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August 27, 4:55 p.m.
10:00 a.m. This is going to be great! I’m covering a convention with my long-time best friend and old political buddy, Jack Hitt. We have known each for so many years, and get along so well!
It will probably be too difficult to get downtown in our rental car, so we resolve to use mass transit. I decide to bring along my rather-heavy laptop in its even-heavier leather case. Jack, weakling that he is, warns me that it might be difficult to haul around all day. I give him my best patronizing smile and tell him “Oh, I think I’ll be okay.”
We have to get down to the Tampa Convention Center by noon, or the RNC will give away our credentials. Inexplicably, Jack wants to waste valuable time by stopping for a sit-down breakfast at a local crepe emporium. Alarmed by how much time this may take, and by the prospect of hearing French rock ’n’ roll, I nonetheless decide to indulge the old boy.
10:30 After a highly mediocre cheese-egg-and-salami crepe—“Le Basic”—we finally decide to venture forth, and look into taking Tampa’s splendid little electric-trolley line down to the convention. We go to the nearest stop and grandly buy day passes for $5 each. Soon we’ll be disporting about the city on mass transit, noble green types that we are!
Only then do we look at the schedule and realize that trolley service does not BEGIN for the day until the odd time of 12:22—or exactly twenty-two minutes after the RNC will give away our credentials. A decision is before us. Should we go back, retrieve our rental car, and try to brave the downtown security? Or should we call a taxi and have it whisk us down there? The second option would be less green, but then, time is of the essence. Jack opts for the cab, no doubt to atone for his previous dilly-dallying.
11:15 The cab finally shows up. The driver apologetically tells us that he is almost out of gas, though, and must stop to fill up. I ask Jack if he forgot to ask for a cab with gas. He doesn’t find this funny.
11:20 Our cab, finally operational, starts for downtown Tampa.
11:25 We hit our first of the arbitrary roadblocks thrown up by the Tampa police. All traffic is being diverted in a wide loop to some edge of the city, for reasons neither apparent nor explained. We decide to ditch the cab and walk for it.
11:30 Block after block goes by. The heavy laptop case on my shoulder begins to irk. I take great pains to keep Jack from noticing.
11:45 We make the convention with fifteen minutes to spare! Well, not actually the convention, but a Sheraton along the river, at which we can claim our credentials behind the massive, miles-long security perimeter. Once credentialed, we proceed to the Tampa Convention Center, a huge gathering place for the assembled media.
12:15 p.m. We finally make it to the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the ice-hockey arena where the convention will actually take place. There is more security here than I have ever seen in my life, including at the White House and the 2004 conventions.
Guards with bomb-sniffing dogs swarm the area, as do any number of brown-shirted state troopers. We actually see the tour buses full of paramilitary types that my (apparently sane) cousin’s boyfriend had reported seeing. They are idling, no doubt to keep the air-conditioning on for the men in full combat gear, whose automatic rifles and visored helmets we can see sitting inside. Since the humidity is now at about 320, air-conditioning is probably a good idea.
We arrive at the convention site, where there is, of course, no actual convention going on, just a bunch of media “celebrities” such as Joe Scarborough milling about. Chris Christie makes a brief visit, and is immediately swarmed, piranha-style, by a clot of photographers. We see many suntanned people. We decide to break for lunch.
1:30 We start back for the house where we’re staying in Ybor City. The trolley, Republican officials tell us, will not be running for the duration of the convention.
We decide to walk. The humidity has climbed slightly, to 365. I tell Jack an incredibly compelling story about Donald Rumsfeld, Jerry Ford, and the New York City fiscal crisis of 1975. Oddly, he seems less than interested.
1:45 We head back through downtown Tampa, trying to find the demonstrators’ pen, which the otherwise absurdly helpful officials at the RNC claimed to be unable to locate. I am eager to see the anarchists with “eggs full of acid” who my (other, insane) cousin claims have descended on Tampa. But the streets are mostly deserted. The only people out in any numbers are security forces—reservists in combat fatigues, local cops in cars and on scooters; state troopers on foot and on bicycles. With almost no one to police, they inevitably drift into little herds. Here are some local mounted cops, gathered together on their horses, in the midst of an otherwise deserted public park. There are a bunch of state troopers, gathered like slightly forlorn, grazing buffalo.
The area’s public buildings appear to be closed. Jack swears that this is an indication that some Republican bigwigs are inside—maybe Mitt himself, changing clothes and plotting strategy. I don’t think this is so . . . and frankly, I’m tiring of his inane observations, though I don’t tell him so. I just curl my lip and shake my head derisively.
2:00 We decide to stop at a famous dive bar, the Hub. It’s next door to a beautiful restored movie palace, named—with the sort of imagination Americans routinely displayed before the public-education system went to hell—the Tampa.
The theater is closed and gated. We go up to the box office to try to take a look inside. A woman sees us and immediately asks, “Are you here for the meeting?” We foolishly answer, “What meeting?” She refuses to say anything else. I ask Jack if he thinks Mitt Romney is inside. He says no, it’s probably Gerald Ford, discussing the bankruptcy of New York.
We stick our heads in the Hub. An old-timer in a Mitt Romney T-shirt urges us to stay, but we don’t really want to start drinking, and besides, my shoulder is killing me from the damned laptop and the RNC goodie bag that Jack unreasonably refuses to carry just because he has his own.
We tell the old-timer we want to get something to eat first, but he follows us out to the street, very nicely offering suggestions and advising us that we would be welcome to come back and eat our food at the bar. We thank him, and Jack asks why he’s for Romney. The old-timer replies that he’s always been a rock-ribbed Republican, like his father before him, “because they’re the party of businessmen; they know what it takes to run a business.”
Jack asks the old-timer if he’s a businessman. He looks a little shamefaced, and admits that no, he’s a retired lawyer, who spends about half the year in Florida.
Then we hear something: demonstrators!!
They appear to be real, live anarchists, dressed largely in black, wearing kerchiefs around their necks that can easily be pulled up over their faces. They are marching along the sidewalk in real, live, anarchistic disorder, singing, “Fuck Romney! Fuck Obama!”
The state police respond eagerly, like a man left waiting in a restaurant by an inconstant lover. At least thirty of them instantly surround the anarchists, of whom there are all of nine. They take film and snap pictures, shadowing the anarchists’ every step. One of the anarchists films the cops with his phone and yells out, “You’re not the only one taking pictures!”
But the cops aren’t displeased. They actually give the anarchists Gatorade from a stand they’ve set up; the marchers gulp down the drinks. Though the officers want to make sure no one does something like throw a rock through a bank window (which would be a superhuman feat; huge metal barriers are parked in front of anything that resembles a bank), what they most want is clearly for someone, anyone, to interrupt their lonely, monotonous duty, to justify their reason for being.
2:30 We leave this happy scene and start the Long March back to Ybor City. Block after block goes by. Jack seems to have sunk into a fugue state, wherein he simply talks without acknowledging anything I say. He tells an extended—and, I hate to say, rather tedious and extraneous—story about letting his daughter take a year off from school so she can have her own business and learn what life is like, while I try to tell him about something I’d heard a Republican delegate say.
I can feel the strap of my laptop case begin to rub through the flesh of my arm.
3:00 All Jack can talk about, it seems, are the people he has to call about his one-man stage show, and the New Zealand radio show he’s going to be on, and blah-blah-blah-blah.
Then, to our amazement, the Ghost Trolley to Ybor City hums briskly past us. Its few passengers smile comfortably out at us. There are many empty seats, no doubt because of the lying, conniving Republican officials who hate mass transit and us.
I have no more feeling in my fingers.
5:00 We stagger home at last, barely dodging the many trolleys whizzing up and down the streets of Ybor City. I’ve taken to replying to everything Jack says with “Jackjackjackjackjackjackjack,” which seems to annoy him for some reason. Worse, he insists on calling it “Why-bor” City when it is obviously “Ee-bor.”
My arm is grotesquely bruised and swollen. Jack seems little the worse for wear. I am hoping to kill him in his sleep.
Tomorrow: The convention begins!
More from Kevin Baker:
Appreciation — June 26, 2014, 8:00 am
From Johnny Cash to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”
New York Revisited — June 19, 2014, 8:00 am
And how it foretold the 2008 financial crisis
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”