Reportage / 19 February 2019

The Wall and a Pickle

Postcard from "grassy" Ohio, volume 2

In my small apartment at Stadium View, a big basketball throw from Stroh Center, where Bowling Green’s Falcons miraculously defeated Buffalo’s Bulls on my first weekend in town — before the game their chances to win were as good as Rapid Vienna’s against Internazionale Milano —, I read that the ingenious policies of the right-wing-government in Vienna had earned Chancellor Kurz an invitation to the White House, the first Austrian leader in thirteen years to receive this honor. Maybe Kurz can help Trump with his big beautiful wall: Fighting the poor, not fighting poverty, is the policy of the day.

When Donald Trump declared his national emergency, I sat unknowingly with friends in a campus cafeteria. We were talking about another president: A New York police officer, who was born in Burgenland in 1926 and emigrated with his family to the US in 1929, resembled Ronald Reagan so much that his wife entered him, without his knowing, in a lookalike agency’s lookalike contest. He got elected, and henceforth played Reagan. With this other Reagan, my new novel’s hero, I’d just spent the summer of 1988, until then the hottest in recorded history. It was snowing outside my office window, students in winter gear and freezing professors were trying to make it as quickly as possible from one place to the other, while I stood with my president in his garden in Chicago, where we could see the fumes of the burning Yellowstone National Park. In the 1980s, measures had almost been taken that could have stopped climate change, as Nathaniel Rich tells in the stunning reportage Losing Earth in the New York Times, but today, after decades of lobbying, bought-and-paid for science and disinformation campaigns, the right can howl about a leftist conspiracy to bring down the economy. In a moment of revelation an idea popped up in the cafeteria that will either make us rich or the planet better. Hopefully both. A trademark will be registered. To speak with George W. Bush: Mark my words!

When I sat down to eat the other day at the Student Union, I took out my phone. It was 12:44. On the lock screen I saw that someone wanted to share a picture of a rather big pickle with me. Since no one had ever tried to send me a picture, and since I thought the pickle was an attempt at flirting, I took a screen shot and declined. Back at my office, I zoomed in on the image and saw a tiny aluminum tray with marijuana on the pickle. That’s The new Art of the Deal! No more trying to catch a dubious person’s eye — accepting the picture, exchanging text messages, and you’re good to buy. That wouldn’t have happened with a big beautiful wall.

In Cleveland the freezing cold killed my phone’s battery, and I had to wander dark streets, pass under bridges and leave strip clubs behind, to find a certain music club without a map. I asked and found my way and entered the brewery next to the club. After a man offered me a slice of pizza, I got into a conversation with the couple across the table. Austria? He was from Austria, too. I’m also Austrian, his wife said. Did I come from the French part? No, I answered, from the Hungarian part. He was a brewer, and it wasn't long after the friends I was going to a concert with had shown up that we were surrounded by giant steel tanks. The brewer turned on the conveyor belt so we could see how the cans are filled and sealed.

On February 15th, we stood with our industrial espionage intel at Arleyn’s Good Beer brewery in Bowling Green, which is scheduled to open soon. There I learned that Trump had declared his national emergency in hopes of securing funding for his big beautiful wall. The Austrian hero who brags about having closed the West Balkan route to refugees might arrive at just the right time.