A BUNCH OF THEM came out of the hotel moving like cattle. They were big men and they snorted vapor into the cold night air and they stamped their boots on the sidewalks just for the sound of it. They were dressed in patterned nylon parkas that made them look even bigger than they were and the caps added to their height and when they moved down the hotel steps, maybe a dozen of them, they looked mean and menacing and like men who could do a lot of damage. The farmers were in town.
They had come without warning that morning. They'd come into town on farm vehicles and trucks and some of them had blocked traffic and tussled with the cops. Motorists who had no part in this fight had to sit in their cars while the cops tried to cope with things. The cops, it goes without saying, cannot cope with the normal rush hour.
Anyway they were coming down the steps of the hotel and I was walking by and I gave them the mental finger - here's to you baby. Here's to you and your kind and all the people who tie up traffic and take out on the people of Washington some gripe you have with the government. Here's to you, baby, and a demonstration that, when you look at it, is for higher food prices. Good luck and all that.
Now, though, it was late on a Friday afternoon and I had read some stories about the farmers indicating that their fight should not be with me. In the lobby of the hotel where I had seen them there was a group sitting in big overstuffed chairs but there were more of them in the bar. Some were sitting in the back where there were peanuts all over the floor but there were some nearer the front, calling to the waitresses with short skirts and middle-age bellies. I approached cautiously.
We must always approach farmers with caution. Who knows about them? Who knows about parity and what it means and who knows, really, what farmers do and how they do it and who, for that matter, can get past the whammy they have for us, the feeling that they are in some ways better, truer, purer - whatever the word is? They are the ones, after all, who still work seven days a week, who work The Land, who grow things to be eaten, who work for their families and with their families and then take both the bank and the weather as business partners.
Anyway, I came up slowly to the table and there were four men there. Two of them, it turned out, were not farmers, but regular patrons but I didn't know that at first. One of them hit me right off. "You go to Harvard?" he asked. No, I said. "Yale?" No. "Ivy League. You one of them ivy leaguers?" No. "Some journalism school?" No, I say, lying to avoid a fight. Everyone is smiling but me. Lots of empty glasses on the table. Some serious drinking has been going on here and I've crashed a party. So I asked everyone where they are from and two of them say "Texas" but the one who has been giving me a hard time just smiles guiltily and then laughs and then says Washington. "I'm not a farmer," he says and everyone laughs again.
The waitresses came by and cleaned off the empty glasses and brought some more beer and we talked. The farmers were from Texas, a place called Hart. It's in the Panhandle. One of them was 35 years old and named Alen McLain and his friend's name was Danny. McLain did most of the talking. He wore cowboy boots, checkered shirt and dungarees and what he said was that he was going broke. Simple. No talk of parity or anything like that. Just talk of long hours and lots of land and crops that brought in less money than it took to grow them.
"We are losing everything," McLain said. "We are going down the tubes. If I had $12,000 I wouldn't work a day. I could live swell on $12,000. I could live high off the hog on $1,000 a month. I could work and not make that kind of money. I work and lose money."
The beers kept coming and we talked of his family and his daughter and how far back his family and his daughter and how far back his family went in his area. He did not own his land, it turned out, and he rented, it turned out, and he had once left farming, as so many had, and gone to work in farming, as so many had, and gone to work in Amarillo. But it didn't work for him, didn't suit him, and he came back to the only other work he knew and the life he loved. His car was a '72 and his pickup was shot and all he did nowadays was sit down at the coffee house and drink coffee.
Always the conversation got back to the economics of farming - how they made no money in the last three years. The more they talked the more you had to wonder about that initial impression - the big men with the boots who stall traffic. They talked about how all they wanted to do was to continue farming, maybe get some land of their own but all that seemed impossible now. At the farm, prices were lower than they had ever been, and at the grocery store they were higher than they they had ever been and it was all doing, they said, to someone who stood between me and them - someone called the middleman.
The guy from Washington who had given me a good-natured hard time before, rose and started to put on his coat. He teetered a bit but his expression was serious and he had a speech to make. The farmer and the customer could be friends, he said. The enemy was the middleman.
"I've been drinking all day, but the thing is, the thing is, here I am and I have no land, nothing in this life but the desire to make a dollar. I tell you truthfully and from the bottom of my heart, I don't mind paying, but you should get some of it."
Then, having said something important, he walked out into the snow.