by craig tomashoff
Running for president had made him a happier guy. In his mind anyway, it gave his life purpose. Between the scotch, the therapy and the Prozac (more on that later, I'm sure), the total bill for me trying to get comfortable in my own skin was probably approaching six figures. Shreffler was doing the same thing for the cost of a few hundred bumper stickers and red, white and blue business cards. So who's the crazy one in this scenario? Instead of representing the foolishness of my presidential quest, Shreffler had become the symbol for it — do what you want to do and mockers be damned. If something (legal) makes you feel more alive, why not do it?
One week later, I was on the road.
So what are voters to do? We’re stuck between a rock and some head cases. On one hand, we all say we want a leader who can personally relate to the struggles of low- and middle-income Americans. On the other hand, we don’t want to waste our votes on candidates who can’t win. I’m not gullible enough to fall for the aforementioned lie that any of us can grow up to be president. Still, wouldn’t it be nice to at least find some candidates you’d enjoy having a beer and burger with? There has to be somebody out there running for president with the compassion of FDR, the folksiness of Harry Truman, the intellect of Stephen Hawking and the straight talk of your college roommate.
I knew that none of these people would ever get elected. But that wasn’t the point. The point was just to try. If we’re also going to stick with that other great political lie — that every vote is important — I was really just doing what we all fantasize we’d do if we could. I was going to find the best person to hand my vote over to, regardless of what the outcome might be. Somebody has to, right? It’s fun to complain about our broken political system. Yet if the final answer is to vote for the most likely winner, that’s not the best path toward any change. The only way to make a difference is to search for somebody capable of making a difference, regardless of what school they went to or how much money they have or what kind of fast food they order. We need candidates who are told they can’t do this.
* * *
RONALD SATISH EMRIT
“It’d be nice if I was president, because then I could go to my ex and say, ‘Hey, I’m the president now. Can I get custody of my daughter? She could come to the White House,’” he said. “I haven’t seen my daughter in a couple of years. It’s a sensitive issue.”
* * *
HARLEY BROWNHe also had a duty that, in looking at this gruff, bearded, 6’ 4” wall of a man, was hard to imagine ever being assigned to him. His Hell's Angel demeanor made him seem like the last guy you’d want knocking on your door to tell you your loved one had just been killed in the line of duty. And yet, Harley Brown did just that for nearly two years.
“It loosened a few screws in me,” he admitted. “How could it not? If you don’t have a heart, you could do that job. But I was supposed to say this blurb: ‘The Secretary of the Navy said…’ Fuck that shit! I wasn’t gonna say that. I’d walk up to the door and they’d see my uniform and start thinking about their son. Then they look into your eyes and see the expression on your face and say, ‘Oh, Jesus!’ You have to confirm their worst fear. I had a lady who had a heart attack on the stoop of her home. I didn’t know what the fuck to do.”
For one of the very few moments in the evening, Brown sat silent. “That fucked me up in the head. It just changed my whole attitude. It completely stripped me of a façade of political correctness. After doing that shit, you don’t care.”
* * *“Business was lousy and I was depressed. [So I] cried out to God, ‘What the hell am I doing driving a taxi? You didn’t make me the youngest fleet commander in the Navy for nothing. How about putting me back on active duty and make me a battalion commander of 1,000 men to fulfill my wildest ambitions?’ I think I was 40 years old at the time.
“And then God talked to me. Not audibly, but to my heart. He said, ‘Harley, I have a much higher rank in mind for you. Being an Irishman, I said, ‘What? Secretary of War? Being in charge of all the troops and planes and tanks?’ He said, 'No, son, I’m gonna make you Commander in Chief!’ I said, ‘Wow!' Then it hit me and I thought, ‘That’s the president of the United States. What the hell do I know about politics and protocols?’”
Not much, clearly. “I said, ‘Besides that, Heavenly Father, you give someone like me that kinda power and I’m gonna have to take over the whole goddamn world! Because that’s all those assholes can understand.’ I was thinking about Iran. And then the answer comes back, ‘I know what I’m doing, son.’ I was like, holy shit! The next day I went out and got the Presidential Seal tattoo on my arm!”
JOSH USERANate sat outside the door getting jacked up on candy and soda from the courthouse vending machine while his father and I went into an office. Clearly I wasn’t the only one surprised by this meeting. So was Usera's probation officer, who seemed shocked that a) he had a writer following him around for the day to document his presidential campaign and b) that he even had a presidential campaign.
Upon hearing this news, she feverishly typed something into her computer and then announced, “Josh, you do realize that there’s a warrant out for your arrest, right?” As it turns out, he was not. She explained the he’d neglected to pay a speeding ticket and therefore, he was headed for jail again unless he took care of the ticket ASAP.
We rushed downstairs and across the parking lot to the sheriff’s station, making it inside just before they closed for the day. Old Horse had left for home, so Nate entertained me with a failed magic trick involving a disappearing quarter. After a couple minutes, Josh motioned for me to come over. I reached into my wallet for my credit card, certain it was going to be up to me to bail him out of this. Instead, he had already taken care of the payment and just wanted to introduce the clerk behind the counter to the writer that was covering his presidential campaign.
Eight months after their son arrived, however, a service-related accident took Charles’ life. Walker wouldn’t tell me exactly what happened, saying only that “it was friendly fire…it was a debacle, I’ll just put it to you like that. It’s confidential, a sealed case and I can’t talk about it. But it was something that could have been prevented.”
Not surprisingly, it’s also something that even 22 years later is too traumatic for her to revisit. Which, naturally, is what I tried to make her do.
“It’s one of those things,” she explained in the hesitant way that made it clear this was far more than one of those things. “You have to be able to move on. You have to stay sharp. You have to stay focused. Nothing can prepare you for something like that. Ever. Ever. And when you are not the person that is dead, it hurts you so bad that you want to die. Death happens to people on a daily basis, but I wasn’t ready for it…for that. My heart is still tender.”
BARTHOLOMEW JAMES LOWER
“Look around,” Lower instructed as we walked, constantly pointing at one empty structure after another with the same sighing recognition one uses when seeing high school yearbook pictures of friends who’ve died since graduation.
“See the signs — ‘For Rent,’ ‘Available.’ That building’s empty. That one’s for sale. That one just switched hands again. See that green building? That used to be my in-laws, and it was a bar they ended up closing because of the economy. This whole corner building has been vacant for a decade. That one on the corner that kind of looks like a bank? That’s been vacant for a decade too. That one there? Empty. That one? Empty.” He stopped on a corner for a moment to take it all in. “Truck through downtown Ionia, and this is the rest of the country. The big cities are the big cities, but what you see here is the rest of the country.”
Lower has a very personal relationship with one of the town's drug abusers. When Nicole’s son was 16, she and Lower learned he wasn’t just using drugs. He was starting to deal them as well. A line had been crossed and Lower truly believed that “if you can’t hold people accountable in your own family, how can you expect to do it on a national or global level?” So, they turned their own child over to police custody.
I had no idea how to respond. We’re so conditioned as parents to protect our children no matter what. The idea of handing them over to someone else for punishment seems unnatural. We preach tough love because it sounds good, especially when it’s about someone else’s children. I like to think that everything I’ve ever done for my son, this current journey of mine in particular, has been done to inspire him to do the right things—rather than scare him into avoiding the wrong things. And here was a man who felt the same way, yet still handed his oldest child over to the authorities.
He had his reasons. The way Lower saw it, “when kids are under 17, you have a window where you’re trying to make a change that doesn’t end up hurting them the rest of their lives. He couldn’t follow the probation, so I finally looked at the judge and said, ‘He needs real consequences.’”
Candidates talk all the time about their willingness to make tough decisions. Well, they don’t come any tougher than this one and Lower made it. He let his son go to a detention center for 90 days in order to start weaning himself off drugs. The decision definitely strained his relationship with the now 18-year-old. But I didn’t sense an ounce of regret from Lower.
LORI FLEMINGThere was a pause that hung as heavy as the early afternoon humidity. “I tried to commit suicide.”
At age 14, Fleming had become a pariah because of her sexuality. The girl she’d loved left her. Someone at school planted a stolen stereo in her locker, then alerted the authorities that she’d taken it. Couple that with her struggles at home with her father and constantly being held back at school, and Fleming decided she’d had enough.
“It was just a really bad year and I got tired of it all. I took a bottle of about 200 aspirin out of my mom’s medicine cabinet. I went to the park, climbed to the top of the ladder and took every damned one of them. I don’t know what happened. I woke up in the hospital. They pumped my stomach, and then I had charges pressed against me because it’s illegal to commit suicide. If you don’t die, you go to jail.”
They don’t necessarily agree on everything. Her mom has warned her a few times that she doesn’t have enough money to run for president—even though Fleming is certain that the mystery donation of a few thousand dollars that was recently given to her campaign was from her mother. And when she mentioned that she was going to talk to me, her mom warned her to be very discreet.
“She told me not to let anybody know that I’m a dyke. And I said, ‘Why?’ It is not like this was 20 years ago, when I could have actually lost my children.” Fleming paused. She didn’t exactly choke up, but I sensed a sadness in her that hadn’t been there even when discussing Travis. She quickly glanced at Marc, who had moved to watch over something wrapped in foil on their small, rusty barbecue grill.
“I would love to be able to have a female partner hold my hand and walk with my children without having to worry about if someone was going to call Child Protective Services. It has happened for me. That’s why I had to go back into the closet.”
JOHN GREEN FERGUSON He’d already gone from being “a millionaire on paper” to being broke, courtesy of the 2008 stock market collapse. After she passed, he lived on odd jobs and food stamps, spending endless sleepless nights sitting in the same easy chair—“throwing myself into the news…local, state, national. I’d get one hour of sleep to get up and watch Face the Nation and all that stuff. Where most people are watching General Hospital and As the World Turns, I’m on cable watching BBC news from the UK. I am watching Japanese news. I am watching stuff all night long, I’m reading stuff. And I’m feeding on that.”
In particular, he started following stories about the Occupy Movement. The grass roots protest against income inequality got its biggest media boost in the fall of 2011, when followers set up camp near Wall Street. It didn’t take long for the movement to spread to nearly 1,000 cities around the world, inspiring frustrated citizens everywhere—including Ferguson. Even though the Wall Street protest ultimately was broken up after a few months, he found a purpose in the movement's ideals.
“It was for my sanity, after being by myself in a prison,” he explained. “[Losing my fiancée] was really a kick in the balls. I was left alone to fend for myself. It wasn’t the surviving part. It is just that when you haven’t got anybody, no friends—I mean, I am away from anybody that I ever knew here.”
© Craig Tomashoff