It's Monday night of Day One of the Republicans Come to Fun City. On a darkened street on the far West Side of Manhattan -- a neighborhood called Hell's Kitchen before the real estate agents took it upscale -- a well-known ladies troupe has attached very large aluminum male sexual organs to their midsections and is serenading the cowboy-hat-wearing Republicans patiently waiting to get into the Crobar club.
The Republicans had come here intending to celebrate the honorable U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who some years back received the Friend of the Family Award from the Christian Coalition. But it's hard to keep one's mind on Pombo and wholesome values just now. Because one of the women, in a blue wig, fishnets and hot pants, has just donned a George W. Bush mask and started doing the funky chicken.
A half-dozen cops start laughing. A half-dozen Republicans start looking at one another.
Next door to Crobar is a handsome-looking nightclub with a tuxedoed doorman. That's Scores, the legendary Manhattan strip club, where private rooms run $1,500 an hour, with another $400 for each girl. The rooms lock, and before the night is done a few Republicans just might duck inside.
But more on that later.
New Yorkers are a peculiarly self-regarding breed. All summer, the pundits, pols, poets and plumbers, and even a few coffee-cart guys, whined and moaned about the Republicans' descent on this mostly liberal and libertine megalopolis by the Hudson. They won't get us. We've got the Bowery Ballroom and CBGB, not the Grand Ole Opry. The vibe is all wrong.
Except it isn't really so.
It turns out that when they aren't getting chased by anarcho-syndicalists yelling nasty words, the Limbaugh-loving, sometimes Bible-thumping, deeply Michael Moore-averse Republicans found more than a bit of common ground with New Yorkers. It seems they dig the fashionista boutiques of SoHo, a cold brew in an old Irish pub, a bargain or three, a good dinner and, sometimes, a late-night strip joint.
With that, a few snapshots from the Republican journey into the belly of the Democratic beast.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a recent and opportunistic convert to the Party of the Elephant. The billionaire media mogul was a registered Democrat who ladled out millions to liberal causes. Then he decided to run for mayor in 2001, the Republicans offered an open line, and Bloomberg changed his party registration. Whatever. For this convention, Hizzoner tapped his inner salesman.
Bloomberg offered Republicans discounts to restaurants and plays, and had "Naked Boys Singing" removed from the list of discounted shows when a few RNC types complained that this musical might be insufficiently steeped in family values. He appointed one of his favorite aides, lifelong Democrat Kevin Sheekey, to serve as chief organizer for the convention's Hospitality Ambassador program. Which is how Sheekey came to find himself one August day at a graduation ceremony honoring 59 New Yorkers who had volunteered to serve as "ambassadors" for the delegates.
Sheekey, who is smooth of face and voice and manner, gives the graduates a final tutoring session in Republican 101. "A lot of these people have never been to New York before," he warns. Some are rural folk. "They won't understand that we consider Central Park nature."
As good ambassadors, Sheekey tells them, you must learn to shed your cultural habits and read their tribal signals. "You have to understand," he says, "that when one of them looks you in the eyes, it's not a hostile act."
After the graduation ceremony, John Pavia, an organizer of the program who actually works in Connecticut, explains that ambassadors were instructed to avoid protesters and satisfy the delegates' every need, albeit "within the boundaries of the law." But he says he gave them a final word of New York advice: "You're not here to take a bullet for these people."
Not-So-Sweet Old Lady
It's late in the afternoon of Day 3, under the awning of the Pennsylvania Hotel, across from Madison Square Garden. You're talking with white-haired Dorothy Graham and her two daughters, who hail from a small town in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Upper-middle-class New Yorkers tend to regard the Berkshires as a genteel sixth borough in the summertime, with Tanglewood concerts and lakefront cottages and fine blue cheese. It's the New York Times-thumping equivalent of the Bible Belt.
Except Graham isn't one of those quaint New England salts ladling out the fava bean salad. She's a working-class lady who adores Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage (a proud xenophobic and perhaps vaguely racist radio host who likes to hint that he just might have a psychiatric diagnosis), reads the National Review and cheerfully detests the liberal media (she's looking suspiciously at a Washington Post reporter, truth be told). She considers herself a "very strong Roman Catholic except that I'd shoot one of those priests who hurt the little kids."
Not to get her wrong. She and her daughters love New York. They've gone to the theater, shopped at Macy's, and hit a happy hour or two, or three. In another few hours they'll walk across to Madison Square Garden and scream their lungs out for Dick Cheney and his I-crunch-Democratic-chicken-bones-with-my-molars speech.
Do the protesters bother her? She shoots an "are you daft?" look.
"I'm a lot tougher than they are, trust me," she says. "Just make sure you're fair to us, now. We know where you live."
Have a nice day, ladies.
By midweek, the Republican Weather Gods have blessed New York with a clear, cool day, perfect for shopping. And the RNC types have come up with a PR-perfect gig: A delegation of 13 congressional wives plans to make a show of riding "public transportation" (aka the subway) downtown, where a shopping tour guide from New Jersey will squire them around the chic boutiques of SoHo and NoLita.
"They are taking the train and going to a part of town that's pretty progressive," says Rebecca Merritt, cheery owner of Gotham Shopping, a see-the-city-by-boutique tour. "It's wonderful that these women have taken a tour that's off the beaten path."
Now, it's hard to argue that SoHo, whose streets are thick with pencil-thin, no-curves-to-speak-of models and the Euros who love them, is terra incognita or even very risque anymore. But perhaps Merritt is on to something, because when shopping day arrives, nearly everyone backs out, leaving a few ladies from Virginia who walk out of the Sheraton in midtown and head south on the IRT.
They stride through SoHo, in their bright pastels and sensible sandals, with the sense of purpose of any New Yorker, although at about a 10th the manic speed. They buy the handmade jewelry on the sidewalk but leave untouched the silk evening dresses, kimono-style, and the standard Goth New York winter coats. Everything retails at prices that might make King Louis XIV put away his wallet.
The SoHo boutiquers, whose attention to the subtlest gradation of economic class is exquisite, appraise these ladies with cool eyes.
"When they came in, I knew they weren't going to buy anything," says Institut store manager Angela Jones, who can date the clothes on your back in a heartbeat. "If you look at the way they were dressed, you can tell they aren't shoppers."
Late night, or early morning, or what does it really matter? Mag, the tuxedo-wearing doorman at Scores, says it's a fine time to show up. The delegates and a few (he lifts his finger to pursed lips and asks us to keep this on the down-low) Congress members have made appearances, their credentials dangling conspicuously.
Even the ones who tuck their credentials in their jacket pockets are prone to announce at the door: "Hi, I'm from Washington."
It's a tight-knit crowd -- many of those sitting ringside are the same Republicans who hours earlier attended Pombo's family-valued event next door. The young men still wear the Pombo-giveaway cowboy hats.
Earlier, a young Republican couple from Washington had laughed at the phallus-wearing women in front of Crobar, then ducked into Pombo's, and now they're at Scores. The boyfriend has just paid a dancer in a G-string to slither across his girlfriend's lap and starched, flower-printed, southern-style summer dress. The dancer gyrated, the boyfriend took it all in as if it were the greatest show on Earth. And the girlfriend threw her head back, a huge smile spreading across her face.
You ask a stripper: Is everyone here from Washington?
"Ask them," she advises. "Men will tell you anything if you ask."
So your female correspondent chats up a man, who says he's a Republican from California but lives in Washington, D.C. "I'm a cowboy," he says. "But now I live in Washington, and they don't let me be a cowboy there."
His hand glides down the reporter's back and he gives a gentle squeeze.
A Marine's Memory
Day 3 is about to become Day 4. Vice President Cheney has accepted the nomination, and Victor Diaz has found his way to McSorley's Ale House in the East Village to pay homage to a 20-year-old memory. The last time this Michigan delegate pounded back beers here, he was a buzz-cut Marine roaring through town with his twin brother, David.
Even back then he didn't fit in, this Marine amid the Village freaks, junkies and artists and transvestites. But his exuberance and charm soon had the patrons marching up and down the bar's well-worn wooden floors singing doo-wah-diddy, diddy-dum diddy-doo(yes, those are cobwebbed chicken bones hung on a line over the bar).
Now he has returned to the city for the first time since that rowdy night. His brother died long ago in a car accident, and Diaz is looking to re-create the sweet memories, if only slightly, of two brothers out on the town.
But Diaz is a more conservative man now with a chestful of go-team-go GOP buttons and the words "Ronald Reagan" imprinted on his red tie. It's safe to say he's still not fitting in here.
But that's all right, really. He finds a table and orders a beer, and another, and talks about Ground Zero and that terrible day when so many died. Coming here, he feels like President Kennedy did when he visited Cold War Berlin, and said, in German, "I am a Berliner."
The night before, Diaz and his wife, Michelle, had made friends with the locals and even shared a beer with a cop from Long Island, who invited them to come back and stay with his family there.
"I am a New Yorker," Diaz says, undramatically and quite earnestly. "New York has really demonstrated it is the greatest city in the country."
Diaz goes on, about how funny the conservative Fox-TV talker Sean Hannity is, and about his plans to attend the Republican Catholic Outreach breakfast the next morning. As Diaz talks, a lanky young man with a wisp of a mustache listens in from the next table, staring at Diaz.
The young man, Robert Halstead, leans over close to Diaz and asks: "How's the convention going?"
"New York has been tremendous to us!" Diaz says, promptly launching into a story about getting lost in Central Park.
The young man waits patiently, then in the calmest voice says, "I'll tell you, George W. Bush is the most hated man in New York City."
The saloon goes quiet. Diaz doesn't blink. "As a Marine I took an oath to protect your right to say that," replied Diaz. "God bless you."
What's Halstead going to say to that? The two men shake hands.
By now a group of young men has gathered around, bantering, ribbing Diaz about his politics. "My parents are from India, but I was born here," Anand Sharma, a 21-year-old student, tells him.
"You know what," Diaz responds, "you're an American."
Then another round of handshakes, grinning and backslapping.
Every one of Diaz's answers scores. He's making friends by the second. But it's getting late and he's got the Sen. John McCain reception to get to and has one foot out the door when he runs into John Matthew Lumelleau, probably the only tie-wearing twentysomething in the Village who introduces himself as "the last Republican in New York."
Diaz shakes his hand, and the two men turn around and head back into the bar, even as the barkeep begins to close up shop. Two New York-loving Republicans, laughing and joking, pound back a few before the dawn.
Above, delegate Victor Diaz talks with Robert Halstead, right, at McSorley's Ale House. Below, Democrat Kevin Sheekey organized Mayor Bloomberg's Hospitality Ambassador program. Right, "Naked Boys Singing" was taken off a list of discounted shows after the RNC said it wasn't suitable.