Being Beto, on a trip to the mall

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk. … Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don’t know and I’m not known, it’ll clear my head, reset, I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.
— Beto O’Rourke post on Medium, Jan. 16

I focused on the college basketball game, thinking I’ll finish this beer and then get out of here. I told myself at least I tried.
And then two seats down to my right the guy says do people ever tell you that you look like Beto O’Rourke?
I said yes, all the time.
The guy next to him says who the hell is Beto O’Rourke?
— O’Rourke post, Jan. 19

We’re in this together, like it or not. The alternative is to be in this apart, and that would be hell.
— O’Rourke post, Jan. 25

The Westfield Shopping Plaza rises like some beacon amid menacing clouds, the snow-capped roof of the Bob Evans looming just beyond. To get to the mall, you have to take the second exit off the interstate, then bear right, then take another right, then pass the car dealerships and the Exxon with the minimart, then get in the left lane and wait for the arrow to turn green, which can take a few minutes, because it’s a four-way intersection with lots of turns. People out here say it’s worse around Christmas.

I’m not sure why I decided to come here when I woke up in the Holiday Inn this morning. I mean, I need a new pair of skinny jeans and some Vans, because I lost mine back in Taos, something about a bar and a game of darts that went really wrong, and basically I’ve been wearing yoga pants and flip-flops for the last 400 miles.

But it’s deeper than that. I’m searching for some kind of truth. Maybe about America. Maybe about myself. Maybe about the annual contract on a Peloton bike. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve got this feeling I’ll find it here.

At the center of the place there’s a giant food court. McDonald’s. Panda Express. Popeye’s. Counting Crows piped in on speakers. Whole thing has kind of an early ’90s vibe. I think about getting stoned.

Instead I use the restroom. Wash my hands next to a guy wearing a MAGA T-shirt. Out there, in the world, we might be at each other’s throats, flaming each other on Twitter, but here we’re just a couple of guys taking a leak by the food court, thinking about our kids and who’s going to win the ACC.

We talk about the way things used to be when we were growing up, before you had all these sensors, when you flushed your own toilet and turned off the faucet when you were done. Or maybe I’m the only one talking, because he gives me a really weird look and hurries out without drying.

Back in the food court, I can’t decide what to get. Chicken nuggets are great if you get the extra packet of the sweet and sour. Quinoa is healthier.

You made up your mind yet, says a woman pushing a stroller. I smile. I’m about to tell her I have, and what a debt I feel toward the country and its history, but then I get that she actually wants me to move because I’m standing in front of the recycling.

I get the nuggets and a venti triple-shot nonfat macchiato at the Starbucks. Haven’t been sleeping so well.

At the Gap, trying on jeans, I meet Juanita. She works all day straightening the sweatpants along the back wall. She says they used to be cotton, which was easier to fold, but now they’re mostly microfiber from Sri Lanka, and they cling to the pants below, so if you try to pull out a large you end up messing up the mediums, and a lot of times it turns out the customer doesn’t even need a large, but that’s the job.

Wait a minute, Juanita says. I know you from TV. You’re running for president, right?

Looks that way, but don’t tell anyone just yet, I say.

I love your whole family, she says. My mother always kept a picture of President Kennedy on the wall.

She snaps a selfie and says thank you.

No, thank you, I say.

Thanks, she says again.

Thank you, I say again.

She thanks me once more.

It’s getting awkward and I leave without jeans.

As I chew a free sample of butterscotch fudge from the Rocky Mountain Candy Company, I think about Juanita and the hopes people are pinning on me. A few years ago, I was just a no-name congressman with big teeth. I could walk into any Lululemon without being recognized.

But now the country is crying out for a new voice, and when people see me, they know I’m someone they’re supposed to know from some show where I said something they think they liked. That’s an awesome responsibility.

At the Build-a-Bear, a woman named Penny shows me how to pump my bear full of stuffing and tells me to choose from a bunch of options. I’ve seen you before, she says, studying me closely. Aren’t you the guitarist from Better Than Ezra?

I pick out a tie, a pair of wire-rim glasses and a crop of cottony hair. I don’t know why. But when I leave the store, it kind of hits me that I’m carrying around a little Bear-nie Sanders. Maybe it means something.

There’s a little playground on the ground floor, with a short wall around it. Makes me think about walls and how they mean different things to different people.

Trump wants a wall to keep people out, because they’re the wrong color or speak the wrong language. This wall keeps our kids inside, so they don’t get mangled by a massage chair or accidentally buy an iPad. It’s all about perspective.

We can’t let walls divide us, though. We’re all in this together, because if not, then we’re in this apart, or maybe we’re kind of together but standing apart from each other, so we can sort of see the other person but we can’t really make out what she’s saying, or else we’re apart but we can text each other but we don’t because we’re too frightened of change. I don’t know.

I’m still thinking about all this when I wander past the Brookstone and stop to look. It’s amazing what Americans come up with when we put our minds to it, when we give people a shot at a good education and let them dream, when we all push in the same direction.

An inflatable lounge chair. Fake poinsettias with LED lights. The Pac-Man area rug.

And that’s when I see it. The emptiness that’s been gnawing at me. The reason I’m out here, wandering around and writing diary entries for the entire world, instead of planning an actual campaign.

I’m still searching for an idea. Something I can offer people beyond looking like some long-dead hero, beyond hipster cred and a catchy name, some stirring lines posted on YouTube.

What’s my version of the golf club with inset speaker? What’s my wine-chilling stick aerator?

It’s out there, I know it is. I just have to find it. I leave the mall with renewed determination, a sense of our shared destiny as Americans. Also, an Orange Dream Machine from Jamba Juice.

A guy with his kids stops me on my way to the car.

Hey, I know you, he says. Weren’t you on “The Bachelor”?


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