The Meritocracy at Kitty's Lounge

Kitty’s was hoppin’, mostly on knee and hip replacements. Between the Magellan fishing shirts and the guayaberas, there wasn’t a tucked-in shirt in the house. Kirk started hitting the famous cowbell beat to kick off “Honky Tonk Woman,” and the place erupted.

The Meritocracy at Kitty's Lounge
Well sure. Most bass players went to Harvard. 😆 

The best man at my wedding, Kirk, is the drummer for a great little cover band that he plays with on weekends. Solid, boomer playlists - your basic 70s-80s hits. Real music. They play the stuff that you heard at that wedding you went to last month but without the Cha-Cha Slide or those Village People theatrics. They play private events and parties, but mostly they do gigs in the bars, VFW halls, ice houses, and marinas that line the coast between Houston and Galveston: Kemah, Clear Lake, Bacliff, San Leon… Some of the places are big outdoor patio affairs, just as many are beer joints, ice houses, and honest-to-gawd dive bars.

My lovely wife Velveeta and I weaved our way between the Ford F150s parked on the grass, some with the quintessential “TRUMP 2024!” stickers. We stepped into Kitty’s Lounge (name changed to protect the innocent) along Highway 146 as the opening chords were being strummed to Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Kitty’s was hoppin’, mostly on knee and hip replacements. Between the Magellan fishing shirts and the guayaberas, there wasn’t a tucked-in shirt in the house. That’s not to say this wasn’t a group ready for a night on the town. The ladies were powdered and perfumed. The best leopard and floral prints were ready to shake it on the dance floor - which was simply a couple feet of cement floor in front of the small stage in the corner.

I ordered my usual gin and tonic at the bar and a Bud Lite for Velveeta. When the barmaid asked if I had a preference for my gin, I gave my usual answer, “something cheap and disgusting, like my women.” It got a laugh from the lumberjack-bearded dude on the stool next to me. Yeah, baby, my kinda place. They love me, here.

And by the way, the snark about the crowd’s dress and style and all of ‘em dancin’ on replaced bones? I showed up in an untucked Hawaiian shirt, dirty (but soft and well-arched) Nikes, and a pair of titanium hips. I fit right into this Ozempic lineup. Pot, meet the kettle; kettle, pot.

Kirk started hitting the famous cowbell beat to kick off “Honky Tonk Woman,” and the place erupted. Velveeta shot me a giggle, and I couldn’t help but smile. Here we were, deep in MAGA territory, having a grand old time. Both of us have rural family, both of us have MAGA relatives that are now distant, with a couple that we can no longer tolerate.

“Gimme, gimme, gimme the honky tonk blues…”

A waitress got us another round, and showed us the “bites” menu. (“The pizza is frozen, you might like the wings…”) We were having fun. Letting our guard down. Guard? We were in the middle of a MAGA roadside hang. Right? Weren't we?

I kept thinking of a piece written in the Times by David Brooks a couple of weeks ago, “What if We’re the Bad Guys Here?” You know David Brooks. He’s the New York Times “conservative” columnist that liberals love to hate. But as the Overton Window has shifted further and further right, he now seems to the left of Al Gore to today’s GOP. Which is why Republicans hate him too.

I’m not a hater. I think he’s a fine essayist, though there are times that I find him ridiculous. He recently got busted for posting a picture of a Fyre-Festival looking hamburger, with the caption, “This meal just cost me $78 at Newark Airport, This is why Americans think the economy is terrible.” Only he made no reference to the cocktail glass in the corner of the frame filled with a rich, amber-colored liquid. Yeah, the internet sleuths had him nailed in about five minutes, finding out that 80% of his bill was his two double shots of whisky. In a damn airport. Where most of America doesn’t eat lunch. (Brooks would later apologize for the whole Tweet.)

but I digest.

His “…We’re the Bad Guys Here” column was thoughtful and deserved some consideration. The majority of Americans see the rise of Trumpism to be some combination of racism, xenophobia, religious nationalism, and authoritarianism. The MAGAts see their movement as a righteous pushback against “wokeism,” Godlessness, and economic and cultural subjection.

Brooks asks us to take a minute and ask ourselves if we might indeed be just a leeetle bit to blame.

Like all timelines that review the nation’s cultural shift, we start in the 60’s with the Vietnam War - a war that was fought primarily by draftees unable to afford college deferments. The battle for Civil Rights was fought in this era, too. Bussing and other desegregation 'solutions' were put into place - yet those with means (usually in prosperous, urban areas) moved into suburbs so as to avoid the resulting strife. As technology advanced, college grads tended to have advantages in a job market that was becoming more white-collar. Manual labor was valued less and less. Rural and blue-collar workers became less competitive and were paid less, relative to their elite counterparts. The successful and educated class grew wealthy, lived in isolated communities, intermarried with their equals, and raised their children with even more advantages. It wasn’t a conspiracy, but the left truly was becoming self-selecting and leaving other communities behind. These same progressives sincerely believed that they were in fact, champions for underserved groups, whether we’re talking about blue-collar workers, racial and ethnic minorities, or just those falling through the economic cracks.

From Brooks:

The ideal that we’re all in this together was replaced with the reality that the educated class lives in a world up here and everybody else is forced into a world down there. Members of our class are always publicly speaking out for the marginalized, but somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves.
The most important of those systems is the modern meritocracy. We built an entire social order that sorts and excludes people on the basis of the quality that we possess most: academic achievement. Highly educated parents go to elite schools, marry each other, work at high-paying professional jobs and pour enormous resources into our children, who get into the same elite schools, marry each other and pass their exclusive class privileges down from generation to generation.

The progressive train was pulling away from the station, and a lot of those holding second-class tickets to begin with were left on the platform.

And Republicans were ready to offer them a ride.

Kitty’s was in full swing. Kirk counted down and the band lit into “Jenny (867-5309).” The dozen or so tables cleared and the couples in the back booths made their way to the dance aisle. The gimme caps and cowboy hats bobbed in rhythm. (Hey, who says good-old-white-boys don’t have rhythm?) But it wasn't just old white dudes - ala your humble narrator... there were a handful of Mexican couples. And the two biker chicks in Harley t-shirts, leather and chain belts, and Flock 'o Seagulls hair were getting their jam on, too.

The lead vocalist was a great rock and blues singer who was working that room like she was playing a sold-out stadium. She let on that by day she is a nurse practitioner. But on gig nights, she’s Pat Benatar meets Joan Jett - but without all the angst and attitude. No, she was all smiles - and she was working that crowd. She took her wireless microphone out to the dance floor for a call and response. “867-5309… c’mon Ed, sing it!” With the mic thrust in front of him, Ed grinned and blurted out the famous phone number, almost in key. (And when was the last time you saw Ed laugh and blush like that?) Made his weekend, and made his wife, Pearl, laugh. Nurse Benatar worked her way back to the cheap seats, maybe ten feet away from the stage, all to the delight of patrons who were feeling no pain. It occurred to me that it was entirely possible that our rockin' nurse might see some of those same folks this week in clinic after the Scotch on the rocks and dopamine wore off and they needed something more sustainable for their other aches and pains.

The band struck up The Band's "Up on Cripple Creek," and I laughed.

Up on Cripple Creek, she sends me
If I spring a leak, she mends me
I don't have to speak, she defends me
A drunkard's dream if I ever did see one...

I laughed at the reality of it unfolding before me. And then I headed to the men's room, because there was a mirror in there.

I wondered what kind of day jobs the folks at Kitty's have. Many were probably retired. Maybe old pipefitters and maintenance guys from the many refineries in the area? Teachers? Sales reps for God-knows-what? Maybe a couple of Amazon Drivers who also drive Uber when they can? How many may have lost their jobs to technology, or cheap immigrant labor?

My old profession, broadcast television, has shrunk considerably, as have the salaries for the survivors and replacements. I used to set up "live trucks," the mobile video antennas and satellite dishes that made it possible to do on-the-scene, live reporting. Today, that's mostly done by small cell phone type transmitters that can fit in a backpack or snap onto a camera. More and more stations are just letting reporters use smartphones to do live reports! No technicians needed. There are very few professions that don't feel some version of this pain.

David Brooks believes that's similar to what he's seen too:

Over the last decades, we’ve taken over whole professions and locked everybody else out. When I began my journalism career in Chicago in the 1980s, there were still some old crusty working-class guys around the newsroom. Now we’re not only a college-dominated profession; we’re an elite-college-dominated profession. Only 0.8 percent of college students graduate from the super-elite 12 schools (the Ivy League colleges, plus Stanford, M.I.T., Duke and the University of Chicago). A 2018 study found that more than 50 percent of the staff writers at the beloved New York Times and The Wall Street Journal attended one of the 29 most elite universities in the nation.

So it's not just coal miners and truck drivers that face extinction. Quite a few mid-level jobs are going the way of the elevator operator. Even manufacturing jobs often require deep computer literacy.

Daniel Markovits summarized years of research in his book “The Meritocracy Trap," “...elite graduates monopolize the best jobs and at the same time invent new technologies that privilege superskilled workers, making the best jobs better and all other jobs worse.”

And guess whose pay increased exponentially when compared to the workers down on the line? It's no wonder that Republicans saw a crop of folks ripe for picking.

In another cowbell-intensive number, Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band" had the folks singing along, just like it did when it played on your Jr. High lunchroom jukebox back in '73. The band was all smiles. The joy was infectious. Fists were pumping the air, the guitarists and bassist joined together, swinging their instrument necks to the beat. They segued effortlessly into Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around (and Fell in Love.") The benches cleared once again, it was slow dance time. The couples were squeezing a bit, Nurse Benatar was pouring her soul into it. The little dance strip was a slow-motion bumper car ride as the couples swayed and hugged and bumped booties with other couples.

Billy Gibbons of the Texas mega group ZZ Top heard his first blues singers in Houston’s Fourth Ward. His chaperone was the daughter of his black housekeeper. In those smoky old dives, as he wrote in his memoir, Billy F Gibbons: Rock + Roll Gearhead, he “learned the art of kinda fittin’ in.” Gibbons and his bandmates prowled around these same (or similar) old ice houses on the Gulf Coast. Kirk and his pals certainly fit in. It was a night full of Boomer music and a pretty eclectic crowd that was more working class than C-suite. Without any irony, I felt pretty much at home, too. Certainly, I have members of my extended family who would easily be counted as Kitty's regulars if the geography was right.

The band took a well-deserved break as the couples broke apart and gave the band a round of applause. A few bucks hit the tip jar, thumbs up were displayed, and compliments were passed all around. Kirk told me that they were always well-received here, it was a favorite gig for those both on and off stage. I was glad my wife's "Hillary" bumper sticker had finally worn completely off of her SUV. I was equally glad that of all the ball caps inside, none were bright red with "MAGA" embroidered on the front. It was Saturday night, after all. And you know, everybody is somebody at Kitty's Lounge. And ain't nobody's a nobody.

The old "Sam" the sheepdog and "Ralph" the wolf cartoon kept popping my head. You remember those - the wolf would spend the cartoon trying to grab sheep while the immovable sheepdog foiled him at every turn. They both engaged in classic, over-the-top comical cartoon violence of that era. At the end of the day of fighting, however, they both amiably punched a time clock and wished each other a good evening. The joke was that this was all a little role that they played, and that they'd be back at it again tomorrow. Was this just a little Saturday night detente at Kitty's before we'd be back to our mutual self-destruction on Monday morning?

Well, yes. There's no doubt in my mind.

(Brooks) Does this mean that I think the people in my class are vicious and evil? No. Most of us are earnest, kind and public-spirited. But we take for granted and benefit from systems that have become oppressive. Elite institutions have become so politically progressive in part because the people in them want to feel good about themselves as they take part in systems that exclude and reject.

You been to Austin lately? Most Austinites fancy their city as a liberal haven in a blood-red state. They harp on the themes of diversity and inclusion, tolerance and equality. But Austin has gentrified into a super-white, enormously expensive city. It has historic roots of segregation to begin with, and a variety of factors have pushed most of the black community out of the area. The black population of Austin is around 6.6%, whereas Houston and Dallas hover around 16 or 17%.

Progressive elites, after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, came up with a strategy (and slogan) to "Defund the Police." The intention was to punish overly militant, out-of-control law enforcement agencies and beef up social service agencies that could hopefully decrease crime by focussing on drug abuse prevention, mental health care, etc. The movement was fairly absurd at face value. The folks most in need of police protection were deep within marginalized black communities. A backlash from angry black voters who were about to lose what little neighborhood protection they had killed the movement. But not before progressives once again appeared to have abandoned those whom they claimed to care about.

Other examples: The elite, educated, and economically secure hold their noses at more fundamental religions. The educated class recently informed Hispanics that they should be referred to using the new, non-gendered "LatinX," though only a minuscule percentage of Hispanics agreed. There has even been a movement to suggest that traditional gender roles are passe, that perhaps there is no such thing as gender anyway. Elite and even public universities are handing more and more power to the students and parents, and subject matter that makes students uncomfortable or "triggered" is avoided or even eliminated.

And finally, for all the lip service that is paid to the oppressed and downtrodden, not much gets accomplished on their behalf. It's all about identity politics - focussing (and infighting) on which groups are more oppressed, which are deserving/undeserving, who has demonstrated more need or who has been underserved for how long. We seem to have lost the bigger picture of forming a unity that could possibly bring a greater good to that underclass.

Freddie deBoer, a prolific and insightful leftist writer who also writes extensively about the damage that the "elites" are wreaking on honest progressive politics, puts it bluntly:

"A large element of the left’s intellectual and philosophical development in the past century has been to attack traditional grand narratives like “the American way” or the Enlightenment project or the superiority of a rights-based vision of human flourishing. And it’s not difficult to see why a movement focused on securing the rights of oppressed groups might adopt such cynicism about these traditional narratives: They have conspicuously failed to defend the rights of minorities even when they embrace such a defense in the abstract. The trouble is that you have to have something to rally people around, an idea, a symbol, a code, and the left has proven consistently incapable of coalescing around such a vision...What, in 2023, is the Democratic Party’s version of “God, King, and Country”?"

I'll stress again, many of the toxic aims of the modern ultra-right conservative movement, are abhorrent. The abortion fight, the blatant racism, the movement to disenfranchise the LGBT community, the hijacking of education to conform to religious or even white nationalist viewpoints - all of this is unacceptable. But we have to understand what brought Trump to power, and what, if any role progressives have played in that. And the goal is not just to rid ourselves of Trump, but to eliminate the political virus that enabled his rise. How do we move from feel-good social media tropes and knee-jerk policy solutions to the creation of unified public support around a definable, progressive core value? How do we put people (and not extreme wealth) back in power?

The guys were playing Bryan Adams's "Summer of '69" and there was still a lot of energy in the room. But the empties on the table were being picked up. A couple of checks were being laid down. Not quite as many dancers, but a lot of earnest singing from the tables.

"I got my first real six-string
Bought it at the five and dime
Played it 'til my fingers bled
Was the summer of '69"

Pearl leaned in and told Ed that they should head back to the house, it was already past 11 and the dog needed to be let out. Ed made a half-hearted protest, but he threw down a credit card and the waitress went off to clear the tab. The Harley girls were still rocking out. The two Hispanic couples from the booth over had slipped out during the break.

I wanted to feel this comfortable in a place like this on Monday, not just in the dark of a Saturday night... but I'm no PollyAnna. I'll be guarded next week, like always. Ed's probably gonna look at me w/ a little suspicion since I'm not from "around here." Instead of music filling our heads, we'll be back to special interest podcasts, Fox News, reports on the war, AM radio, and the New York Times.

"You ready?" I asked Velveeta over the music. "It's late, and we gotta go and let the dog out."

We waved up to Kirk and Co. up on the stage and headed for the car. We hit the door just behind Ed who turned and kept it open for us.

"Thanks." I gave him a smile.

He grinned back. "Y'all be careful goin' home."

They walked out to their truck, slow and steady. Pearl said she'd drive. "Well wasn't that something?" she said to Ed.

"Oh, when I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Yeah, I'd always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life."
Chris Newlin worked around Tee-Vee stations before he went out on his own and continued to work in the world of video and multi-media production. Then came iPhones and YouTube accounts, so now he sits around full of self-pity and too many Keystone Lights. He still enjoys sunsets, long walks on the beach, and a good bowel movement, at least every now and then.
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