Only in Maryland

So I come out of Generous Joe's with a cheeseburger sub and some fries and I spot my imaginary friend Bertie a beat too late to pretend he isn't there. Bertie is messing around in the back of his wee Chevette; his feet only touch the ground with his toes as he leans in toward the back seat. As I notice him, I see that he has just noticed me, too. No way to avoid a discussion now. The best I can do is try to hide my food behind my back.

Like that'll work!

"Dude!" Bertie says as he clambers out of his hatchback. "Whatcha got behind your back?"

"I could ask the same thing," I say, trying to change the subject. Bertie is unsuccessfully hiding a large blue sign behind his back.

"Just something I picked up the other day," he says, putting the sign into his car. I can see the sticks from several signs in his trunk. They all have bits of dirt and grass still attached.

"I didn't know you were a Bush supporter," I comment, surprised. To be honest, I never thought Bertie had much in the way of political leanings.

"Oh, well," he says slowly. "I, uh-"

"Wait a minute," I interrupt. I'm trying to keep him focused on anything but my food. "Are there a bunch of Kerry signs in there, too? And is that a Nader sign?"

"Oh, okay, you got me," he says. "Give me a fry or two and I'll let you in on the secret."

I hesitate. I don't like to give up my food, but I am curious. Eventually, I hold out the bag. Bertie reaches in and takes nearly the whole cup of fries in one fistful.

"You just got back from Tennessee, didn't you?" he asks.

"Yes," I agree, irritated. The longer I spend with Bertie, the less food I get.

"Did you notice anything different about the people there?" he wants to know. What am I supposed to say to that? Do I go off on some rant involving insults to the stereotypical hillbillies and hicks? I'm not sure where he's going with this, so I remain non-committal.

"And you went to New York last month, right?" he continues. I pull the bag away as he reaches for another handful. "Where I'm going with this, laddie, is that the people in both places have a certain identity."

"Aye, that's true enough," I say, picking up the 'aye' because he said 'laddie' I guess. Why else would I have said it? "Folks from both places have a certain pride in their reputations."

"Even the more negative reputations, don't you think?" he says more than asks. "Look at those folks down in the Smokies. The dumb hillbilly hick thing is, in many ways, insulting and untrue. Yet their tourist spots embrace the image in order to sell, and many of the people brag on their connection to the identity. They try to find value in individualism and independence that could be seen by outsiders as stupidity, but is really a clever ruse to fool the flatlanders."

"And New Yorkers certainly take pride in their rudeness," I respond.

"Right, but they call it efficiency," he says.

"It's true, I suppose," I say, a bit lost in thought. Bertie takes the opportunity to grab another fry. "I was thinking about this as we drove back from the South. I find it a little sad that we don't quite have the same identitification process with our state. You might hear someone say they're a Texan and an American or a New Yorker and an American, but you'll rarely hear someone who is not running for office claim pride in their Marylandness."

"And that, my boy," says Bertie, "is a problem, because we Marylanders can be very proud of our regional identity, even if most people don't know what it is. "

"What is it?" I ask, when I realize he wants me to.

"Why, we're the borderlands, man, and anything can happen in the borderlands. Every Marylander is born and bred to have a great deal of sympathy for all sides of an issue. Are we Northerners? sometimes. Are we Southerners? occassionally. We had slaves, but we stuck with the Union. We didn't even vote for Reagan, but we have a Republican governor. We are Eastern and Western Shore."

"So?"

"So? So, we understand conflict resolution because we have it going on in our heads all the time. I say it's going to take a Marylander to bring this country back together. Nobody else can do it."

"You mean Keyes?"

"No, of course not. Sure we have our share of nutjobs. But then again, look at him: he's a black Republican. Steele is a black Republican, too. How open-minded is that?"

"Mmm," I say. I'm not sure why it catches my eye, but I notice a Greenbelt police cruiser up on Crescent. It rolls to a stop at the intersection. "What's that got to do with you and these signs?"

"Well," he says. "I thought it was high time we reminded ourselves of our special status in the American landscape. I want to help people remember that we are all Americans and neither side of this election is evil incarnate."

"Even Nader?" I ask. The cruiser turns right at the stop sign. "Rabid embracers of all points of view?"

Bertie has noticed the cruiser and shoves his Bush sign into the Chevette. "You've heard the expression 'Only in LA', right? I want people to wake up tomorrow and say, 'Only in Maryland.'" He shuts the hatchback and gets in the driver's seat.

"Say that in response to what?" I ask.

"You'll see," he says and drives off. I watch him go and imagine that tomorrow morning I'll wake up and look out into my yard. There'll be three political signs poking out of the azaleas, each for a different presidential candidate. What a noble man, I think to myself as the cruiser pulls up in front of me.

"You seen anything suspicious?" the officer asks me. I give a negative shake of the head. "We've been getting reports of a skinny balding guy stealing signs from peoples' yards." I can only shrug.

As the cruiser drives away, I reach inside the bag for my cheeseburger sub. I'm going to eat it as I walk the pathway up to my wee house.

Actually, I'm not. There is no sandwich left in my bag. In fact, there's no food at all left in the bag: only three little campaign buttons. I intend to wear them proudly, as any good Marylander would.

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