The ballad of Phil Funnie

November 3, 2019

(Originally published November 4, 2018)

Phil Funnie never went to college. That was for the academically aspirational kids in the Class of 1970, and Phil thought of himself as a real world guy.

Growing up on the east side of Bloatsburg meant Phil was insulated from the hardscrabble kids on the west side, but his family was hardly rich, and outside of school he didn’t know many adults who didn’t work at his father’s plant. So when he started building a career selling camera gear and taking portraits, Phil was fully aware of how different his life was shaping up to be compared to his father, who had spent decades destroying his knees and back on home appliance assembly lines.

In 1974, Phil married a girl named Theda. She was the same age, and even though they’d been acquaintances in high school, they didn’t really get to know each other until after graduation and they ended up taking the same bus to work most mornings. They moved into a one-bedroom flat on the floor above their landlady less than a mile from Phil’s childhood home.

Less than two years later, they had a daughter, Judy. Theda quit working at Sears to take care of the baby, and the Funnies bought a three-bedroom on the north side of Bloatsburg. The house was on the small side, but Phil was proud to live in a clean, well-kept neighborhood and figured that after working for six years at the Bowersteins’ camera store his job was stable enough to commit to a mortgage.

Five years later, Phil and Theda had a boy, Doug. But even though Phil was promoted to store manager and Doug’s arrival filled him with joy, he worried about the future. By the end of 1981, Phil was so disturbed by the rising unemployment rate that he started planning how his family might cope if he lost his job. He was lucky the Bowersteins kept him on, and in 1986, when Doug started school, Theda started working odd jobs around the neighborhood to supplement the family’s income.

By 1991, Phil and Theda, now approaching 40, knew they weren’t going to have any more children, and Phil was starting to think the family ought to leave Bloatsburg. Their residential neighborhood was changing fast. Their next-door neighbors, the Callahans, moved away, and the Dominguezes moved in. There were more cars parking on the street than ever before, Phil thought. So he started looking for a new job elsewhere.

He found one an hour and a half away in a small town called Bluffington, as a full-time portrait photographer at the Busy Beaver department store. It was Phil’s dream to be a full-time photographer, and better yet, Bluffington seemed like the ideal place to put down roots. It was big enough to have a mall, but small enough to have a single elementary school. It was suburban, but not in the isolating way so many other American suburbs had developed. Neighbors became friends and trusted each other to look after all the kids. And best of all, the cost of living was lower than in Bloatsburg.

The family moved, and within months Phil was convinced he’d hit the jackpot. Life had dealt him a great hand, and Judy and Doug would reap the benefits.

Unbeknownst to Phil, the late 1990s were the beginning of a period that would put him in a world of hurt. In the early-to-mid 90s, being a department store photographer brought in enough income to support a homemaker wife, two kids, and a mortgage, but by the mid-2000s, as Phil hit his 50s, he was in deep shit.

It could have been worse. In a sense, Phil was lucky that Judy and Doug graduated from college on regular schedule, with Judy finishing in 1998 and Doug in 2003, and they successfully moved out of the family home to their own homes.

But Phil lost his job when the Busy Beaver stopped offering photo services in 2005, thanks to technological advances and the general economic problems besetting American small towns like Bluffington. Phil kept up well enough with photo tech to be comfortable with digital photography, so he decided to make another go of freelancing photography services (he’d tried once before, but returned to the Busy Beaver after a couple months). However, even with Theda taking on part-time work, that proved to be a difficult slog because Bluffington just didn't have enough weddings, births, and other formal photography opportunities to support the business, forcing Phil to range into Bloatsburg and beyond for clients.

Then the solo business went to hell when the iPhone came out, signaling the rise of ubiquitous cameras. Then the Great Recession hit, Mr. Swirly's laid off half its workers, the downtown strip shriveled, and the local economy went into a spiral, taking Phil's potential client base with it. In 2009, as a 57-year-old man, outside a major American metro area, whose lifelong trade had been destroyed by technological advances and greedy financiers, Phil was screwed.

Even though Phil and Theda have never had debilitating medical issues pop up (Dr. Mayonnaise, one of Doug’s old friends, still tells him to exercise more), and neither Judy nor Doug required any kind of parental bailout, Phil still ended up dipping into what little retirement savings he had just to keep paying the mortgage. Both he and Theda ended up with part-time jobs stocking shelves and working the register at the WalMart that opened just outside Bluffington a couple years back.

To this day, they still hope to get enough hours each week to feed themselves and make it to 2022, when the mortgage might get paid off. Even then, retirement isn't in the cards. Traveling anywhere other than Bloatsburg for an annual dinner out isn't happening. It's not quite bleak, but it's certainly demoralizing. It's not the life he pictured when he and Theda moved the family back in '92.

Phil thinks of himself as a decent man, but he's also proud. And he's frustrated by seeing what happened to him and to Bluffington over the years. The Bluffs are fine, because they have generational wealth, but so many of his neighbors were also screwed by the recession, and he doesn't know who to blame. It's hard to blame fate.

He'd voted for Nixon in '72, Carter in '76, Reagan twice, George H.W. Bush twice, Dole, and then W in 2000. In 2004, swayed somewhat by Theda's moderating influence, he didn't vote; neither W nor Kerry seemed like great choices. He voted for McCain in 2008, but retained hope Obama would follow through on his promises to bring the country together and pull out of the recession. Maybe he'd even be able to get some photography jobs again.

That didn't happen.

As the 2000s turned into the 2010s, there were still empty houses on the Funnies' block. The Honker Burger was still an abandoned shell.

When Phil turned 60 in 2012, he and Theda sat on the porch and shared a quiet celebration. But he also seethed.

Phil thought about Joe Valentine losing his tugboat job a couple years back. The Valentines gave up paying their mortgage and moved to a tiny apartment in Tempe, which they decided was a better course than trying to pay for both a house and Dale's college tuition.

And then there was that poor Connie girl from Doug's class. She'd stayed in Bluffington after graduation, working first at the florist's, then the hair salon. One day she turned up dead in her apartment. Overdose. There were others, but Phil was shaken by that one. He remembered that she'd been a good friend to Doug and his pals, even if they were never all that close.

Phil watched the news like everyone else, and he kept seeing reports that the recession was ending. Where were things getting better? Obviously not in Bluffington. Obviously not for good people like Phil Funnie.

He voted for Romney and felt a gnawing in his gut when Obama won re-election. If the recession was ending, whose lives were getting better? Whose? He kept looking around and seeing a bunch of men and women who looked just like him, and all of them hurting, even if they wouldn't say it out loud. They weren't that kind of people. He saw kids Judy and Doug’s age wasting away in Bluffington, not even dreaming of buying a home — such a quaint notion! — and seemingly waiting for him to die so they could claw for his crap job.

Judy has a marketing job in Boston. Doug teaches English outside Atlanta. They visit sometimes, but not often enough. Once, Phil overheard Judy telling Doug that she had no desire to ever move back to Bluffington, and Doug agreeing he felt the same way. The gnawing in his gut grew more acute, more frantic.

When Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president, Phil was initially appalled. Trump didn't stand for anything Phil did. He was coarse. And vulgar. He was probably one of those rich guys who didn't know how rich he was and therefore didn't give a damn about the Phil Funnies of the world.

But then Phil heard Trump say some things that resonated. Trump was talking about how good life was decades ago. Phil remembered when he could support his family by himself, with a good job at the Busy Beaver. He wanted that again. He wanted it for Judy and Doug.

Sure, Trump was still coarse and vulgar and there was no way he'd ever lived what Phil had, but at least he was saying things that felt like they were directed right at Phil. Besides, no candidate was ever perfect. Phil would never consider himself xenophobic, or prejudiced, but Trump made so much sense when he said America had left people behind. People like Phil.

When Clinton got the Democratic nomination, Phil knew he'd vote for Trump. Clinton was out of touch, living in her big city towers and walking among elites and taking money from anyone who wanted to buy a sliver of influence. She'd been in government when his life had started going to hell, and she wasn't giving him any reason to believe she even understood what had happened to him over the past couple decades.

Trump wasn't any of those things, Phil determined. And if these were his two choices, he was going to vote for Trump, who was someone different, and even if he wasn't quite accurate about precisely what had happened, at least he was speaking to the world on his behalf, and not for other people.

Neither Judy nor Doug understood. They tried telling Phil that Trump was clearly racist, that he was unstable, that Trump was obviously a kleptocrat and a likely disaster as a manager of the federal government. Phil waved them off. If they didn't see that Clinton stood for all the policies that had led to Bluffington's decline, well, they just didn't understand. Trump may not have been the answer, but Clinton certainly wasn't the answer.

A couple weeks after the inauguration, Doug called home and asked if Phil regretted his vote. Phil laughed.

Of course not, he said. We still have to see what Trump will actually do. Give him a chance.

But Dad, Doug pleaded, don't you see the damage he's already doing? It’s not difficult to see where he’s going with this. You’re supporting a fascist who’s feeding you scapegoats in the face of easily verifiable fact.

Phil didn't answer. He wanted to ask if Doug saw all the damage that had already been inflicted on his life. Trump gave him answers that felt right, and that was good enough for Phil.

Son, he told Doug, someday you’ll have enough experience to know why I feel this way, and when you do, I want you to think about this conversation.

Dad, Doug replied, believe me when I say I’m not trying to be condescending, but do you remember that I went to college as an art major? That I tried to work in the comic book industry? And that I was trying to do all that when the recession hit? I don’t know what it feels like to lose a job I’d held for 30 years, but at least you got to have your dream job. And you know what? Now I have a new dream job. The recession turned you into someone who supports building walls, and it turned me into someone who wants to dynamite Wall Street. I just want you to think about why that is.

It’s not the same, Phil said.

No, it’s not, Doug responded. I’m just worried about you.