The Threesome Tollbooth — a bar barely big enough for three people, bartender included — is the type of date spot where you take someone you really like. It's intimate, it's boozy, and the exuberantly mustachioed proprietor considers it a personal goal to make his patrons fall in love. If you're going to be trapped in a glorified closet with someone for an hour, imbibing strong cocktails on a bench that leaves no room for the Holy Ghost, best make certain you enjoy that someone's company.
Leaning into a contrarian streak, I decided to do just the opposite, which explains why I am thigh-to-thigh with a man who voted for Donald Trump. We are on a first date. I found him, as one does, on Tinder, where I went hunting for single conservatives. I ended up messaging with a secretly right-wing RISD alum who unfortunately — for me, I hope it's working out great for him — ended up being sober. I asked him to fix me up, and 24 hours later, after a flurry of texts with his underground cabal of young New York Trump supporters about whether the media could be trusted (verdict: we cannot, but we have access to excellent bars), he came through for me. "We decided on Steven. He's single, and he's a good man."
"Steven, hey. Your friend (in my phone as "Full-Throated Trump Supporter") passed along your info. Should I save your name in my phone with something similar?"
He told me you would be reaching out
I get to make my own nickname?"
"Wouldn't want to misrepresent you in my contacts list."
"Freedom and Liberty
Full MAGA Agenda"
I meet Steven Freedom and Liberty Full MAGA Agenda at a dive around the corner from the Threesome Tollbooth so we can throw back Tecates and get the "So, where are you from"s out of the way. After spending his teen years in the hardcore scene in Florida, he moved to New York for culinary school and worked the line for years at the places I like to eat. He left the industry hustle to take a 9-to-5 corporate job. He lives in Williamsburg, is the oldest of three brothers, nerds out about watches. His texts read like free verse poems ("Conservatives are always on time/ I was walking out the door/ Nbd, I'm not far from there"). He's cute — looks a bit like the kid from The Sandlot but 20 years older and with full tattoo sleeves hidden underneath his Brooks Brothers shirt — and he is totally someone who might ask for and receive my number at a bar. He also cast his vote for Donald Trump.
We make our way to the Tollbooth at the appointed hour, and Steven hands me chocolates he's brought "as a sign of goodwill." I ask him if they're poisoned. They are not. They are delicious, the bitter-sweetness of the caramel offset by plenty of salt and the electric danger of fraternizing with the enemy. To be clear — I am a raging progressive. I am a woman of color who identifies as "queer" rather than "bisexual" because language is important, and I refuse to reinforce notions of a gender binary. Election Day 2016 found me canvassing for Clinton in Nevada. My mother is an immigrant, and my father was the first in his labor activist family to go to college. Like many people I know — women, queers, racial minorities — I took Trump's victory incredibly personally. Who were these people who cast a vote against me? They are an absolute mystery; in my liberal coastal bubble, I literally know more people who use they/their pronouns than I do Republicans, and I am using the word "literally" correctly. In the months after the election, as policy wonks called on Democrats to go on a listening tour of America's heartland, I hardened my stance. Fuck that. These are my fellow citizens who heard hate-filled words spill from Trump's mouth and still elected him, and I'm supposed to open my heart and ask them about their pain, about their fears? I've got enough of my own, thanks, and mostly they stem from what will happen to my communities if the alt-right has its way.
And yet, how absurd is it that I have not had a single meaningful conversation with one of the nearly 63 million people who voted for our 45th president? More absurd still — this man sitting next to me seems to have more in common with me than not. He's throwing Dead Kennedy references my way. He's telling me about that time April Bloomfield came down on him for a less-than-pristine station. He is soft-spoken and seems kind. How did someone like him end up voting for Trump?
N.D. Austin, the owner and frequent bartender at Threesome Tollbooth, mixes us our first cocktail of the evening as Steven tells me about his political awakening. During his high school years he was immersed in his city's DIY-punk scene, surrounded by a mix of anarchists, socialists, anarcho-socialists, and queers. ("We're talking about trans people in the early/mid-2000s in Florida. This isn't like Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of a magazine.") The anti-establishmentarian in him balked at socialist principles, but elements of anarchy spoke to him: "Self-reliance, self-preservation, self-governance — that's what I thought was the morally correct choice." And yet he swerved away from politics altogether after a few instances of coming under fire from the "political correctness police." "I was like, who are you to judge my expression? I have valid opinions, and they don't fit your orthodoxy, but that doesn't mean that I don't have the freedom to tell you what I think." I'm pretty sure that's a Minor Threat lyric.
We pause as N.D. pours a clear concoction into tiny glasses that look like eye rinse cups for rich people. This is the Smoked Alaska. N.D. explains, "It's a classic cocktail called the Alaska that's terrible, so I fixed it." To the traditional mix of gin and chartreuse, he's added mezcal. It tastes of smoke and pleasant medicine, perhaps the very kind the Freedom Caucus wants to deny to children with preexisting conditions. Steven and I clink glasses. "Who'd have thought?" N.D.'s mustache twitches. "Mezcal and gin totally play nice."
Steven's exact "red pill moment" — as, he explains, many right-wingers call the experience that sets them on a path of conservatism — comes as a surprise to me, as it's a day that looms large in my own life, as well. I woke up to news of the Orlando Pulse shooting in my friend's guest bedroom in LA. The night before I had been out with Marcos, a gay Latinx who is more family than friend. I couldn't stop crying. I felt like staying under the covers until the world made sense, but I had brunch plans with a queer friend, and I sensed that the company of my community would be a balm. Driving through the East Side, I passed two brown teens holding each other on a street corner. I wanted to pull over and swaddle them in my arms.
Steven, surprisingly, had a similar experience, albeit one that ended in a different conclusion. He had grown up in Florida with queer Latinx friends. He had gone with them to gay bars. They were the Pulse victims. As he listened to politicians responding to the atrocity, his grief turned to rage. This was targeted mass murder, and yet why was nobody willing to call a spade a spade? How had political correctness come to reign over cold, hard facts? The shooter was Muslim, and to Steven, this was relevant. Why were Obama, Clinton, and Sanders pussyfooting around the religious motivation behind this massacre of gay people? Only Donald Trump called it out as "radical Islamic terrorism." (His full tweet, for the record: "Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!") Steven had found his candidate.
We are now sipping a Mustache Ride, a wintry mix of rye, Cynar, lemon, maple, and allspice dram served on the rocks with an orange twist cheekily shaped like N.D.'s mustache. In my tasting notes I jot down that it's nicely balanced, but as I write the word I am full of unease, off-kilter.
For a brief, uncharitable moment, I wonder if Steven tailors his red-pill moment to each new audience. Does he think that he can coax me to his side by pressing on a tender bruise in my homo heart? It would be easier if I could believe him to be a manipulator. It would be easier if his support of a man I consider a hate-monger didn't spring from allyship with the LGBTQ community. Can I dispute that gay people are tortured and murdered in many Muslim-majority countries, he asks. I do not dispute that, but this line of reasoning will not fly with me. While I abhor any religious perversion that preaches hate, you will not get me to throw Muslims under the bus based on the actions of extremists.
Steven tells me he has a tattoo of a burning Bible on his leg. He hasn't yet gotten around to changing it to the Qur'an, he jokes. I think?
"This is something a little weird. It's a savory cocktail made from seven different eaux de vie." N.D. lines up the bottles, labels facing away from us, and has us try to guess the component spirits. It is potent in the extreme, V8 and celery salt with an alcohol burn. It is the most dangerous brunch cocktail you've ever had, unless you're a death row inmate slated for a morning execution in one of the states violating the 8th Amendment by slowly burning people to death from the inside. Then it's the second most dangerous brunch cocktail you've ever had.
Indeed, there is tomato eau de vie as well as ones made with carrot and celery, also Thai basil. Steven likens it to aïgo boulido, a Provençal stock made with garlic and herbs. N.D. turns bottles of garlic and thyme to face us; Steven's palate is sharp, and I find this sexy against my will. The last ingredient to be revealed is Umami, a caper eau de vie that we ask to sample on its own. I remark that it would be terrific for deglazing a pan. Scrape up all those brown bits. "The fond," Steven interjects. "Mount it with some butter." "Add a squeeze of lemon." We're dirty talking. It's one of those date moments where you hit on the thing, that mutual affection for early John Hughes movies, and you allow yourself to flash forward to a hypothetical future date where you're watching Sixteen Candles and trying out pet names and what the actual fuck. This guy voted for a monster.
Steven is concerned about my using his real name for the article, about how his employer, whom he knows to be progressive, might react to his political beliefs. (Ultimately, we did decide to use a pseudonym.) "Does it make sense," Steven asks, "that you might fire someone despite their qualifications based on their political leanings?" I respond that to me, it calls to mind the 28 states where you can be terminated for being gay; that while he risks his employment for beliefs he has cultivated, someone in Texas could be fired for something innate. Steven says he sees my point, but that we'd be hard pressed to find an actual example of someone being fired for their sexuality in modern times. I bring up the case of Kimberly Hively, who was dismissed from her teaching position in Indiana and whose suit reached the Seventh Circuit just last year. "Well," he says, "I hope that sets a legal precedent. That shouldn't be anyone's business." I feel a flush of pleasure; did I just win a point?
N.D., meanwhile, has been mixing up two batches of Negronis — one modern and one vintage. Each contains Plymouth gin, Cynar, and Punt e Mes, but the vintage variation is made with bottles dating from the 50's and 60's. The two have identical roots but different expressions, and I see what you are doing here, N.D., I am on to you and your cheeky cocktail commentary. The modern Negroni is bright, zipping with herbaceous notes. The vintage version is raisiny from the aged vermouth, earthier, heavy, like the direction our conversation is about to take.
Given the genderqueer friends of his youth, how does Steven feel about Trump's decision to bar trans people from the military? "I think a person should be free to do whatever they want with their own body." He then cites a statistic that trans people have a 40% suicide rate. (The actual statistic is that 40% of transgender adults have reported attempting suicide). Steven continues, "If a trans person can pass the psychological exams, then take it on a case by case basis. But it seems there is an issue other than what genitals you have that is not being properly addressed."
"Oh, we're in agreement," I respond, although I suspect in different ways. "If we can agree that trans people are killing themselves in huge numbers and it's a problem, what do you do about it?" I argue that there is a role for government to play here, much as it was incumbent on the federal government to step in during the Civil Rights era.
Steven asks, "What could the government do to advance the trans agenda —" He catches himself. Did he sense my body tense? Did he slip into the vernacular of the pundits he listens to without thinking? Or did he mean that? The pause is momentary. "—to make trans people feel more at home in themselves and in their bodies?"
I call it back to federal employment protections. "One great example would be to say you can't fire someone for being trans." I also acknowledge, "It's hard to say how a government can intervene to create societal shift on things like—" Now it's my turn to pause. I'm hesitant to ask him this question, and I'm not entirely sure if it's because I don't want to insult him or because I don't want to know the answer. "Do we agree that racism is bad? Do you think racism is bad?"
Steven looks wounded. "Of course."
N.D. quietly pours us a shot of straight Irish whiskey. He is skilled at being the third in the Threesome Tollbooth, at guiding and massaging the course of a romantic evening. But perhaps he senses that we've come to a place where there is nothing he can do but keep the booze flowing.
I feel the need to justify. "I don't know! There is a faction of the alt-right community that is white supremacist, that wouldn't say we should be a more race-neutral, gender-neutral society." I am filled with an apprehensive mix of self-righteousness and guilt. How did I end up on a date with someone where I feel compelled to ask if he disavows the very concept of racism? I put a conciliatory hand on his arm. "I don't think that's you necessarily."
It's time for the Ayn Rand portion of our evening.
Steven begins, "A lot of leftist politics focuses on groups." Yet as someone who values limited government and personal freedom, for him it all comes back to the individual. "Everyone should be thought of as a person. You are not a member of a minority group. You are a person."
I am familiar with this flavor of ideology. In fact, I went to a private middle school run by achievement-obsessed Mormons where Anthem was required reading, right there on the seventh grade English syllabus next to The Scarlet Letter. Come at me, Objectivism.
The problem is, I tell him, as I move through this world in a queer, non-white, female body, others often see me as a member of a group before they know anything about me, the person. Before they know that I'm an excellent baker and a shitty swimmer, perhaps they see someone they would like to bed or someone who is going to hell. What a luxury to be in the majority — to be a straight, white, cis-dude who can walk into a room and have an interviewer think, "Huh, I wonder what this individual is all about?" How to explain all this to someone who will never, ever be able to know my lived experience? I try, "While it's aspirational and worthy to think about what this world looks like when we are all judged on our own merits, it's not our reality. I feel solidarity with other women and other people of color and other queer people because those are the categories into which I've been put."
Steven says that he understands the safety that comes in numbers, but that an individual must put her self-interest before those of her community. He asks, "Would you support someone being judged on his merits over how he is viewed in a social group?"
This question strikes me as absurd. Does he not understand that yes, the whole point is that members of marginalized communities are seeking a fair shake? I tell him, that of course, I would love to be judged on my merits alone. Wouldn't we all? "If we are truly operating in a color-blind, gender-blind world? That sounds great. But nothing in my life up until this point has been in a vacuum because I'm in this body, and I can't control anything about that." We're not in a place of equity, and so I can't close my eyes and pretend that we are.
Steven offers, "I could definitely see how you could feel that there is inequity. There are people who hold prejudiced beliefs in the world. But I feel that they are the extreme minority."
N.D. pours us our final cocktail. It's some coffee thing, or chicory? Whatever, it's very good, but the bar review portion of the evening has fallen by the wayside. I am getting emotional despite my best intentions. I don't have a hard and fast rule about going home with someone on a first date, but I generally try not to cry. "This is all so personal for me. You were saying earlier that when you go out on dates, politics don't come up. Is that right?"
Steven confirms that it's not something he leads with on first dates. "It's very polarizing. So if you just want to go out with someone and have a good time, why are you going to risk having a terrible time?"
That sounds so nice. It sounds so goddamn nice to be able to forget about politics for an evening and just go out with someone and have a good time, but instead here I am on a Friday night with a nice guy who brought me chocolates and fixed my watch, trying to get him to see me. "I don't actually know how I would go on a first date and not talk about politics because everything about the political situation right now impacts me as a person. My community, most everybody I know — we're living in actual fear. I don't know how I would not talk about it. It feels like a tremendous luxury to be able not to talk about it."
The room is tiny, and I've been speaking in a voice too big for the space. He lowers his to a whisper. "What are they afraid of?"
"Like... what am I afraid of?"
"I don't care what anybody else is afraid of. What are you afraid of?"
I want to tell him so many things. I want to tell him that I'm afraid that I will need an abortion, and I will be unable to get one safely. Or that one day I will have a child, and maybe that child will be brown or black, and I will worry every day that I won't be able to protect him. I am afraid that my rights will change depending on the gender of the next person I fall in love with. That I am afraid nearly every day that I might get a call telling me that one of my oldest friends, a trans woman of color, is not okay. I was afraid to go on this very date — that I texted two close friends with information on where I would be at what times. (One of them responded that she had alerted all the butch dykes in a one mile radius, and I hope against hope that there is a secret butch Bat-Signal that we femmes are unaware of). Can the government legislate all my fears away? Maybe not. But when my fellow Americans elect someone who uses speech that is more than "un-PC" — that denigrates women and non-binary people and people of color and disabled people and immigrants —it sends a message. You are right to be afraid.
I tell him none of this because the fear clouding my mind at the moment is I've been needing to pee for the last fifteen minutes. We have well overstayed our time limit in the Tollbooth.
Between the time we entered the Threesome Tollbooth and the time we emerge onto an industrial street in Bushwick, the government has literally shut down. This feels apt.
There is an intimacy that comes with drinking with someone in private, close quarters, and certainly this is what N.D. Austin had in mind when designing his jewel box of a bar. There is a greater intimacy that comes from disclosing your vulnerabilities to someone, to telling personal stories of struggle and stakes. As I stand outside the Tollbooth, I am left feeling exposed. It is exhausting to educate, to plead to be seen. If you are a member of any marginalized community, you will have spent a considerable chunk of your life educating others, and many of us are justifiably done. The doctor is out. And I reject the idea of turning the other cheek until you're dealt a blow so vicious your neck snaps.
But the thing is — and he is frowning as he reads this no doubt — I think I could move Steven. While he perhaps did not meet my level of emotional candor with equal openness, he also never withdrew from me. He listened actively, and I saw moments of softening. As much as I loathe the "I have a daughter/wife/sister/mother" path to empathy since, piss off, my value as a human is discrete, not relational, I do get it. Steven has only brothers. He's single, and he has no children. He's white, and I presume his family is too. I think, if we went on another date, and another date, and he began to care about me and came to understand what it means to be non-male, non-white, and non-straight in this world — I think his politics would shift. Maybe he wouldn't have voted for Hillary. But maybe he also wouldn't have voted for Trump. Because I do think he is, as promised, "a good man."
And did he move me? I can't say my political beliefs have wavered; however, I have come to a more nuanced understanding of who might have voted for Trump and why. The two-dimensional caricature of a Trump supporter I perhaps had in my mind has expanded in ways that I find reassuring and also somehow discomfiting. It is both easier and harder to accept that not everyone who voted for a man who has said vile, hateful things hates you personally. What a lot of work there is to be done when you can't write off half the country as secret bigots at best.
We walk to the corner so I can hail a cab, but before I do I stop Steven and turn him to face me. I ask him to look at me, and he does. I say to him what I have wanted to say to him all evening — the thing, really, that I have wanted to say to a Trump supporter since Election Day 2016. I tell him I understand where he is coming from. That many of the values he holds — the idea that a person deserves to be judged on her merits, that everyone deserves equal opportunity, that America is a great nation that could be made greater — are values I hold, as well. But, I say, his politics spring from theory and ideology and philosophy, all well-considered and high-minded, while my politics are grounded in my lived experiences in this world, in my body. I tell him that his vote impacts me in direct ways, in ways it perhaps does not impact him. "And now," I say, "you know me, at least a little."
Photo via Getty