It was late enough to be considered early by some – the sun wasn’t up yet, but it would be soon. I was drinking at a dive in New Orleans when a beat-up sedan cruised past, slowed down, drove back around the block and produced from the driver’s window a small black pistol.
The barman was quick to react. He launched himself over the bar with practised speed and stood defiantly in the double-wide doorway, shouting, “Not today! Not this bar!” Behind him, another bartender, a minute earlier off shift and enjoying a beer, rushed to the backroom and returned with a gun of his own. The car drove off.
Walking this time, my new hero returned to his spot behind the bar. He took a quick swig of beer and sighed, “Another night on Bourbon.” A punter raised his glass and we all took a drink.
I thought maybe it was about time I called it a night.
The background: at the start of this month I road-tripped with a few of my best mates from Houston to New Orleans and back again, stopping off at Little Rock, Memphis and Nashville along the way. We had the time of our lives. Most of all, though, I’ll never forget that moment on Bourbon Street.
What I recall most strongly – hazy as the memory may be – is not the obvious and shocking violence of the situation. It’s how quickly the scene returned to normal, how thoroughly unfazed everyone seemed to be.
I had witnessed first-hand the effects of the collective trauma of gun violence in the United States. Pulling a gun wasn’t surprising enough to disrupt service longer than it takes for someone’s whiskey to get warm.
The takeaway for me is this: people are brave, and we’re resilient. We’re also directly subject to the consequences of political inaction and perhaps too quick to accept this into our lives.
I thought of Cyclone Gabrielle and the seemingly endless list of recent extreme weather events at home and around the world. Just as the persistent and universal threat of gun violence exists for everyday Americans, so does the threat of climate change – but for all of us. They both demand bold political action, across the aisle.
I don’t want to see a world in which we would sooner raise a toast to a brave barman than limit widespread access to deadly weaponry. By the same token, I don’t want to see one in which we get better at putting up sandbags before meaningfully tackling the ever-present issue of climate change.
It was famously said that “Politics is the art of the possible” and I understand that Labour’s latest Budget was a bread-and-butter Budget. Cost of living was the focus and justifiably so. I am concerned, though, about the future of our spending on climate policies.
Cutting funding to the Climate Emergency Response Fund, in light of our slowness to adopt official advice from the Climate Change Commission on emission trading price controls, seems near-sighted and reckless. Similarly, offering half-price fares on public transport doesn’t address the infrastructural issues behind low public transport usage. The expansion of the Warmer Kiwi Homes project is promising but, to borrow from Paul Eagle, “a drop in the bucket”.
Real investment now in effective climate policies will pay off in spades down the track.
More people taking buses and living in warm, dry homes will drastically reduce not just our footprint but our day-to-day expenditure, putting more money in the back pockets of kaimahi and in government coffers.
National’s agitating for tax cuts, clearly designed to benefit the wealthy, is not the answer. We need an emboldened Labour with a focus on a future-proofed Aotearoa and a firm understanding of what climate change will mean for our communities. I can only hope this view is shared by New Zealanders when we go to the polls in October.
Another memory sticks out from my trip: I had a perfect barbershop experience in Nashville. Randy had been cutting hair in Music City for 40 years and took over from his father, for whom the barbershop was named. He didn’t ask me what I wanted; I sat down, he started cutting, and we got to talking.
We connected on a lot – cost of living, mismanaged natural disaster recoveries, the issue of gun violence – but we disagreed on a lot, too. It was a classic, friendly left-vs-right argument. The tone changed, though, when we discussed our hometowns. We talked about the types of trees, what a summer day felt like, and what we eat when we get together.
Our love for our communities was proud and it was shared. It was inarguable that we shouldn’t invest in their safety and future. Some issues, it remains, are bigger than politics.
Here is to Darcy, Greg and Jamie. Reprobates like me, the perfect Road Trip Mates.
Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a commentator, blogger and former Labour Party activist.