A Thousand Miles from the Convention

Sep 5th, 2008 | By ffolwell | Category: Latest News

E. Thomas Nelson and Zhang Yan

At 7:12 p.m.  Alary’s bar, on 139 7th St. East, is full of what appear to be regulars.  In less than two hours, John McCain will accept the nomination for president on the Republican ticket at the Xcel Center, less than six blocks away.  The arena for this historic event is teeming with anticipation, over-dressed GOP supporters, and a never-ending sea of armed and intimidating police officers.

Inside Alary’s it’s a slightly less intense scene—there are maybe 20 people in the bar, all of them men, except for two female waitresses who wear short shorts and tank tops.  It’s not a swanky place—plenty of leather, sunglasses (despite it being dawn and overcast outside), tattoos and bandanas.

All the TV’s in the bar are on mute, and low voices of five or six conversations meld together to create a soothing, monotone hum.  No one seems to be watching the televisions.  Two are tuned to the convention, three to the Giants and Redskins NFL season opener, and four have the Minnesota Toronto game, which the Blue Jays lead 1-0 in the bottom of the fourth.

Down the street at 8 p.m., Mickey’s Diner is filled to capacity.  Located on the intersection of 7th and St. Peter Streets, the restaurant, at one time a train passenger car, is surrounded by police and barricades, protecting the Xcel arena like some all-important fortress.

With McCain’s speech an hour away, the foot traffic is an impressive and eclectic bunch—a mixture of well dressed men and women migrating toward the Xcel Center like bees toward a hive and protesters toting posters and chanting.

It looks stuffy inside Mickey’s—the grills are spitting up smoke, fogging up the windows.  Two cooks are working furiously, while a string of customers sit in a line hunched over the bar counter, many of them sipping coffee.

Two blocks south, the 7th Place Mall Plaza is packed with diners sitting on the outdoor patio of Wild Tymes restaurant and bar.  The Xcel arena is two blocks away.  It’s 8:35 p.m.   McCain’s speech is 25 minutes away. 

At least a dozen of those eating and drinking outside on the cool September night have credentials for the convention.  There’s a table of four all wearing Obama shirts, and when two men wearing jester hats of red white and blue walk by with posters reading “Support Our Troops End the War,” each one at the table pauses from eating to clap in support.

Within 10 minutes everyone with a delegate’s pass was gone, including Robert Thompson, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, who was grabbing a last minute bite to eat before McCain’s speech.

At 8:40 on a bench in front of Wild Tymes sits Tony Criss, a middle-aged African American wearing sunglasses, a leather jacket, and a grey hat.  He’s playing the harmonica and has a tambourine tied around one ankle, so when he smacks his foot against the pavement he becomes a two-man band.

His cheeks puff and the veins in his neck pop out as he manipulates the harmonica with his hands and mouth.  Periodically he moves his instrument from his mouth to belt out “Forty Days and Forty Nights.”

Scott Barber stands in the plaza and nods his head to the rhythm of the harmonica, a smile on his face.  He has a delegate pass hanging round his neck—seemingly the only one of his kind still milling around the plaza. 

He says he’s a Ron Paul alternate delegate, and that he would have watched in person McCain’s speech if he’d been allowed to take a camera into the arena.

“Instead I’ve spent the evening giving copies of the Constitution to military and police,” he says.  The Ft. Worth, Texas, resident came to the Twin Cities to support his candidate, and claims, “the RNC was completely anemic compared to the energy of the Ron Paul rally.” 

When he’s finished with “Forty Days, Forty Nights,” Criss picks up a lit cigarette and takes long, exaggerated inhales.  He sucks in a deep breath and puts the harmonica back to his lips.  Criss is no street performer—he’s downright incredible.  A man walks by and drops a twenty in his opened guitar case.

Inside the restaurant, Cindy McCain is on one of the eight or so televisions.  It’s 8:42, and she looks stern and serious, shaking her head frequently.  She’s on mute, so what she says is a mystery, but no one in Wild Tymes seems to mind.  A countdown in the corner of the screen reads 18 minutes.

At 9:12 McCain appears on screen.  Every one of the televisions is switched to his image, and the muted volume is turned up, loud.  All eyes in the bar are on McCain, but a quiet buzz of conversation still pervades.

By 9:18 the noise of conversations has risen.  Some have stopped watching.  A lady in her 30’s works on her phone, and a group of eight stands and leaves.  Outside the plaza is still packed, and Criss is still sitting on his bench, harmonica raised to his lips.

At 9:20 a man who was watching pulls out a laptop and begins typing.   Four minutes later a protestor appears on-screen, and a woman in the bar begins hooting in approval.

When McCain says “We’ll drill new well’s offshore and we’ll drill them now,” a man starts to clap.

By 9:50 four people appear to actually be watching the screens—the rest have long forgotten the man who might soon be running their country, too concentrated on conversation and over-priced beer to listen to the speech. 

In the bar section of Wild Tymes it’s a bit quieter.  A man with a McCain button watches a screen closely. 

Back in the restaurant, a table with two couples listens, and one woman sends her friend a furtive look along with thumbs down.

When it’s all over, the same man who clapped earlier to “Drill now” claps again.  He’s Colin Haley, a law student from St. Paul who says the speech was what he expected. 

Nate Goltz, the man whose girlfriend gave the thumbs down, was also impressed with what he heard.  “I was expecting an anti-climax after Palin, but I thought it was really good,” he says.

Bill Stewart, a Minnesota native, wasn’t so impressed.  “It doesn’t matter which party it is, they never say anything of substance,” he bemoans while sipping a beer.  “It’s all hype.  Just a high school pep rally.”  He finishes his fourth plastic cup of beer, sits back, and begins talking to his friend across the table.

The restaurant is humming with conversation, and the hiss of grease can be heard on the grill as three chefs flip burgers and douse cold French fries.

Outside the night air is crisp, cold, and dominated by the sounds of police sirens.  Tony Criss has taken a break from playing for a moment, as he chats with some women, taking long inhalations of his cigarette.

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  1. Wow!!!!! What a great article. I am so sick of the same story every time I read something. I think young talent is what this nation needs. Perhaps the younger candidate is also the way to go since the old ones didn’t seem to inspire anyone.

  2. P.S. Bighead, I think you would be shot, skinned and made into a bathroom mat in Alaska if those delegates and supporters knew who you were, and knew you assumed that their ventures to St. Paul were “heavily subsidized”. However, I agree, there are many stories well worth mentioning, including troop support, and fresh ideas being expressed.
    Again, my point still stands. Mr. Nelson did not need to travel all the way to St. Paul to write this aritcle. I am not saying anything negative about his writing skills, or point of view. All I am saying is, if you are traveling to St. Paul to blog about convention coverage, then do it.

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