Last night I closed The Hub. It's a little bar in downtown Tampa with famously, almost undrinkably strong drinks. During the day the place is filled with troubled people and the smell of urine. But at night cheery, horny college kids join the crowd of depressed daytime drunks, and at 3 a.m. the bartenders have to turn the lights on to scare everyone out. As 3 a.m. approached last night, I didn't want to leave. I was busy having a great conversation, I think, with this beautiful woman who was about a foot taller than I was.
We were talking, of course, about the election, which was going to take place in a few hours. Instead of admitting that I really didn't care about the election, I overcompensated by talking about it very loudly.
A guy with a typical central-Florida mullet haircut stopped by our table and said, "Y'know, Al Gore is giving a speech or something in Tampa at 4 a.m."
"He must be trying to capture the drunkard's vote. Where's the rally at: an after-hours club?" I asked. The tall woman laughed.
"No," said the mullet. "At the cancer center." Everyone stopped laughing. The word "cancer" will do that. The guy explained that Tampa was the last stop on Gore's thirty-hour-long final campaign swing. This was it, he said: the whole campaign was going to end a few miles away. History would be made, in Tampa.
A week earlier Al Gore had held a rally a couple blocks from the newspaper where I work, and Jimmy Buffett performed. I fucking hate Jimmy Buffett. I used to work in a beach-style restaurant across the street from the stadium and the people who ran the restaurant were Parrotheads (that's what official Jimmy Buffett fans call themselves). I had to listen to Buffett constantly. And when he'd play at the stadium, the bar would turn up the Buffett even louder and hire a Buffett cover band to play on the outside patio and the Parrotheads would all take the day off from their corporate jobs and gather and drink and puke on each other per Buffett's musical suggestion. Now when I see a group of drunk Parrotheads with their hands in a prayer position on top of their heads, all pantomiming the "fins to the left
fins to the right" routine, I want to smash something. I didn't want to go see history being made if it was going to involve Jimmy Buffett.
The bartenders turned the lights on and everyone ran outside real quick before the people they were trying to sleep with saw their drunk, red faces under the unflattering fluorescence.
"So, you wanna go to my house and drink a bit more," I said, looking up into the woman's face.
"No, we should go see Al Gore," she answered.
You do what you gotta do. We got in my truck and smoked a joint as we drove across town to the cancer center. On the radio Fred Durst was shouting,
Now I know you be lovin' this shit right here!
L. I. M. P. Bizkit is right here!
"Now that's some lyrical genius," I said, passing the joint to her. "Not many artists realize that words rhyme with themselves. Y'know? Any time you're stuck for a rhyme, you can just use the same word twice: it always works. Bon Jovi does that shit too."
"Bon Jovi played on behalf of Al Gore last night in Miami," she told me.
At that moment I hated Al Gore.
We drove onto the campus and found the parked motorcade of limos, police motorcycles, busses, and an ambulance out front of the cancer center. We joined a crowd of about 75 supporters with Gore signs standing on the curb across the street. A bunch of drunken fraternity guys were taking group pictures with a sign reading: "Phi Delta Theta supports Al Gore."
So far in Gore's camp we have Jimmy Buffett, Bon Jovi, and some meathead frat boys.
Five minutes later a woman in some kind of uniform, but without any badges or patches, came over and told us we weren't allowed to congregate. "This is State of Florida property," she said, meanly. "You can't stand here."
An old woman with a Gore sign said, timidly, "But it said in the paper he was going to be here at 4 a.m."
"He is. He's inside. But you can't see him 'cause it's not for the public. There's a public appearance later."
The old lady asked, kindly, "Where will that be?"
"I don't have to give you any information," the guard-type lady shouted. "I'm here to protect Al Gore. You have to leave."
The pack dispersed. I thought it was pretty funny that these people, who were so into politics that they'd stay up till 4 a.m. to see a presidential candidate, would do exactly what some anonymous woman told them to do, just because her clothes were dark and looked like a uniform. My tall date and I defiantly stuck around alone until a male police officer came by and asked us what we were doing.
"We just wanted to see the Vice President."
"Are you with the press?"
I could have said yes, since I am in fact a newspaper reporter. But I'd get fired for flashing my press pass around when I'm wasted and trying to get laid, so I said, "No, we just wanted to creep around and see if we could get a look." Halfway through the sentence I realized that "creep around" was perhaps not the best phrase to use when trying to get near a potential President.
"He's just visiting people in the hospital," the officer said. "It's gonna be televised, but you're not going to get to see him here in person. After this he's holding a public rally at Democratic Headquarters downtown at 5:30." He gave us the address and smiled. He was very nice.
Back in the car I tried to think of ways to get out of going. "5:30 in the morning?" I said. "That's an hour and a half from now. By the time Gore speaks our hangovers will be taking effect. And there's nowhere to get more alcohol. At my house, there's beer." But she still wanted to go, and I still wanted her, so we headed back downtown.
The scene at Tampa Democratic Headquarters, across the parking lot from Jimmy's Sod, looked like an indie-rock concert was about to start: small P.A., small crowd of 150 people gathered in front of a small outdoor stage while another 200 lined up outside the gate to be frisked. Security weeded out the possible protesters and let campaign volunteers, the converted, in first, as "Love Train" blasted over the P.A.
Three eight-year-old girls ran weaving in and out of the line screaming about Gore, more impatient to see the man than their parents were. "When can we see Al Gore?" the girls yelled. Hearing their little voices say his name reminded me that last week, I had reluctantly entered a conversation about the election and realized halfway through that I had been referring to Al Gore as "Bob Dole." Nobody corrected me.
The crowd was smiley and happy and young and old and white. Not one black person.
On the way in the gate, they handed my date a sign. I declined. John Cougar Mellencamp was singing "Small Town." Then Stevie Wonder: "Higher Ground." Then John Mellencamp again with "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."
I lit a cigarette and noticed I was the only one smoking. I looked around for other smokers, expecting to be shot at any moment by the Secret Service guys who were creeping around with those curly wires coming from their ears. I finally spotted a stream of smoke across the crowd and traced it to the mouth of the sound guy. I knew him from hanging out in Tampa rock clubs. His name is RatBoy. He has a mullet too. I left my date to go talk to him.
"Good choice of music," I said to RatBoy, just as another John Cougar song started.
"I didn't pick it. They brought a CD."
"Music inspired by the Gore campaign?"
"Yeah, they told me to turn it up louder in..." He looked at his watch. "Two minutes: at 5:00 a.m."
I asked why and he cranked the P.A. two minutes early to demonstrate: the crowd began talking louder to be heard over the Mellencamp and the pitch and mood heightened noticeably: it suddenly seemed like a happening scene.
I left RatBoy and on the way back to my tall date I ran into one of my co-workers from the paper. He wasn't writing about the rally either. He just wanted to be part of history, he said. "This monumental battle is seeing its end not three blocks from my house!"
"Did you know Gore likes Bon Jovi?" I asked, watching the light drain from his eyes. It made me feel good.
A dark-haired seven-year-old boy, covered in Gore stickers from his face to his feet, climbed up on stage and held up a Gore sign and began a chant of "Gore! Gore! Gore!" I wondered if that's what the crowd chanted in the coliseum when the Christians were being fed to the lions. The Gore crowd waved their signs frantically and the music (that "B-b-b-baby, You Just Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" song) blared. I heard someone behind me ask if the boy on stage was Elian Gonzalez.
I looked for my date and spotted her stretching her arms up, holding her sign high in the air, standing on her tiptoes, looking about nine feet tall. Her long, flat stomach was exposed as she stretched and bounced on the balls of her feet in rhythm with the Elian kid's chant and I was a little embarrassed for her so I went over to talk to her so she'd stop being so enthusiastic about politics.
By 5:15 a.m. the crowd was losing its wind a little. An hour and about a dozen John Cougar songs later, they seemed to have gained it back. Amazing. The sky was getting lighter. I couldn't believe I had stuck it out so long. And then came the cavalcade. I was blinded by a forest of "Gore/Lieberman 2000" signs.
Even after the signs stopped waving the crowd was still going nuts. I would have been going nuts too if, say, Prince were up there.
Florida Congressman Jim Davis introduced Lieberman, who sounded a lot like a baseball announcer; like Harry Carey, drawing out his vowels: "If we can win it heeeeere, we're gonna win it eeeeeeverywheeeeeere."
When Gore spoke I paid attention to the sign-language interpreter, who, judging from his enthusiasm, was himself a Gore supporter. His exaggerated hand signals and body gestures made him look like he was doing an Eminem impersonation.
The three politicians didn't talk much about the issues. They just kissed Florida's ass, which was striking because we really are the bastard state; we rarely get our ass kissed. But I have to say that Gore and company seemed pretty real. Maybe I'll vote for him, if I vote. I was way too tired to care a whole lot. I was so over it that I had even lost interest in my date and as soon as Gore said his last word and John Cougar started again, I offered to take her home.