Life of the Party
I. It's My Birthday and I'll Lie if I Need To
It was my 37th birthday and I wanted to celebrate, but the only party around was up the block from my apartment, at Madison Square Garden. I prepared for it by morphing into GOP mode--slicked back my hair, threw on a black suit, put on an American flag tie, shined my shoes, shot my cuffs. I smoked a big fat birthday joint. I was going to the RNC! Hoo-boy!
I left the apartment, buzzing along, and showed my ID a half-dozen or so times to various friendly officers of the law (as it turned out, the security phalanx did an even better job of evoking 9/11 than the convention speakers did--the so-called secure frozen zone looked and felt exactly the way the area around Ground Zero did in the weeks following 9/11). I emptied my pockets, accepted compliments for my tie and was finally turned loose inside the Garden party.
It was Tuesday night, August 31, 2004, and the theme for the night was "compassion." I did my part. My "Limited Access" media pass meant I couldn't get onto floor itself, but I was able to watch whatever speeches I wanted from the wings. I went up to Level Five on the escalator, was told I couldn't go into that floor's "Media Expo" area by a serious but friendly Fed and wandered around Level Six listening to Education Secretary Rod Paige sham his way through a vigorous defense of No Child Left Behind. I circled the Garden bowl once, and on my second pass, noticed a bulky ensemble of GOPeople headed my way. There was a little commotion, as Bob Dole was in the center of the group.
"We love you, Senator Dole!" I shouted. He gave me a little wave and whisked on by. These Republicans are a bunch of bustlers, I'll tell you that. They also showed themselves to be shrewd, hard-hitting, hierarchical, bold, loose, angry, violent, loving, kind, hateful, loud, focused, fashion-conscious, fashion-challenged. They're busybodies on a mission, accomplished or not (Not!). They cheat, manipulate, engage in gotcha politics to an astounding, and astoundingly effective, degree. They also seem to be larger, on average, than Democrats. They are big people, many of them. Every so often I'd be walking along, zonked on the ace weed I'd smoked, enjoying the colorful scenery, and vrooooooom, here'd come a whole pack of them, a squad, looking straight ahead, clacking heels, swishing slacks. Goddammit, they were an impressive array. There were beautiful young women in sensible pink dresses, blue dresses, red dresses; there were marauding pot-bellied Midwesterners galore, jaws so square you might cut ice on them; a half-bazillion Stetsons bobbing around. (Manhattan hasn't seen this many cowboy hats since John Travolta rode the bull in Urban Cowboy some twenty-five years ago.)
I went downstairs, over the temporary, $1 million bridge at Eighth Avenue, and spent a roundabout hour exploring the backwoods of the huge media center across the street from the Garden, in the Farley Post Office. A couple of things stood out to me down there. First of all, the UPI booth was so small its reporter had to sit outside it in order to file his stories to the 2.4 media outlets that still use the dispatches from this once-mighty organization. Second, Fox News should get the fuck over itself. While every other news organization separated itself from its neighbors via blue curtains, the Fox section had full-on walls encasing its reporters. Third, for whatever reason, there wasn't much in the way of security at Farley. I got into an elevator and went to the top floor and wandered around the empty hallways of the Post Office for a while. I could've gotten onto the roof if I'd wanted. It seemed weird to me that with forty-two police officers and agents on every corner, a stoned man with a heavy, pharma-swag Viagra weapon-pen could wander around with impunity.
Then again, there was no one up here, just a bunch of stamps. I hit the elevator button to go back downstairs and almost slammed into a cop getting out on my floor. He might have been looking for me, he might not have been. But he apologized as he vrooomed by, I straightened my tie and smiled, and headed all the way downstairs to the Bell South Media Lounge.
That had a tempting ring to it. I imagined seasoned political reporters gathered around, regaling one another with tales of conventions past, a classic gaggle of loose-tie correspondents, with Dan Rather sipping Kentucky Bourbon as he handicapped the election, along those lines. Instead it was a lame, tiny little room with free Amstel Lights, Heinekens and Doritos.
Ahhhhhhhhhnold was giving his speech now, and the girlie men of the media hovered around their computers and TV monitors watching it. What a snooze. Enough of this garbage. I went back to the bridge, emptied my pockets, got frisked and wanded, banged into the metal detector and set it off, went through it again and then somehow made a wrong turn, missed the bridge and wound up going through the same security checkpoint again. "Must've been those beers I had," I told the Fed with the amused, if cocked, eyebrow as I continued my quest for that confounded bridge.
The second time through, I found it. Upstairs I went, this time to Level Seven. The cute Bush twins were warming the stage for Mom and the crowd was mostly back in the bowl checking for signs of cleavage, a brain-pulse or whatever--the Level Seven hallways were largely empty.
Up ahead of me I saw a little slip of a man with a kindly face, yammering into a cellphone. "Gary Bauer!" I shouted.
Sure enough, it was my favorite born-again Christian closet-case. Bauer stopped and smiled at me. I went right over to him and grabbed his hand. "Peace to you, my brother!" I burst out. He said, "Let me call you back" to the gay masseuse on the other end of the line.
"No, no," I said. "Don't worry about it, finish your call." I gave him the peace/victory sign and was on my way.
It being compassion night, I did feel a certain empathy for the First Lady as I watched from the wings as she gave her speech. Talk about "stand by your man." When she finished, I joined the throng of delegates as they began to file out of the building.
"Wasn't Arnold's speech great!" I shouted to a middle-aged couple, who, it turned out, were meth-addicted swingers from Virginia. No they weren't, but they were from Virginia. They also had a whole pile of convention signage, and I offered the husband 20 bucks for his "People of Compassion" sign. "Oh, we loved his speech! Here, we have a whole bunch of these," the wife said, and peeled a "People of Compassion" sign and a "W Stands for Women" sign for me.
I thanked them profusely and moved on to another mark, a trio of hairy-armpitted lesbian GOP radicals from California sporting see-through blouses through which could be seen their gold doorknocker nipple rings and wearing buttons that read "Carpet-munching and Carpet-bombing Are American Values" and "Read My Labia: No New Taxes."
They were from California, that much is true. "Wasn't Arnold's speech greaaaaaat!" I shouted to them. "Oh, yes, yes, we loved it, we love Arnold." "How much do you want for one of those signs?"
"Oh, we've got plenty of them, here you go." And I completed the signage trifecta with a much-desired Arnold! placard.
I walked down Seventh Avenue with my signs and a group of young liberal protesters having a repast at Mustang Sally's started chanting at me, "Kerry! Kerry! Kerry!"
I joined them in their shout-out, which sorta freaked them out.
II. Compassion Is for Girlie Men
It was the following night, night three of the convention, and Cheney was the evening's headliner. I was wearing the red-white-and-blue tie again, loose around the collar this time, and tan slacks that were slightly out of GOP character for not being pleated. I slicked my hair back again, but this time a little less severely so. I was going for the Brit Hume look.
I quickly made my way through security and went up to Level Five again. Tonight, instead of the friendly but firm Fed, there was a goofy kid, about 19 years old, standing guard. I asked him, "What's the Media Expo? Can I get in?" He looked into my stoned-red eyes and said, "You don't technically have access, but go up to Level Six and just take the stairs down a flight-try that."
I followed his instructions and had at long last found that most elusive of hang-zones: A party room with great food, free beer and Republicans galore wandering around, including Mayor Bloomberg, who is clearly quite gay. I shook his hand and introduced myself and watched Zell Miller's speech on the monitor bank. Is Zell Miller the angriest man alive? I think he just might be. I clapped along to his best lines as I slugged some beer, "Go Zell!" Compassion? Who said anything about compassion? Was that us?
I was having a great time, chowing on GOP chicken tenders, a GOP pastrami sandwich, jumbo GOP pigs in blankets, GOP pulled pork, drinking GOP Budweisers. I bellied up to a flimsy, portable bar that had been set up for the occasion. A group of Republicans in their twenties gathered around as I sat with tuned ears and a nonchalant, drunken expression.
Cheney had started his speech by now, and I clapped along to some of what he was saying, laughed at his jokes, smacked the bar once or twice in agreement. I was fully in character, except for the non-pleated slacks and the fact that, once again, I was zonked off my ass on great weed.
There was a consultant next to me named Samuel Jackson, I kid you not, straight from the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. A surfer Republican, sand-scrubbed-teeth GOPer, rocker right-winger. I wanted to run with him and his crowd as deeply into the night as I could. I listened as they ordered Heinekens, and Samuel started joking with his friend, who had "fallen asleep" in a Manhattan bar the night before. "You're proud of that," Jackson said with a big friendly laugh. I eavesdropped and watched the speech come through on the house system, in real time, and echo on CNN a moment later. I clapped some more.
The subject of Zell Miller came up among the men, someone asking, "Is he a liberal?" Sam's friend observed that the party's interest in Miller went only so far as Zig Zag's willingness to get up there as the token novelty Democrat. The heads nodded. It was a harsh and Machiavellian observation-and it was true. The crew behind the bar was all local New York energy; one wore a "Proud to Be a Unionist" button. Black, Latino and white and mixed, they were an interesting crew, too. A tie-wearing man about my age with a long, tied-back ponytail walked behind the flimsy cubist bar, and I could tell he was telling the one employee not wearing a tie to put it on. How could I let this moment pass?
"Hey," I yelled to him, "don't bother my man about wearing a tie, man!" Pony looked over at me with a shocked and amused look.
"And it's time for you to chop that ponytail off, dude!"
I was hoping the neighboring crowd would hear me; they already were talking freely, and I wanted more. Samuel Jackson, consultant, was smiling broadly. The girls had arrived.
Chipper, cheery Republican energy emanated from this crowd. They talked about the party they were going to; it would be very crowded, of course. They talked about the bands, these happy-go-lucky free-marketeers. I wanted to down red-state Jell-O shots with them, whatever it took; I wanted to reach into their hearts and see what really made 'em beat so passionately for Bush. Cheney droned on some more. The group's size had now reached the GOP-squad point-they bounced on their heels with that righteous, wild pony weirdness, the sexed-up party, unloosed in the big city. The anticipation was palpable as Cheney began to wrap it up.
I was hoping to engage Samuel's friend, since he was nearest to me. A tanned and blond young woman (we'll call her Chipper 1) was standing next to Sam now, and he was telling his friend that he should meet some of Chipper 1's friends, because they were "cute."
He then laughed and marveled to the crowd that his mid-20s friend was already married. C-1 took an avid interest, and Sam's friend whipped out the cell-camera for a digital show-tell.
I didn't see the picture, but the cheerleading Chipper spoke a thousand words when she burst out: "She's fuckin' hot, buddy. Way to pull some tail! Way to pull some ass!"
Of this quote I am sure.
I'm also sure the party was hot and crowded; I did not run with those Republicans, possibly because I broke out the Viagra pen and a small notebook within a minute of Chipper's vulgar, if pro-marriage, proclamation. It was imperative that I get the exact quote right, if only to vindicate in one line what poor Stephen Glass fabricated a bunch of years back for The New Republic. Or, maybe Republicans really were more boring when he was making up stories about debauched rich dilettantes with filthy mouths and dirty imaginations (is that what he was writing about?).
In any event, I had to write the words down immediately or I might misquote C-1, just a bit, and lose some of the incredible poetry contained in those words. I swiveled on my stool and scribbled the quote, and when I swiveled back, everyone was gone except for Sam's friend and another guy; they hunched over their drinks and I left them to it.
The Bashfest was closing now and I watched as the parade of delegates crashed through the party room. I grabbed another plate of GOP nosh and a last beer. Brooks & Dunne was introduced to great applause and began their show with a Hendrix-at-Woodstock attempt at the "Star Spangled Banner." It was a twisted and evil appropriation of Jimi's classic antiwar take and pissed me off more than anything Cheney or Miller had said that night.
"Fuck these motherfuckers," I thought, even as I grinned and waved at the departing delegates.
After a night of compassion, it had been an all-bash, all-the-time night, and everyone was smiling as they filed past.
III. The Levitation of the Garden
Bush was on deck for the final night. Yes, I got whacked on the killer weed again, but did not go to the Garden party. Instead, I sat on my balcony and watched Bush's speech on TV and listened to the protesters down on Eighth Avenue whooping it up. I could see Madison Square Garden from my perch, and waited for it to levitate to the heavens, but that did not happen.
When the show was over and the protesters had dispersed and the helicopters had split the scene, the neighborhood was so quiet you could actually hear the chirping of crickets. You could hear the gnashing of Democrats' teeth as they began to grapple with the hot and horny beast that the Grand Ol' Party had unleashed in this most decidedly liberal of liberal bastions.