I met Duke downtown at the Sprocket, an independent coffee house owned by a couple of ex-professional cyclists. The Sprocket is a good antidote to the corporate java served by Starbucks.
I hadn’t seen Duke in more than a year. As usual, he had been out of the country, traveling with a series of female companions young enough to be his granddaughter. For a man who enjoyed fine wine, expensive Scotch, weed, and an occasional cigar, he looked ageless, as if he had every intention of living forever.
“So, what’s the haps, dude?” he asked. “What’s new in the maw of public education? Are the young ones learning anything?” Before I had a chance to respond he said, “Public education in California was doomed the day Prop 13 passed. This state used to have real vision, the best university system in the world, and political figures with courage and guts. All politicians care about now is power and graft – and landing cozy, high-paying sinecures when they leave office. The entire fucking system is rotted from within. What’s your son doing with himself?”
“Taking a gap year, working, trying to save money; he’s living with his grandparents. Given the way he feels about his mother and I, it’s better that way.”
Duke sipped his latte and nodded sagely. He had no kids of his own – at least none that he claimed.
“He’ll come around, in time, they always do. He’ll figure out that he’s not as smart, clever or self-sufficient as he thinks he is, and he’ll come to the realization that mom and dad aren’t imbeciles after all. You’ll see. You just have to outlast the kid, that’s all.”
“Easier said than done. I haven’t seen him in six weeks. He doesn’t call, text, e-mail. His mother is heartbroken. She loves that boy.”
“A mother’s love is a powerful thing.”
“What was your mother like, doc?”
“Well, she was kind, smart, and very curious. Also very practical. Died of cancer the year I turned nine. It was just me and my old man after that. Without her he was a basket case, a real lost soul, and I became a topnotch juvenile delinquent. If it was wrong, I did it, if it was forbidden, I tried it. If a kid did today what I did then he’d be locked up for the remainder of his life.”
Duke paused to watch a slender blonde woman in tight jeans walk across the shop. His eyes brightened and a smile played across his lips.
“God, I love women,” he said. “Marvelous creatures. I could never resolve to limit myself to one only because I’m far too fond of falling in love. Ah, well, why do you think the price of oil is dropping?”
I told him about an article I read that hypothesized that the Obama administration was trying to stick it to Russia by encouraging Saudi Arabia to boost production and flood the world market, lowering the price of oil, and thereby further crippling a Russian economy heavily dependent on hydrocarbon exports and already dealing with economic sanctions. This was all part of a great global competition for control of the world’s energy resources which the US naturally felt entitled to dominate.
“Geopolitics,” Duke said, “is a vile business. Watch the alternative media on this one because as sure as I’m sitting here, the US is angling for a conflict with Russia. Imperialism and racism stride hand in hand across the backs of the poor and less fortunate, as they always have. Meanwhile, the air is foul and the water is poisoned, the oceans are croaking, and glaciers are melting. And you and I are still alive in the second decade of the twenty-first century, shuffling along the boulevard of discarded dreams.”
“What to do, doc, what to do?”
“First, people have to learn to connect the fucking dots, to understand that foreign policy and economic policy and climate policy are intertwined and play off one another. Second, accept the fact that the US is a declining empire just as Britain was at the dawn of the 20th century. The elites can read the writing on the wall and that’s why they’re panicking and willing to risk starting a war.”
I asked Duke about his Christmas plans.
“I’m bound for Nepal. I’ve got to escape all this American-style commerce and false cheer or else I’ll go mad. You should come along.”
“Tempted, believe me, but I’m grounded here.”
When we parted on the sidewalk half an hour later, Duke again told me not to worry about my son.
“Thanks,” I said, knowing there was no way I could stop worrying.
“I’ll bring you a souvenir from Nepal.”
I walked up State Street in bright sunshine, thinking about Russia and oil, the British Empire, and the back room machinations of multinational corporations, unseen hands pulling strings and watching us puppets dance, all for the purpose of securing more power or depositing more coin in their purses; wherever these unseen hands toiled, Justice lay in a pool of blood.