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After I realized Applebee’s is a dive bar that is everywhere, I spent many nights on the road there. The other nights I spent in McDonald’s writing up notes, talking to whoever came in, especially those who lingered like me.

In both places I ended up having long talks about sports, especially with men. It didn’t matter that I was clearly an outsider, in terms of race, income, and whatever else we classify each other by. The conversations in McDonald’s happened naturally; in Applebee’s the large televisions surrounding us and the banter with the bartenders jelled the talk around sports. What in particular we talked about, the N.F.L., N.B.A., N.H.L., U.F.C., or N.C.A.A., changed from place to place, but little else did.

As a former banker and Ph.D. in physics I was almost always the most educated person in the room, or in my language, the most “front row.” But that didn’t matter when it came to sports, which is one of the few subjects former back-row kids can speak about as experts without constantly having the “Well, actually. . .” crowd Well-actually them. Or correcting their language.

Sports also allows ordinary people to discuss subjects on which their views would not otherwise be solicited — politics, power, business, race relations, etc.

In El Paso I spent over an hour talking about the N.F.L., kneeling, and Colin Kapernick with a group who looked like a United Colors of Benetton ad, the real version, not a marketing fantasy. It was a diverse crowd who didn’t care that they were diverse because they just wanted to drink and watch the Forty-Niners play. It included a Mexican American, a Thai American, an African American, a Native American, and a bunch of Who-the-hell-cares-what-I-am-because-I-don’t-and-you-shouldn’t-Americans. We had a discussion about race, power, and economics that was at various times blunt, funny, and offensive, but also in the end conductive understanding. It was also a debate, not one of the Robert’s Rules of Order variety, but a debate by people not corrupted by too much education, which didn’t end with the winner getting a trophy or another line on his résumé, but with a smoking break to defuse any accumulated bad feelings, followed by another round of beer and shit talking.

Except for me, no one involved in this conversation would ever be asked about any major “issues” by anyone with a large platform ever, and if one of them somehow did, he would know the risk of saying the wrong thing or using the wrong words is pretty high.

I can catalogue many other examples. Like a rest stop outside of Buffalo where I watched the Falcons’ Super Bowl collapse on a crappy T.V. with a bunch of long-haul drivers stranded by the snow. Again, it was a real-life Benetton ad, complete with a few Sikhs (not uncommon in trucking circles). This time the conversation was directly about Belichick, Brady, and the Falcons’ stupidity, but all of this could perhaps be seen as stand-in material for a discussion of success and rule bending — subjects on which long-haul truckers have strong personal feelings.

In Montgomery I watched home-state Alabama beat Clemson while a group of confused Korean Hyundai employees, visiting the local plant, became the center of attention. Not to be ridiculed or hated on, but to be taught. Proud of their special knowledge the local fans spent time walking the visitors through the sport. It was a small sweet moment that was awkward at times, not from hatred or prejudice but from good intentions expressed cloddishly. This sort of thing happens everywhere across the United States all the time, but it only attracts attention if there is something cringe-inducing that can be highlighted. The clumsy cross-cultural stuff is what gets the views and clicks.

Yet the most representative memory comes from a Vicksburg, Mississippi, Mexican restaurant: one of those family run places that have become local versions of Applebee’s, a dive bar where everyone eats nachos, drink massive margaritas, and watches sports surrounded by faux-Mexican folk art that seems to come from a single catalogue.

The bartender, a youngish family member of the owners, spoke fluent sports. He had to because that is what everyone else spoke and customers are always right. Although his real interests were the Mexican League and English Premier soccer his parents had raised him watching, he wore a Cowboys T-shirt and had strong opinions about Dak, the local guy done well.

The customers were the usual mix of working people, including five guys who traveled around the South fixing cell and radio towers by climbing to the very top. Often in strong winds. They had amazing iPhone videos of themselves that made me dizzy and sick just looking at them.

They were all headnecks — a cross between hippies and rednecks. One guy was into his own brand of Buddhism pulled together from self-help books and YouTube videos, another bass boats, another motorcycles, and another the Bible. All were also into smoking weed. Lots of it.

A few months earlier I had read a long article about their industry, one which uses subcontractors to screw employees out of benefits and reduce any cost of liabilities from injuries. So I was curious to hear their view, quite honestly expecting and even hoping that they would share my outrage at the injustice of it all.

But there was none of that. Rather they spent the time talking about the game on T.V., about what it was like to climb so high so often, about their families and the stuff they wanted to buy with the next paycheck. They were content, at least at that moment, and when I made the mistake of asking about politics, something I rarely do, they just shrugged. None had voted in years or had any real intention of voting. That just wasn’t on their radar.

With regards to their jobs, they did agree that the big companies they ultimately worked for made obscene amounts of money and that it would be nice to get paid more, but their real concerns were over minor things. Like that their office hadn’t texted them the correct co-ordinates for tomorrow’s tower, which meant they had to do a little more sleuthing to figure out where it was, which in turn meant getting up a half hour earlier, at 4:30 a.m., since you had to climb early before the afternoon thunderstorms hit.

Eventually, near closing time, we were joined by a bunch of guys from the kitchen. Another Benetton ad, since all the tower climbing guys were white and all the kitchen guys were not. At this point the talk dove deeper into sports, and then marijuana, and then just life.

I wish I could make a smart point about the evening’s talk being a springboard to dive deeper into serious issues. But nope. It was just people living their lives and wanting to hang with people who found what they had to say interesting. Or at least worthy of listening to. So there was a lot of “What a f —  amazing pass! Right. Like, I used to play high-school ball, but I can’t throw left while running right worth a shit. I would look like a little girl if I tried that.”

That, I think, is what is so frustrating about my mindset and the mindset of other highly educated people — including, perhaps, the readers of this article. We need everything to be about something deeper. We need to frame stuff in a way we can understand. We need everything to be a C.V.-building exercise or a lightbulb-above-the-head moment.

Especially when hanging with the plebes. We need to analyze them like they are votes to win over, or anecdotes for a good story we are writing, or more data for a grand theory we have.

We are the weird ones, and it is the normies, who are, well, normal. We are the ones who should be analyzed and asked why we are not happy to hang out — drinking beer, watching sports, and being whatever about politics while a little stoned after spending the day one thousand feet above the world, without it being a job interview.

I look back on that night, and many others like it, and see myself trying to discover the “meaning” behind whatever people were saying while sometimes being a pest about politics. Everyone else, the kitchen staff who left in a car literally held together with duct tape and the five guys who left in F-150s and marijuana smoke, they are just living, hoping to be left alone while doing it.

With a little sports talk to keep it interesting.

Chris Arnade is the author of Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.

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