I knew immediately that he was my Internet troll. What are the chances, I thought as I walked towards my seat. What kind of pattern in the Matrix leads to this, to sharing an airplane seat with the man who wrote that "everything [I] hold dear needs to be destroyed, with as much emotional pain inflicted as possible"?
The sweet heady high of my spontaneous upgrade gave way to dry mouth and a hairball of nerves rising from my esophagus. My jaw clenched as I pictured the inevitable airborne confrontation: fists flying in first class, an emergency landing and the red burn of handcuffs as I'm frog-marched down a steamy Tampa tarmac.
As I sat down, I still wasn't 100 percent sure that he was Eric Golub. Passengers streamed by, and he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and made a call. "Hey Mark," he said, "I'm just calling to confirm for this weekend. This is Eric Golub."
Oh my god. This can't be happening.
My mind raced. Two hours of tension lay ahead. I sent out a couple of tweets, quick messages to let the outside world know what sort of surreal cosmic junction I had just entered. I reloaded my feed. No responses. I was all alone, just me and my troll.
After we took off, we talked like friendly strangers about why we were flying to the Republican Convention. I'm a reporter, I told him, and Golub said that he gives speeches to conservative groups. He had this Rodney Dangerfield schtick going on, and he wise-cracked about hard it can be to meet single women at a Rick Santorum rally. I realized that he had no clue who I was, and then he went to sleep.
I had never actually met Eric Golub personally. He is a neo-conservative blogger and comedian, and he was the warm-up act for an Idaho Republican Party fundraiser that I covered as my first story for Politics Daily. A few days after the story ran, I got a weird email from a friend. "Congratulations, Scumbag!" she wrote. She attached a link to a blog post called, "Michael Ames -- Lying Liberal Scumbag."
No one had ever called me a scumbag before, at least not in public, and I read eagerly. Golub had many grievances, few of which will be of interest to today's reader. He claims that I misquoted him. Needless to say, I stand by my reporting. He called me "the new face of what is contemptible with the liberal media."
As the engines slowed and the plane dropped into the cloud layer over northern Florida, he woke up, and we talked about politics. He was knowledgable and, to my surprise, calm. I crunched on my last tomato-juice-soaked ice cube and decided it was time to identify myself.
"I think we may have crossed paths before," I said. "I heard you speak once, at a Republican fundraiser in Idaho."
"You were there?"
"I was there. I was actually a reporter covering the event."
"Wait. What's your full name?"
Long pause. His face turned gray and he looked down at his seatbelt.
"Oh boy," my troll said. "I laced into you. So you saw that?"
"Well... I meant it."
Things got tense there for a minute. But I had already decided that this man was no enemy of mine. The mind-boggling improbability of being assigned to sit with him was so humbling, like we had both been put into some kind of existential kindergarten time out. Golub softened his edge, too. He told me that as his career grew, he received hate mail that made my crimes against him small by comparison. He promised to go back and re-consider what I had written and his reaction to it. He said that I was apparently "not a scumbag."
Before we landed, I asked him if he thought his angry rant might encourage other people to engage in similar tactics. I confessed to him that he had hit close to home -- some of my own relatives are hard-core right-wingers who dive gleefully into the political gutters. They don't call me a scumbag, but they do assume many things about people who they don't know. They enjoy AM radio and roll in the verbal muck of the genre. Democratic politicians are "vile" and "detestable" monsters intent on "destroying America." Obama voters are "losers," "parasites," and "bums" going nowhere in life.
My conservative relatives and friends are good people, of course. But our bonds have all been needlessly strained by politics. I have met dozens of other people with similar stories of damaged relationships, of ruined holiday dinners and in some cases, total estrangement. Such a waste, and all this for some cheap junk talk on the radio.
As we descended toward Tampa, Golub was reflective. He said, and I'll never forget this, that too many people these days "demonize those who they disagree with."
"Hmmm," I said, thinking about how many prospective employers had skipped over my resume after they googled my name and discovered that I was a lying scumbag.
Why do the haters hate, I asked him.
They engage in ideological bigotry, he said.
"Eric Golub," I wanted to say at that moment but didn't, "you too are a part of this. You may be a modest man and you not think of yourself as a public figure, but you are, we all are, and we have a responsibility to not be trolls."
That was late August. A month later, he wrote this article about our encounter for The Washington Times and called it "Yom Kippur with Michael Ames." It was an atonement. Golub said that he had "questioned what was in [my] heart," and "that was wrong." Thank you, sir.
As we head into a new year, I am thinking with respect and solidarity about the man who was once my Internet troll but has become something more like a spiritual test. I am thankful and will forever be awestruck that we sat next to each other on Delta Flight 564. The experience changed both of us for the better.
In 2013, we should all realize that the best and most innovative solutions come from collaborations between people who disagree. People with different ideas are not scumbags. Trolls are people, too. If my Internet troll and I can come together, can't we expect at least that much from the people we send to Washington to do the same?