The Sanders Ceiling and the Dirtbag Left: Why Democratic Socialism Fails Without Social Justice

Friends, humans, socialists! Lend me your eyes. For I come to bury Bernie, and to praise him.

When the histories are written – if histories are written, and more on that later – I think Bernie Sanders, though he will almost surely not be President, will rank as a transformative figure in American politics. How can he not? Things that are mainstream now, things like Medicare For All, a $15 minimum wage, a Green New Deal, were politically unthinkable four and five years ago, and it is, for the most part, entirely thanks to Bernie Sanders.

Turns out that progressive policies are actually pretty popular. As many of us suspected they would be, if the media could be convinced to take them seriously (more on that, too). Bernie’s run in 2016, and the energy that manifested behind it, put those issues into both the Democratic Party platform and, more important, the marketplace of ideas, where they sell like hotcakes at a lumberjack convention. Because why wouldn’t they? They’re great fucking ideas that would make almost everyone’s life better.

So why can’t Bernie, and Democratic Socialism, seem to break through electorally? Or at least get past the dedicated core of supporters who have already joined his Political Revolution?

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The answer is complicated. But it can be broken down into elements, some of which can be controlled, some of which can’t. For instance, one element that can’t be controlled is the cultural and historical weight of the word socialism, whether you modify it with the word democratic or not. Especially among Americans over the age of, say, forty. You know, the people who actually vote in meaningful numbers. I’m pushing fifty, myself, and remember the Cold War pall that hung over my childhood, where at any moment the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics might erupt into nuclear holocaust. That’s some heavy shit to lay on a kid. But more important, that early training (friend/enemy, good/bad) is hard to transcend even if you’re consciously trying.

And yeah, socialism is much more agreeable to Millennials and Gen-Z and whatever we end up calling the ones who’ll come after them. We could have had it already, too, if they’d fucking turn out to vote in bigger numbers. Not that any generation ever has any moral high ground on that. So file that under ‘we’ll work on it, but don’t hold your breath.’

Also in that file is what I’ll call the Resistance of the Punditariat, who perform our national political discourse on TV and podcasts and radio, and from the pages of newspapers and magazines and political websites, and who are, for the most part, handsomely compensated for doing so. Their salary depends on their not understanding certain things, especially those that might upset the status quo. Not only are they invested in that status quo – as the successful will be in any situation or system – they have also been worked like sports refs for decades now by the folks on the right, who never miss an opportunity to accuse them of liberal bias. It’s to the point where a fair observer has to say they’ve overcompensated. Why else was every third question Elizabeth Warren was asked – back when she was the front-runner in national polling – whether or not she would raise taxes on the middle class? The question’s as loaded as an AR-15. Like in middle school when that kid thought the funniest thing in the world was to ask ‘Does your mom know you’re gay?’

So figure the punditariat – who are mostly fairly liberal in their personal attitudes; I do believe that – will continue to skew anti-liberal/progressive/socialist for the foreseeable future. You can’t control it, but you can take it into account and start working them yourself, calling out bias in framing and the focus on horse-race ephemera when lives and livelihoods are on the line. Like anything, if enough people do it for long enough, that tide can be turned, too. Evolution has a thousand mothers.

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So what factors can we control? And what does this have to do with Bernie Sanders and his Political Revolution? I’m glad I asked, cuz I got a theory.

My theory is we have two problems, which are inter-related. The first is simply this: socialists, especially the core of Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution, are really shitty at being allies, and, as such, are even shittier at building coalitions. If you think I’m wrong, I’ll point you to all the people demanding Elizabeth Warren endorse Bernie Sanders because of their friendship and ideological similarities. People who, some of them, got in a flame war with Warren’s supporters back in January when her so-called friend and ally called her a liar on national TV, and who called the person who built the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (and was forced out of running it) a corporate stooge. Shit, Warren’s people reached out to Sanders weeks before Super Tuesday and her dropping out of the race, and were rebuffed.

Some of this is the Dirtbag Left, who not unlike the above-mentioned punditariat, have found a profitable sort of noise to make, and whose new salaries depend on their not understanding things like how being an exclusivist jerkwad pretty much guarantees nobody wants to join or even work with you. It’s somewhere between a faith tradition and a cool kidz club from what I can tell: you’re in or you’re out, and fuck you if you’re out, even a little. It works as entertainment, but it’s no way to build a governing coalition. Which is what you need if you want to enact policy to, like, change people’s lives and shit.

But there’s a whopping dollop of blame to put on Bernie Sanders’ fudge sundae, too. For some of his hires, definitely. But the man made some seriously flawed choices. For one thing, his insistence on running as much against the Democratic Party as the Republicans and the billionaire corporate oligarchy is just a really not good way to get Democrats to support you. It riles up the kids, but til they show up to vote that’s a human interest story at best.

But it was Bernie’s choice to dismiss social justice issues as ‘Identity Politics’ for so long that really doomed him.

Put it this way: the backbone of the Democratic party is not, as many white college-educated progressives believe, white college-educated progressives. The ‘Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party’ as folks used to put it. We think we are, and there’s a certain logic to it. But we aren’t the party’s backbone, nor its heart and soul, either.

Women of color are the backbone of the Democratic Party, its heart and soul and animating force. People of color generally, but women of color particularly, and African-American women particularly-particularly. They’re the ones who show up, no matter what. The ones who do the actual work that makes the party go.

Women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants. You can win without them. But only if you’re a Republican.

So, if you want to, say, get the Democratic Party nomination for President, you’d best have a plan to win those voters over. Give them a reason to take a chance on you, Because as previously detailed, anything that can be labeled ‘socialism’ has a hard row to hoe in the US, and since those folks are the ones who catch the worst when Republicans and their coalition of White Christian Nationalists and the Actual Oligarchy are in charge, yeah, they tend not to want to take chances. I mean, put yourself in their shoes for a minute. If the house is on fire, you want to hear from the guy talking about how to put the fire out, not the guy talking about what kind of house you might build later.

And that brings me to the second prong of my theory, which has to do with the limits of a purely materialist critique of the status quo’s utility, not only as rhetorical but an analytical tool.

Like any reductive analysis, a purely materialist (the corporations and the 1% have captured the state and unofficially enslaved us all to an unsustainable economic system with disastrous and unjust real-world consequences) critique flattens the object of its critique, examines it through a lens that shrinks the spectrum in order to highlight certain wavelengths over others. All too often, issues of social justice are among those excluded wavelengths.

Those for whom social justice issues are of more than academic or conscientious interest aren’t thrilled to have their concerns so cavalierly excluded, it turns out. Nor are they thrilled when, as I’ve seen so often, they are blithely told how their issues will be magically solved through solely economic justice, and called names when they fail to achieve the expected moment of epiphany and join the faith tradition.

Remember, these are the natural, obvious allies any effective democratic socialist movement needs to achieve even a fraction of its goals. It’s time to stop asking why they aren’t joining us, and start asking how we can grow not only our tent but our worldview to include them.

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I have a deep and abiding respect for Bernie Sanders and the movement he’s built. I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing the issues – and policy solutions – of economic justice and class war and democratic socialism into the American mainstream, where even a resistant punditariat has to take them seriously. But I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached the limits of not only a Sanders-style Political Revolution that demands adherence instead of building alliances and coalitions, but of a purely materialist socialist critique of late capitalism that filters out issues of social justice and asks those for whom social justice is lived reality to take it on faith that they’ll be included.

For what it’s worth, on a personal level, I still think that more actively fighting the class war and striving to establish economic justice will go a long way to righting social and historical injustice. Like the cereal commercials from when I was a kid used to say: it’s an important part of this nutritious breakfast.

We just have to remember there are other things on the table, which are just as important, some even more so.

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If you want to change hearts and minds, you have to meet people where they are. You have to find out where they’re coming from, what they need, what they want. And you have to, you know, help them get it. Do the work for them. Don’t tell them how being your ally will benefit them. Show them how it does. It means reaching out, but it means stretching out, too. Becoming bigger yourself.

The most basic tenet of democratic socialism is that we’re all in it together. So let’s start acting like it. Let’s start acting like we understand the only socialism worth having is one that begins with social justice. Maybe then we can get some shit done.

Some Quick Reminders for the Iowa Conspiracy Theorists

First and foremost: There’s a paper trail — for the first time, btw, so put that in your pipe and (retrospectively) smoke it — so the results will come in, and probably be reasonably accurate. That they will be muddled because of how many ways the totals are gonna be split, and because — for some reason — they are reporting not one, not two, but three metrics by which a winner might be declared would have been the case even if things went smooth like butter.

Second, and I can’t stress this enough: Iowa doesn’t really matter! The state accounts for a whopping 1% of convention delegates, which is how the party decides who gets the nomination. In fact, the first four states (IA, NH, NV, and SC) only account for about 5% of delegates (the latter two were moved up to help counterbalance the, ahem, whiteness of the traditional first two). The media likes to pretend they matter more than they actually do, because it gives them fodder to create narratives (and winnow the field). But really, we’re not going to have a good idea who’s ahead, behind, or viable going forward til Super Tuesday, when about half the delegates will be allotted in one big day of primary voting.

Third: Of course the app went wrong. It’s a brand new piece of bespoke tech — developed for a complex, idiosyncratic process — that couldn’t be field-tested beforehand because how would you even do that? Add to that that rules were changed in the way the caucuses work (because this ain’t the first time they’ve had problems calling a winner the night or even the week of), and remember that the vast majority of poll workers are retiree volunteers who don’t know a whole lot about the cyber, and the likeliest — even inevitable — outcome is what happened.

Fourth, and really more of an aside: The changes that are fucking this all up were implemented after complaints from Sanders supporters in 2016, who wanted a more transparent process with a paper trail and yadda yadda yadda (instead of, you know, getting rid of these arcane, uninclusive, undemocratic rituals in favor of the simplicity of a primary vote). That these selfsame people — and the bots who love them — are making the biggest stink about what’s going down is both extremely on-brand and perfectly in tune with the tragilarious irony that has characterized this blighted timeline since the Large Hadron Collider was turned on and everyone lost their goddam minds.

Fifth: While the various conspiracies — Russian/Republican ratfucking, DNC scale-tipping against Bernie/Joe/Pete/whoevs — are not unplausible, I urge you recall Hanlon’s Razor, which says, simply:

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So, deep breaths, everybody. Relax. For once, we’ve woken up the day after Iowa without a handy narrative to shape perceptions about the race going forward. The voting’s just started, the race is still tight. Which, you know, accurately reflects the reality.

This is a good thing.

Aja Romano on What We Didn’t Learn from Gamergate

Long read, but well worth the time, and worth quoting at some length:

“Again and again, throughout 2014 and afterward — and, really, well before that, as women in online subcultures withstood years of targeted harassment — many failed to understand and assess what Gamergate was. The media, tech platforms, the niche internet communities these reactionaries came from (places with marginally obscure names like 4chan, 8chan, and Voat, for instance), the corporations they easily manipulated, and the general public, who seemed to take it in as nebulous online noise; no one properly identified Gamergate as a major turning point for the internet. The hate campaign, we would later learn, was the moment when our ability to repress toxic communities and write them off as just “trolls” began to crumble. Gamergate ultimately gave way to something deeper, more violent, and more uncontrollable.

[…]

And in the same way that none of those years of escalating online assaults against women prepared us for Gamergate, somehow, the formation of Gamergate itself didn’t prepare society for the cultural rise of the alt-right. The journalists who did anticipate that Gamergate could and would morph into something worse were, by 2015, drowned out by the general cultural idea that Gamergate had somehow “failed”— even though it was a movement inherently meant to scale and grow. Somehow, the idea that all of that sexism and anti-feminist anger could be recruited, harnessed, and channeled into a broader white supremacist movement failed to generate any real alarm, even well into 2016, when all the pieces were firmly in place.

In other words, even though all the signs were there in 2014 that a systematized online harassment campaign could lead to an escalation in real-world violence, most people failed to see what was happening. Gamergate ultimately made us all much more aware of the potential real-world impact of online extremism. Yet, years after Gamergate, despite increasing evidence suggesting a connection between online violence against women and real-world violence — including mass shootings — many corporations and social media platforms still struggle to identify and eradicate extreme forms of violence against women from online spaces.

[…]

The public’s failure to understand and accept that the alt-right’s misogyny, racism, and violent rhetoric is serious goes hand in hand with its failure to understand and accept that such rhetoric is identical to that of President Trump. Now we see similar ideologies as Gamergaters from someone as powerful as Trump. He retweets and amplifies alt-right memes on his Twitter; his son openly affiliates with the alt-right; Trump defended and continues to present the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, as though it wasn’t intentionally planned and organized as a white supremacist rally. (It was.)

As described by Vox’s Ezra Klein, Trump’s willingness to engage in incendiary racist rhetoric is similar to the tactics that have led many journalists to dismiss his followers as trolls: “He chooses his enemies based on who he thinks will rile up his base. He uses outrageous, offensive insults to get the media to take notice. And then he feeds off the energy unleashed by the confrontation.” In other words, he and his followers — many of whom, again, are members of the extreme online right-wing that got its momentum from Gamergate — are using the strategy Gamergate codified: deploying offensive behavior behind a guise of mock outrage, irony, trolling, and outright misrepresentation, in order to mask the sincere extremism behind the message.”

How Warren Handled the Dustup, How Sanders Did

Start with the caveat: I’ve wanted Elizabeth Warren to run for President since 2009, when she first came to national prominence helping manage the Troubled Assets Relief Program. I was thrilled when she took Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat back from the Republicans, and I would have loved her to run in 2016, though I understood why she might choose not to. I’ve been a supporter since she announced in 2019, and I think of all the candidates running she’d make the best President, for reasons I’ll get into in a different post.

Bernie Sanders is my second choice. I was thrilled when he announced in 2016. Even though it was the longest of longshot candidacies, I was glad to see an out loud and proud progressive democratic socialist in the race, making news and getting the kinds of policies and critiques of the status quo I believe in into the mainstream discourse. I was thrilled with how far he exceeded expectations. But a tipping point came, at which he’d done what good he was going to, and the math was against him, with or without superdelegates and Clinton’s institutional support. And Bernie kept going.

Still, I’m glad that, this time around, not one but two progressive champions are not only in the arena, but have made it to the quarter-finals, when votes start getting cast and delegates allotted. And while I prefer Elizabeth over Bernie, I’ll be glad to see either of them collect delegates, because it means more legitimacy and power for the progressive wing of the Democratic party. If either of them win the nomination, they’ll have my full-throated support and whatever time or money I can cobble together to give them.

Okay? Okay.

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Isn’t this peaceful? Take a moment and appreciate it. Please.

You probably haven’t been hiding under a rock, but in case you have, the non-aggression pact Warren and Sanders worked out a year ago, and that’s been working out for both of them pretty well, started to fray a bit last week. Whether it’ll crumble further’s up for grabs, as much as the mainstream press would like it to, since news means eyeballs and progressives in elected office means cracking the oligarchy trying to murder American Democracy right now and their salaries depend on their not understanding that.

Bernie swung first, with some talking points for canvassers that could be read as anodyne or insulting depending on where you sit. Warren stayed mum for a day, then made either a proportional response or a sacrilegious slander in which she revealed that Bernie Sanders told her a woman couldn’t win the Presidency of the United States. Bernie denied it, blamed it on lying staffers. Warren confirmed her recollection. Bernie denied it, calling Warren a liar by implication. Then the debate happened.

 

 

 

Wolf Blitzer was clearly trying to get them to fight, wording his questions in such a way as to presume Sanders had said it. It was obvious, it was trite, and it showed Blitzer for what he is, a hack more interested in causing news than a journalist whose work is to report it.

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This guy, amirite?

There’s not a whole lot of daylight between Warren and Sanders, policy-wise. Certainly compared to the rest of the candidates on stage (don’t get me started on the Republicans). But there are differences of temperament and character that I think are telling and important, and I think the way the two of them handled the question in the moment — and after the debate, while the cameras were still running, though they mics weren’t hot anymore — tells us a lot about those differences.

I think it tells us a lot about the different standards men and women are held to, also. Even on the progressive left, where we really ought to know better.

You could see Elizabeth Warren on the split-screen while Bernie answered. Because he is Bernie — and, like so many men of his generation, can never do or be wrong, nor have done, or been, wrong, ever — he denied outright that he said it, called it ludicrous he or anyone would ever say such a thing (as if the person to whom he said it it were not right there next to him and also his longtime friend and ally), and corrected the record surprisingly meticulously for a conversation had a very busy year ago.

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TFW your friend says you lied.

If you’re at all able to read facial expressions, you could actually watch Elizabeth Warren swallow her rage at being called a liar in public in real time. (Link is to the exchange in question)

Now, I’m not here to try and settle the he-said/she-said here. The fact is human memory is unreliable, language is complex, perception of subtext and body language and facial expression necessarily idiosyncratic. They could very well both be telling the truth as they know/recall it. To be honest, settling that particular ambiguity — saying who’s right, who’s wrong, yadda yadda yadda — is beside the point I’m making here.

Given her chance to respond, Elizabeth Warren confined herself to two words, “I disagreed.” Then she turned and faced the 800-pound gorilla in the room head-on, and talked about how being a woman running for President in 2020 is not only not a disadvantage, it’s an outright advantage. She got the line of the night with how the men on stage had lost ten elections while the women hadn’t lost any. She made the case that the wave election of 2018 was attributable to the engagement of women as candidates and voters, which led to the Democratic House majority that have brought us not only four hundred plus pieces of legislation but impeached our corrupt gangster wannabe oligarch President.

In the back-and-forth after, Sanders reiterated his denial (reiterating his implicit claim that Warren is lying about what she said he said to her), and, in the middle of a pretty good line about how if any of the women — or men — onstage with him got the nomination, he’d be happy to support them, went off on a tangent about how he hoped it wasn’t any of them, he hoped it was him.

Elizabeth Warren talked about what she wanted to do as President, and made a case for why she was the candidate to unite both sides of the party. A thing that’s pretty important going into a campaign year that could decide more than just who’s in charge of various government entities for the next few years (hey there, climate change! Whatcha got in store for us?).

Then, at the end, when the debate was over and the mics turned off, Warren confronted her erstwhile buddy. From the transcript:

“I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Warren told Sanders.

“What?” asked Sanders.

“I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Warren said.

“You know, let’s not do it right now. If you want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion,” Sanders said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as billionaire activist Tom Steyer listens after the seventh Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines on Jan. 14. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as billionaire activist Tom Steyer listens after the seventh Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines on Jan. 14. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

“Anytime,” Warren said.

“You called me a liar,” Sanders said, adding: “You told me — all right, let’s not do it now.”

She ignores his proffered handshake. He’s confused, then dismissive. We’re not having this conversation right now, says his body language.

I have a feeling every woman I know has had something like that happen to her. Had her concerns — her integrity, even — dismissed and devalued by a man constitutionally incapable of admitting he was wrong.

[Caveat/Spoiler alert: I have also been that guy. Count me chagrined.]

Bernie Sanders could have done a little diplomacy and defused this whole nonsense. He could have made the whole situation disappear just by telling his friend and respected colleague that he recalled their conversation differently, but that he regretted giving her the impression he meant otherwise. He could have accepted some small degree of fault, apologized, and the whole thing would have been over.

Elizabeth Warren does not and did not have that option. Even if she did, that’s not her style. She’s done her damnedest this whole campaign not to go negative on anyone. She’s pointed out behaviors, and drawn distinctions between herself and, say, Pete Buttigieg. But she’s run a relentlessly positive campaign about what she means to do, how she means to do it, and why she’s the person who ought to be doing it. Even in the face of a callous, off-the-cuff insult from a self-proclaimed friend, she kept her cool and kept on mission.

And that, much as anything else, is why she’s my first choice, and Bernie only second. Because my political allegiance is not a fandom, it’s a reflection of my values, my character, and my honest best assessment of political effectiveness. Bernie’s good, and I think he’ll do the things I’d want a President to do more than he won’t, and it’ll be good for the country to elect someone so progressive. But Elizabeth Warren has a better temperament, is a more effective leader of large organizations, and will, I think, not only do better unifying the Democratic party behind her, she’ll do a better job winning the campaign and then governing after.

In more ways than one, I think it’s because she’s a woman.

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You may feel differently, and that’s fine. That’s what primary season’s all about. And in the next month or two, we’ll all have a way better idea which candidate’s doing better. Til then, I think we’re all gonna be way better off remembering we’re all on the same side, and concentrating on who the real bad guys are.

The Least I Could Do

Yesterday, after buying a cup of tea and nine copies of Real Change, I cried in the grocery store.

It was cold out, below freezing. Snow fell off and on, some of it snow that had fallen the day before, stirred up and blown sideways by wind sharp enough it had teeth. The light was silver tarnished by winter clouds, though the sun’s generous nature would win out later and turn the day if not kind at least kinder. I’d got a good chill in my fingers and hands scraping the windshield — forgot to grab gloves on the way out the door. But by the time I had driven up the hill to the store I was warm all the way through.

Two days previous, I was swimming in an ocean warm as bath-water, jumping waves with my love and watching the sun set at the end of a week and a half in Costa Rica with Dr. Bae.

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Like this, only closer.

We’d been gone since before Christmas, so there was nothing to eat in the house. So I went to the grocery store. I didn’t bother to make a list. We needed, like, everything, all the stuff we usually have around, plus a couple of specific requests from Dr. Bae, which of course I’d remember. I was wearing four layers, wishing I’d put on more. Yeah I’d just come from paradise, where I’d lived in my bathing suit most of a week. But it was cold, man. Crossing the parking lot, I couldn’t wait to get inside.

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This is a pretty serious cold snap for the PNW.

Back when I was a bartender — back when I took most of my pay home in cash, and always had a wad of singles and fives in my pocket — I used to give money to just about every homeless person who asked. I got a buck for opening a beer; it was no big deal to kick down and help somebody out. I figured if they were bad off enough they needed to stand around outside and ask strangers for money, they needed it more than I did.

Since then, I don’t carry cash as much as I used to. Even if I was still a bartender, I probably wouldn’t: nowadays everybody pays with a card. Walking with all your tips is a thing of the past. Even if I do have cash, it’s usually in twenties, stuck away in my wallet just in case. Like yesterday.

I think it was because I was thinking about how cold I was that my eyes didn’t slide past the lady selling Real Change outside Safeway the way they so often do. Real Change is a fine publication, and as a card-carrying bleeding-heart liberal progressive social justice warrior I 100% approve of their undertaking and mission. But I also resent them, because I’ve already got more to read than I could possibly keep up with. So I’m basically buying a piece of recycling (or, depending on where you live, compost).

It’s a real conundrum, negotiating that particular intersectionality. Put simpler: life is complicated.

Except it wasn’t. I was freezing and I looked at the lady standing in the cold and decided I’d buy a paper and get her two dollars closer to wherever she was trying to get to. It seemed the least I could do.

“Can you break a twenty?”

“I don’t know. Let me see.”

She had to take off her gloves to count back the change. She had a hat on, and a jacket I might use as a mid-layer between my long underwear and my outer jackets.
She was shivering, the cold crept into her bones, it looked like. We talked a little while she counted change back. I let her get to sixteen and said I’d just make it easy on both of us and buy two. I asked her if I could get her anything inside: a bite of food or a hot drink. She asked for a hot tea and being a retired bartender I asked how she liked it.

“Just a hot tea with a little sugar in it.” Her hands were shaking so hard she had trouble putting her gloves back on. Continue reading “The Least I Could Do”