The young white guy with a mullet, a mustache, and a Catepillar baseball cap is the picture of red state America. Suddenly he sits up and listens to the big screen TV. The speaker is Barack Obama. Mullet guy is interested, almost fascinated. When the newscasters return, he slumps back in his chair, returning to his eggs.
At breakfast today, I remembered that, in politics, things are rarely as they seem.
Food and politics
I have not had many posts lately. I could blame it on too much work or the bad economy. I could blame it on minor heart surgery I had a few weeks ago.
But it probably has more to do with my recent obsession with politics.
So on this election day, I wanted to put my finger on the political pulse of Houston. I went to breakfast at Texas Cafeteria.
Why Texas Cafeteria?
This working class cafeteria, on N. Shephard near the North Loop, is a microcosm of blue collar working men in Houston. I say "men" because the crowd is 90% men. Most of the guys wear baseball caps. Almost all are in jeans, except me, a police officer, and an albino guy who is dressed like a Southern Baptist preacher.
I discovered Texas Cafeteria back when I drove a forklift in a nearby warehouse. The food is decent and cheap -- a prerequisite for workers on warehouse wages.
The guys who eat at Texas Cafeteria are diverse. Of course, they would never use the word "diverse." But they are a mix of white guys, blacks, and Mexican-Americans, sitting in a safe male world surrounded by hunting and fishing photos and mounted deer heads.
But today, the feeling is a bit different.
Not always what you would expect
I catch snippets of conversations, facial expressions pregnant with meaning.
A large white guy with a thick accent is prognosticating about the evils of straight-ticket voting.
Some Mexican Americans tell an Obama joke in Spanish. I only translate part of the joke. It does not seem favorable.
Most of the African Americans are eating in silence this morning. Pensive. I can't imagine what they are feeling.
I have learned that it is impossible to generalize. Two good black friends of mine are voting for McCain. Some of my rural Texas relatives, known for telling racist jokes and always voting Republican? They are voting for Obama. My slightly liberal college roommate who drives a Prius to help the environment? McCain, the last I checked.
The polls tell us the Texas vote is a foregone conclusion. But I can't get a read at Texas Cafeteria. Surely these folks are at all ends of the spectrum.
The appearance - and race - of these working guys really does not necessarily predict how they will vote. They are not a voting block. They are not a demographic. They are complex individuals with eccentricities and deeply-rooted values that a pollster can never fully know.
Texas Cafeteria's huevos rancheros are the same as always. Two over easy eggs are served on top of chips and covered with a mild salsa.
But today I notice a difference. Compared to six months ago, the portions seem smaller. Texas Cafeteria has not raised its prices. It can't do that to its blue collar crowd. Yet food costs have risen dramatically. Corners have to be cut. The economy really does affect what we eat.
As always, I am puzzled by the sweetness of the biscuits. They taste like biscuits I have only had in the Northeast U.S.
Even the deeply-Southern Texas Cafeteria is hard to predict.
This election feels different for me. It matters on a personal level. Because I appear in court before many state judges, I know about half the candidates on the ballot. I also know many of their challengers. Candidates on both sides are good friends.
This is the first time in years that the outcome in local judge races is uncertain. Some of my friends will keep, or get, the job they want. Some won't.
I found myself voting, not on the basis of party affiliation or political philosophy. I found myself voting on basic traits like intelligence, experience and -- most importantly -- fairness. I know these traits in the candidates from my personal experience.
I wish the guys at Texas Cafeteria knew the judges like I do. I hope they have more information to vote on the judges than just their party affiliation. I wish the downballot races were not an afterthought to the big race.
I know democracy isn't perfect. The most competent person does not always win. But democracy works fairly well.
And on days like today, it is very exciting.