Café Américain

What with the Republican approved method of mailing bombs to Democrats (and, interestingly, not vice-versa) I have to wonder if democracy is gone for good.  I recently watched Casablanca again with my wife.  What struck me about it this time around was how, although many of the characters clearly hated one another, they were civil—downright polite—unless safely locked out of sight by the Nazis.  It also struck me that in the 1940s Nazis were bad whereas now they are the legitimate nickname of the GOP.  It used to be calm, collected enemies playing by the rules even with their hatred intact.  Now politics has become gaming the system itself so that the other side can’t win to the point that Major Strasser looks like Colonel Klink.

I suppose what’s most distressing about all of this is that moderate Republicans have so quickly acquiesced to Trump’s agenda of hatred.  Not one speaks out against him, fearing his money.  Somehow they manage to sleep at night.  I’m guess that if they watch Casablanca they don’t see what some of us do.  There comes a point, when a game gets too serious, that most of us know to back off and do something else for a while.  When we were kids we knew it instinctively.  What began as playful rivalry started to feel like hatred.  The twelve year old knows that at this point it’s time to back away, otherwise it will come to blows and we will feel regret.  There is no regret in the Grand Old Party.  They only regret that Tricky Dicky didn’t get away with it.  Welcome to the most unfair democracy in the world.

Ah, but I digress from Rick’s.  It we come downstairs we will hear Victor Laszlo leading the band in “La Marseillaise,”a national anthem far more robust than bombs bursting in the air.  These, after all, are patriots, not panderers after personal power.  Even Major Strasser doesn’t start lobbing pipe-bombs in Rick’s Café Américain, and he orders Captain Renault to find a legal reason to shut the place down.  This is the rule of law, no matter how crooked.  In the end, however, Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund are on a plane to Lisbon, and Rick and Louis are planning their flight from the city to take on more noble pursuits.  The swamp in the desert has been left by those of any integrity, save the underground.  Casablanca, after all, translates to “white house.”

Steel Pennies


I remember seeing my first steel penny. At first I didn’t think it was real. Like many poor kids, I was a collector. I collected anything cheap: cancelled stamps, bottle tops from glass pop bottles, fossils, just to name a few free trinkets. And I’d started coin collecting, with pennies. I’d noticed the difference between wheat backs and Lincoln Memorial pennies, and I knew that the former might be worth something some day. There was a hobby store in town and by thumbing through the collectors’ books, before being shooed out, I’d learned that keeping an eye out for wheaties was a kind of investment. Just hold onto it long enough, and it’ll grow in value. I never saw a 1943 penny, though, until a fellow collector traded me one. During the war, he explained, copper was too valuable to use for pennies. Wartime, it turns out, changes lots of things. About the same time as these steel pennies were being minted, Casablanca was still showing in theaters.

As I sat down to watch Casablanca again last night, some new thoughts occurred to me. A wary eye can spot the cost-cutting measures of a wartime movie. Somethings never change. Nazis were bad guys, obviously, but we still didn’t know who’d win the war by then. And refugees flooded to Casablanca to try to escape Europe for America. The movie makes quite a lot of this endless waiting. It’s hot in the desert. People are waiting to go somewhere better. And there are elements of torture there as corrupt officials cooperate with Nazis, even though this is Free France. It occurred to me that this is an allegory of Purgatory. I’m pretty sure it’s not intentional, but here are lost souls waiting for deliverance. The plane to Lisbon is the soul’s escape to Heaven. Meanwhile the relentless waiting.

For a movie approaching 75 years old, Casablanca holds up remarkably well. The extras on our DVD tell us the plane in the final scenes is a cheap cutout just a few feet away on a sound stage. The mechanics attending it are little people to bring it into perspective. Tucked away in some box somewhere I’ve got a few steel pennies. These days coins change so frequently that I wonder just how stable this world really is. While the “Middle East” still has us as worried as ever, our money is, for all practical purposes, only virtual. Paychecks are mere electrons and I’m just a temporary repository between my employer and those who claim increasingly more of my pretend money. We seem to be caught between two worlds. In one nothing is really real at all. Rick’s Café Americain feels somehow very familiar, as we spend our time waiting for passage on a plane to Lisbon.

Grand Delusion


“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” Rick memorably quoted in his once safe haven in Casablanca. Rick had fled his country for moral causes, only to become jaded and callus in an unfeeling universe. So it was with interest that I read the story of the Gastonguay family that my wife pointed out to me. The Gastonguays were stranded at sea when they took their kids and father-in-law and tried to sail away from a US rife with abortions, homosexuality, and “the state-controlled church.” Apart from sailing lessons, and perhaps a primer on US history, the little family had all they needed. They believed that their religion was sufficient to survive on Kiribati, their personal Xanadu, where there aren’t enough people to interfere with free religion. The Gastonguays, however, ran into a series of ocean storms after they set out from San Diego in May, eventually being rescued by a presumably Catholic Venezuelan fishing vessel. Their plane fare home is being footed by the godless government they fled.

Mrs. Gastonguay seems to be the family spokesperson. She notes how the Bible is pretty clear on social issues, according to the story on NBC. I couldn’t help, perhaps a bit naughtily, of thinking of the Bible as well, particularly Ecclesiastes 11.1. “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.” That bread may be quite soggy, however, and the government you distrust might just have to bake you some new if you are to eat. I complain about government policies and shenanigans on this blog, but it is because I appreciate the ideals upon which this country was founded. Religious freedom is more or less a reality. Our government doesn’t force you to have abortions or marry a homosexual. School vouchers, which the Gastonguays may appreciate, are about the closest we come to a state-sponsored church.

Shifting genres a bit, I think of the hair band Styx’s hit, “Come Sail Away.” On that mythic journey the unnamed captain sees a gathering of angels swirling about his head. Of course, the angels are really aliens inviting him aboard their starship for an even more dramatic exit from a planet so full of troubles that any good Christian should have trouble sleeping. I can’t say that I don’t dream of escaping every once in a while. The ills that churn my stomach most are a pythonesque capitalism that just won’t let a poor soul breathe free without having to earn an extra greenback or two on the side. If it was up to me, however, I think I’d rather hang with Dennis DeYoung and await the unfolding of the grand illusion. That starship might just be the closest any of us will come to heaven on earth after all.