We sat in the basement cafeteria Friday night, eating off sectioned plastic trays, as students have done for generations.
"Did you get the baked or fried fish?" Uncle Chet asked from across the shiny laminate-topped table.
"Baked," I said.
"I splurged on calories, got the fried," he said.
"What kind of fish is it?" asked Cousin Bruce, who was visiting from Springfield.
"Cod," Uncle Chet said. "What do you think of it?"
"Good," Buddy said. "What's for dessert?"
"I think it's expensive for a church dinner," Bruce said.
"Agreed," I said. "It was seven bucks a few years ago, now it's 10."
"Everything's up," Alice said.
"No, it isn't, not for poor people," Bruce dug into a pocket of his red-and-gray flannel shirt, pulled out a sheet of paper. "According to the federal government, prices are going down for us."
"Bull," I said.
He unfolded the official-looking sheet and read: "`Each year, the federal government makes a cost of living adjustment (COLA), which changes your Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) benefit calculation.
"`This year, the cost of living went down. Because of this, your SNAP benefits will change in May 2011."'
"You're kidding," I reached for the notice.
"Gonna lose 10 bucks a month," Bruce passed it along. "Gas is at $4 a gallon, and food's going through the roof, but they expect us to believe prices are falling."
"They don't expect anyone to believe it," Uncle Chet said. "It's just to beat you down, let you know you can't count on Uncle Sammy. And you know how they get away with it? They don't count food or energy in the Consumer Price Index."
"Why not?" I asked.
"They don't count the things you need," Cousin Bruce surmised.
"Exactly," Uncle Chet said. "But even with that caveat, it's hard to believe prices are falling. I think it's a flat-out lie, a dose of social conditioning _ letting everyone in the underclass know they're going to get less every year."
"While banks make record profits," I said.
"Yes," he said.
"And we fight three wars," Hon said.
"At least three," he said.
"And General Electric paid no tax last year," Cousin Bruce chimed in.
"They actually got a rebate," Uncle Chet said.
"And the rich pay no Social Security tax on income over $106,000 a year," I added. "And the billionaires keep their Bush tax cuts."
"Of course," he said.
"And now they're talking about getting rid of Social Security and Medicare," Bruce shrugged. "What I wonder is, is anyone ever going to do anything about it?"
"Hope so," Uncle Chet said. "Republicans are waging class warfare, and we need a counter-offensive from the lower 75 percent. But the poor have no hope and the middle class has been whipped since Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers. The Greedy Old Party owns everything now: banks, munitions plants, TV networks, Internet service providers, radio groups, Supreme Court _ you name it; they own it, and they're not about to let us get our message out."
"Without going through the Fox filter," I said.
"Which is worse than nothing," he said. "If the news were honest, fair policies would follow for the majority. But when the message is scripted by the rich, who are relatively few, they make sure to confuse, divide and conquer the rest. That's why we fight endless wars, hear so much about the straights against the gays, the Muslims against the Christians, the red states against the blue, the American workers versus Chinese, the labor unions against the taxpayers. If those groups ever looked at their mutual economic interests, they'd see they're really on the same side in a global class war."
"And they might do something about it," I said.
"So, anyway, millions of people are probably going to get this notice," Bruce tucked it back into his pocket.
"I wonder how many will complain," I said.
"May I go to the dessert table now?" Buddy asked.
"I'll go with you," Cousin Bruce rose. "The federal government's warning me, `better stock up now, lean days are coming."'
Cooperstown Bureau Reporter Tom Grace is traveling with his Uncle Chet, who he says is imaginary. Grace's column appears every other week. For more of his columns, visit www.thedailystar.com/tomgrace.