Cheese Steaks & Crank: Prelude to the Coronation in Philly
Prelude to a Coronation
I never make phone calls from my room. I like to think of each day as the prequel to something. It's part of a positive-attitude thing I've been working on. I want to blend in as best I can with these conventioneers. Viva Las Vegas.
Philadelphia has never been one of my favorite cities. It has its good points: the beautifully preserved architecture of the colonial period, a fine array of good restaurants, a decent public transportation system, nice parks and museums, and a vigorously prolific art scene. There are a lot of really stunning women around, and they are generally much easier to approach than women in New York. The Philadelphia Inquirer is my favorite daily newspaper outside of New York; it's vastly better than The New York Times. I lived in Philly for a brief time in the 70s, but I will never live there again. It's one of the most viciously racist communities I have ever lived in and the climate just plain sucks. It's too far from the ocean and it's overly humid. The rich in Philly are boring and lack imagination. The city has no style; it's like Boston or Baltimore. The police have been getting greenlighted by the politicians since Christ was a cowboy and God was an Irishman.
Really, the two things that I remember most fondly when I think of Philadelphia are cheese-steak hoagies and bathtub crank. They get terrific methamphetamine down there and those sandwiches are actually worth going to Philly for.
City Paper is by far the best thing that the so-called "alternative" press has to offer down there. They just did a truly ballsy cover piece on the Dominican drug racket, and they were offering a bus tour of Philly I couldn't resist. For some reason I got it into my skull that this tour was starting at 10 a.m, so I got up last Thursday at the crack of dawn to set out for the City of Brotherly Love. As I staggered out of my apartment building and made my way to my car, I was greeted by a most encouraging omen. My neighborhood, being largely Dominican, is afflicted by noise. It keeps the yuppies out. The neighbors yell a lot, at all hours of the day and night, mostly at night and mostly in Spanish punctuated heavily by the words "fuck," "yo" and the ever-popular "nigger." Dominican culture apparently does not believe in doorbells. They sit in their cars and beep. They use the horn instead of their brakes when driving, and they have a particular fondness for installing flamboyant sound systems in their cars. They cruise around at night blasting gangsta rap and that crack-influenced hyperactive merengue shit they listen to at volumes easily capable of drowning out my timid Scott Joplin even when I have the windows closed and the air conditioner on. The cops do absolutely nothing about this.
This one young pup in my neighborhood has this cheesy little foreign car decorated with decals that say things like "SOLDIER" or advertise the outfit that installed his rolling 120-decibel boombox. The arrogant son of a bitch likes to park this thing across the street and turn it way up while he and his buddies deal crack 'n' smack and guzzle 40-ounce bottles of gruesome tasteless formaldehyde shit like Olde English.
Well, last Thursday morning my heart fluttered and flew when I saw his window shattered, two speaker wires trailing out of the wreckage. One less goddamned noisy car around and I knew it was going to be a great day. Nature corrects: the mosquito that buzzes loudest gets swatted first.
Hauling ass down the New Jersey Tpk. from the George Washington Bridge I drove straight into a raging monsoon, visibility maybe six feet in any direction, torrential rain, a biblical downpour. All the really stupid and selfish assholes these days seem to be driving these monstrous gas-guzzling SUVs. It's another symptom of mass cultural insecurity, like cellphones or Kosovo. Trapped behind one of these things, a person in a normal car has no way of seeing what is happening up ahead. Additionally, the dickless cowards driving these tanks tend to enjoy hauling along bumper-to-bumper in the driving rain at 65-70 mph, simply because they feel invincible. I can't wait to see one roll.
There were some scary moments, but the rain stopped south of Exit 12 and I celebrated by getting some Rice Krispies and some gas. It was then that I examined the e-mail printout regarding the bus tour and realized that it was not scheduled for 10 a.m. at all; it was leaving Broad and Pattison at 6 p.m. I have no idea where I got that 10 a.m. notion, but I figured it had something to do with fate. I got to Philly around 9 a.m. and headed straight to South St.
Back when I was a young sprout acclimatizing myself to the ins and outs of being a dope dealer and a whore, South St. was my stomping ground, my turf. The best dope connection I ever had in my life lived down there, and it was an easy walk over to 13th and Locust where tiresome, polyester-clad closet queens from Bryn Mawr and Cherry Hill would stroll by and offer me cash money for the privilege of sucking my rather normal cock in their large cars with the Nixon/Agnew stickers and the flag decals on them. That's how I learned to love Sinatra.
South St. was fun then and I am happy to report that it is still fun. Jim's Steaks still offers the very best cheese steak subs to be found on this or any other planet, and there are plenty of loony shops and off-the-wall venues that are quite unique to Philadelphia and its very hungry weird-ass second-tier urban scene.
I parked the car in a tended lot that I favor, just $5 for the whole day, and then set off to get a beer. I had a few joints rolled up and smoked one in an alley, hiding under my J. Peterman Panama hat and feeling that wonderful illicit adolescent thrill all over again. Half the fun of smoking dope consists of the fact that it's illegal. I had a hell of a time finding a beer. Philly is a drinking town, for sure. There is very little else to do. They start a lot later than we do, though, and none of the bars on South St. open before noon. I downed a couple of Budweisers and went over to an anarchist bookstore on 5th St., figuring to scope out what the ruckus crowd had planned for the coronation festivities. I met this fellow there who calls himself "Albo." He runs the place and has some really interesting queer stuff going on after hours. The lefties are planning their usual identity politics bullshit, the Exquisite Corpse of American dissent, no news there. They all look so angst-ridden. Albo looked kind of relaxed, like Caligula on a good day.
Albo plugged me into some really keen depravity, like the jackoff parties he hosts every Thursday night, where at least one big butch black Log Cabin Republican is a regular. Considering the political persuasions of the bulk of my clientele back when I was a fag whore, I figure this could be a venue worth visiting during the convention. Jackoff parties are a weird phenomenon with which I am totally unfamiliar, some post-AIDS adolescent atavism reminiscent of the ancient teenage boy "circle jerk" ritual. It's bound to be fun, watching a bunch of guys sitting around jerking off, a useful metaphor for what passes for presidential politics these days. I am listening to late 19th-century Protestant hymns as I write this. Maybe I really am a werewolf.
I wandered around Philly for a while, drinking in the old-school blue-collar vibe and the sultry liquid car exhaust that passes for air, chainsmoking American Spirits. I walked past many of my old haunts, and past St. Mark's Episcopal Church, on Locust St., near 16th St. That was where my dear departed friend Clive, a crazy and amazing old queen maybe 65 years old at the time, was busted in 1968 or '69 for dancing naked down the street waving an 8-foot silk scarf a la Isadora Duncan. He was tripping. The cops asked him what he was doing and he said, "I, sir, am a POET! A poet of LOVE, and the revolution!" They thought enough of the turn of phrase to record it verbatim for posterity and the court, but hauled him off to the drunk tank anyway. This event makes me think of him; it's a shame he's not here to see this, to inflict some goofy cheerful outrage upon it. His great heart gave out in Vegas during a poker tournament in 1972. I like to think it was perhaps the shock of a winning hand, a sure thing.
I caught up with Howard Altman from City Paper and his bus, down at Broad and Pattison near the convention site, at about 5:50. He and his associates took me for a very cool ride around the city. We cruised past the corner where Victim Culture poster child Mumia Abu-Jamal greased Officer Daniel Faulkner, and stopped at Dirty Frank's for a round. Dirty Frank's hasn't changed a bit since I last walked out of the place maybe 25 years ago. There was free beer and lots of it, although I had to supply the weed. I was kind of hoping to see what Philly had to offer these days, but it was cool, everybody got high and that made me feel good. We rode past the Mayor's house and checked out his collection of SUVs, then we cruised through what Philadelphians call "The Badlands." It looked pretty nasty until I thought about the patch of hell across the river in Camden. They dropped me off back down by the stadiums and I walked off my buzz circling the Spectrum on foot. I can't count how many times I've tripped in that place.
I drove back to Jersey and checked into a cheap motel room for the night, under the usual alias, got up the next morning and headed back to Manhattan.
Saturday I went back down, locked and loaded for the whole convention. I hit Exit 4 running on vapors, tanked up and checked into the first clean motel with a pool. I took a quick dip and drove to Philly. It was midnight when I pulled into the Mako Bar on South St. This place bills itself as "The Retired Surfers Bar," even though there are no retired surfers in Philadelphia. It is decorated in Key West style and populated largely by bikers. I was finishing up a pound of Alaskan snow crab legs, discussing the cost of public housing and the problem of tax bases with a guy I suspect of being a member of the Pagans, when some pig-faced bitch staggered out of the crowd and puked on the two of us. This was not a good omen. My biker friend was pissed, but he handled it gracefully.
I came back to the motel, cursing her all the way. She had clearly been eating corn.
Sunday morning I drove to Dunkin' Donuts and got a cop breakfast. Arianna Huffington's Shadow Convention was convening at the Annenberg Center over in West Philly and I had to get my Republican Convention press creds, so I took a quick shower and went over the Delaware. The press and just about everybody involved has been squawking about the impossibility of parking in Philly this week, but everything falls into place for Randall Flagg. I got a great space in front of a frat house on 39th St., blew a joint in an alley behind a dumpster and tumbled into Arianna's World.
This Shadow Convention of hers is like a theme park for limousine liberals. I just can't find it in myself to trust this woman. I was in California when she pissed away something like $23,000,000 trying to buy her dimwit husband a Senate seat in Congress. They were very much pro-business mainstream Reaganauts then. They blew it. Now she's fixated on campaign finance reform. Maybe she wants her money back.
She got up a half-hour later than the schedule said she would and mouthed some platitudes about "opening a conversation," about expressing "a collective longing to fix our political system," without getting too specific about her agenda. She sounded like Werner Erhardt on estrogen with an Eastern European accent. I kept waiting for her to whip out a crystal and start chanting, but she whipped out Sen. John McCain instead. He introduced himself with a folksy, self-deprecating monologue that could easily have slipped out of a Preston Sturges or Frank Capra film. He's a whore, of course, but he's the classic "whore with a heart of gold." He's a very charming man. So was Charles Manson. McCain was warmly received right up until the moment he offered his obligatory endorsement of George W., his apology for being there, his hedge against the wrath of his controllers, at which point the audience began hissing and booing and he began visibly squirming. It got worse when some youthful hecklers in the audience shouted out random harangues regarding the forced relocation of various Hopi and Navajo out there in McCain territory, an area called Black Mesa. McCain apparently supports this maneuver at the behest of one of his corporate masters. He threatened to walk off the stage, but Arianna came out like Glinda the Good Witch and yanked his chestnuts out of the fire with a pithy remark about free speech. He ducked out of a scheduled Q&A session with the audience, claiming a schedule conflict.
There was a mass exodus out the doors after McCain left, and the Huffington handlers began desperately trying to coax the press down out of the balcony seats to fill the front rows for the cameras. Nobody was buying that one, and people were straggling out. I stuck around long enough to hear the president of Common Cause blather a little about guns, tobacco and "people of color," and I saw a fairly neat little movie about Camden wherein a bunch of black kids complained about Puerto Ricans, the dope trade and the fact that the government picks up the trash down by the waterfront but not in their neighborhoods. They also cried a little about violence and waking up to gunfire. They seem to think this is government's responsibility, or something white people are somehow responsible for. It was too funny, an overdose of irony on a Sunday afternoon.
I had to split. I went down to Chinatown to pick up my press credentials and then hustled down to the First Union Center (known to locals as the FU Center) to scope out the real action. This convention spectacle is amazing. It took the contractor two months to load in the monstrous complex of media tents and trailers and the indoor stadium layout. It is like nothing I have ever seen before, and it is crawling with feds of every shape, size and description, but mainly Secret Service, all of whom bear a striking resemblance to some newscaster or weatherman from somewhere in the not too distant past.
There will be no spontaneous political gestures here this week. The delegates are getting swag bags that include a "Convention Barbie." I want one. They don't want to give her to me, but I will have her. Convention Barbie will be mine, and I will sing her Dominican love songs as I drive her home from the coronation.
Now, I understand that there are bridges to cross and pools to dip into before that happens. Sunday night there were fireworks and great hopes and expenditures launched into the sky from Camden, of all places, to celebrate the coronation of George W. Bush, his father's son.
This summer it all comes together, I can see it. I am walking to L.A., the long way. My traveling companions are the talking heads of the television screen and other shills from Big Media; ghosts and empty shadows, as the song goes. I find my comfort in the company of outlaws. It's a Stephen King novel, it's a Situationist manifesto, and it ends in Vegas. It starts in Philadelphia, with cheese steaks and crank, in the rigid fascist stadium complex where rock 'n' roll sold its soul. It is happening now. I have never vomited on anyone or had anyone vomit on me before. It is some kind of baptism. I saw Elvis today dancing and singing outside the Stewart's Drive-In on Rte. 38 in Cherry Hill, NJ. It was Fat Elvis, the 70s Elvis, the dangerous one. He was wearing a cobalt blue jumpsuit, in keeping with current trends. He was sweating like a pig in the heat and humidity. It starts in Philadelphia, and it goes to L.A. It ends in Vegas, but that's just the aftermath. Nobody really wins this game, not even the house. The best anybody can do is pay attention. That's hard enough, especially with all the noise and the SUVs blocking the view. I'm off to the pool. This week the Republican National Convention convenes in Philadelphia. It's a done deal, what can happen here, what could surprise us now? Place your bets?
Op-Ed: How the U.E.S. Dies
Scrapbook: Imaging at Lenox Hill
Op-Ed: How the U.E.S. Dies
Scrapbook: Imaging at Lenox Hill
Summer in the City