You have seen the memes. A man sits on a folding chair, bundled up in a sensible parka, legs crossed, knit mittens on. Somewhere on his person is the envelope he carried in. This man has more important things to do that day than go to “Joe’s thing,” but he’s there so let’s get this show on the road.
Bernie Sanders has seen the memes and he does not care; he just wants you to have free health care. But the photo made by Brendan Smialowski of the AFP News Agency has taken on a life of its own since he snapped it on Inauguration Day, and I should know.
Reader, I am the creator of one of the memes. It’s maybe one of the most popular ones, which I say not as a boast. As it nears 125,000 likes, it has surprised no one more than me, a writer who decided to knock off a tweet while refilling my morning coffee and putting “write up what’s coming to Hulu” on my to-do list.
I saw that photo of Bernie, and he was an everyman—if every man was an older Jewish gentleman waiting for his wife while she took way too long yet again in the Loehmann’s dressing room. He had places to be, including on a line for dinner later, where he would complain about the wait even though he goes there every Saturday night and knows what to expect.
There was something implicitly Jewish about the image, and yet it somehow mostly blissfully escaped the online pummeling that usually comes with such things. It was as comforting as being inside the too-warm interior of a Jewish deli while hot dogs steamed on a grill and you ordered a piled-high pastrami.
As my tweet picked up steam, people’s parents who have never shared a meme screenshotted it and sent it to them. High school friends messaged me. I got DMs from public figures who had famously sworn off Twitter. There were friends I used to work with who said their new co-workers had forwarded it to them. My old therapist texted me about it. Celebrities retweeted it; though not, as I had hoped, Fran Drescher.
These people saw it in BuzzFeed or on Meet the Press or in the WhatsApp chat for their synagogue. Vox wrote about it, saying, “One revealing aspect of the Bernie inauguration memes was how clearly many of the meme-makers revealed their East Coast liberal or leftist roots.” Which honestly struck me as very close to saying I am some sort of rootless cosmopolitan globalist.
It was a strange moment. It’s still improbably going, though it’s waning. One thing that will stay with me and that I treasure most about it is that the meme made people share their stories with me; moments with family members that they had long forgotten and memories of shopping at Loehmann’s (with the collective trauma of the communal dressing room). Inauguration Day was an emotional one for a lot of people and for me in particular since my mother wasn’t there to see it, something I never would have expected four years ago.
So while I cried on and off all day over that, it made my heart swell to read that my joke made people remember long-ago, glorious shopping trips with their mothers and grandmothers. Some men related how much they actually enjoyed waiting in such chairs. In one oddly beautiful story, a woman remembered that her grandfather had died peacefully in that same position while waiting for her grandmother to return socks. The meme made people laugh, and the responses to it comforted me on a day when I truly needed it.
Life is a strange journey and one thing a meme does is explain the odd trips along the way with a compressed image. Here are a few of my favorites from this one.