Philadelphia's a fine city. I only know its hotels, and frankly that's the kind of intimacy I prefer: plastic and superficial. I don't need to know your Liberty Bells or your World's Largest Cheesesteak. Lately, cities are one-night stands: hard and fast. In and out. Hours later, I'm looking down at your landmarks from 15,000 feet. Smirking. Was it good for you?
I've covered politics before, but mostly councilman-bites-dog, hooker-runs-for-Congress type of stuff. I've not been on the national election grind. Intentionally, I think. It gets to a deeply held fear of intimacy and perhaps my notoriously irritable bowels. I got the chops (natch), and kind of the desire. But not the stomach to know my elected officials that well. To be honest, all things being equal, the better you know someone, the more you come to dislike them: Seriously. As a reporter, I like to write with a dissected objectivity, because I'm a pro, and I still want to love America in the morning. The truth? I've avoided the political beat.
When a chance came down the pike to secure press credentials for the presidential debates between democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I was sure I'd be flagged a militant or enemy of the State, for sure. I'd been cleared by the Secret Service some years ago, when I was scheduled to eat breakfast with Joe Lieberman (I opted to sleep in instead—long story). But I'm probably a lot more dangerous now. My lox are longer, I've browned in the Florida sun. I have a goatee and everything. Could be fine eatings—there was dinner for the press, I'd read. Still, my chances looked bleak. I gave up my name, my social and the requisite half-cup of urine but I didn't put the debate in my plans.
I arrived in Philadelphia weeks later, on my way to the National Constitution Center, up a numbered street, I'm wedging my way through the bouquets of buttons and hand-plaques. The odd unnatural beauty of this unsettled forest of signs: Faces. Shouting. Who knows what they are saying: I can only hear vowels anymore. This must be what Rome was like. This must be the democracy I have read so much about. Men in masks. The spectacle of free expression. I'm hoping there'll be a nice buffet when I get there, if I could ever find the entryway.
A young-ish white boy in a T-shirt that reads SECRET SERVICE waves me in. Who is he? How could he know? Suddenly I'm in line with retards, mental defectives, nutjobs of every stripe. Maybe it's the laminate around my neck or the look of quiet desperation on my face. In the end, it doesn't matter. The not-so Secret Service knows a media scumbag when he sees one.
Passing through the metal-sensitive Terror-meter, and the gravity of the moment hit me all at once: me, witness to history in the City of Brotherly Love and Billie Ray Valentine: our illustrious seat of democracy. Before I could burst into song, some jagoff gives me the elbow. He's pulls me close to tell a secret:
"You know who that is behind you, right?"
He obviously doesn't know that I'm a seasoned media fact-hound whose sat across from heads of states. I'm unphased by celebrity. I suspect it could be a rapper or a the next sex-tape millionaire, but I turn around anyways and stand face to face with a young lady I don't quite recognize with all her clothes on.
OH SNAP IT'S OBAMA GIRL.
She's got the kind of Colgate smile and camera-ready pose you'd expect from a manufactured media phenomenon. This would be a good time to turn on The Charm™, if I had any. We take a picture together instead. Her hipster handlers are only mildly amused. This is best moment of my life.
Inside, there's a filing room, and a "spin room" where national reporters get tugjobs from local politicos intent on giving the race for the White House a regional twist. Upstairs, the tables were numbered to denote a hierarchy of media meatballs, and naturally, I was at #1, front and center, only one of two people of color. I marked my chair and went off to attend to the most important detail of evening. Food.
There were tables stacked with boxes marked Turkey, Beef, Ham and Cheese. Pretzels and fresh fruit. Dinner rolls. Coca-Cola. This wasn't intern chow. This was "dinner." Wait a second—we're the media, dude. Where was the open bar, the rotating plates of appetizers? The strippers? Where's the effing shrimp?
Just then, a young brown lady with a platter of delicious-looking wrap sandwiches walks past me into a VIP area, heavily guarded. I wait until she comes out.
"Hi," I said. "I know this is irregular. But unless I get something with a little bacon and ranch dressing on it, I could seize. Right here. " She's skeptical, but turns back into the VIP lounge anyway and emerges with a plate. "You're up front, right?" I nod. "Walk with me." I do. Like the sun follows the moon: a really hungry sun.
And I sit enjoying a veggie wrap a few minutes before the debates start, as other journalits give me the stink-eye, gnawing their way through stale pretzels. That's right. You gotta be a hustler to get what you want here, in America. And even when it looks like you're limited, you have to be prepared to do what it takes, to make your own choices. Deli meat is not what this country's about.
Lettuce. Tomato. Ranch Dressing.
This is the stuff of democracy.
Jimi Izrael is a blogger for The Root.
Single Father, Author, Screenwriter, Award-Winning Journalist, NPR Moderator, Lecturer and College Professor. Habitual Line-Stepper