By Stephen Powers
Tom was two years younger than me and four years more mature. And on one sunny day in the spring of 1987 he was deeply disappointed in me.
We went to school together, and when he got on the bus at 8 am, he saw that I hadn’t, and he knew where I was instead. He seethed the entire day until the final bell rang and he could get his chance to let me have it. He was still in his uniform shirt, with his tie firmly knotted around his neck, when he cornered me in the game room at the 7-11.
Unlike Tom, I had spent my day parlaying a single quarter into an endless game of pinball. My uniform shirt was unbuttoned, and I had taken the tie off before I ever even failed to report for the bus. He told me I was lazy, that I was wasting my talent, and that my failure to commit to school was proof that I would never amount to anything beyond hanging out at the Sev.
I countered, while juggling a 3-ball multiball, that discipline is easy when you love what you do, and when I am playing pinball or making art– when I am doing something I love– I have all the discipline I need. Tom just said “that makes sense” and let the matter drop.
I would’ve forgotten this if it hadn’t been the first time I won an argument with Tom. More than winning a debate point, my words wrote a check that my actions would have to cash. It was way easier playing pinball than making art, but I didn’t want to retroactively lose an argument that I had so thoroughly enjoyed winning, so I acquired the discipline I said I would.
That argument with Tom gave me the life I enjoy today. We grew up and apart, but we enjoyed arguing when time permitted, and only about politics. In October of 2004, Tom called me. I hadn’t heard from him since I voted Gore in the 2000 election, but I got word from mutuals that Tom was ready to try again and convince me to vote for President George W. Bush.
He had been so angry last time when he learned I wanted to vote for Al Gore. He thought I had betrayed my pro-Reagan ideals and swore he wouldn’t talk to me again. But it turned out I didn’t have any such ideals. I was 12 when President Ronald Reagan was elected, and while I loved his scripted cowboy act as a kid, I was now old enough to vote, and old enough to know better. I was genuinely confused why such a smart guy like Tom didn’t see it my way.
Wagging a finger in my face, Tom said to me, “I read all the liberal viewpoints, you need to read the conservatives”. That was fair, so I started making an effort to see his side, and when Tom heard about it, he made the call.
On a warm day walking down Broadway I saw his digits pop up on my phone and I was elated. I missed him enough that I argued with him for hours, first on the street, then in my studio hovering within cord-length of the electrical outlet.
Tom was a natural litigator, and he made his arguments for Bush beautifully, but I had a simple unarguable fact, agreed upon in every corner of the news media, The Bush administration went to war with faulty intelligence. No matter what lever he tried, Tom couldn’t make me budge, I held Bush accountable, and for only the second time in our life of arguing, he said “that makes sense”.
It crushed me to hear it, my only prize winning the argument would be silence. I never talked to Tom again; he died in 2006 of a heart condition.
I think of him every day, especially in election season, and I’m thinking about voting. My guiding ethos is the words left me with, so I’ll leave them with you.
Vote what makes sense. It will be a better world if you do. And argue with the ones you love, the life you save may be theirs.
Philadelphia native Stephen Powers is an artist who has painted murals on 6 continents, including a new mural in Harrisburg. He is a former Fulbright scholar and an author of several books, who is now trying to finish a memoir. He believes strongly in the power of voting, and created yard signs around the theme “Early Bird Gets the Term” to encourage everyone to make sure their voice is heard by turning in their mail ballots early.