Thursday, September 15, 2005

GOP at MSG: Before the Flood, After the Deluge

It was a year ago this month that I sat inside Madison Square Garden,
listening to Dick Cheney making his case for

It was a rare appearance by the vice president who only seems to pop up on
rare occasion, a political Punxsutawney Phil, emerging to poke his head
up just enough to predict long, cold winters and scare the bejesus out
of everybody before returning to his burrow.

Vote for Me or Die. That was the message coming out of the Republican
National Convention. We will save you. We will protect. We will preserve.

Sept. 2004, these are some of the stories.

- Thomas Dimopoulos

Republican National Convention: Day One

NEW YORK, SUNDAY – Jim Fulmer was marching north up Seventh Avenue, one face
in a sea of thousands surrounded by colorful signs.

‘Empty Warhead Found in White House’ read one.
‘Smart Bomb, Dumb President,’ read scores of others.

The Saratoga native left the State’s Capital Region at dawn aboard one of the buses
that arrived in Manhattan late Sunday morning, filled with people who came to march
in protest of George Bush and his handling of the country’s affairs over the past four years.

Today’s gathering of dissenters is a prelude to the four-night stand by the Republican Party at Madison Square Garden who are holding their first-ever convention to New York City.
Rudy Giuliani will be kicking off the convention Monday. The opening night theme is “Courage.”
Tuesday’s “Night of Compassion” features Laura Bush and Arnold Swarzenegger, to be followed by Vice President Dick Cheney who will make an appearance during Wednesday night’s
focus on the ‘Land of Opportunity.’
At Thursday night’s closer, the president will take the podium - according to a GOP press release - to lay out a vision that will help build a safer world and a more hopeful America.

Before any of this got started however, thousands were marching in Manhattan Sunday, many of whom seemed to be grouped together by theme.
One group of women wore pink slips to express the notion of delivering “pink slips” of
dismissal to The White House; others carried flag-draped “coffins,” representing the deaths
of American soldiers in Iraq.
By week’s end, that number would reach 1,000.

‘There are all kinds of people here that come from very diverse backgrounds.
Today, we’re all marching together,’ said Fulmer just as a large,
handmade sign was being unfurled above his head that read ‘Peace’ in a dozen different languages.‘
'This is powerful,’ said Rob Chrust, a Saratoga resident who made the trip to New York City.
‘Dissent is healthy.’

Saratogian writer Thomas Dimopoulos is in New York City providing local
coverage of the Republican National Convention this week.

Republican National Convention: Day Two

MONDAY, NEW YORK - The street signs above the wide boulevards of the
garment district read ‘Fashion Avenue.’ This season, black riot gear and
automatic weapons are in.

It’s six stops on the northbound E Train from the spot where the Twin Towers
stood to Madison Square Garden. The route passes Chinatown and
Little Italy and the downtown neighborhoods of Manhattan that were the
first landing for groups of Irish, German and Jewish immigrants escaping
the old country to start anew.

It is the path also followed by the Republican National Convention,
whose opening night speech featured former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the
Brooklyn-born grandson of Italian immigrants who governed this city of 8 million,
and where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than five-to-one.

For many residents and out-of-towners alike, Giuliani’s finest hour came immediately
following the attacks on Sept. 11.
The aftermath is evident to visitors coming into the city far from the bright lights
of Manhattan where an armed security presence is visible patrolling the Amtrak stations
as far north as Croton-on-Harmon.

On arrival at Penn Station, passengers are watched as they exit the train.
Once inside the station itself - located directly beneath Madison Square Garden -
the pedestrian traffic is re-routed to the only operational exits, those furthest
from the arena where the security presence is increasingly magnified.
The city remains under orange alert, indicating a high risk of terrorist attack.
The citywide police force numbers more than 39,000, many who have been re-assigned
to the convention area and hotels hosting the delegates for the duration of the week.

And that’s only the security that’s visible.
There is also the unseen presence of plainclothes detectives and hazardous materials
teams, heavily armed anti-terror squads, rooftop snipers, Coast Guard teams
and bomb-sniffing dogs.
Electronic devices check underneath passing vehicles while helicopters provide
close-up video surveillance from above.
NORAD - the North American Aerospace Defense Command - is assisting in
monitoring air space over Manhattan, whose hazy, humid skies are mostly vacant
except for an ever-present blimp that hovers above New York Citylike an all-seeing
electronic god.
The cost for all of this security will be at least $65 million, according to current Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Access is restricted at street level, with the area surrounding Madison Square Garden
fenced off and barricaded. The normally public sidewalks closest to the arena
are closed to pedestrian traffic, and the basic rule is this:
Without proper credentials, don’t even think of getting anywhere near the place.

There are 15,000 here with media credentials. For them, mornings are spent in the converted theater within the arena’s grounds where daily press briefings are held. There is also
the post office across the street from the arena, which this week is a 250,000-square-foot media space accessible by crossing the ‘climate-controlled foot bridge’ spanning
over Eighth Avenue that offers everything from haircuts to massages.

Outside, directly facing the arena, a pair of massive sanitation trucks and an
intricate blockade of barriers line the 33rd Street vehicle checkpoint.
They are the type in use at embassies around the world. Their goal is two-fold:
to protect the venue from charging vehicles intent on doing damage
and to provide a secure holding location to search vehicles authorized for entry
into the building.
When asked to explain what the large, half-block-long vehicle checkpoint contraption
was called, one of New York’s finest replied that he refers to it as a sally-port.
‘But don’t ask me who Sally is. I never met the person,’ he laughed.

Alongside the automatic weapons and the riot gear, in the serious business
of protecting the city, maintaining a sense of humor is probably the most important asset anyone can have.

Saratogian writer Thomas Dimopoulos is in New York City providing local
coverage of the Republican National Convention this week.

Republican National Convention: Day Three

TUESDAY, NEW YORK - Last night, inside Madison Square Garden, they repeatedly
drove home the message : Protect, preserve, ensure.
The only time they took a break was when former President Bush was introduced, taking
his seat as a pre-recorded tape of Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ reverberated through the arena.

Current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg talked about the future; Former Mayor Ed Koch
talked about the present in the aftermath of 9/11, and eyebrows were raised when Gov. Schwarzenegger talked of being inspired by… Richard Nixon.
When the Terminator-turned-Governor announced that the Republican Party wanted to welcome all immigrants, there were a lot of blank stares.

If any of the delegates and their alternates visiting from across the country wanted
to see real immigrants up close, it was a short ride.

It is no longer than five minutes from the hoopla going on inside the
convention site to the dank bowels of the 34th Street subway station,
where signs warn you which areas have been sprayed with ‘raticide’ and
whose riders, those lucky enough to secure a seat among the crowds, lean
their heads back, close their eyes and try to push the memories of the day far away.

Instead, there were organized tours to immigrant landmarks.
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were on visual display for visiting delegates,
who were escorted from one exhibition to the next and returned to the arena.
Once inside, a ‘W 2004’ poster could be fetched for $10 at souvenir stands,
in addition to $15 ‘premium’ Bush/Cheney ‘04 golf balls and $3 re-election pins.

A subway ride to the New York neighborhoods would have been worth a
lifetime of understanding. With 6,400 subway cars, there were more than
enough to carry each of the 2,500 delegates and 2,300 alternate delegates between neighborhoods.

Instead, delegates were hustled away on police-escorted buses to do tourist things.
They will dine at Tiffany’s and dance at the Copacabana. They will be entertained at
Broadway shows, and sung to by country music singers Sara Evans and Brooks & Dunn when they take their place on stage inside The Garden. It is just a few flights above Penn Station,
a few floors from all those subway cars that will be running all night long with their destinations to everywhere.

Saratogian writer Thomas Dimopoulos is in New York City providing local
coverage of the Republican National Convention this week.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Republican National Convention: Day Four

WEDNESDAY, NEW YORK – Manhattanites may have escaped the
hullabaloo that is the Republican National Convention by opting for the
recreational playground of places like the Hamptons, but for the real
New Yorkers, those residents of its many diverse neighborhoods that are the
city’s lifeblood, it’s pretty much business as usual.

Bess Gaganas lives on the third floor of a four-story apartment in
Astoria, Queens, in the westernmost part of the borough, just minutes
from Manhattan. She has lived in the apartment for more than 50 years.

Two floors up the stairwell, a big, swinging door opens up to the roof,
a summer sanctuary known to generations of city kids as ‘tar beach.’
Shortly after 9 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, tar beach was a
crowded place.

‘When I heard the plane had crashed into the Twin Towers, I ran up to
the roof,’ Gaganas said. ‘I couldn’t see the second plane hitting the
tower, but you could see all the smoke.’
Five floors down, at street level, the sidewalks of Astoria are patched together,
a concrete jigsaw puzzle whose plates unintentionally mark different eras of renovation.
Many of the brick-faced apartment buildings still have black and yellow
signs that read ‘fallout shelter.’ Others sport fenced-in
areas, where patches of flowers and lawns that measure 2 feet by 4 feet
across are managed with all the care given to the sprawling rose gardens
of Yaddo.

The main shopping district is along Steinway Street, a long avenue
originally plotted by the piano-making Steinway family, which settled
here in the mid-19th century. Today, the street is a culinary fiesta of
Mexican and Brazilian, Chinese and Italian. The ‘haute cuisine of India’
sits on the street that is dotted with shamrock-bearing Irish pubs, and
dozens of cafes, grocery stores and travel agencies fly the blue and
white flags of Greece. Across the street, a man cradles a long glass
hookah pipe inside the Arab Community Center, which fits snugly between the
Al-Iman Mosque and the Egyptian Cafe.

In this neighborhood, they play stickball on pavemen, over sewers that serve as bases.
It is the birthplace of Tony Bennett and the place Whitey Ford learned to play baseball. And in the late days of summer, it is where you could still hear the voice of Frank Sinatra pouring through apartment house windows high above the streets.

Many of the visiting delegates are excited that California Govern-ator Arnold Schwarzenegger
is here, although Gaganas says doesn’t go in for ‘those kinds of pictures.’
She will stick, she says, with her records by Frank Sinatra.

Saratogian writer Thomas Dimopoulos is in New York City providing local
coverage of the Republican National Convention this week.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Republican National Convention: Day Five

THURSDAY, NEW YORK - Mr. Bush comes to New York.
The President came to Madison Square Garden tonight, escorted in a caravan of black SUV’s down Manhattan’s west side. At 33rd street, the motorcade turned east, heading the wrong
way down a one-way street, then straight up the ramp leading into the backstage area
of the arena, taking the same path everyone from The Rolling Stones to circus elephants
have been using for decades.

A few moments later, he was on stage, standing at a podium in front of swirling electronic
flags that were waving on the massive screens behind him. Up above, balloons strung
along the orange ceiling waited to be unleashed and the inside of the arena went into
a virtual lock-down mode with hallway doors pulled shut and security patrolling the aisles
from the stage-side corners of the red-carpeted floor up to the farthest reaches of the arena.

Immediately proceeding President Bush, a short video played on an overhead screen
amping up the crowd.
The speech itself, like many others delivered throughout the week had a surreal blandness about it, a kind of politicized Reality TV.

Maybe part of what gave it this quality was the massive screen with its rolling sentences,
whose big white letters scrolling across a black background prompted the speakers line-by-line.

Maybe it was the predictability of the words themselves, distributed in the early afternoon
on neatly typed sheets, that rendered the voices obsolete when delivered verbatim from
the podium many hours later.

Quite possibly it was because each speaker carried essentially the same
message: Vote for me, or Die — without giving any real reason to do so, other
than the alternative would lead a straight path right into the inferno.

There were few truly human moments. Playing it safe was keeping it bland.
Once you discovered that the characters turned into larger-than-life icons on living room
TVs were really the product of some calculated image-making meant to create
the illusion of politics in action, than you understood that the only true spontaneity
to be found was outside, on the barricaded Manhattan streets.
There, a high-tech security force resembling something out of a video game was mixing it up with tens of thousands of demonstrators, counter-demonstrators, and assorted scene gawkers, night after night after night.

Amazingly, you didn’t read too much of this in many newspapers. Nor did
you see it on TV.
With most of the action going on outside Madison Square Garden, 15,000 of the
world’s media were seated inside the arena, rewriting press releases to make it look
like they were actually doing something.
You would think some of them would have thought to see if anything was going on outside.
Then again, judging by their work over the past few years, most of them don’t do too well without a script.

Saratogian writer Thomas Dimopoulos is in New York City providing local
coverage of the Republican National Convention this week.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

and one for David Amram

LAKE GEORGE — Five days after the towers collapsed in lower Manhattan,
David Amram walked into Shepard Park and onto the stage at the Lake
George Jazz Festival. He picked up his conductor’s baton, bowed humbly
to the crowd of 2,000 assembled on the lawn, then turned around to face
the 36-member orchestra of the Glens Falls Symphony.

It was Sept. 16, 2001 and for many of us, it was the first day we had
gathered for a public function since Tuesday’s attacks.

It was Amram’s friend and one-time collaborator Jack Kerouac who first
tagged the musician with the nickname “Sunny Dave.” The moniker suits
the 71-year-old well, now as it did then. Fearlessly cheerful and with a
pleasant demeanor, he conducted the Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra in
Sunday’s classical segment, took a break, then returned for a jazz
performance with the T.S. Monk Sextet. It was some brilliant navigating
between the classical and jazz worlds and a dizzying task for the best
of musicians. It seemed a nearly effortless transition for Amram.

As a composer, conductor and multi-instrumentalist, he has participated
in major music festivals from Cuba to Egypt, Kenya to Brazil. As an
author, Amram has penned a pair of autobiographies that trace a line
through popular 20th century music as well as documenting the legacy of
the Beat Generation. His collaborators have ranged from Leonard
Bernstein to Langston Hughes; Allen Ginsberg to Arthur Miller; jazz
legend Charlie Parker to guitarist Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth. He has
composed more than 100 works, perhaps most notably scores for the
films “Splendor in the Grass,” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” Still,
nothing could have prepared him for that first appearance post 9-11.

With an uncharacteristically patriotic swing of his baton, he led the
ensemble into “The Star Spangled Banner.” Unrehearsed and unplanned, it
was selected as the opening performance specifically for this date. The
crowd, in a move equally unrehearsed, rose to its feet, in what may have
been, for the first time in five days. Some saluted. Some placed hands on
their hearts. Many cried.

From the sloping hill of the grassy park, you could look beyond the
enclosed bandstand and see what the performing musicians, who were
facing forward, could not. Behind them, a number of small boats passing
by on the lake had slowed to a stop. The music that was
filling the air apparently was also being carried out across the water.
As the song reached its crescendo, many of the hands on deck began
pulling out small American flags. They held them
above their heads,
in arms raised high, cotton colors waving in the wind and captured in that
Sunday’s afternoon light. And the band played on and on and on. And the
band played on.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
from Sept. 16, 2001