Now that we are back on the grid, most evenings my husband and I watch series TV together. Breaking Bad and Mad Men are in the rotation right now. We have also been shamelessly wasting our viewing time watching Shameless, a series starring William H. Macy.
In case you’re not familiar with the show, Macy plays Frank Gallagher, the alcoholic father of six kids. He is almost always drunk and passed out on the floor. Fiona, his oldest daughter, takes care of the kids while her father is out drinking and working schemes to collect disability or someone else’s social security check.
The kids are adept at making ends meet; stealing food from the back of a delivery truck, pinching pennies from Unicef collections, and various other scams. In the first few episodes I liked the kids’ grit and solidarity as a family but by the end of the second season enough was enough.
The show moves at a frenetic pace. Everyone’s always rushing around. In most episodes Fiona is running through the house in her bra pulling a T-shirt on or off.
In my mind, Shameless reinforces the stereotypical crap politicians use when they try to gut services for the poor. It’s Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen driving the pink cadillac, reinforcing the belief that everyone on welfare is gaming the system.
Remember during the Great Recession when Obama extended unemployment benefits and the Republicans fought it? They argued most of the unemployed didn’t want to go back to work because they made more money collecting.
As a bookkeeper, I have filled out state unemployment forms for over thirty years. Unemployment is insurance. Your employer pays into the program every quarter. This money is a trust, an insurance plan paid for by employers. Not you. Not the government. No one makes more money collecting unemployment and because this is America, when you lose your job you lose your health insurance.
Fact: Most people would rather sleep in a comfortable bed than under a bridge where Frank Gallagher was found in one episode.
The other night, Rich and I found ourselves Shameless in Brattleboro.
Before it unfolded, we stopped at a shopping plaza where Rich went into a barber shop to get a haircut and I perused the aisles of Rite-Aid.
Rich doesn’t have a regular barber and will bravely stop in any old place, so of course he has a lot of barber shop stories. He found his favorite barber in Queens. We were flying to St. Kitts for our 20th wedding anniversary and our flight was canceled due a snowstorm so we hung around Queens for an afternoon. Rich decided he was overdue for a haircut. The barber was a professional soccer player from Jordan and offered the full service, which included hot towels and a shave. He also watched international soccer on cable TV. Rich says it’s the best haircut he ever got.
After the Brattleboro haircut, Rich of course had new barber shop stories to share. This time he and the barber discussed hometowns and they somehow connected the dots that make up the surprisingly small world we live in.
Rich’s lifelong friend who also lives on Higley Hill had a college roommate who grew up in the same town as the barber, so Rich asked, “Do you know Danny Kippit?”
The barber did. They were both on the football team in high school. Danny once sold Rich and his friend a one-ton truck with a camper attached. It was the truck they moved to Colorado in when they were nineteen. They rebuilt it, painted it forest green, and replaced the front seat with a crushed red velour bench seat from a Lincoln Continental. It blew the engine in Denver, then the rear end went and the truck was dead in the water.
The barber told Rich one of the busiest times of year is when the mountain men come out of hibernation.
“Come March, the boys start coming out of the woods,” the barber said. “They’ve got the full beard and long hair. They need the full service. It gets pretty crazy in here.”
After the haircut, I told Rich about a motel across the street from the Rite-Aid. They were getting rid of some nice looking night tables and had placed them on the sidewalk along the road. We drove over to check them out.
When we pulled into the parking lot, a man had two of the six tables already loaded onto the bed of his truck. He was on his cell phone, probably asking his wife how many more she wanted. We decided they might be too low so we passed on them and headed home.
I guess you could say our Shameless show started with the dump picking in the motel parking lot but it really took off when we stopped at the state liquor store.
There was only one cashier working that night. When we walked in the store she was dealing with a difficult transaction. Something to do with a debit malfunction out at the gas pumps. A woman was charged for diesel. She had purchased unleaded. The cashier told the customer it happens sometimes. She was unfamiliar with processing a credit. The line running parallel to the counter started to grow.
We joined the back of the line which was now up against the entrance door. The man at the front of the line noticed and moved his carriage so he was facing the counter. Everyone followed suit and formed a perpendicular line along the whiskey aisle.
“We should form a conga line and you guys follow me up and down the aisles of the store while we wait,” the man at the front said. A few people started to cha-cha.
The cashier finally figured out the credit transaction. It was now the man at the front of the line’s turn. His carriage was filled with individual granola bars, snickers, and bags of Fritos and Bugles. He also had bottles of vodka, gin, and single bottles of local IPA beers and soda.
“Sorry,” he said, turning to the rest of us and smiling sheepishly.
Rich said, “This is the seven items or less line.”
Everyone was joking around, waiting to purchase bottles of booze and six packs of beer. People talked about the weather and the ski traffic over school vacation week. I put our six-pack of Guinness Blonde on the floor by my feet. Rich was holding bottles of Jameson and Svedka vodka. When you live in Vermont, it’s not just the mountain men who come out of the woods and attend to overdue business. Shopping is always an expedition.
When the man’s basketful of individually scanned items was finally rung up, he wheeled away from the counter and then turned and said, “Oh, wait a minute. I need a money order.”
Everyone groaned. Behind us, a mountain man with a beard down to his chest and a pint of White Lightening in his hand said, “Hey, I was clean-shaven when I came in here.”
“Hold your horses. This is your second time in here today,” the cashier hollered back.
“Kidding,” the front of the line man said. “I’m just kidding.” He turned around and rolled his carriage out to the parking lot.
The bearded man shouted to the cashier, “Hey, did you get those X-tra large condoms I ordered? The nice sheepskin ones?”
“Behave yourself,” she said.
“How about porn magazines? Did you get any new ones?” he asked.
“Yeah. We got the gay ones, too,” the cashier snapped back.
Back in the car we laughed about how we had stepped into our own episode of Shameless.
I’m not going to speculate on whether some of the people in the store were alcoholics scamming the system although a few reminded me of shameless Frank Gallagher. When I look at the world around me I look from a place of hope. We were a group of people waiting in a long line on a Friday night. Everyone was friendly. Everyone was patient. Some even had a raucous sense of humor.
There’s a line from Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter that might apply here:
“Nowadays, I’m willing to say yes to as much as I can: yes to my town, my neighborhood, my neighbor, yes to his car, her lawn and hedge and rain gutters. Let things be the best they can be. Give us all a good night’s sleep until it’s over.”
Yes, until it’s over. Many Americans aren’t sleeping well these days. Five weeks into the Trump presidency the entire world is reeling.
Sometimes all it takes to keep an open mind is to walk out your front door and bear witness. It really is a small world. You may meet a Middle Eastern immigrant soccer player turned barber who gives you the best haircut of your life. A few friendly people in a liquor store may provide a much needed laugh. It doesn’t take much to get out and experience the world with your own eyes.
As we drove up the dark mountain I told Rich, “We are not watching that shameless show tonight.”
Instead we watched Mad Men. It was the episode after President Kennedy was assassinated. Newly divorced Don Draper was on a date with a young woman. Three civil rights workers had recently been killed in Mississippi. The young woman told Don she was breaking her rule of not dating divorced men because a mutual friend has made Don her project.
Don looks bemused and says, “There are so many real problems in the world right now.”
Yes there are, and the world spins madly on.