It's high noon at the Table Talk.
Working-class elbows rest on the formica-top counter, dirt-encrusted fingernails stir spoonfuls of steaming coffee and the good old boys in the broad-billed caps pontificate on "pansies," "pinkos" and the presidency.
"I think it would be a disaster if Carter's reelected," says Bill Fannon, 49, who with his brother David owns Fannon Fuel Oil and Petroleum Services down the street.
"I voted for Ford," he says, biting into a grilled cheese sandwich. "And that other guy who took a terrible beating."
"You mean Nixon," says Nina Carroll.
"Yeah," says Fannon. "I'd rather have him back."
"Nixon's the best president we ever had," says David Fannon, Bill's younger (age 45) brother.
"But he LIED and CHEATED in office!" shrieks Nina Carroll.
"That's not crooked," says David Fannon. "Stealing's crooked."
Welcome to the Table Talk Restaurant, a tiny, blue-collar eatery on Duke Street in Alexandria, where the regulars -- local workers and businessmen in blue jeans and three-day-old stubble -- sit at two small tables in the rear. This day, less than two weeks before the presidential election, is no different from any other.
"Last week they said they were gonna have a new policy," says Carroll. "They said they were only gonna talk abou sex and religion, but not politics."
She leans forward in her chair. "I said, 'What are you gonna talk about, then?'"
Bill Fannon is for Reagan. So is David. Al Heine, a local businessman in a V-neck sweater, says he's also for Reagan. Nina Carroll, part owner of the Alexandria Floral Co. and the only woman at the regulars' table, is for jimmy Carter.
"I'm outnumbered," she says, stabbing her chef's salad, soggy with Italian dressing. "That's why I get indigestion."
The table talk turns to the election.
"I wouldn't vote for Carter if he was running for dogcatcher," says David Fannon.
But don't they distrust Reagan?
"God almighty, we've been hanging in suspense for the last four years with that monkey in office," says Bill. "We need someone with more fiscal responsibility. That man [Carter] isn't presidential material. Iran went down the pipes because of Carter. We lost the Panama Canal . . ."
Nina Carroll interrupts. "They blame Carter for everything, even their marital problems. Everything known to mankind is Carter's fault."
The talk turns to Iran, the hostages, the draft, the propect of war.
"We're a paper tiger now," Bill Fannon says bitterly. "We're nothing. Ten years ago, no country in the world would have been able to do to us what Iran has done."
"Carter wants peace through passion," David says. "The only way to get peace with the Russians is strength."
"Yeah," says Bill. "The Russians aren't a bunch of pansies."
But David says the Russians don't bother him. "I'm worried about Zimbabwe, Abba-Dabba [sic] or some other damn country over there that's got the bomb."
Nina Carroll grows serious. "My uncle was killed in World War II," she says, quietly ticking off the men in her family who served in the First World War, the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam. "I have a son who's 18 years old," she sighs. "They'll arrange a war for him, too, I suppose."
The table is suddenly silent.
"Well I'm a damned sight more afraid of war with Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan," Bill Fannon pipes up, reaching for the grease-spattered check.
Nina Carroll thinks Reagan is "a little to old for on-th-job training. They want a movie star, someone who can play the part."
The Fannon brothers disagree. "He did a damn good job as governor of California," says David. "Hopefully, he'll get some competent people in there to handle foreign policy and get our defense up to where it should be. This country doesn't need to be second in anything."
What about Reagan's publicized gaffes, the "two Chinas policy," the waffling on important issues?
"Hell, everybody puts their foot in their mouth once in a while," says David. "I don't think Reagan waffles that much."
Al Heine, a former page on Capitol Hill, says, after all, it's really Congress who runs things. "There's no way an individual can really change anything in four years anyway."
Heine says he would like to see Reagan move the federal government out of Washington, maybe out West somewhere. "And as long as we're on the subject," he says, "I think the U.N. stinks too." Heine doesn't even like the National Rifle Association. "They're full of pinkos," he says.
The group does agree on several points: inflation is the biggest campaign issue, the liberal press is for Carter and nobody is for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "I'd move to Iran if Kennedy was running," says Heine.
They also agree that the upcoming debate between Carter and Reagan won't change their minds. "Anyone who hasn't made up their mind before the debate is stupid," says Carroll.
They are asked to describe Jimmy Carter in one word.
"Inefficient," says David.
"Ineffective," says Heine.
"Inexperienced," says Bill.
And Ronald Reagan?
"Dyed hair," says Nina.
The men immediately cry foul. "That's two words," says David.
Nina Carroll smiles. "Well, have you ever met a woman who can describe something in one word?"
At the Table Talk counter ("a friendly place to eat") Hassel Short, a 61-year-old mechanic who works for Herby's Ford across the street, is finishing his cheeseburger.
Short says he hasn't made up his mind yet. He voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, but feels it's time for a change. The election, he says, "has been pretty boring."
Short takes a last gulp from his coffee cup. "Actually," he drawls, "I don't trust either one of them."