America is NOT The Wasteland, Although I Can Be a Hollow Man

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Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

“The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot

Donald Trump has done a lot of dumb things, a lot of crass things, a lot of cruel things and a lot of dishonest things. Still, despite cries from my liberal friends, he is not a tyrant-in-training (although that may be his fantasy), nor is he wreaking vengeance against his enemies. I don’t think he’s been a good president so far, but he’s not evil. America is not the Wasteland. The universe just reminded me of that. Let me explain.

The Hollow Men

I like Turkish coffee, the bitterness burning my tongue and the caffeine kicking me in the gut. A few nights ago, I had a great dinner in a Turkish restaurant, Matbah Mediterranean Cuisine in Manchester. My friend and I finished with baklava and coffee. Turkish coffee, in my mind, is served in an espresso cup. This was. Turkish coffee, in my mind, is made with finely-ground, almost dust-like, high-quality coffee, brought to a boil and allowed to sit for a few minutes to let the grounds settle. This was. Turkish coffee, in my mind, is served plain, with no sugar or cream. This wasn’t. It came with sugar in it.

Having a form of charm that lasts for the length of a meal, and not much longer, I’d developed a bond with the waitress, who wasn’t, by all appearances, Turkish herself. At least her name was Autumn, which I don’t think traces itself back to the Ottoman Empire. I asked Autumn why the coffee was sweet, and she answered, obviously, because that’s how they serve it. Not content to simply drink the sugary drink, or ask for another, unsweetened cup, I went into a bit about doubting the Turkish nature of the restaurant, declaring Turkish coffee properly served black and bitter, then asked to speak with the manager.

(A brief aside here. I’ve since learned, by a simple Google search, that I was flat-out wrong about the subject. Turkish coffee is often sweetened, with the sugar added during the preparation process rather than at table. In short, I was being a horse’s ass, and joking about things that I wasn’t qualified to question.)

Omar Yasin, the owner of Matbah, came to our table. When he saw me, he recognized me from the Turkish Cultural Center’s Friendship Dinner back in November. The center had given me an award, and I’d uttered a few words. Omar sat down with us, and I began by talking about coffee, Turkish coffee to be exact. Omar said he didn’t take sugar in his coffee either, but that most Americans seem to prefer it. The takeaway from this is that Omar was gracious enough not to tell me I resembled the hind end of a horse, or declare he might be better-suited to explain and define the coffee of his homeland than I. He didn’t. He was a gentleman.

The conversation then turned to how he’d come to this country with his wife and two children a little over a year ago. They’d fled Turkey because of the oppression under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current Turkish President. I am far from a Turkey expert – hell, I don’t even know how coffee is properly made – but I do know Erdoğan used a failed coup to consolidate power as a “strong man.” Omar spoke of the Turkish president being a bad and dangerous man.

Here, I put on the coat of smugness that fits me so well, and replied glibly, “We’re beginning to see a bit of that here ourselves.”

“No,” replied Omar. “You’re not. Donald Trump is no Erdoğan. Not yet.”

Period. Game over. Cue the shame to pour over my head.

Omar Yasin fled his homeland in the middle of the night. Omar Yasin brought his wife and two children to a new and unknown land because Turkey was no longer safe for any of them. Omar Yasin still has friends and family under the bloody thumb of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, human beings who could be imprisoned or worse at any time.

I tried to make a claim of moral equivalency.

I was a hollow man at that moment.


Keith Howard used to be a homeless drunk veteran. Then he got sober and, eventually, became director of Liberty House in Manchester, a housing program for formerly homeless veterans. There, he had a number of well-publicized experiences – walking away from federal funds in order to keep Liberty House clean and sober, a contretemps with a presidential candidate and a $100,000 donation, a year spent living in a converted cargo trailer in Raymond. Today, he lives in a six-by 12-foot trailer in Pittsburg, NH, a few miles from the Canadian border with his dog, Sam. There, Howard maintains tinywhitebox.com, his website, works on a memoir, and a couple of novels while plotting the next phase of his improbable life.