On the morning of Monday, September 13, a white Ford truck with a grouchy engine pulled out of a garage in Muskegon, Mich., and headed toward the airport. Many other vehicles were going in the same direction -- cars and vans and caravans of buses chartered for the day. Up in the sky, somewhere to the east, an airplane was en route as well, carrying the president of the United States.
In just an hour or so, the airport would play host to some grass-roots politics at its greenest -- a presidential appearance in a key region of a battleground state in an election some think will be too close to call.
Muskegon is a hurtin' place. Its downtown is desolate, the most impressive landmark being a pair of enormous sand dunes, six stories high, in an empty lot right across from the tattoo parlor. They're pulverized concrete, all that remains of a downtown mall that was returned into dust after the businesses fled for the 'burbs.
The city needed a boost, and the president needed a forum that mattered; hence, this convergence at the airport. If the heady populism of the day was tempered a bit by elitist logistics -- attendance was invitation-only, invitations only going to the Republican faithful -- few of the invitees seemed to mind. Two thousand Bush supporters, faces beaming, were trundling toward the airport in all those vehicles.
The face in the cab of the old white truck, however, was not beaming. It was resolute. Its eyes were flinty and businesslike. The truck was a coughing, irascible mess. If this had been a movie, the music would have swelled ominously, because, from a cinematic perspective, the man at the wheel looked less like a presidential supporter than a presidential assassin.
This was real life, however, and at the last minute, the truck turned harmlessly west, away from the airport, down a residential lane and into a driveway. Out walked Ted Prus, masonry worker, with a hammer in his hand. Ted's job for the day was to help turn a big old hole in the ground into someone's garage.
The president's job for the day was to deliver a speech on health care, a subject on which Ted might well have taken an interest. Ted is 37 and makes $15 an hour, unless it rains, in which case he makes nothing. His main experience with health care is not having it -- a situation that, despite his youth appearance, is not exactly irrelevant. Twice in the last few years, Ted had seizures that left him unconscious. Once, it happened on the banks of a river he was fishing; had his best friend, Brian, not been there to drag him out of the water, he likely would have drowned. Ted could barely scrape together the $400 a doctor charged him to tell him that she didn't know what was wrong with him and that he'd have to see a specialist. The specialist was out of the question, financially, so Ted just keeps his fingers crossed and worries about those frequent headaches.
Ted also has no dental insurance. This, too, is not irrelevant. A few years ago, when a balky molar began to bark, Ted did not see a dentist. Instead, he says, he sat in his kitchen, loosened the tooth with a pocket knife and then yanked it out with pliers from his tackle box.
The presidential appearance had been all over the news in Muskegon for more than a week, but Ted hadn't heard about it until the day before, and only because someone told him. He doesn't read the papers much, except for NASCAR results and sometimes the classifieds. On TV, for information, he watches the Weather Channel or the farm reports.
It was a nice day. As Ted wielded his hammer, something amazing happened, something that a hack writer -- an abuser of cliches searching for a perfect moment soaked in irony and pregnant with meaning -- would not dare make up. Air Force One roared directly overhead.
Ted didn't even look up. Because, when it comes to politics, as Ted will tell you himself, he just doesn't give a rat's ass.
MOST AMERICANS WHO ARE ELIGIBLE TO VOTE, DON'T.
It may be hard to believe, and harder to accept, but the numbers are inescapable. In recent presidential elections -- the quadrennial events that are the pinnacle for voter turnout -- roughly half the potential voting population chose not to exercise its franchise. For some off-year elections, barely a quarter of eligible voters show up. Even this year's ballyhooed spike in registration is considered unlikely to boost turnout to 60 percent, or anywhere near.
In short, there is no political force more to be reckoned with, no constituency potentially more influential, no voting bloc potentially mightier, than those who are too lazy or indifferent or disaffected or angry to go to the polls. The candidate of a Nonvoters Party would win in a cakewalk. You know, theoretically.
The voice of their silence is deafening. It may be, as some studies suggest, that their political preferences would mirror those of voters, anyway. But the sheer number of nonvoters is so great that, in a close election, even the most minuscule difference in their pattern of preference could be decisive. If only they would vote.
Nonvoting is, many say, a national disgrace. The United States is practically first among world democracies in voter apathy: Only Switzerland has lower turnout in elections to choose its leaders, but Switzerland is a case unto itself. The Swiss don't care all that much about who governs them, because, in a sense, they govern themselves: Almost every significant issue of public policy is put to a plebiscite.
There's no such ready explanation for what happens here; in fact, it defies intuition. Over the last half-century, many of the historical impediments to voting have been lifted -- educational opportunities have improved among all demographics; Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised Southern blacks have been taken off the books; complicated registration procedures have been streamlined. And yet, since 1960, voting rates have been steadily declining.
Political scientists point to several reasons, among them the ascendancy of negative campaigning, which tends to sour voters on the candidates and on politics in general. Some cite the fact that, in the era of cable TV, we have too many choices of where we obtain our information, making it easier to ignore politics in favor of entertainment. Actually, politics used to provide entertainment; historians have observed that in other eras, people felt about their parties much as they do, today, about their sports teams. Turn-of-the-century urban political clubs sponsored neighborhood athletic teams, and their meeting houses served as social clubs. That sort of generations-long loyalty and blind partisan devotion is gone, even among the politically astute. Involvement in all civic areas has declined.
Most political experts see low voter turnout as a problem to be fixed. Earnest citizen-advocacy literature -- the sort of things passed out at polling places and party headquarters -- makes the passionate argument that every vote counts. Those documents tend to include long, familiar lists of important matters decided by one vote (Thomas Jefferson wins the presidency; Texas enters the Union; France becomes a republic). Unfortunately, such examples, while well-intentioned, are bogus. All of the "elections" cited are not popular votes but votes within legislatures, where one-vote majorities are not only commonplace but typically are illusory -- the deliberate result of leadership compromises on issues.
Every vote, to be impolitic, does not count and never has. In America, no presidential election, no gubernatorial election, no U.S. senatorial election has ever been decided by a single vote at the polls.
All of this raises a valid, if impertinent question: When it comes to voting or not voting, why should any individual give a rat's ass?
One of the more intriguing books about nonvoting, To Vote or Not to Vote, actually begins by wondering why anyone votes at all. Author Andre Blais tries to answer this question by applying the modern economist's favorite scientific model, the Rational Choice Theory. Rational Choice analyzes human decision-making based on a fairly simple mathematical cost-benefit ratio. Blais, who is a Rational Choice acolyte, winds up basically throwing up his hands. The costs of voting (registering, going to the polls, waiting in line, etc.) so outweigh any palpable benefits (no vote is ever likely to directly influence anything) that the model essentially falls apart.
Can it be that those who don't vote are the most rational among us? If a single vote is without influence, isn't casting one illogical?
Mathematically speaking, sure. Even in Florida, even in 2000, the breathtakingly narrow margin in the official vote tally was hundreds of times larger than one person's vote.
But there is something profoundly unsettling about the idea that voting is, basically, senseless. That may be because mathematical logic is not the only type of rigorous reasoning. Moral and political philosophers have spent centuries mulling civic duties and obligations. Perhaps that's the place to look for guidance, because deciding whether to vote is not so much a question of math as a matter of morals.
Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher, lived in an era of monarchy; his works never directly addressed the issue of voting. But he addressed, at great length, issues of moral responsibility. In his treatise on the Categorical Imperative, Kant concluded that all human actions, if moral, must be taken not to achieve what is best for you, or even to accomplish a particular result you desire. The moral act, he said, is the one which, if universalized, would result in the greatest good. In other words, in a given situation, minor or momentous, the moral person acts the way he would want everyone to act if they were faced with a similar choice.
What would happen if, literally, not a single person voted? Jefferson's Grand Experiment ends in ignominy. Anarchy reigns. Regional warlords rise to power in a return to a feudal state. There are medieval codes of honor, indentured servitude, after-dinner floggings.
Hence, Kant would argue, the only moral choice is to vote.
Implicitly, we understand this. In a totalitarian state, voting is a distant dream; in a democracy, it is a civic obligation. But that still leaves the United States with low voter turnout, for which we have no ready explanation.
All we have are more questions: Since nonvoters tend to be less politically knowledgeable than voters -- all polls confirm this -- might it not be worse if these particular people cast an ignorant ballot? Who needs them?
And: If voting is a matter of morals, and America practically leads the world in nonvoting, are we an amoral country? Is something else in play?
To help find the answers, we decided to talk to a typical nonvoter. Unfortunately, since half of America doesn't vote, it's no more possible to find a "typical" nonvoter than it would be to find a "typical" woman. So, instead, this is what we did:
We asked The Washington Post pollsters to generate a list of people who, when telephoned in the last few months for their political views, had identified themselves as nonvoters. This was basically a list of discarded calls; no one conducting political preference polls particularly cares what nonvoters think. We did.
We took a list of 90-odd names, eliminated those people who were not from battleground states (we wanted people with resonant nonvotes) and then started telephoning. To eliminate any bias in our choice, we decided to profile the very first person who agreed. The first name on the list, as it happens, was Ted Prus. Here is how the call went:
"Hi. This is The Washington Post. Are you registered to vote?"
"Are you planning on voting?"
"We'd like to write a long story about you. Would you be interested? It would make you famous."
"You mean a famous idiot?"
"Actually, we're not sure. There's no guarantee one way or the other."
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.
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 191/2 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."
I observe that Chili's is a big company and probably wouldn't mind losing a couple of those cheap little thingies.
Ted looks at Kim. Kim looks at Slate.
Probably happens all the time, I say. They probably just throw them out when they get dirty, anyway.
"No," Kim says.
"It's not worth feeling bad all the way home," Ted says.
"I can make us some," Kim decides.
As we leave, they ask me what my story is going to be about. I tell them I'm not really sure, that it's getting a little complicated.
SUNDAY MORNING, 6:30. Ted and I meet to go fishing.
Other than his family, fishing is Ted's life. The rivers and creeks around Muskegon are churning with tasty life -- trout, salmon and walleye, mostly. Ted was born around here, in Hesperia, and he's been fishing since he was Slate's age. The area is still pretty much Prusville -- driving around, Ted points out one home after another belonging to uncles and cousins and boyhood friends. You grow up here, you hunt and fish.
A few years ago, one of Ted's friends shot a 300-pound bear. He brought it home and skinned it, but he couldn't eat it, because lying there, naked, it looked like a big fat man. Worse: Bear hunting is illegal; someone ratted him out, and he got popped. State agents came to the door. Ted adopts an official-sounding voice: "We know you got a bear in there, sir." They took his hunting license for five years, so for five years, the poor guy would go out in the woods and watch Ted hunt.
After high school, Ted left for the Army and worked his hitch in Europe as a mechanic. When he came back, he moved to Tennessee, got married, had a son. Allen is now 12 and living with his mom in Tennessee, who remarried after the divorce. Allen visits Kim and Ted from time to time. When the boy's schoolwork began to slip, Ted refused to let him come until he improved. "He's in advanced math now," Ted says laconically, in that same prideless tone that is full of pride.
We set out in the dark for Ted's secret fishing spot. Ted is happy to talk about politics, but he just frankly doesn't have all that much to say. If someone frog-marched him into a voting booth with a gun to his head, he says, he'd probably go for John Kerry over George Bush. That's because, as Ted sees it, Bush got where he is strictly on account of his father. It's just another example of the world being stacked in favor of the haves.
"It's the same with NASCAR drivers," he says. "Just 'cause your dad was good at something doesn't mean you're good at it. Other people could do better, but the son gets the shot." Ted is no particular fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I point out that if Ted favors Kerry but doesn't vote, he's really voting for Bush. Ted doesn't see it that way. The way he sees it, a vote for either man is a vote for a liar, a member of the privileged class who will promise whatever it takes to get your vote and then do whatever it takes to keep the country safe for the privileged class. Screw 'em all.
What about voting as a moral issue? The only moral issue, Ted says, is the immorality of the guys asking for our votes: "I feel fine about myself. I can look at myself in the mirror and not feel bad about not voting."
I ask Ted if there are any circumstances under which he'd actually cast a ballot. Let's say, for example, that one of the candidates for governor of Michigan was a pantywaist animal rights activist who wanted to outlaw fishing. Would that, at last, bring Ted Prus to the polls?
Ted considers this: "No, because I wouldn't have to worry about that guy. Michigan wouldn't vote for him in the first place, because there's too much tourism based on fishing." If he'd lose anyway, Ted figures, why bother to vote against him?
And if, somehow, he won, and made good on his promise to ban fishing?
"I'd fish anyway." Heh-heh.
We stop for coffee and fishing tackle at a Twin Lake gas station owned by a friend of Ted's. On the shelves are Zig-Zag cigarette papers, which I've seen plenty of, and Zig-Zag tobacco, which I'm stunned to discover actually exists. A lot of people here roll their own. It's more economical.
The gas station seems to sell everything but gas. The pumps are closed. After we leave, Ted explains: Some months ago, the owner got into a price dispute with his gasoline supplier, and rather than cave in, he just turned off his pumps. He may be losing some money, but he sure got satisfaction. Ted likes Twin Lake. He likes the people, especially.
Ted once actually tried voting. It was 1992, and he liked what he heard from Ross Perot. Perot seemed to be the only guy who was a straight shooter. So Ted registered, but when he got in the voting booth, he got confused. "The way they got it set up, with all kinds of levers and buttons, I'm not even sure who I voted for. And I didn't know half the names."
Didn't voting make him feel powerful, in a way?
"No, it made me feel stupid. I don't consider myself a stupid person, but I felt stupid."
We've left the blacktop and are jouncing over rutted paths on the back roads. I ask Ted what is the worst thing that ever happened to him.
"When my mom passed away. I was 26."
Ted takes a sip of coffee.
"She shot herself."
It's quiet, out here in the woods. Only the shuddering of the truck over the ruts in the road. "She didn't die right away. She blinded herself. Afterwards my dad set up ropes from the sliding door on the back of the house to the lake, so she could still fish. She liked to fish, and that was one of the few things she could still do. She died a few months later."
Why did she do it?
"She was an alcoholic, and she was taking Prozac, and they don't mix."
That's all he knows. His mother wrote a suicide note, but Ted never saw it. Ted says he asked, but the cops said no, and he accepted that.
Ted's father has remarried; he still lives in the area. I ask Ted how his father took his mother's death.
"I don't know. We never really talked about it."
And Ted? How does he feel about it?
"I try to wipe it out of my memory."
We pull into Ted's secret fishing spot. It's getting light now.
"So, yeah, I guess that's the worst thing that ever happened to me," he says, grabbing the fishing gear from the bed of the truck.
AS WE WALK ALONG THE BANK of the salmon stream, Ted's eyes are reading the water. They're a lot busier, his eyes, than when he was reading the menu at Chili's.
"You see that eddy over there?"
I see water.
"You see that dark spot?"
"There. The dark area where the rapids and the still water meet."
I see water.
"It's cold and deep. Something is hiding in there."
Ted baits my hook with a lure, helps me cast. As instructed, I reel it in, slowly. I cast again, reel it in. Again. One more time. Then Ted baits his hook and casts. The lure plops squarely into the area Ted was eyeballing.
All conversation has stopped. Ted is slowly drawing the lure back, the way I was, but a little faster and with more purpose. Also, he's holding his fishing line away from the rod, in his left hand, the line resting lightly against his fingertips, which are splayed as though he were playing a C chord on a guitar. He's feeling for nibbles at the other end.
Then he tenses, whips up on the rod, and zzzzzzzzzz, the reel starts spinning. Ted whoops and starts bringing in his catch. It fights tenaciously. He's breathing heavily by the time he draws it up onto the bank and into a net. She's a 32-inch, 10-pound salmon, so gravid her eggs are literally spilling out of her.
We fish for a while more, without luck, and Ted decides we've taken what this part of the stream has to offer. He heads farther downstream. He's carrying more than I am, but it's hard to keep up. Ted is uncannily sure-footed on the muddy riverbank.
As we are walking, I ask him if he has any thoughts on what happens to us after we die.
"After we die?" he says, not breaking stride.
"Right," I say. "What's after death?"
"Well, I am gonna be . . . what do they call it -- incinerated?"
"Right, cremated. I'm going to be cremated after I die."
Apparently, that's all Ted has to say on the topic.
In a while, we find ourselves at another spot, beneath a bridge. Once again, I make a few futile casts. Then Ted tries. The ripples from the lure hitting the water haven't yet subsided when Ted gets a bite. Another whoop, another fight, another big fat salmon, 31 inches, this one male.
For the rest of the day, when passersby ask us how the fishing is, Ted impassively shows them the two monsters in the cooler in the back of the truck. He anticipates compliments and deflects them, simply reporting that he was using 25-pound test line and a Hottentot-type lure, as if that explains it. Out here in the woods, there is nothing confused or tentative about Ted. Magnanimously, he informs everyone that I, also, almost caught a fish, which is a mighty considerate lie.
Ted spends a lot of weekends here, alone or with friends. Sometimes, if he's feeling bad, he doesn't even fish. "I'll just dangle my foot in the crick. It's real cold, spring-fed, and I'll just relax and drink a beer, and the bad day goes away. I consider myself lucky, really. I got two healthy sons, and I get to hunt and fish." As he walks, Ted bends to pick up someone's discarded snack food wrapper. His truck is full of other people's garbage. He'd rather it be there than in the woods.
I ask him if he has any particular dream for the future. He says he'd love to be an outdoor guide, charging people money to take them hunting and fishing. He knows a man who makes $350 a day doing that, a figure he relates with near disbelief. Three hundred and fifty dollars a day, just to hunt and fish! But that requires a boat, which Ted can't afford, and it takes clientele, which he's not sure how to go out and get. Plus, Ted says, characteristically blunt, he's just not certain he's got the kind of swallow-hard-and-risk-it-all nerve to try something like that.
Ted's happy enough with the job he has. His dad has urged him to consider factory work, because it pays better and often has benefits. But factory jobs -- "shop jobs," Ted calls them -- keep you indoors, and he finds that asphyxiating. So he's holding fast at $15 an hour. He's pretty much living paycheck to paycheck and worries about meeting his $550 mortgage payment. That's just how it is, and Ted concedes it isn't likely to change very soon.
After the fishing is done, Ted takes me to a small dam in Hesperia, the town in which he grew up. He used to come here all the time back when he was a kid, and he still visits now and again. The dam is Hesperia's claim to fame.
It's quite a sight, actually. The dam controls the flow of the White River, which is the same river we'd been fishing downstream. Just a few feet past the dam wall, there's a two-foot-high concrete step over which the released water cascades. If you wait here long enough, on this far side of the dam, you're apt to see a sight most people never see in their lives.
We're standing and waiting, and there it is. It happens a couple of times. Salmon, swimming upstream to spawn, ignited by instinct and powered by unimaginable determination, will every so often make a run at the concrete step. In an instant, they flash out of the water and fling themselves up over the top of it.
It's glorious. But their triumph lasts only seconds. In front of them now is the dam wall, which no leap can surmount. So they just wash back over the step, plopping futilely down into the puddling river.
ON THIS SUNDAY EVENING, like many Sunday evenings, there's a party at Ted and Kim's house. Guests start arriving mid-afternoon, bearing beer and potluck dishes. Today, the main course will be fish -- walleye that Ted caught the week before, and the two salmon he pulled out of the White River this morning. Cooking is usually a family affair; Kim prepares the side dishes, Ted bakes the fish, which Slate seasons with gusto.
The decor in their home mostly reflects Kim's tastes, which mostly reflect Kim: They are cheerful knickknacks and curios, unapologetically hokey -- smiling trolls and lamps in the shape of owls and squirrels. Ted's touch is the plastic clock on the wall; it's got a picture of star NASCAR driver Mark Martin. Martin is an older guy who claims he once got cheated out of a lot of money by a sponsor; he failed, then came back strong.
Both Ted and Kim are NASCAR fans. Recently, they packed up a motor home and drove to Brooklyn, Mich., for a NASCAR event with their friends Anna and John and Patty and Mike. Someone sneaked under the motor home and affixed a cardboard sign to the chassis that flapped down when it got jostled by the rumble of the road. It said, "Honk If You're Horny." Ted and Kim thought it was the darnedest thing how many people were waving and honking at them, until they figured it out. Some people might have been angry, but there isn't a touch of self-importance to Ted and Kim. They stopped and took a picture.
Patty and Mike are here tonight, and Anna and John, and Ted's brother, Tony, and their families. Kids are running around. The talk is loud and merry, and, because of me, there's some good-natured teasing going on. Someone prompts: "Tell him why you registered to vote, Ted."
Whoa. Ted registered to vote?
Yes, he concedes. Two weeks before, at NASCAR.
"Tell him why!"
Ted produces a T-shirt he says he got for free from Rock the Vote, in return for registering.
"That's not why!"
Kim agrees. The shirt was a different freebie. "Tell him!"
Ted is just laughing.
Anna taunts him, nanny-nanny-boo-boo style:
"Ted registered for earplugs."
Ted grins sheepishly. Yeah. He registered to vote, at NASCAR, so he could get free foam earplugs.
"Here's another nonvoter!" This is how Ted's friend, Troy Ropp, announces his arrival. Troy is 37, with flaming red hair and a backwoods beard. Troy used to work at a Herman Miller furniture factory, but he rose so far he got a semi-management position, and he found it too distasteful to boss people around. So he runs his own tree service now.
I ask him about the election. Troy thinks President Bush made a bad mistake going into Iraq the way he did. There were other ways of solving the Saddam Hussein problem, he says. "They could have took Saddam out with a 50-caliber at 500 yards." Nods all around. A brief discussion of firearms ensues.
Troy seems to have given the issues of the day more thought than either Ted or Kim. It occurs to me that what we have here might be a statistical anomaly -- a well-informed nonvoter. I press him on why he's not voting.
"Because I don't think my vote will matter." Plus, he says, politicians are all alike. "Bush is just like . . . " Troy pauses.
" . . . like that guy he's running against."
"You mean Kerry?"
I look at him, he looks at me. He laughs.
"I would have thought of it if you'd gave me a little time."
On an end table in the living room is a framed picture of a pretty brunette. It's Kim's best friend, Linda, who died last December, suddenly, of a brain aneurysm. Kim can't talk about Linda without tearing up. She'd feel even worse if she weren't sure that Linda is coming back, and she'll meet up with her some day. Some people come back as people, and some people come back as ghosts, Kim says. She knows because she's seen them.
"My old lady sees ghosts," Ted had told me, out in the woods. I hadn't realized he meant it literally.
Kim knows it sounds kooky, but she sees what she sees. She thinks they could be visible to anyone, but you have to have your mind open to them, or they'll float right past. Kim saw her first ghost up close about 15 years ago -- a Victorian-era schoolgirl in high-buttoned shoes. The ghosts are people who died in the houses that they haunt, she believes. Some are mischievous; sometimes, they'll move Slate's toys or Kim's cigarettes.
Kim says she's never been afraid of the ghosts, and in some way even finds them comforting; they are a sign, after all, of a sort of afterworld, that this life isn't all there is. Nothing is final, not even Linda's death.
Ted doesn't see the ghosts, and it wouldn't be fair to say that he humors Kim about it; he simply accepts it as he accepts many things -- good-naturedly and without question. If it makes Kim happy, he says, it's fine with him. He sounds almost envious, the way agnostics sometimes talk about the devout.
The women stay inside, and most of the men repair to the back yard, for more beer and horseshoes and shooting the bull. Ted tells the others how I took a salmon egg right out of the fish's butt and plopped it in my mouth. This meets with some incredulity. I explain that in big-city Japanese restaurants, 10 or 12 of those suckers on a piece of seaweed will sell for $4. There's some derisive laughter, at the expense of big-city idiots.
Ted's friends then start ragging on him, teasing him because he's going to be famous. The cover of a magazine! Ted says the only time he's ever contemplated being on the cover of a magazine was when he was in Tennessee. Down in Gatlinburg, there was this novelty store that would take a picture of you and then put you on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Ted takes all the banter with good grace. Then someone says, "Tell him about how you're afraid of the dark." Ted smiles and nods, but he's got something to attend to in the kitchen.
Afraid of the dark?
It's true, Kim says, laughing. The same guy who isn't scared to yank his tooth out with pliers won't walk into a dark room. At night, she says, if he stays up watching TV, he'll leave the TV and all the lights on, so his path into the bedroom is lit.
And once he's in bed?
"He'll go to bed in the dark if I'm with him. If not, he'll sleep with the lights on."
MONDAY MORNING. It's a workday. Ted meets his co-workers at the small Muskegon garage that serves as headquarters for Brown Concrete Construction Inc. It's a bare-bones, guy kind of place, the only splashes of color being the obligatory 1970s-era pinup posters. One is of a woman wearing only big hair and what appears to be a frilly whalebone corset. There are also a couple of back seats from cars, propped up on the ground, which provide passable couches for slouching.
With Ted are the rest of his team -- Joe McCann, Mike Anderson and Randy Baker. Randy is telling a story about the weekend: He just moved into a nice new neighborhood, and during a meet-the-neighbors night, someone asked him whether he had any particular plans for the back yard. Randy said he was "thinkin' of getting a couple of hogs." All conversation stopped. Randy explained that it was a funny joke, but the wife disagreed, and now Randy's in the doghouse.
Andy Brown, the owner, arrives. Ted is not always great about taking orders from others, but he and Andy get along fine. Andy likes Ted because he's a good, reliable worker, and Ted likes Andy because, even though he's younger and has more money, he's not stuck up. Andy works side by side with his men. "If I've got a shovel in my hand," Ted says appreciatively, "Andy's next to me with a shovel in his."
Fifteen minutes later, Andy and his crew have driven past those Republican cars and buses heading for the airport, and arrived at the big hole in the ground that is to become a garage.
What happens next is mesmerizing. This team of five guys has been working together for so long, there's no need for much gab. They just know what to do. While Ted and the others are breaking down the metal braces that support the newly hardened walls of the garage, Andy is driving a Skidster earth mover, flattening out the dirt floor. Joe runs a plastic drainage tube from the center of the floor through the dirt and out into a gully. Now Mike is pounding stakes into the ground to the level of a string line that Ted and Randy are holding taut, from marks on opposing walls. These are puddle stakes, leveling markers that will tell the men exactly how high the cement should be poured.
Things seem to be happening very quickly, and on a split-second schedule. They finish moments before the cement mixers arrive.
The owner of the property has race cars, and this is to be a giant garage -- room for four cars, at least. The floor is going to require two mixers, each filled to its capacity of nine cubic yards of cement. The whole nine yards.
The whole nine yards. I've lived 53 years and used that expression dozens of times, and this was the first time I had any idea where it might have come from or what it might mean. It's interesting how things that seem to make no sense can suddenly come into focus.
Take Ted's financial troubles. For several days, something was bothering me, and then it hit me. A couple of phone calls to the federal government confirmed what I suspected. As a U.S. Army veteran with an honorable discharge, Ted is eligible for a lifetime of medical care. His income is well below the cutoff point for need.
It's not a handout for which he need feel ashamed -- it's his right, same as anyone else who served his country. Most medical services, from simple doctor's visits to that MRI that will tell Ted if he's got a problem with his brain, are available to veterans for the price of a few dollars' co-payment. Ted's been eligible ever since his discharge in 1988.
When I told Ted this, he was thunderstruck. "It just never crossed my mind," he said.
Here is what crossed my mind:
Like all people who don't vote, Ted has distanced himself to some degree from the society in which he lives. It's symptomatic, I think, of a larger choice he has made. He has willed himself into a certain protective ignorance about the way life works. This intellectual callus might make some things easier to bear, but I'll bet it comes at a cost. The world must be a more terrifying place when you don't know all you can about why things happen the way they do, and why people do what they do, and whether there's anything out there that can leap out at you from the dark.
Still, in some ways I envy Ted. When it comes right down to it, there is something to be said for keeping it simple. There isn't much moral ambiguity, for example, in the birth of a garage. Nothing is abstract. Everything is, you know . . . concrete.
Here come the cement trucks, with their whole nine yards. Andy's work crew has changed into knee boots, and what will follow seems almost a choreographed work, an odd ballet performed by hairy guys in T-shirts and overalls.
The mixer, with a long delivery chute, moves in like a lumbering elephant, its trunk swaying left and right, depositing wet cement. Randy, Ted and Andy work expertly around it, wading through the goo, each with a 2-by-4, smoothing the cement into place, precisely to the level of those puddle stakes and, somehow, not a millimeter higher.
A mile away, George Bush strides to the lectern, to thunderous applause. He urges the Republican crowd to get everyone out to vote for him, for a safer America. This wasn't billed as a campaign event, exactly, but nobody seems to mind. "Step one," says the president, "is to remind your friends and neighbors that we have an obligation in a free society to participate."
The elephant-truck slowly backs away as the men continue to smooth the cement in place; as they work, an interesting alchemy plays out: The pebbly pieces begin to flatten and sink, so what first resembled wet gravel turns into oatmeal and then, slowly, into a surface as smooth as a table top.
The men are working quickly; they have to.
Across town, Bush is busy mispronouncing the name of his "friend," the local Republican congressman, Peter Hoekstra. No matter. The crowd loves him. "Four more years! Four more years!"
The second truck is gone now, and the finishing work begins. Mike whacks the puddle stakes down into the cement, so there's no sign they were ever there. With big flat hoes on 20-foot handles, Ted and Joe stand at the periphery, beyond the walls, and begin smoothing the surface even more, testing it with practiced hands, feeling for the right moment for the final cosmetic step.
Bush is mostly steering clear of the declared topic of the day, health care. It's a complicated, nuanced issue -- no match for the sexier topics of national security and tax relief, which is where the president mostly stays. We are winning the war on terror, he says, and the place goes wild. The economy is strengthening, he proclaims, with dubious authority but to raucous applause. One Republican stalwart stands to say he's mad at the president. Deadpan, Bush asks him why. Because America didn't get to enjoy his great policies over the last 30 years, the man says, and everyone cracks up in bonhomie.
With pads for their knees, Ted, Randy, Andy, Joe and Mike cautiously step onto the surface. It's just right; unyielding, but still chalky atop. They work purposefully, squatting down, buffing the surface with steel trowels, evening out any little pocks or lines. This is the final touch, and when they are done they have turned what was a pit of dirt two hours ago into a garage floor with a surface as slick as a hockey rink. It's simply perfect.
Gene Weingarten is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.