I sit here, now, in a windowless, soulless hostel room on S Halsted St., in the Greek quarter of Chicago, counting down the minutes until two more aspirin won’t kill me. Sometime into a 16-hour Greyhound journey from New York my sinuses decided to cave into my face and now no amount of water, medicinal drugs or oxygen seem to be able to stop the gnawing headache stretching around the side of my head. But there’s an election going on here! I’ve seen it being put up a few blocks away, and whatever whiff of relevance this odyssey may have is dissipating by the second.
Atop the Empire State Building, on my one night in New York, I sat on a set of steps and read a little of an abandoned Village Voice, regaining some sense of balance that you lose when you first look down 381-metres to an imposing concrete floor. Richard Belzer apparently thinks McCain is “dangerous”; Ice-T supported Hillary because he “liked Bill Clinton”; The Hold Steady reckon it’ll be an “angry motherfucking show” on the 6th and 7th in New York if Obama loses; whoever Darcey Steinke is assures us that Obama “is neither a terrorist nor a Muslim”.
I stand up feeling a little woozier. An impossibly trendy indie-type then approached me and asked me for a light. A couple of hours before, walking down the sidewalk, an awkward young guy, chattering to himself and walking with his head forward, swerved into my path and had offered me a lighter; he said he made them himself, and as I’d never seen a lighter with ‘Hulkamania’ emblazoned on the side I was inclined to believe the jumpy fellow. So looking down on the City, one that made more sense when it was reduced to ants and toy cars, I gave her the lighter. “Say, is that Yankee Stadium?” she asked pointing towards a blur of floodlights and grass in the distance.
“I think it’s the Shea Stadium, the Mets’ home.”
“Oh, right. Are you English?”
“What are you doing here? Why do you know about Baseball?”
“I like baseball, and I’m going to write an article about the election, but I’m not sure what about it yet."
“A website called DrownedinSound.com.”
“Never heard of it.”
I landed in New York last Saturday, slung over my shoulder a monstrously big and unwieldy bag. To reach my hostel I headed for not just a train, but an AirTrain, or rather a jumped-up monorail. I stood looking for the right platform when a man behind me asked, “Where you going, sir?” I turned to face a middle-aged African-American, with grey eyes and a tired, jaded and experienced posture.
“Jamaica Station,” I replied.
“You need the second train on this here platform.”
I went back to stand by him and asked him where he’d flown in from.
“No, no, I wish, I work here. I came just from home. Where you going then?”
“Oh, Harlem, yeah.”
I thought it was south of Harlem, my impression being the area began at Martin Luther King Blvd. But I wasn’t about to doubt him – he seemed slightly otherworldly, psychic, a helpful spirit, and in all the time I spoke to him he didn’t offer anyone else help with their trains.
A woman ran down the escalator and boarded the train about to depart without a pause to consider. “Man, I see some funny things here. People just boarding trains who don’t even know where they’re going. Just run straight on. Man, people are funny. I have good sleeps – I giggle to myself all night. People are just funny.”
My glorified tram pulled up and I thanked him and boarded it. 7, maybe 8 stops down the line the Wise Attendant boarded the train. How did he do that? I wondered if the Wise Attendant had a twin brother working here but they dressed identically in that case. He got off one stop later and I saw him push a trolley of cardboard boxes across the platform before the train again departed.
The subway went from Sutphin Blvd. / Archer Av. Station in Queens to 103rd St. in Harlem. These subways are the future – wide, air conditioned and running late into the night - wide enough even for a tall blonde and a James Brown lookalike to bang out funk numbers on an old Casio in the middle of a carriage. On a subway they seem crazy, but I’ve no doubt they’re probably Williamsburg denizens with a line in electro-funk.
The barometer for gentrification/modernity in music circles seems to be if an indie scene is burgeoning, and in that respect Harlem is definitely gentrifying. There’s still those small things that make in tick differently to everywhere else though and fill up the squares with fear and disgust: the gigantic tenement buildings, the SUVs double parked late into the night and, for me in particular, the police cordon across the street of my hostel. I asked a lady sitting on the steps to her apartment why it was there and she looked at me as if I’d asked what Earth time was. I left my bags in the hostel and headed out, coming back sometime later to sleep and head off on the campaign trail as it petered out in all brands of hope, despair and anger.
New York went back an hour while I slept. I got to the reception before 5am to check out and found the night’s stragglers refusing to give up the fight and continue drinking till dawn. One handed me a Jack and Coke, low on whiskey, and I gulped it in one. Today I would be spending a cold Wallingford, Pennsylvania morning with a bunch of die-hard, vote-early, scream-loud Republicans watching their candidate make his last few arguments as to why he should be President. I was half-way to asking the man if he had a pint of ether at hand.
Wallingford - named for Wallingford, England – is a suburb of Philadelphia and fertile hunting ground for the Republicans. It really is beautiful – the train station is straight from Mark Twain country and the sparse houses are shrouded in red, brown, green and yellow leaves; there are sometimes no pavements but the cars glide to the other side of the road to pass you.
I checked my clothing to see if some pesky, urban, Godless Marxist hadn’t stuck a Vote Obama sticker to me, but the queue was peaceful and at least within earshot of myself I heard no talk of lynching. Once inside, the soul numbers that came from the PA system created the worst display of White-Protestant dancing this side of the 80s. I scoured the demographics of the crowd: varied in ages, homogenous in race. But wait…could it be? Yes, it was an African-American family entering the building. What do we do? Is this allowed? It’s not Alan Keyes, is it? Deep in an abiding shock a tall, bespectacled man tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was a reporter. Well…why not.
“Oh, superb. Who are you with?”
“DrownedinSound.com, it’s based in the UK.”
“I’m here with the Democratic Party.”
“Yeah, we’re here with some veterans to respond to Senator McCain.”
Respond? Am I in on some plot to disrupt proceedings? “No, no, no. We’re just here to watch and offer a response to Senator McCain…ladies, come over here. This man is a reporter – you would be interested in interviewing them, yes?”
I nearly burst out laughing.
Either DrownedinSound has political currency in Wallingford, Pennsylvania or the Democratic Party is in a worse state than I imagined. And let’s not kid ourselves…
So I ‘interviewed’ away; both ladies were very genial and spoke much sense, but provided as they were by an opposition party at an opponent’s rally struck me as manipulative. One was a retired Marine, and the other was a mother of a soldier currently in Iraq on his third tour of duty. I went to stoic in a flash. They pointed out the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America had given McCain a D-rating and a strident “must try harder” with regards to supporting the troops. They said that voting for McCain was a vote for a veteran, not all veterans. When McCain took to the stage, one hour late I should add, one of his first points was that he “would not fail veterans”.
The rest of his speech could be divided up into a dozen parts, then rearranged, and it would be the same speech – it was a greatest hits package of his campaign’s platitudes. Physically, he was undoubtedly there but whether I saw him is impossible to say. He looked like a worn puppet, framed by party stooges not deemed so toxic as to derail his campaign: there was Senator Sam Brownback, Senator Arlen Specter, Governor Tom Ridge and, increasing the chances of me hurling abuse throughout proceedings, Senator Joseph Lieberman.
The whole thing was comical at times – the choir first gave a chipmunk-version of the National Anthem and then proceeded to sing something about “being a train, a chicka-chicka train train,” in a round. I thought I’d at least be impressed by the sheer force of will and unity of purpose of a couple of thousand people, like Radiohead fans willing ‘Creep’ at a live show – but, no. The crowd booed and cheered correctly but it was robotic and spiritually bankrupt. It seemed to be a veritable collection of anti-tax lobbyists, yahoos and impatient parents with their kids. Pre-teen attendees looked straight out of church and with a preternatural interest in finance. One boy, no older than 14, wore a Fonz leather jacket, which I’m sure caused a furore in the home. He saved face, however, by displaying an intense awareness of the fire hazard that was caused by standing near the doorway. It was, pure and simply, a Stop Obama rally, the likes of which would normally be expected as an incumbent ran for a second term. The Senator mentioned the troops again…
…and I jumped forward in time, sitting on a Greyhound heading for the Windy City next to a man returning home after being in Iraq for three and a half years. I had been forced to take it after missing my Amtrak train on account of McCain overrunning, not that I didn’t try to make it. As a quick aside, if you want to attract Secret Service attention you could try not washing for a couple of days and sprinting out of a McCain rally and towards a train station in double-quick time. “Honestly, I think they’re both idiots,” the veteran said regarding the candidates. So much for McCainiac Troops. His son was 4 and he hadn’t seen him since he was just a baby; now he said he’d be going quickly onto South Dakota for work and again leaving his family behind. He was in his thirties and had served in the army since he was 17. He showed me his iPod and said he couldn’t go anywhere without his music. Music! That’s what this site is about!
“What’s your favourite band?” Then, bluntly, he told me how he had shot and killed an 8-year old boy after he’d taken a pot-shot at an officer’s head with a pistol. He said he was one of hundreds, perhaps, seeing as he was a machine gunner. He went on to talk about raiding Saddam’s palace. My eyes kept flicking, however, between him and a boisterous toddler giving her mother a heap of stress. She walked over to the Hummer Gunner and he took her upon his lap. The girl’s mother said that she never usually greeted strangers. The man said that he’d always been good with kids.
I gave him all the English coins I had to give to his boy who enjoyed collecting foreign monies. He left the bus and I saw him greet his wife and son coolly.
Dazed and confused; groggy; my tongue a little loosened by the cool serenity that comes as a headache subsides – it’s like leaving a hangover and returning to sweet drunkenness – I headed for Grant Park. I stopped to ask a postman in which direction it was, but as it transpires an English accent is no good in pronouncing English words in this place. Grant Park. Grawnt Park. Grarnt Parrk. Graahnt Paahrk – come on, he’s a Chicago local, not Bobby Kennedy. The park will be the site of the Obama election night address today. Across the security cordon was every TV network under the sun, it would appear. I talked to a technician who said that it’s the most uplinks he’s ever seen at one event. I walked around, scouting the site, hoping to see whether the event was being run like Alcatraz or Glastonbury ’95 – the Secret Service patrolling the grounds suggested to me this wasn’t the event to gatecrash. I headed round to where an Obama staffer stood against the cordon.
“Hi, is there still a chance of getting press credentials for the event? I’m with DrownedinSound.com, we’re affiliated with BSKYB, we’re a nephew organisation of Fox News.”
“If you’re not on the list right now, then no.”
We have little draw, it seems, in the wider sense of US politics. If only this were Wallingford! I’d be introducing Obama tomorrow! I went to get a coffee and talked for a while about the election with a couple of locals. Yes we were all anxious, wondering whether Chicago would erupt into a mixture of celebrations, riots, orgies and knife-fights. Talk turned to US punk-band The Dwarves and I got to thinking if all hell broke loose could I, or would I want to, remain a passive observer? If it came down to one state, and rolled on for a few days, I said to myself I’d head there, seeing as though I had no other plans. I’d go armed and take on every scummy lawyer I saw profiteering off democracy and getting off on unjust power.
Then, I calmed, my thoughts cleared up, and I headed here, back to write up what I thought had just happened. It’ll be dawn soon in the UK, and in a few hours here there’ll most likely be pandemonium as an election runs its course. I think, now that McCain had led me to miss my train, and Obama wouldn’t let me into his party, I’d let the lot of them beat hell out of each other if it came to it. DrownedinSound will not be slighted like this, y’hear Establishment?!
Now, where the hell is my aspirin!