So, Rosa and I were enjoying a late-morning stroll through our neighborhood. Warming air, blooming flowers and other triumphs of spring springing are always surprising mood-lifters, even though they usually show up right on time. This past year has been tough all around, so the seasonal change had a more joyous effect than usual. We were practically giddy, our easy meander occasionally breaking into a synchronized skip as we held hands, blissfully engrossed in springtime wonder!
That kind of glee can cause quite a thirst, so we decided to giggle our way to the corner store for a bottle of water. That’s when we noticed a small crowd gathering a block away. Seeing my uncontainable excitement at the prospect of more celebration, Rosa volunteered to go into the store, allowing me to go on ahead and witness this developing commemoration.
Jauntily, I strode over to the group, cherry-cheeked and goofy-grinned, eager to add my cheer to the moment! Fifteen or 20 people had formed a loose circle, quietly facing inward. Some had notepads, some microphones, all listening to the person in the middle. Who could it be? I saw Frances McDormand at the farmers’ market a few years ago. Maybe it was her? Another time I saw David Crosby wander into the Little Tap House. Could it be him? I mean, Stephen King lives here. Who could it be? The celebrity possibilities were endless! I wore the silliest of all possible smiles as I craned my neck to see over the crowd, finally spotting a person in the center, but my eyes had difficulty focusing. It felt as though I were being assaulted by a pungent odor. But it wasn’t an odor, it was a sound — awkward, pesky and irksome. The timbre of a human voice, a familiar one. Slowly, my eyes narrowed and finally identified the source of that recognizable and infernal tone.
There, bleating, honking and manically gesticulating at the center of his audience, stood Paul LePage.
“This motherfucker?” I unknowingly said aloud.
The man in front of me turned and gave me a look. You know the kind. It was the angry scowl of someone displeased with my sentiment. It was the condescending glare of someone attempting to assert themselves as my better. And it was either the disingenuous leer of feigning offense or the sad glower of a poor milksop with a vacuous lack of irony. Either way, it brought me back to the brink of silly laughter.
I took out my phone and started taking pictures, LePage’s eyes repeatedly darting my way. Was I familiar to him? Maybe he was trying to remember if my name was Smoothie? Shifty? D Money? Perhaps he was trying to remember my face from his three-ring binder of mug shots. To be fair, for someone with such a long list of people of color he’d like to shoot, it’s probably very difficult for him to tell us apart.
Miraculously holding back my laughter, I heard him explain his turd-in-church-like presence in my neighborhood. It turns out the Republican Party was opening a multicultural center right in the heart of Southern Maine liberaldom, and I had stumbled upon the grand opening! Yes, somehow, really!
As LePage explained that his problem with immigration was that it took too long, my restraint collapsed. Chuckles began to escape me as I remembered LePage supporting our previous president’s immigration ban. Chuckles became cackles as I remembered LePage blocking emergency funding for immigrants. Cackles graduated to guffaws as I remembered LePage saying of asylum seekers, “and what happens is you get hepatitis C, tuberculosis, AIDS, HIV, the ziki fly [sic], all these other foreign type of diseases that find a way to our land.”
Then, in the brief seconds before my guffaws became howls and the elevated dissonance of the moment began my sharp descent into madness, I noticed another assaulting tone. Familiar and jarring, but different than the first. The air stilled and silence reigned as I became repulsed by the sound of my own laughter.
I’d laughed this laugh before. LePage’s first campaign brought it out of me. As did his second. As did our previous president’s campaigns. It’s the same laughter I hear from Democrats now, as that previous president polls better than ever despite a failed coup attempt, a banishing from social media and long decades of other actions all formerly considered precursors to political exile.
As the war in Ukraine whitens the global face of asylum seekers, maybe a right-wing immigrant welcome center isn’t that off-brand. Maybe the best propagator of fascism is liberal laughter. Maybe it’s time we accept that they’ll never learn and crack open a history book for ourselves.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller. He is also a contributor to the recently released How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling from The Moth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.