There was a story on CNN about the controversy surrounding a public Christmas tree in Washington, D.C. In the interest of fairness, apparently, an atheist group was permitted to place a sign up in the area, but then other groups wanted signs too. Seinfeld fans, for example, wanted to prop a “Festivus” pole.
The story reminded me of a party I went to this past summer. It was the day after Fourth of July, in fact, and the event was chock full of atheists.
I had put my notes away from that day and forgot about the party. I searched my desk for an hour after the CNN story before I found them.
Tom’s voice-mail invite directed me to his College Area home and suggested that there’d be “lots of attractive college girls at the party...if you like that sort of thing.”
When I arrived, however, Tom’s front yard was full of men.
He told me that there would be a few bands performing, a folk-rock band, Compass Rose, and another group called Grass Gypsies. The stage and microphone were set up, but the bands never showed. Maybe they knew the college girls hadn’t either.
“I didn’t realize that it was a break for them,” Tom explained. “The house across the street has all women living in it, but they went home to spend time with their families. Usually when we have a party they come over.”
These guys were part of a group called the American Humanist Association. One guy explained that the AHA is composed of agnostics and atheists. I joked with Tom that, strangely, he looked like Jesus...despite his big square glasses and black cowboy hat with the mud-flap girl on it.
I grabbed a cigar out of my pocket and then realized I had nothing to light it with. When I asked around for matches, one guy said, “I quit smoking when I was nine.”
A guy who appeared to be in his 70s talked to me about how much he hates President Bush. He said he’d “like to see Bush go to heaven.... I don’t want anything bad to happen to him. I just hope I live long enough to see him go. I hope it’s real soon, too.”
I wanted to ask the old guy if he believed in heaven and hell, since the others at the party didn’t, but he never stopped talking long enough for me to get a word in.
I met another guy who was 86. I found out his age when I was informed that he was the oldest marcher in the gay pride parade.
I met an interesting guy named Sam, who did time in jail in Tijuana. He wrote a book about it called Tales from the Tijuana Jails.
He told me about a guy, a U.S. soldier who was jailed with him there, who looked like Vin Diesel. The soldier became the protector of a small group of inmates.
Sam told me about the time he saw someone killed. I asked him how he came to be jailed, and he told me about a bed-and-breakfast he ran in TJ that got raided. The police trumped up charges about illegal activities they claimed were going on there. Sam spent a decade in prison.
There was an impressive spread of food on the table, but the burgers were covered in flies. One guy asked that they grill some more burgers, saying, “I prefer to eat meat that isn’t smothered in flies.”
I grabbed the last piece of chocolate cake, which was safely covered in plastic.
One guy I talked with had a nasal voice but said the funniest things. I noticed among the books and notes he carried was a George Carlin DVD, and I mentioned Carlin passing away. He told me that the Humanist Association was planning a party to celebrate the late comedian’s life and then recited some of Carlin’s routines for me. I mentioned that he’d probably like the Penn and Teller show Bullshit, and he dropped his papers on the ground as he was fumbling to show me one of their DVDs.
He read a list he wrote about religion that was pretty funny, and I told him that he’s probably the type of guy who could write top-ten lists for Letterman. He handed me another list he’d written, but it was too hard to read his writing.
I met a guy named Wayne who wanted to talk to me about religion and religious diversity, but I went off to find the guy who requested his burgers without flies. He wore glasses with plastic frames and a shirt buttoned all the way up and was sporting a backpack (even though it was mid-afternoon and hot outside). It was as if he was dressed up as a nerd on purpose.
I had a blast talking with him. He told me that he’d set up an elaborate online dating system that thousands of couples have used. He said, “I can’t get the girl next door to go out with me, or most women for that matter, yet I can devise an elaborate computer system that sets up so many others.”
He talked about his various jobs, one of which has him flying to other countries to deal with serious sociopolitical issues. He talked about political prisoners, diplomatic immunity, and writing press releases that governments he works for give to the media. He was like Urkel and James Bond all in one.
I talked with a group of guys about their favorite comedies. One guy mentioned The Apartment and The Odd Couple. And we talked about how versatile Jack Lemmon was as an actor. The guy I talked with earlier about Penn and Teller was sitting on a couch in the front yard and yelled, “Why didn’t you ask me my favorite comedy?” So I asked, and he said, “The Jerk,” and then went back to whatever it was he was writing.
One guy told me that he’s a minister who marries gay couples. Another guy overheard this and told me that his ex-wife married a woman. He added, “And I get along with the girlfriend better than I did with her!”
When I heard someone call out for a guy named Conway, I joked with the person next to me that I’d only ever heard that used as a first name with Conway Twitty. The guy replied, “Oh, I thought it was a common name, like Tim Conway.”
I talked with Conway, an older black gent, and found him to be one of the most interesting people I’d met in years. He was a retired police psychologist, and we talked about many of the cases in the news. He talked about some officers that he worked with and about the times he accompanied officers to the homes where it was suspected the residents had gone off the deep end. One time they heard a gun being loaded as they knocked on the front door, looked at each other, and quietly walked away without doing anything. He said, “It wasn’t worth it. We figured we’d come back if he did anything crazy to himself or his neighbors. But why should we be shot for knocking on his door?”
He told me some interesting stories about his time in the newspaper business. And I found out he played guitar and loved movies. Once I got him talking about sci-fi flicks, there was no stopping him.
Conway and I were periodically interrupted. One time it was to inform us that a woman had shown up at the party. (There ended up being two women there, actually, but one was Tom’s roommate.) Other times, someone would say something so insane that Conway and I would look at each other dumbfounded. And as the person would walk away, we’d bust out laughing.