Looking Stupid: Notes From the DNC

The Thursday, before the Democratic National Convention, I received an offer to cover the event as an on camera personality for a new weed focused media site. I’ve never wanted to be on camera, but I have been itching for a road back towards writing outside of entertainment and culture. As a kid, I wanted very badly to work in politics, until I became a teenager, and then an adult, who felt boxed out of normal life by my own personality. These are my notes on what I hoped would be (and what sort of was) a redemptive week in Philadelphia.

Day 1

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5:15 AM

Amtrak is the government subsidized transportation for me. I went blank in Penn Station and moments later there was a large iced Dunkin in my hand. A few seconds past where the Devil’s play hockey I put on Bruce Springsteen, because unoriginal American rot feels as appropriate as I don’t know what, I even tweet about it in a disgusting haze, only for an Amtrak bot to thank me for riding with them. I thank them right back, this is, if nothing else, not a Megabus, which in turn, is not the Chinatown Express. Either which way all you can hope for at 5 am is to circumvent the vortex my girlfriend has dubbed “Bus Law”. You must avoid Bus Law at large, and the Port Authority in particular. I pivot my focus on music built off national unrest, originally looking for sad slow Clash songs that aren’t reggae oriented but obliquely could be tied to Brexit, before remembering they have a song called “Drug Stabbing Time” and listened to that, except it’s not a particularly good song.

1:00 PM

The tie dyed weed-guy contingent that amassed at city hall gave me acid flashbacks to working on an ill fated community board campaign trying to save ailing local business on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. The weed-oriented protesters, who are adjacent to the Bernie or Bust group around the other side of the building, are in some ways led by this Yippie that isn’t Abbie Kaufman’s corpse. He has a point or two, along with piles of dusty build up on the available surfaces of his sizable plastic eyewear. In my periphery I hear someone else take the mic and make a cursory allusion to the reptilians that worship at the Masonic Temple around the way.

The group is here to carry  two 51 foot joints four miles down Broad Street all the way to the Wells Fargo center to prove stuff and demand other things. Those hoisting the joint are engulfed by “Bernie People” who are troubling only in that they put so much personal stock and emotion in one public figure, and a politician at that. This works out of course, because everyone’s a Bernie person. I personally didn’t vote for him in the primary because I vote for candidates with eight years in mind and wasn’t comfortable with someone leaving office at 83 years young. He often reminds me of a Great Uncle I easily could have had, one that I agree with on everything except their goofy take on guns. The thing is, I don’t want anyone in my family tree to run this country. (Except maybe my Cousin Jonathan).

I am frustrated by these people, but not as frustrated with them as the remaining Sanders delegates who cannot seem to fathom that they might not get their way. Mixed into this crowd are passionate people from all over the country with real reasons for being there. An AIDS patient from Texas, who wants a painkilling alternative to prescription drugs that have proven again and again to be an addiction trap. A former soldier in desert fatigues and a Bernie shirt from West Virginia who can’t get in a word in edgewise at home. These people give a shit, and deserve attention and care. The ephemera that surrounds the farther reaches of the liberal cause (which weed is no longer, in fact it’s one of the few across the aisle issues that stands to make anyone money).

3:30 PM

At the hotel I’m sliding a button up shirt off my back, the slime of sweat released hours ago that just got trapped inside my blazer, like I’m wearing a full torso version of a sheet mask. The arms are too long by a centimeter, and I wonder if people can tell it’s a loaner, which is insane, and no one gives a shit. I don’t know these people and am working under the assumption they might think more prescient and valuable thoughts with their time, though I think we’ve all been given considerable evidence to the contrary. What I’m saying is, I wonder if everyone’s as sweaty and insane feeling as me. Do you all need 14 shirts this week? I needed 8. Am I OK? I make the mistake of shirking the blazer for the evening, insuring no one will think they know exactly what my deal is from five feet away and feel comfortable talking to me.

4:30 PM

Outside it’s gone from 102 degrees to 95 and pouring rain. Inside the high ceilinged bar restaurant is a room full of politicians and the business side of cannabis. The event is sponsored by the DPA, the most organized and successful group leading the fight against marijuana prohibition. It was interesting to watch businessmen at work on the wrong kind of politician, ones seemingly more interested in the public good above all else, not to give them too much credit, it almost heartwarming. The next day, perusing all the interviewees respective voting records I was struck by the state representatives in particular, who are seeking to abolish life sentencing without parole, and fighting against life sentences for minors on the whole.  

9:30 PM

There’s a crowd gathered in my room, which doubles as the editing bay for the week. Everyone’s watching the speeches, and I’m shocked at how shocked everyone seems that we the voters are eating a shit sandwich. Eight years of Obama seems to have lulled a generation into thinking calm, likable politicians without shitty records are unicorns. Bernie gives over his votes and I sigh a big sigh of relief and talk some middle of the road Dad talk. Finally, given no other option in the face of youthful enthusiasm and Bernie braggadocio, I loudly explain, for no reason at all, why one must gain a permit from the city to build a new driveway that leads cars to and from private property to a public road, and everyone stops raising their voices. My shirt is still tucked in.

Day 2

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2:00 PM

It’s still 100 degrees, and Jill Stein is addressing a Bernie or Bust protest that is doubling as a Green Party Rally. If it is officially thought of or presented as the other way around by the people putting it together, I apologize, though they feel interchangeable. But do they have to be? Political energy is a circle, and opposite ends of the spectrum meet each other on the fringes, wrapping back around again. Think about the gun toting weed growers in Mendocino County who ride ATVs, the line between hippy and country is thin. There’s an alt-media scrum by the side of the raised concrete ledge, and Stein echoes her inflexible sentiments again. I don’t realize how unreasonable she sounds until the next day, reviewing footage. Mixed in with good intentions and important and thoughtful ideas is a lot of frantic energy, and it courses through the crowd. Only a few hours into day two in 100 degree heat with the protesting crowd, I finally snap on someone who make an idle cop remark at me. Fuck you man. You don’t know what an undercover cop looks like, you’re a suburban white guy in a Bob Marley shirt who yelling with the rest of the yellers.

The rally, as much as I disagree with it, is substantive as a whole, but it begs the question; why when I interview the one Trump voter there, smirking in the town square, gripping a “Socialism Sucks” sign does he tick off his name, hometown, and then his nonprofit organization, replete with tax code? You feel the weight of conservatism in local politics, and they’re organized on a level I’ve never seen matched by the radical left. When I ask Stein how she intends forward, she starts with a call for direct action, and follows with “There may be emails”.

5:30 PM

Our next stop is a townhouse that is a law firm or organization, I never sort it out. Nancy Pelosi and Bill De Blasio were there, but they left. The rooms and outdoor patio are full, spare for an invisible force field giving the step and repeat 10 feet of no man’s land. I do not have the game to taxonomize the people at the party from blazer to blazer very few people stuck out, and I don’t have the faces of politicians in my mind the way I did as a teenager (I liked the West Wing, wanted to be a lawyer, and I didn’t drink. I was fucking awful). Maybe it’s the kind of event that is the preamble to check signing. There’s no existing appetizer availability to possibility to charm donors ratio, but by that metric this was one of those sort of events. For the first time in a while I feel a slight sense of professional embarrassment, to be in such a specifically transactional environment, but in such a preposterous environment, my bed wetting gives way to free food and being a silent interloper, when I hear the bass drop for the first time since my last bartending shift the Wednesday prior.

I walk outside greeted by what sounds like the theme music for an EDM Magician, and I’m not far off. On stage is a performative painter gallivanting and gesticulating, giving sweeping brushstrokes to the beat, splashing color on his tight black outfit. He briefly addresses the crowd after painting portraits of first John F. Kennedy and and Barack Obama. Both mixes he painted to contained famous speech snippets, the second was mashed up with “What more Can I say” so there that was. When he spoke, he mentioned how he has raised over three million dollars for charity through his art, which whatever I think, is harmless, so fuck me.

Inside waiting for the bathroom a gaggle of young J Street employees talk excitedly about the painter. “It was so cool!” My knee jerk internal sneer makes me want to reach down my own throat and pull out my mean spirited sense of self and leave it in Philadelphia forever, where it might have a nicer life than inside of me. I haven’t run into a person I know, but I also haven’t done the best job of reaching outside of myself in the least. In this tail chasing moment the editor in chief i’m traveling with emerges from nowhere smiling his ass off holding two floor passes for the convention.

7:30 PM

We have to try three different entry points to find the proper entry into the stadium if you’re arriving by taxi. Circling the grounds takes just as long as the drive from center city, It strikes me how publicized the wide perimeter around the Q was for the RNC. The Wells Fargo Center houses the Flyers and the 76ers, and it’s placed right next to where the Eagles and Phillies play, respectively. It takes a half hour to get there from the city with no traffic. There are some protesters at one point near an entrance along the perimeter in numbers under 100. Some Berners, and some vintage Westboro Baptist sign holders, who appeared to be yelling into the ether, then a little bit at each other, then running out of energy, and then starting all over again, under the beating sun in the middle of an endless parking lot. Fifty feet past them and we still have several football fields until we reach the first security check.

The Uber tent has a vast array of charging stations, air conditioning, water bottles and snacks. People cannot seem to believe that the water isn’t cold. It isn’t hot, but it isn’t chilled, and more than a few people seem to find this unacceptable. I want to vote them off the planet. What it doesn’t contain are bathrooms. I hopped a fence to a loan forgotten porta potty so soul shattering I was shaking as I hopped back over the waist high divide. The cluster of state police some twenty feet off nodded as I found my footing back toward the tent. I keep mentioning the distances because it’s just so vast, just pavement and taxis and police and buses and delegates and politicians. At this point the blazers began to blend with delegates, as the trickle of humans became a stream and then finally, the scrum.

Ten feet from the main entrance is a forest of talk radio tables. Every DJ has his “cans” on, some staring into the distance waiting to turn back on, some live in some state, opining. The call signs become a jumble of consonants that nearly stumble into the bordering concessions stand. In this desert they’re the only option, and all the stands across the stadium boast healthy lines for the entire night. What feels normative in this environment sinks in fast. The difference between how words play in the building rather than on TV are sometimes enormous. The written media section is directly across the arena from the California Delegation that had all the pissed off Bernie delegates that stormed out to do a bunch of media before disavowing their chosen candidate. TV is another story. The floor is, in and of itself a fluid thing, lightly tacked down by the delegates sitting in their section at any given time. You can kind of make whatever you want of the room with whatever story you want to tell, and in a way you’d probably be right.

“The Mothers of the Movement” are up just as soon as I find a seat in the upper deck. Their words are heart wrenching and true. I hope it matters to everyone that they’re here, and that their words matter to everyone. I don’t look to see if everyone else in the room is crying because I’d be disappointed to find the faces that weren’t. There’s a line in particular, about continuing to parent a dead child. This group shouldn’t have to be here, and it is the first  moment of the week that genuinely cuts beyond all politics. The core of the matter, people, decency, and the injustice that pervades in this country, and western society at large.

Another hour or two later, Bill goes on. By this point I’m saying something inane about how still can’t get over Howard Dean actually closing with the single. There’s no room to sit on the convention floor if you aren’t a delegate, and very few reporters have the proper credentials to stand still on the floor, as a result, there are a great deal of flustered writers with open notepads moving like nervous sharks, stopping and jotting down notes frantically until someone who’s very sorry asks them to move again. Finally one of those people just puts me and my boss in some empty seats in the Nebraska delegation. If this is all one big seating plan for an awkward party, I wonder why they’re next to Florida. The Nebraska delegates are as vocally displeased with our presence as I’ve seen midwesterners in years. I think it has something to do with the random lack of fairness, getting plopped down in great seats for no reason, when lord knows what they did to get there. I tried to ask but my surrounding company would only silently pass us signs and check to see if the people who left for the day would maybe come back to fill our seats. Either which way, Bill does the thumb point and I am sated. I remember being at my mother’s knee going door to door stumping for him in ‘91, and I hope to god we weren’t just in Berkeley. If we were, was she just teaching me about civic duty? I should call and ask.

We take the shuttle bus home, and I’m pleased to see people that can afford two $40 Ubers a day for four days straight are opting to wait in a line that stretches out into the dark expanse, to then finally be herded into a bus amongst a fleet parked in a grid. My boss quickly eases into conversation with most people around us, which I can’t muster. Finally, I find the most bothered, alone person on the bus. He’s wearing a Clinton-Gore ‘92 button on his access lanyard, and is one of the main stage coordinators, or whatever official title they’re given. “Oh cool, you do stage production!” He looks more forlorn than crestfallen, apparently I don’t get it. “We do the credentialing and the timing of the show…” and goes on to map out the general stresses of major event production. I’m not so childish that I don’t get that wrangling a starred general is more important than the same job, but with a major music act, but in reality is it so different? I supposed I should branch out my production resume and find out. He confirms everyone’s main gripes, and doubles down. “So there’s less space on the floor of the convention this year?”

“There’s less of everything at the convention this year.”

Although it’s only day two of what will turn into a Reaganesque event, I’m already not sure in that moment what else there is to account for, in terms of scale.

Day 3

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11:30 AM

It’s only a 15 minute walk across Rittenhouse Square to the Brooks Brothers store to see if they have shirts for the next two days. I’ve been sweating through two more shirts a day than I planned, and didn’t remember that every time you wear a shirt on camera, you’ve effectively killed it, never to have it seen again. At least for the next couple days. The only other customer on the third floor of the Philadelphia Brooks Brothers is a man who says he has known the Clinton’s for decades. He asks me what I thought of Bill’s speech the night before. I’m a little stunned, standing there in a T Shirt, tattoos showing. This is the closest physical version to everyday me that hasn’t read as completely invisible to convention attendees.

“So you agree with Rachel Maddow?”

This all started because I told the sales guy I needed these two clearance-table shirts for the convention, but I do worry that someone so close to the Clintons puts that much of an onus on any pundit. People are at home watching the conventions, sure, but if they don’t believe anyone running, I’m not sure why they would marry their ideas to the people who comment on the people they’re generally uninterested in.

Apparently Maddow thought the second half was sharp and the first half was boring, so maybe rounding up was the best use of this man’s time, as I feel the same, and was saying so. Even still, perspective is a hell of a thing. I wonder how many people I’ve met this week can see as far as they can throw. I wonder what they imagine going outside of themselves looks like. All that and still, I’m the other white guy in a Brooks Brothers grabbing shirts so boring I think they made Fight Club because of them, in order to look more sharp for the Democratic Convention.

1:00 PM

The silliness of this sartorial commitment is underlined when former House Representative Barney Frank emerges silently from behind me and my camera crew, replete in a surf shirt, swishy track pants, and running shoes. I am wearing the type of outfit my Dad told me would keep me out of trouble even when I was causing it, something akin to what I’ve been wearing all week: Mervyn’s Blue 501s, Loafers, a blazer, and a shirt tucked in. Finally a couple seconds before we start the interview he motions for his blazer.

10:30 PM

By the time a convention floor pass had been sorted for me it was too late to even stand in the convention hall, so I opt to drink with a real human who lives in Philadelphia. I vomit the last two days and all the opinions with it directly into the center of the living room, and continue on to a bar you’re allowed to smoke inside of, where I try to convince my friend he should run for local office, calling himself a “Reasonable Radical”. It’s all in the notes on my phone, unfortunately. There’s also the hashtag #nomoreshouting). On my way back to my hotel, I make an ordering mistake at Wawa.

Day 4

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11:00 AM

My mission for the day is to hang around at the hotel and oversee edits. I’m sure the editor is thrilled I’ve been told to look over his shoulder and correct stuff. The only official work I have is the Unity party featuring a performance by Snoop Dogg.

11:00 PM

Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech is coming to a close. I’ve been watching from the upper level of the Electric Factory, on their factory themed screen. One of the gears, where I’d imagine they usually have one of the headliners listed just said “Drop it Like It’s Hot”. Generational falsehoods about me being young fall by the wayside after a week of pretending not to be a year shy of 30, the perfect age to remember that Pharrell produced single as a prom song with a great video. After four days I finally run into a New York based writer (or anyone) that I know, in a totally random fashion. We embrace like soldiers years after the war. We have met twice in real life. Two drinks in, I text my Mom that “Hillary will be our next president” and it dawns on me again that I’m dressed a whole lot like my Dad. He was an angry pragmatic product of Jewish immigrant parents, raised in Chicago, pictures he took at the ‘64 convention are stashed in my closets. Haunting photos of Reagan supporters at the 1984 convention live in archives down the street from the house I grew up in. I so rarely have questions for a ghost, but I want so badly to double check all this shit against all the shit he saw, and it’s not possible. I take time to appreciate what I can; no one seems to notice that Snoops hype man is Kurupt, and that he’s wearing the coolest embroidered Dogg Pound jacket I’ve ever seen.

That Following Sunday

10:30 PM

I have my feet propped up on the bucket zone that customers can’t see. Underneath the bar on the server’s side there’s a long strip of neon lighting that illuminates the beer, ice, and well liquor that resembles the add on lighting kit you might put under a kitted-out Honda. I’ve been home for days, and at my night job, I no longer feel like a credentialed reporter in a blazer. The political positioning of the last week isn’t for naught; I got paid a good wage, I got to speak to some interesting people, but more importantly I got to work for a week straight doing something I care about. The talk surrounding the convention sounds a lot more like sports talk than the fate of our nation once you’re back home. To less impressionable people it probably sounds like nonsense when you’re standing right there. It’s been less than 72 hours since I’ve been back home, and none of it feels real anymore, even if the impending election results will be.