To borrow a few meaningful lines from the operatic stage:
Ha Ha Ha Ha
Ha Ha Ha Ha
Ha Ha Ha Ha
Ha Ha Ha Ha
These lines from the Phillip Glass opera Satyagraha mirror my own response to Donald Trump’s fiasco in Tulsa. Trump bragged about how he was going to fill the streets and the stadium (capacity 19,000). He got barely sixty-two hundred people, many of them habitual rooters who follow him from state to state, a sort of angry right wing version of the Dead Heads.
For Trump, it was a hugely disappointing attempt at bringing back the thrill of huge, adoring crowds cheering on his every word.
I mean, had the Black Lives Matter protestors wanted to outnumber the Trumpistas in downtown Tulsa, they could have done so.
Ha Ha Ha Ha
But there is more to that Ha Ha chant than I first let on. It’s borrowed from the Phillip Glass opera which recounts the early struggles of Gandhi as he developed his philosophy and his personal style of struggle.
Satyagraha is a word developed and used by Gandhi to represent the underlying philosophy for what we in the west think of as nonviolence. It is more than just that.
Here is the brief summary from the online Encyclopedia Britannica:
“Satyagraha, (Sanskrit and Hindi: “holding onto truth”) concept introduced in the early 20th century by Mahatma Gandhi to designate a determined but nonviolent resistance to evil. Gandhi’s satyagraha became a major tool in the Indian struggle against British imperialism and has since been adopted by protest groups in other countries.
“According to this philosophy, satyagrahis—practitioners of satyagraha—achieve correct insight into the real nature of an evil situation by observing a nonviolence of the mind, by seeking truth in a spirit of peace and love, and by undergoing a rigorous process of self-scrutiny.”
This could be a seminal moment in American history, a pivot point in the struggle between the always-angry right-wingers and those who are calling for racial justice. If there is a choice between a Gandhi-like struggle or the haphazard series of mini-riots that occurred during the first two days of the protests, we are all better off following the philosophy of Gandhi. The historical lesson from Gandhi is that with enough people following in his philosophy, progress will occur.
One lesson from the past two weeks is that the angry, bully-boy tactics of the Trumpistas fail when confronted with thousands of peaceful marchers. There have been a few of the rifle-toting MAGA-hatted folks doing their thing, but when only 6200 (mostly peaceful) folks show up, even at the president’s express request, the change is beginning to show. In recent weeks, the bullies have not prevailed against the broad movement of tens of thousands of people.
Food to die for
I haven’t done restaurant reviews in these pages before, but I feel a need to say a few things about Orange County and the seemingly dangerous experience I had there over the weekend.
Portillo’s originated in Chicago and serves up a terrific mix of roast beef sandwiches, sausage, salads, and chocolate cake. During the first part of the lockdown, it did a strong business in takeout because it was already set up for drive-through customers. It carried out social distancing adequately. Just recently, it added inside seating to its lockdown service. We gave it a try over the weekend.
The inside was chaos. We were assigned to a small table that was momentarily away from other people, but almost immediately, a large family came in and took the immediately adjacent table. So that suddenly, we were almost elbow to elbow with another dozen or so strangers. I looked around for another table, including doing a search in the enclosed patio area. Tables full of people were close together.
I must say that people seemed to be having fun. They were laughing and shouting. Children were running around. It was like a public health officer’s nightmare.
One of the difficulties of the Portillo style serving system is that you wait in line to give your order (and pay), and then they call your number, at which time you go to another counter to pick up your order. This kind of system might, under the right circumstances, work safely, but when we experienced it over the weekend, not so much. At the ordering line, there were people in front of me without masks, and two of them were shouting back and forth to each other and, across the room, to other members of their group who happened to arrive later. I should remind the reader that shouting in a public place is considered a serious risk in this Covid-19 era. None of these people seemed to care about protecting themselves or other people (like me) against the virus.
Everywhere, there were people wandering around without masks, and children running and playing. I began to develop a distinctly uncomfortable feeling.
I asked to speak to a manager and managed to have brief conversations with two of them. At least they were wearing masks. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a lot to say that I would have found reassuring. One told me that although the restaurant was originally set up to hold 200 people, they were limiting the indoor crowd to 70. That much at least seemed sincere. But the entirety of her remarks were delivered in a patronizing tone, as if I didn’t know anything.
When I inquired about the lack of distancing and the lack of masks among people walking around (and directly past me), I was told that there wasn’t anything they could do about this. It’s a restaurant and people take their masks off to eat, etc etc.
That does not seem like an adequate answer to me. You either control the indoor environment and ensure the safety of your patrons, or you don’t. It’s a classical precept in the law. You could just as easily advise people to put their masks back on whenever they leave their tables. A lot of customers seemed to have figured this out on their own, but the restaurant itself did not take control over its own space.
To run a safe indoor restaurant in this viral era, Portillo’s should at the least remove a lot of its tables, create safe walking lanes to the various counters, and control how closely people congregate. They didn’t do any of these things. They did mark off a number of the tables, but customers ignored most of the reminders.
Another Orange County restaurant – a sit-down establishment -- I visited in Seal Beach kept things under control. There is obviously a big difference between a restaurant which relies on counter service vs. a restaurant with servers taking care of people who are seated at tables. It’s a big advantage not to use counter service, but Fantastic down here in San Pedro does counter service, and they maintain diner safety just fine.
I wonder what Portillo’s was trying to accomplish. Was this just local management acting out some sort of Orange County attitude? Were there just too few staffers in attendance?
Portillo’s has been one of my all-time favorites. My advice to the diner is that the food is still terrific, but use the drive-through line. That much they’ve got. But for people with risk factors, going inside is taking your life in your hands.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)