The Breakfast Table

The News From the Counter Seat

Dear Dahlia,

All I know about this “Breakfast Table” thing you and I are doing this week and next is that we are supposed to converse with each other a couple of times a day by e-mail about things we usually talk about over breakfast—what we are reading in the morning papers or magazines or whatever.

What are the real rules? Do you think Breakfast Table contributors honestly stick to what they normally read and converse about? Or do they “upscale” their reading habits just in time for their Slateappearance? I’ve been tempted for days to sneak out to the newsstand and grab some impressive journals so I could write you and say something like:

Dearest Dahlia, It being Wednesday morning, I am, as usual, perusing the new issue of Cahiers du Cinema, which arrived a bit late from Paris. Of course, I am simply dying to know what you thought of the article on Foucault’s analysis of postmodern Italian film.

The truth is that I usually spend breakfast buried in the sports section of the Raleigh News & Observer. And I don’t get very far beyond sports because I’m distracted by the breakfast counter conversation at Sutton’s Drugstore. The talk is as much the reason I eat at Sutton’s as the fine grits Joyce Seymore makes. For years, I’ve walked down Franklin Street to Sutton’s for breakfast whenever I’m home in Chapel Hill to get some sense of what people beyond the university are thinking. It’s a classic small-town drugstore, largely unchanged since 1923.

Returning to Sutton’s after a couple of weeks away in Washington, I settle into a vacant counter seat and inquire what people have been talking about in my absence. “Top three” I’m told, are “the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church.” From the end of the counter Mike Walker cheerfully scorns the bishops’ newly minted sex policy as “three tykes and you’re out.” George Tomasic, the proprietor of the Tar Heel Barber Shop who is sitting next to me, doesn’t seem to take offense at Mike’s quip, even though George is very active in his parish and is being elevated to a Knight of Columbus in the third degree this very weekend. George turns the talk serious by observing that the crisis has energized many alarmed lay people to become far more involved in the church’s work, which he thinks will be for the good in the long run. (Is there a silent reformation going on here?)

Seeing that people are worn out by the church topic, I risk a food fight by asking about last week’s failed attempt to repeal the “death tax.” One person who’s glad repeal went down says that you have to be stupid or selfish to think that the nation’s big problem is that the very richest Americans don’t have enough of the money. The contrary opinion comes from Mike, one of Chapel Hill’s few Republicans, who responds that it’s our money, its already been taxed once, and the tax will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. A debate over the economic effects of the tax quickly turns local with expressions of concern about the slow business in downtown Chapel Hill now that the Big New Mall has opened. George blames slow times at his barber shop on 9/11. A lot of academic conferences got canceled, he says, and his guess is that professors whose out-of-town trips were scrapped didn’t bother to get their hair cut. If he’s right, our economy is even more interconnected than I thought.

As I get up to leave, Scott Simmons, a map maker for the town planning office who usually reads a book at breakfast, quietly asks me whether the TV show about the Supreme Court, First Monday, is realistic. Scott says he finds the show distressing because it makes the justices seem venal and the law clerks appear manipulative. I tell him I don’t think the show is very accurate, and he seems relieved.

Which brings me to the court. I suppose the reason you and I were asked to do Breakfast Table is so we can exchange thoughts about whatever decisions the Supreme Court hands down during its end of term rush. Tomorrow and Monday the 24th are the scheduled decision days, with one additional day likely next week. It could be an interesting week for schools, with decisions coming on the constitutionality of vouchers, student drug testing, and whether students can sue private universities for damages for violating the federal law on student records.

I have a parochial interest in one pending case, Utah v. Evans, which I argued in March. My client, North Carolina, will get the last seat in Congress instead of Utah if the court upholds the Census Bureau’s use of “imputation” to adjust the final population count. The decision seems overdue, since neither state can hold its primary election until the issue is resolved. We could have a lot to talk about.