Mike's Last Stand
The Mayor of North Beach, my former brother-in-law, confronts his political mortality
North Beach, Maryland
Not to be a drama queen, but we’ve lost a lot over the last several years. We’ve lost 1.1 million of our fellow citizens to COVID. We’ve lost our tolerance - both for being bored, and for each other. We’ve lost our patience and our tempers, our dignity and our minds. But the one person it particularly hurt for me to lose was Michael Apted, the British film director who left us in January of 2021. I never had occasion to meet him, mind you. But I was hopelessly invested in his work. For Apted was the architect of the greatest long-running experiment in the history of film, the Up documentary series.
Starting with the first film in 1964, Seven Up!, the series initially set out with modest ambitions, taking the interview temperature of 14 schoolchildren who were seven years old at the time, with the intention of examining how social class would determine their future. The stand-alone initial film was directed by someone else – Apted was then just a snot-nosed researcher/Cambridge graduate, tasked with “trawling the nation’s schools for 14 suitable subjects.” But by 14 Up, which revisited the same children seven years later, Apted had taken the directorial helm. As he did every subsequent seven years, all the way to 2019’s 63 Up, when the “children” were now sexagenarians. One of them, by then, had even died.
Long gone was the original mission of going on some socioeconomic, class-study safari. Something much more interesting had emerged. As each subsequent film cut between earlier incarnations of its subjects, we saw a real-time representation of sand running through their hourglass: dreams realized, aspirations foiled, financial setbacks, parental death, divorce, mental illness – the whole shooting match. The vast sweep of life was displayed in two-hour installments every seven years. Beat that, Fast & Furious 10.
With Apted’s death at the age of 79, it’s unclear if the series will continue without him and we’ll get 70 Up in 2026 – there’s some talk that we might. Meanwhile, I’ve been conducting a little 20-year-long Up-like experiment of my own. I first met Mike Benton – who eventually became my brother-in-law, and then my former brother-in-law after his divorce from my wife’s sister in the early nineties - in a community college human sexuality class. Both of us being academic underachievers, we were hoping to pad our ailing GPAs, as well as to help comely coeds with their homework if they needed any assistance brushing up on the Gräfenberg spot.
Starting in 2002, and every four-year cycle since, Mike (whose full-time vocation is as a realtor), has run for local office in our hospitable burg of Calvert County, MD - still replete with farm fields and tobacco barns despite the exurban population push. And I have been there to play his Boswell during each and every effort. Mike’s only prior political experience had been winning Northern High School’s “Best Looking” in 1984. And for a while – after he and my sister-in-law had divorced - it seemed like his only electoral strategy was to win female voters over by dating roughly half of them. (He remarried a little over a decade ago.) But his high school glory didn’t translate.
I saw Mike get crushed like a bug in his first race for clerk of court. He wasn’t even sure what the clerk did - filing, maybe? But he’d read about it in one of his daughter’s school papers. I tagged along for his next race to become a county commissioner (he got stomped in that one, too). And I was similarly present for his two successful runs for North Beach town council, and then for what became his ultimate victory. In our younger days, I used to jokingly call Mike “The Mayor of North Beach.” But in our fifth and latest go in 2018, Mike turned into the dog who caught the car, actually becoming the Mayor of North Beach, a little town that snugs up against the Chesapeake Bay, where I often fly fish off the rock jetties, trying to trick stripers into bellying up to my artificial buffet before they head for deeper waters to winter. North Beach is Mike’s hometown, where he grew up poor, raised by his grandma in a cottage that he refurbished and still owns. Mike used to have to shimmy under their crawl space and warm their pipes with a hairdryer to defrost them in order to get ready for school. Now that he’s Mayor McCheese, it’s hard not to be proud.
North Beach has changed plenty since Mike was a kid. In the old days, it was renowned for the Three B’s – bikers, burnouts, and bay rats - the last of which pretty much described Mike, a roughneck kid who would still give you the shirt off his back. Many have seen him shirtless, in fact, since he occasionally enjoys getting naked when drinking copiously, the latter of which he does with some regularity. And even if North Beach is not now entirely gentrified, it’s getting there. The biker bars have largely given way to pet spas and gourmet cheese shops and the kind of restaurants that now advertise “fusion cuisine” without fear of getting ridiculed or firebombed by The Pagans.
But a day before he stands for reelection as Mayor of North Beach, Mike and I tuck in for the quadrennial debrief at Neptune’s – our old haunt where we consume hedonistic amounts of Billy’s Bad Ass Wings and draft beer and Irish Mules in copper cups. (I’m generally against fouling perfectly good whiskey with ginger beer, but since Mike found out he was Irish in a 23&Me test, he’s committed to the drink, so I help him celebrate his heritage.)
When we began our electoral odyssey twenty years ago, we campaigned more vigorously. Mike called it “The Road To the White House 2016” back in 2002. But he’s since scaled back his ambitions. I rode shotgun as Mike was thrown out of supermarkets for campaigning without permission. Or as he stood for weeks at a time on the side of the road in the cold, waving at motorists with fingerless gloves, keeping his middle digit free to respond to drive-by hecklers. (A former Marine who never shies from a good fight, he was once punched out while standing at a urinal after smarting off to his drill instructor.) Or as he tromped through flower beds, knocking on doors, trying to meet as many voters as he could before the Redskins game started, while stealing and eating any Halloween candy left behind by rival politicians on door hangers if nobody was home.
When we started this series in our thirties, my youngest son hadn’t even been born. This year, he’s a college sophomore, about the age Mike and I were when we first met. But we’re both in our fifties now, showing signs of age: Mike’s a little grayer, I’m a lot wiser. So we’ve eliminated all that pre-game campaigning nonsense in order to get to the main event we always enjoyed most – drinking until we can’t feel our legs, as we catch up and catalog our losses. There have been plenty of those.