A nation divided
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
— W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming
Michelle and I are standing outside the bar, under the awning and away from the rain.
It’s dark out, and Michelle’s having a smoke. The parking lot’s full, but the streets are empty.
“I’m very scared,” she tells me. “I’m afraid to wake up in the morning and see what the end result is really going to be.”
Michelle, a white woman in her 40s, is the bartender here at the Phoenix on the Bay restaurant in Ogdensburg, N.Y.
Tonight, she’s serving drinks to around 80 Republicans. Most of them are men. All of them are white. Michelle may well be the only one in the place who voted for Hillary.
“I thought Hillary was going to run away with it. I really did,” she says, almost laughing to herself. What once seemed certain is now only fanciful.
‘This is a scary, scary time we’re living in.’
“This is a scary, scary time we’re living in,” Michelle says, as if talking to herself. “They believed in the beginning — when Trump started this — that he was just going to be out, you know? He wasn’t even going to get that far. And now look.”
Michelle takes another drag on her cigarette, and — for a moment — just stands there, still and silent, looking across the empty street.
Inside, the men are hollering and laughing, raising cans of Bud Light and Budweiser towards the ceiling, cheering their future president.
“I don’t know,” she keeps saying. “I’m shocked.”
Between the raindrops, I hear the low, haunting whistle of a train, rumbling in the distance.
Michelle takes a deep breath, and lets out a heavy sigh. “I don’t know.”
Inside the bar, John is slouched in his seat, alone at the table, his arms crossed over his belly.
He’s looking up at the TV on the wall a few feet away. Fox News is on, and we’re seeing a live shot from Trump headquarters. Sean Hannity is on the phone, so we’re told, but the noise in the bar drowns out the sound of his voice.
It’s 11:56 p.m. Trump has 259 electoral votes to Hillary’s 209. He’s now projected to win Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
“I feel very good,” John tells me. “The truth and justice thing was big with me,” he says.
John is a former correctional officer, and like many people around here, he wants police officers to be able to act more quickly “when they feel threatened.”
Ogdensburg is home to two state prisons. There are 55 correctional facilities in New York state. But crime rates have been falling, which means fewer people have been going to jail, which means trouble for Ogdensburg’s prisons. Five years ago, the state’s governor — a Democrat — consider closing both facilities, threatening to put hundreds of correctional officers out of work.
Trump’s win has put John at ease. “I’m very hopeful,” he tells me with a broad smile.
‘I think that we’re going to start to unify. The people have spoken.’
After an election that’s been so divisive, I ask him if he worries about where the country will go from here.
“I think that we’re going to start to unify. The people have spoken. The people are happy,” he says confidently.
It’s as though John is unaware of how deep a wound this election has left. “We have somebody who says he’s going to work for us and everything. If he can do what he says he wants to do — with re-building America, bringing jobs back, and doing some things — I think people will start getting along better.”
I’m driving through Watertown, looking for a place to stop, so I pull into the parking lot of a Taco Bell. That’s where I meet Clarence.
Clarence is a 30-year-old African American. After serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, he now works five days a week at Taco Bell, earning minimum wage. He’s straddling his bicycle, wearing Lennon-style sunglasses, fingerless gloves, and a toque partially covering his short dreadlocks.
I ask him what’s most important to him in this election.
“Ah man, police brutality! Like, being an African-American in this country, you know? If I gotta worry about walking down the street and being safe, I can’t worry about what’s going on, the other stuff, know what I’m saying?” he tells me, as if I could truly understand what he means.
‘Trump scares me because he’s making it okay for people with power to be racist — overtly — you know what I’m saying?’
“I got a son — I got a little black son who’s going to grow up and be a black man one day. I don’t want him to grow up in a country where he has to fear the police,” he tells me. “I’m legit afraid of the police at this point. I won’t call the police for anything. Like, it shouldn’t be like that.”
So what does he think of a potential Trump presidency, I ask him.
“Trump scares me because he’s making it okay for people with power to be racist — overtly — you know what I’m saying? I’m not worried about that Klansman in North Carolina burning a cross because he’s stupid, because he just paid five dollars for gas, just to burn it up,” Clarence tells me, his voice rising.
“I’m worried about that guy in Congress, who can make a law that can affect me. So with Trump, if he gets elected, it’s just going to give carte blanche to those covert racist people to be overtly racist. And I’m not…” He pauses, shaking his head quickly with a smile. “I’m going to Canada. I live thirty miles away. I’m coming to see you, man!”
I meet Tim McCabe on the sidewalk in Potsdam. It’s a sleepy town on the banks of the Raquette River, at the foot of the Adirondacks, and it has its share of abandoned homes and boarded-up shops.
Tim was born and raised here. He’s now 46 years old. He’s wearing a large black tee-shirt with a camouflage-patterned Superman logo, baggy navy blue track pants, and a bright red baseball cap, emblazoned with this election’s most memorable slogan: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”
Tim tells me he considers himself lucky to be living so close to the border; he likes to go to Canada every now and again — to “have some fun.” But, he says, there’s no greater country than America.
“There’s other countries that have elections, but we’ve had it the longest, for the most part. Maybe not the longest, but,” he pauses abruptly, gathering his thoughts. “It’s nice that we can make a choice.”
Tim’s made his choice in this election, and he’s making it clear to anyone who happens to pass by his Chevy Tahoe. A large, navy blue Trump flag hangs on the side facing the street, and the truck’s rear window is adorned with a neat row of Trump-branded bumper stickers.
“GOD BLESS AMERICA!”
“EXTREMELY CARELESS, EXTREMELY HILLARY”
“WE LOVE OUR POLICE OFFICERS!”
“COURAGE IS THE ABILITY TO ACT IN SPITE OF FEAR”
“IN TRUMP WE TRUST”
Tim’s truck is parked right in front of the campaign office of the St. Lawrence County Democrats. “Just to show that not everybody is for Hillary,” he tells me.
‘Liberals always say they’re tolerant. They want everybody to be tolerant and everything, but once you go against them, they’re the ones that are not tolerant.’
I ask him what he makes of an election that’s been so divisive.
“Oh, I have family members that are definitely not overly excited with me,” he says, almost forlorn. He hesitates, thinking over what he’s about to say, as if about to say it for the first time.
“See, like, I’ll post something on my Facebook, and I’m wrong. But they post something on their Facebook, and they’re right,” he tells me, perplexed. It’s as if he were looking to me for an explanation.
“Liberals always say they’re tolerant,” Tim says. “They want everybody to be tolerant and everything, but once you go against them, they’re the ones that are not tolerant. They’re the ones that are more aggressive.”
Tim tells me he drives a truck for a living. I picture him behind the wheel, 11 hours a day for days on end, alone with only a CB radio and an FM dial that he tunes to one talk radio station after the other.
I wonder what worries him most about where his country is headed, but I don’t have to ask.
“Why is it so wrong to say, ‘You’re not here legally?’” he asks me. “My family is from Italy, and I imagine I had a few uncles or cousins, maybe they got sent back.”
Of course, maybe they didn’t. Tim doesn’t know his family tree well enough to say for sure either way. But that doesn’t matter. “You can’t support a country of people that are living here who aren’t from here and (aren’t) contributing,” he says.
Suddenly, Tim adds something else. “My candidate is not the best man for the job,” he tells me. “But at the same time, I’m for him, because I think he really truly cares, you know?”
Matt takes a drag of his smoke, holding a can of Bud Light in his left hand.
“This town’s going to shit,” he tells me, tilting his head upwards to push a cloud of smoke towards the sky. “We’re screwed either way, I guess, whoever gets voted in. That’s what everyone else says.”
Matt and I are standing outside Ray’s Place, a dive bar at the corner of two tired streets in Massena, N.Y.
The pavement is cracked, the sidewalks are crooked, and the shops nearby — a carpet shop, a massage parlour, and a hair salon — all have their curtains drawn.
The old General Motors plant is just up the street. Five hundred people used to work there until it closed in 2009. Now it’s an EPA Superfund site. Trucks have already hauled away tens of thousands of tons of scrap metal and hundreds of tons of hazardous waste, but the soil and ground water are still impregnated with toxic chemicals: PCBs, VOCs, mercury, and asbestos.
After the plant closed, people left; shops were boarded up; buildings sat empty. They’re still empty today.
There is only one streetlight in sight, about 40 feet away. Its dim yellow light doesn’t reach us, so we stand in the dark, outside the bar and its white brick walls.
Matt works as a maintenance worker for the town of Louisville. This time of year, he’ll be flushing the water hydrants, taking out the docks from the St. Lawrence, and cleaning up the area around the community center before the first snow falls.
He works 40 hours a week and gets paid $11 an hour, with no paid lunch.
“I grew up here. I plan on staying here,” he tells me. “I like it up here. I wish there were more jobs, obviously, but…” His voice trails off.
‘We’re screwed either way, I guess, whoever gets voted in. That’s what everyone else says.’
I want to know what he thinks of the election, so I ask who he plans to vote for.
“I don’t know,” he tells me. Matt doesn’t care much for politics. “I don’t know anything about Trump or Hillary. I have no idea, honestly. I don’t follow it,” he says. “I got my own shit to worry about.”
He pauses when I ask him what thinks of Hillary. “I don’t know,” he tells me again. “I heard she wants to take the Second Amendment away,” he says, almost quizzically. “That’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t vote for her, obviously.”
I wonder if that means he plans to vote for Trump.
“I think this country does need a businessman,” he answers. “I mean, look, he did well for himself. You know what I mean? I mean, he’s a multi-billionaire. He’s got to have some common sense, some smarts.”
Matt squints his eyes and takes another drag on his cigarette.
“I’ll probably vote for Trump,” he says, finally.