Political Asylum — August 27, 2012, 8:46 am

The Scene Is Wet

August 27, 12:40 a.m.

Tampa is a blur tonight, a smear of soft rain and humidity and downtown lights that have transformed an essentially modern and no-nonsense city into something much more mysterious and romantic.

Jack and I are staying in a terrific, high-ceilinged, one-story house in the Ybor City. The place was built as a shotgun shack, like so much else in the neighborhood. Ybor City was once a citadel of cigar rollers and cigar-box makers. The workers, mostly Cuban immigrants, became renowned for hiring readers to read to them from newspapers, novels, all sorts of great books, as they toiled.

Today the neighborhood is not wealthy but neat and quiet. We are warned to look out on certain blocks for crime, but there seems to be relatively little of it. A train line runs through the area, and at night you can hear a long, lonely freight train whistling and rumbling its way through to the docks. The rain and all the preparations for the convention have washed Ybor City back to its roots, at least for this night.

We tour local bars and restaurants, looking for Republicans. They are in short supply. At Samurai Blue—an excellent sushi joint—we just miss a table full of Michele Bachmann supporters, apparently regaling each other with tales of how much they did for the one-time frontrunner.

Rumors abound. Another cousin, from upstate New York—different side of the family—warns me against anarchist protesters, who he worries have filled eggs with acid to hurl at police. People in the city talk of Greyhound buses full of heavily armed people rolling through town. We actually pass a forlorn-looking group of local cops assigned to patrol Ybor City on foot and bicycle. They huddle together against the weather under the sidewalk galleries of local buildings, wearing light-brown uniforms that make them look like UPS delivery guys.

No anarchists, no acid. We can only hope the bike police make it home without a bad cold, and with some glimpse of the town melting around them, reverting to what it might have looked like a hundred years ago.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

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