Under Analysis: Toasted ravioli and domestic beer

By Charles Kramer

The Levison Group

Sunday, March 21, 2010. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament progresses. Games are being played. The men and women in the capitol watch them not. They do follow their alma maters’ fates. They are American, after all. They are competitive by nature. They own portable digital devices and cell phones. Yet, for them, it is not a television day. Laws are about to be made: controversial laws; expensive laws; society-changing laws. They will be laws that change the way insurance companies operate. They will include precepts that will change the way Americans live. Much is at stake. They are working on Sunday. For better or worse, votes will be cast this night. They will be votes that change everything. Will things become better? Will they be worse? Opinions ring out from the street. They are rants that stem from a certainty of position. They are views, not knowledge. Protestors protest. Champions champion. No one truly knows. Time will tell. Ahh, much is afoot.

I am not there. I am miles away. I am in St Louis, Missouri. It is cold, damp and raining here. The pizza chain wars are raging. Large pizzas, delivered to your door, for fewer than ten bucks. Yet, it is not a pizza day.

A new “drinking establishment” has opened in town. Amerique’s Place. The name is vaguely familiar. I can’t remember why. It is in a part of town known for vacant warehouses.

I wander in. It has the feel of a place that’s been known and loved for years. It is new. It is built to seem old. A juke box is in the corner. The flat screens on the walls don’t seem modern. How did they do that?

The place is pleasantly full. It has the buzz of energy. It is spacious enough to avoid the press of a crowd. There are few windows. Light exists, but is obscured. Despite recent no smoking laws, it seems smoky. It is not. Yet it seems it is. Strange.

Ears hear music through the din of the crowd. It is music mixed with competing play-by-play descriptions. The song is by Kings of Leon. The Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” has recently faded into the crowd. Although I do not notice him, an elderly African American man sits quietly in the corner. He is blind.

At a table against an opposite wall there sits another man. He wears a black shirt. He wears khaki slacks. He fidgets with twelve dollar “cheater” glasses. They are glasses bought from a pharmacy. They are glasses purchased yesterday. The girl across from him watches. Her plunging neckline reveals a lovely figure. Money well spent. That was five years ago. He watches.

Two tables over, twenty-something guys are talking a bit too loudly.

“That’s not the point,” the stocky one, with the denim jacket, says. “Most Americans will be required to purchase insurance, and face penalties if they refuse. How can you call yourself a personal liberties liberal and fiscal conservative, and support this tragedy?” He moved to St. Louis from Boston two months ago.

“How?” his friend responds. “It’s easy. The law will extend coverage to 32 million people who lack it, ban insurers from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions and cut deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade.” He came to St. Louis from Colorado two years ago.

Lauren, the waitress, was born in St. Louis. She has lived here all her life. She sets down the order of toasted ravioli in front of the family of four she is serving. She wipes her hands on the towel that hangs, incongruously, from her waist.

“I’ve heard them say that,” she interjects. “But it cuts the deficit by putting new taxes in place. It will actually cost trillions.”

“It’s also socialism,” pipes in a raspy voice from somewhere around a corner. “Much of the money will come from taxes imposed on the rich to fund subsidies to help less wealthy families pay their premiums.”

“Maybe...,” the stocky one’s Colorado-bred companion counters defensively, “but at least the insurance companies will be reined in by new federal regulation. They won’t be allowed to place lifetime dollar limits on policies, or to cancel policies when a policyholder becomes ill.”

The stocky male who began the debate begins to respond. He suddenly notices that Lauren’s eyes match her necklace. His point vanishes. He compliments Lauren instead. Michigan State drills the winning basket at the buzzer. The crowd erupts.

A young couple picks their way through the now cheering masses. They are headed to a stool. It is a stool set up on the small stage in the corner. It is not for them. They are helping a man. It is the elderly, blind man from the corner. He is almost 90. The stool is for him. They are helping him reach his destination. I notice him for the first time. I see a patch of spilled beer in front of him. I instinctively warn, “Be careful, there’s something on the floor.”

The old man hears my voice. He pauses. He tilts his head slightly. He smiles. It is a smile that says he remembers. I’m confused. I ask him, “Do you know who I am?” He answers, “If you were not you, who would we all be?”

It is then that I remember. He said the same words to me that early morning in Vegas, two years ago. That realization does not lead my thoughts to Vegas. They head to a grey and rainy day in Louisiana. My thoughts are in New Orleans, a decade or more before Vegas. The taste of the oysters, the burn of the tequila, and the coolness of the beer fill my mind. Those thoughts lead me back forward in time. My mental tour lands in Key West. I can smell the conch shells. It is four years after the Quarter. It is still years before the Strip. I see him. He is there as well. I remember. I remember it all.

The elderly soul is not a friend. Not in the traditional sense. He is not a part of my life. Yet, we have met three times before. Not here. Not in St. Louis. We met first in that small drinking establishment in New Orleans. It was an anachronistic location. The perfect spot to inhabit on a day our nation changed. Years later, it was Key West, Florida. Fantasy Fest raged four days before Bush junior was reelected. Then, two years ago it was Las Vegas. It was the week the California court had ruled on same sex marriage.

It is 2010. It is the eve of national health care upheaval. I am in St. Louis, Missouri. He is here.

Amerique’s Place. I now recognize it as the name of the bar in New Orleans. I recognize it also as the name of the place in Vegas. Now again, it is the name of this “drinking establishment” in St. Louis. Why was the bar in Key West called Sloppy Joes?

March 21, 1010. Outside it is raining. There is no smell of oysters. There is no taste of conch fritter in the air. The scent is of toasted ravioli and domestic beer. In Washington our Senators work. Here the crowd watches teenagers throw inflated rubber through a metal rim.

Amerique’s Place. It is a strange place to be when our nation is on the verge of change. Looking around, it seems right. I look for the monolith. All I see is the old man. He is walking towards the stage. I smile.

Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Charles Kramer is a principal of the St. Louis, Missouri law firm Riezman, Berger, P.C. You may direct comments or criticisms about this column to the Levison Group c/o this newspaper, or direct to the Levison Group via e-mail, at comments@levisongroup.com. © 2010 Under Analysis L.L.C.