Hollow Victory

The faithful wait for a new shade of screwing.

They may have cheered at the convention center, but the boys at Hoopples saw no cause for rejoicing. - Walter  Novak
They may have cheered at the convention center, but the boys at Hoopples saw no cause for rejoicing.
The beer cooler speaks for this land. It's plastered with "Proud to be Union" stickers from the carpenters, laborers, Teamsters, and operating engineers. The dirt parking lot is lined with American-made trucks. Bob Seger sings lullabies to beefy men at the bar, who are here to fete the miracle of a cold Bud, a fresh pack of Marlboro reds, and the money to pay for them. It's Election Day.

Major Hoopples sits on the West Bank of the Flats, in the heart of one of America's great Democratic strongholds. This is a town that hasn't found a Republican worthy of its city council in 30 years. And the men gathered here -- the ethnic-union-workingman demographic, as they're known in wonk parlance -- made it that way.

It's supposed to be a big night. A few miles away, a packed convention center hails the victory of laborite Sherrod Brown, who has just stolen the U.S. Senate seat of Mike DeWine, longtime errand boy for the executive crowd. Across Ohio, previously unbeatable Republicans are getting blown out by margins that resemble the line on a Cleveland State basketball game.

Elsewhere, in the land called Television, the Men of Great Molded Hair offer windy dissertations on the "sea change" occurring this day. From Montana to Missouri, Democrats are in the midst of a spirited ass-kicking. The hated Republicans are falling one by one. Dumb King George, sender of jobs to Asia and sons to Iraq, has just received polite society's version of a crowbar to the head.

But there's no rejoicing at Hoopples -- at least nothing out of the ordinary for a Tuesday night. There are the buoyant shouts and mirth native to any West Side purveyor of barley products and firewater. Yet talk sticks to work, family, sports, whatever. And the TV has no interest in Molded Hair analysis of this seat in Georgia, that seat in Virginia. It stays glued to more trusted names: ESPN and the Cavs.

Owner Norm Plonsky tells why: "The new guys are just gonna take longer to screw me."

For more than two decades, Plonsky has shepherded Hoopples through its stages as a Hell's Angels bar and workingman's joint to today, when even a few yuppies stray down the hill from Ohio City for a good drunk and a manageable tab. He speaks well for his customers when he says that, even in this stronghold, little will come from repainting government red to blue.

"I don't expect anything but slower screwing," Plonsky says. "I believe a lot of these guys start with good intentions, but even Jesse Ventura, who was a Navy Seal, had to get the fuck out."

Perhaps it's just Cleveland, but that sense of being "fucked," as Plonsky so artfully puts it, pervades the bar. While Republicans in Washington and Columbus stole their money and policed their bedrooms, these men have lived under Democratic rule for decades -- Motto: We're Not Smart Enough to Steal as Much. Even the most loyal understand that while their team may have won, it simply means a new brand of weakling has assumed the work of men.

"I'm Irish," says one, expressing his version of victory, "so I'll put up with a fucked-up thing for the rest of my life."

Down the bar, two heating-and-cooling men are equally uninspired. Phil Skeen, a ponytailed vet, says that he leans Republican, but likes Kerry and Kucinich. He's like a lot of people here; philosophy takes a backseat to someone he can trust. And his trust is not given easily. "I actually don't think any one of them is any better than the other one."

Buddy Chris Sezonov sips a shot and talks about his family's arrival from Romania. He's a fan of Nixon for opening immigration from the Eastern Bloc. He took the day off work to watch Reagan's funeral, marveling at the allegiance the former president owned. But Republicans still scare him. Their searching of phone records and watching who surfs internet porn remind him too much of Romania's police state.

So he too straddles the median, looking for someone, anyone, to follow. "We're not really voting for the Democrats," he says. "It's like we're voting against the Republicans. It's not like I like these guys."

But sentiment at Hoopples is best summed up from behind the bar, where 25-year-old Christine Reisland admits with embarrassment that she didn't vote. "I don't know anything," she says. "I'm not even registered."

Like a good daughter of Cleveland, she has a vague understanding that "Democrats are more laid-back," and "Republicans are more 'Take from the poor and give to ourselves.'" But she can't name a single candidate on the ballot today. And her only political involvement was during the last election, when she watched a TV debate at the Sheraton "because it was an open bar."

Conventional wisdom suggests she's a curse on America, a young woman who won't take the time to embrace matters of country. But she's not much different from the other people here. Even those who follow politics speak with resigned detachment, the way one might discuss a truck that needs a new transmission. They know they can talk all they want, but at the end of the day they'll still have to pay.

It's hard to imagine that the conversation's any different at a farmer bar in Nebraska, a cracker bar in Arkansas, a black bar in Buffalo. The Men of Molded Hair can speak all they want about "a deeply divided country," but we're all deeply united by one thing: distrust.