Anecdotes

Taken in by America
An outsider's look at America and the American
Chapter 3, 'The Staircase Group'
Chapter 4, 'The Show Business'
Chapter 7, 'The Private Eye'
Chapter 21, 'Two Tricks'
Chapter 24, 'Real Copy'
Chapter 26, 'Ole Miss'
Chapter 27, 'Mercurius at Monticello'
Chapter 28, 'Transformation and Redemption'
Chapter 29, 'Mad Men'
Chapter 4, 'The Show Business'

En route to New Haven we spent an afternoon in Phineas Taylor Barnum’s Bridgeport, Connecticut, museum. It’s a fitting monument to the memory of the quintessential American—the man who invented ‘the show business.’ P. T. Barnum had recognized the entertainment value inherent in the businessman’s confidence tricks, found fame and fortune selling the experience of ‘being had.’

It’s America itself that entertains Meryn and me. The first of the Democratic Party’s Primaries for the upcoming Congressional elections was to occur on August 8th—in Connecticut. The long-term incumbent, Joe Lieberman, was under challenge from gormless but popular millionaire, Ned Lamont—popular because of his uncompromising anti-Iraq-war stance. Ned’s campaign workers had been tirelessly drumming up support around New Haven and we were out and about, taking it all in.

A weeks or so earlier, a black man with protruding white teeth had appeared on the streets of New Haven. Our British heritage bade us to take no notice but Americans are quite openly curious so we made ourselves at home and delighted in having come across this odd fellow. He was strikingly arrayed in bright yellow, green, and red loose fitting garments that billowed in the breeze to reveal the secret within. He wasn’t selling Rollexes. He wasn’t selling anything—which, this being Connecticut, made him doubly strange.  So there were no watches suspended there, in the hidden recesses of his dress, but coffee coloured dolls. Cheap plastic voodoo.

I went to the Greyhound office at Union Station to ensure that our bus tickets were still valid and to check the departure times and routine. The man behind the desk was having a bad day. He told a woman to take her children out of the booking office because they were disturbing him while he worked. She looked at me and shrugged. I continued to stand before this gentleman awaiting my turn to put my well prepared questions but he was having difficulty with someone on the other end of the phone. He assured the ‘phonee’ that since Indianapolis was not in Minnesota he could not be of any assistance concerning fares to and from the non-existent location.

Those of us on the customer side of the counter equation smiled at each other as the agent struggled to be rid of the nuisance caller who seemed hell bent on getting that ticket. The impasse was resolved when a big mama who had just joined the queue bellowed “Git him on the bus to Minneapolis!” We all laughed but the man behind the desk seemed to regard it a quaint suggestion. “Hurry up!” she scolded. The clerk eventually settled on Minneapolis as a workable hypothesis and processed the call.

Next in line, I rehearsed my sequence of questions but the office man went about putting money in envelopes and muttering to himself. He addressed the older of the two children, telling the young boy to go away and stop making noise. Finally, he finished shuffling the envelopes and put them on the desk. Then he looked up and did a double take. I assume it was because I was the only white boy in the room. But perhaps it was because I was also the only other male in the room, and a foot shorter than the smallest woman.

I placed two tickets on the counter and pointed at them. “Good afternoon, Sir. We have these return tickets to New York and want to use them on Friday August 18 on the 6.20 am bus. Do we need to book or just turn up?”

“You must arrive on May 26 for the bus.”

“No Sir. You misunderstand me. We were told these tickets are valid for a year from the date of purchase. The May 26 return date was printed on them at the time of purchase but we were assured that we can use them anytime within twelve months of purchase.”

“The tickets are for May 26, Sir. You may only use them on that date.”

“Not so. I phoned in May and it was made clear to me that we can use the return tickets on any day within a year from the date of purchase.”

The ticket seller pointed at the date on the ticket and re-iterated that it was folly not to have used them on May 26, four days after we had arrived. I protested that this was absurd, that I’d been told otherwise in New York City. Tough Mama approached the counter and stood head and shoulders above me glaring at him. He looked closely at the tickets and said “You can use these tickets any time within the year of purchase.”

On the day of the Primary—the first Tuesday following the first Monday of the month—Meryn and I went out to see Americans vote while millions of our fellow countrymen filled out their census forms at home.  New Haven was awash with promotional flags and badges for the various contestants in numerous categories but mainly for the Lieberman-Lamont bout. Downtown, nothing much was happening. We followed a Lieberman supporter but he got away in a Fed Ex office. We returned to the Green.

Meryn took a picture of the Voodoo Man harassing two women. They needed no help. We found neither voting booths nor serious indication of an election. It was only a Primary, but we expected some action to back up all of the promotional material. There was a TV crew outside NBC so I asked a Glen Robbins look-alike where people voted, what time the polls opened and closed, and so on. “I’m not from round here,” he told me, “but usually at schools or community centres. They close at 8 pm.”

We walked on round the block and immediately came to a polling booth at the rear of City Hall (the Council Chambers). A woman handing out election material for the gubernatorial race filled us in on some aspects of voting in the Primaries—how fraud is meant to be prevented through the registration of voters as Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarian, etc.—but she wanted to know more about Australia than she had a mind to tell about America.

Around 7 pm, we went back Downtown. Someone asked if we’d voted yet. It is assumed that everyone here is a registered Democrat. We were entertained by two women who clearly wanted Lieberman out. Nothing much was happening and what action there was took place on the pavement outside the NBC TV station from where there was a live telecast. It was all over pretty quickly but we were invited to go back for the 1 am telecast. We did.

It was a TV programme for MSNBC called Hardball. Glen Robbins was doing the countdown to go ‘live.’ We were welcomed like lost sailors returning from the deep and given ‘munchkins’—the ball of dough that’s missing from the middle of the doughnut. 

Mouths full and with sugar moustaches, we were manhandled onto the makeshift set on the pavement. It had been very hot for a week so we had flimsy clothes on. After all, if it turned cold we could walk back home and watch the show on TV. Not so lucky. We made up a foursome with two blokes as the total audience.

We didn’t know what the political line for this show was—it might have been shock-Jock-fascist. As things turned out, it wasn’t. The presenter, Chris Matthews, was personable, very good at his job, and not partisan. We could hear him as well as read the auto cue—he ad libbed most of the time—but we’d no idea what his guests were saying.

By 1.15 am it was getting very chilly. We warmed up by jumping around when they stopped for regular three-minute ad breaks but felt obliged to stay and make up the audience numbers. One of the two blokes slipped away, though, so it was up to an Italian who thought proportional representation was one solution to America’s electoral problems and Meryn and me to hold the fort. And I was beginning to shiver from cold. We had decided to stick it out, though.

In the middle of one of the interviews the Voodoo Man appeared from the Green opposite and walked into the whole scene saying “Conspiracies, conspiracies, conspiracies.” Then he asked Meryn if he could have a munchkin. What could she say but “Of course”? The TV people were concerned but calm and let Meryn be both a third of the audience and in charge of preventing mayhem. The Voodoo Man said the munchkins were very nice and thought he would take some over to his friends—the homeless—in the park.

A woman pulled up in a car and started yelling for someone to tell her how to get to Union Station. Meryn left her post and went over to help but then came back and said that she’d told them I would be much better at giving them directions. So I left the set and went to tell them how the one-way system worked—where not and where to turn. The producer was looking at me with some concern so I resumed my place.

Then the Voodoo Man came back with the munchkins. The homeless were hungry but not desperate, it seemed. We stayed the course, did not cut and run, and when it was all but over the presenter said “And now for some audience reaction to the result of the Lieberman-Lamont Primary … ” and turned directly to us. This was national TV. I had my usual T-shirt on and Meryn had her version of a ‘no-one’s looking’ top on and Chris Matthews wanted our respective opinons.

It was obvious from the accent that we were both Australians. Meryn reckoned that she thought perhaps “The USA’s on the point of change” and I said “It’s a wonderful example of American burlesque.” I have no idea what the Italian-American said because I was now a celebrity of the stature of a Lionel Williams or Ernie Sigley. America happens on TV. We watched ourselves on the Hardball website for a few minutes next morning, figuring we’d view the whole thing that evening. But they’d edited it by then.

So, we had our Andy Warhol moment and had witnessed first footfall on America’s changing of the guard. Intrigued at our uncharacteristic night moves, Bob wanted to know where we’d been and, having heard, was determined to track down the identity of the voodoo man. He did. And was deflated. “Oh, that’s Terry, he told us. He’s a nice guy, a poet like me,” he told us a couple of days later.

 Chapter 7, 'The Private Eye'

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