieth, or hundredth floor of some stack of office complexes, your range of social interactions compresses astoundingly fast. If you pack your own lunch, you might never leave your suite. I’ve worked in one of those skyscrapers for over two years now, and in that time, I’d only made one acquaintance outside of the people I work with.
He was a bathroom talker. It didn’t matter if you were in the stall and he was at the urinal, or vice versa or any other combination thereof, he was perfectly comfortable conversing with whoever walked in. It could have just been his personality. But it could also have been that he was an older man—I believe somewhere in his sixties—and if you’ve ever spent time in the YMCA men’s locker room, you’ve learned that such old men are shameless.
However he became the way he was, it meant that I would see him a few times a week, passing in the hallway, waiting for the elevator, taking a piss. And so a continuing conversation developed in that way.
“Where’d you go to school?” he asked.
“Loyola,” I told him.
“The law school?”
“No, just a fan of the Jesuits.”
“Me, too. You know, I’ve always thought that if I had gone to Loyola Law, I would have enjoyed, and appreciated, my education much more.”
In this way, we gradually got to know each other. He was a divorce lawyer. He had an old Manhattan accent that you don’t hear much in the city any more. He pronounced the first two syllables in lawyer, Loyola and liar the exact same way. He was a staunch Republican fiscally and morally. He was upset when Scalia died. He was happy when Donald Trump was elected.
After the election, most of our conversations revolved around Trump’s cabinet picks and his policy decisions but were interspersed with his usual question: “So what’s goin’ on with Loyola these days?” A question to which I’d never had an answer, since I unsubscribed myself from the alumni newsletter. My only news came from the professors I’ve kept in touch with, telling me about the successes of students I’ve lost touch with.
Once, he came into our office unannounced. I was sitting in the conference room working, and he was so excited he just disregarded the other people using the conference table as a bull pen.
“When you got a minute,” he said, “come over to our office.”
I was a little mad at him, but I wanted to know what he had to say. His office is right around the corner from ours, so I got up and headed over. He ushered me into a large room with a conference table, walls covered in law books. I asked if it was his office, knowing it wasn’t, but not sure what to say.
“No. Look through that door,” he said, gesturing to a cluttered closet-sized room adjacent to the conference room. “But we’ll use this one. It’s nicer.” Then he asked, “So, what’s your problem with Trump’s cabinet picks?”
I told him that I was bothered by the accumulation of wealth, the myriad conflicts of interest, Jeff Session’s Jim Crow past, and Betsy Devos’s ignorance of the public education system, the whole gamut of reasons that any good liberal has learned by rote for just this situation.
“You know, I seem to recall that Truman’s cabinet was full of the business titans of his day. And not only do I not recall them being hassled for it, but I seem to remember them doing a pretty Damn Good Job.”
We went on talking for a while, hashing over the questions of global import, over which neither of us had any control.
“The point of constitutional originalism is not to keep America in the 1780s. It’s that originalism extends to the amendments to the constitution. There is a process built into the system to make necessary changes. And congress, not the courts, makes those decisions…”
“The question isn’t whether the Affordable Care Act has deep structural problems, it’s whether Republicans will admit what they believe: that health care is not a universal right guaranteed to all Americans…”
As the conversation went on, I kept waiting for him to tell me what he was so excited about. Why had he burst into my office unannounced and uninvited? But soon I realized that he wasn’t excited about anything in particular. Just the debate. The back and forth of ideas and principles. It animated him.
I had to cut it short to get back to work. But I remember thinking that I wished these sorts of things happened to more people more often. This man and I didn’t agree on a single thing. Not on taxes, entitlements, health care, the VA hospital—nothing. But the conversation was like a throwback to some time before Newt Gingrich, when it still seemed like there was room for deep philosophical discussions about the scope and nature of government. These conversations have never been separate from implicit or overt issues of race and class and privilege and oppression—but the discussion always furthered that progressive arch by challenging preconceived notions and learning both where the battle lines are drawn and what the opposition’s weaknesses are.
Most importantly, it reminded me that the opposition is not stupid or ill-informed and definitely not inhuman. Maybe “opposition” isn’t even the right word.
I admit it feels uncomfortable even to suggest that. It seems privileged, if not outright cruel, to wax poetic about the values of political discourse and intellectual debate while Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated, while families are being separated under unconstitutional and immoral travel bans, while transgendered individuals are being murdered in Louisiana, and black men are risking their lives at any given traffic stop. Coming from a mixed blue-collar family, with a Mexican mother and a father from Missouri, I understand that what is at stake is not just the issue of political majorities—but the foundation and guiding principles of a democratic, pluralist, multicultural society. We are living in a time of deep division, real fear, and incredible uncertainty, to put it mildly.
But it’s for those very reasons that these brief moments of civility—these passing conversations and heated exchanges—seem so valuable to me. I can’t help thinking of a woman I read about a long time ago, who once chastised president Lincoln for refusing to call Southerners irreconcilable enemies who must be destroyed. Lincoln’s response, possibly borrowed from some older source, seems important now: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
It’s hard to take such an over-used quote seriously. But apart from McCarthyism, the only historical proxy we have to this nation’s current ideological and social schism might likely be the Civil War. So it seems helpful to me, as it often did to Barack Obama, to reflect on the words and actions of someone who found a way to navigate that chasm. I can’t think of a way out of the current tumultuous era without that basic realization of our common humanity, which is why President Obama expressed that point so urgently in his farewell address, when he said that “democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity—the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
Just a few weeks ago, the lawyer burst into our office again. It was the afternoon before Trump was to announce in prime time his Supreme Court nominee.
“I’ll bet you’re just gonna just be the happiest man in the world,” he said to me. “I just know that when he gives that name, you’re gonna fall in love.”
No one in my office knew what he was talking about, and I had to explain that he was making fun of me, and I still don’t think they really got the joke. And again, at the time, I felt like he was jeopardizing my job by just barging in to talk politics.
Save it for the bathroom.
But he went home, and I went home, and the weekend passed without a word between us, as every weekend has passed for the entirety of our lives.
I was in the bathroom again the following Monday. There were two other people I didn’t know, and all three of us were washing our hands.
“Hey,” one of the guys said, “you work in that office with Donald, right?”
“Yeah,” the other guy answered.
“I haven’t seen him around this week. He alright?”
“No. He’s dead.”
I kept scrubbing my hands. Was the lawyer’s name Donald, I wondered? I think the only time we exchanged names was when we first met. We’d known each other so long that it would’ve been awkward for me to ask.
“Oh, god,” the first man said. “What happened?”
The other man explained that Donald had been walking down the stairs at the Oculus—New York’s new transit hub in the World Trade Center complex—when he fell and hit his head.
“The paramedics took him to the hospital. He was in the ICU for a couple of days, and then he died right there.”
“Jesus, I just saw him the other day,” the first guy said.
“Did you know him?”
“You know. Just from around the floor. We’d talk. Mostly politics.”
I gleaned a little bit more about Donald during that conversation. The only family he had was his daughter. He’d been divorced for some time. Funeral arrangements hadn’t been made yet. It was a strange eulogy over the sound of running faucets and an automated paper-towel dispenser.
I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure what to say. I was hoping that I was wrong, that it was some other poor guy who’d met his end at the bottom of a marble staircase in one of New York’s most expensive public-works projects. But after asking around and checking the nameplates on the door, I knew it was him.
I thought about how small his world had seemed, from the few details I had. And I wondered if, maybe, our conversations had meant something more to him. Who did he go home to? Who did he call on the phone? Maybe lots of people. Maybe no one. But in brief passing moments, our interactions bridged the seemingly unbridgeable ideological gap in American politics. The better angels of our nature were reminding us of that common humanity.