TED IS IN HIS TRUCK, and I am following in my rental car. We are driving to a restaurant of his choosing for a dinner on The Washington Post; price is no object. Muskegon is not renowned as a mecca of haute cuisine, but the Sardine Room does offer a robust $26 filet mignon, and for $49.99 you can get two lobster tails at Dockers Waterfront Cafe. Ted, however, has chosen Famous Dave's Bar-B-Que.
Ted's preferences are simple. He drinks Bud Light because he likes it; the importeds cost too much and taste skunky to him, anyway. He smokes Basics, which are generic cigarettes that don't jack up their price for fancy packaging or slick ad campaigns. He likes the Steve Miller Band because he can make out the damn words. He can do fancy, decorative stonemasonry -- fireplaces and things like that -- but it's a painstaking process, and he's impatient, so he prefers flatwork, which means pouring garages and sidewalks.
Ted Prus, 37, at the Muskegon, Mich., construction company where he works.
(J. Carl Ganter)
With Ted in the cab is Kim Miller, the woman with whom he has been living for nine years but whom he never married because neither of them sees any good reason to jump through that hoop. Between them is their 6-year-old son, Slate, who got his name because it's unconventional and Ted wants his boy to be his own man, and because it's a construction material Ted respects for its hardness, and Ted wants his boy to grow up strong.
The truck pulls into the restaurant parking lot, then jerks to a stop. Ted bounces out of the cab and nods sourly toward the restaurant entrance, around which a few parties of three and four congregate. "Sorry," he explains, "I don't wait in lines."
He heads back to the truck. "It's okay. I know another place."
So we're off again, snaking through the residential streets of suburban Muskegon. We make a left, and then a right, and then a few more lefts and rights, until it becomes apparent that this trip won't be over anytime soon. Ted drives friskily. The scenery passes in a blur, including all the Kerry and Bush signs that dot the tidy front lawns but which go as unnoticed as crabgrass.
Finally, we arrive at a Chili's restaurant. The trip has taken exactly 19 1/2 minutes, probably longer than the wait for a table at Dave's. But this place is half empty, and we can plop right down. Ted is happy. Me, too. Here is my first real sit-down chance to try to figure out Ted's politics, or lack thereof.
The first hypothesis to be explored was proposed by no less influential a political observer than columnist George Will, the bowtied, sesquipedalian voice of American conservatism. Will and others have opined that low voter turnout is in some ways a good thing, that it prevents fickle swings in national policy since the least committed and knowledgeable voters tend to be more inflamed by momentary passions. More to the point, they say, it implies "good government" -- a general satisfaction with how the country is going and how its leaders are doing.
Me: "Is America doing okay?"
Ted: "For the rich, maybe."
Me: "Well, what's the problem?"
Ted: "The guys in charge."
Me: "You like the other guys better?"
Ted: "No. All politicians are liars."
So much for George Will.
A Northwestern University study of people who do not vote -- compiled into a 1999 book, Nonvoters: America's No-Shows, by Jack C. Doppelt and Ellen Shearer -- confirms some intuitive impressions about the group. Interestingly, Ted seems to be remarkably typical. So does Kim. She doesn't vote, either, and for a lot of the same reasons.
Like the majority of nonvoters, Ted and Kim are between the ages of 18 and 44, are white, have below-average incomes and high school educations. Moreover, they seem to fit into not just one but three of the five categories of nonvoter that the book identifies: They are "irritables" because they don't like the way most things in the country are going. They are "alienateds" because they mistrust and disbelieve politicians. And they are "unpluggeds" because they tune out the news.
Me: "What have you heard about the presidential campaign?"
Ted: "When I was watching the farm report on TV this morning, they mentioned something about it. "
Me: "What was that?"
Ted: "I don't know. I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth."
Me: "Why don't you guys watch the news?"
Kim: "Too much war and crap."
Ted: "It's too depressing. They're always talking about everything bad."
Kim: "Like whose head got chopped off."
Ted: "If something's good, it doesn't make the news."
Ted takes a bite of the fried-onion appetizer: "They usually get the weather wrong, too." Ted has a likable laugh, a heh-heh bark, punctuation to acknowledge irony.
Slate is winsome, an Opie Taylor type just shedding the last traces of a little-kid lithp. Kim, a green-eyed blonde, is disarmingly straightforward and friendly. Of the three, Ted is the most reserved. He is wiry-handsome, and with the baseball caps he favors, he's got the look of a veteran middle reliever, down to the stoic demeanor and the requisite mustache-and-goatee combo.
Many weeks, Ted pulls in less than $500, and Kim -- who used to manage a video store -- hasn't worked steadily since Slate was born. During times when construction work is light, they sometimes subsist on what Ted brings home from fishing and hunting and scavenging for wild mushrooms. The fungal forays are often done with Slate in tow because, being low to the ground, he's a better morel hunter.
It's a rule of thumb that mushrooms with insects crawling on them are the safe ones to eat. In Ted's world, that's just one of those homely facts of life you accept and live with, if you're a survivor. Another is that life isn't always fair.
Ted and Kim live in Twin Lake, a blue-collar Muskegon suburb of 1,600. Until recently, their home was an apartment above John's Market, right under the big wooden sign advertising "Choice Meats Cold Beer Wine Liquor." Some months ago, the store got a new owner. John's is now owned by Deedar. Deedar Singh.
"Foreign guy," says Ted. He does an excellent imitation of the voice of Apu, the Indian convenience-store proprietor from "The Simpsons."
Ted is not altogether happy with the influx of foreigners into the United States. He's heard that they don't even have to pay taxes for the first five years they live in this country. He's not sure where he heard it, but he's pretty sure it's true, and it just doesn't seem right.
No, it's not true, but Ted doesn't seem convinced. He is not easily shaken from his view of the world as an uneven playing field, and things keep happening to confirm it. Pretty quickly, Ted got into a rent dispute with Singh. It wound up in court, and Ted and Kim had to move.
To Ted, life is something that happens to you; sometimes it's good, sometimes not. And, as it happens, this turned out fine. Ted and Kim wound up buying a house together a few blocks away. Kim was married before, but this is the first home she's ever owned. Ted, too. It's a humble starter house -- a two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow, less than 1,000 square feet, all told. The price came to $72,000, counting closing costs. The thing Ted remembers most about the closing is that when it was over, he got a check for $497. "They gave me money to buy my house!"
Ted doesn't know much about the intricacies of home financing, or cash-back transactions, and he never asked about this sudden bounty. It was just one of those things that happen.
The house may be small, but it's cozy, and the back yard is big -- nearly an acre. So they've gotten themselves a pup, a friendly chow mix named Buddy. "We bought Slate a video game, but it's stayed on the shelf ever since we moved," Ted says. At first, it sounds like he is grumping about Slate's ingratitude. But then he says, matter-of-factly, "My son has a back yard now." Ted doesn't readily show emotion, even pride.
It's hard for me not to like Ted and Kim; they seem almost entirely without pretension. It's also hard for me not to patronize them a little. They seem almost entirely without sophistication.
The Chili's waitress delivers our entrees. They're still sizzling, served in cast-iron skillets, the handles of which are sheathed by cheerful little potholder sleeves.
"Look at those," Kim says. "That's a great idea. We could use those things on our frying pans."