Denver on the Dole: Change on the Cheap at the DNC

On previous birthdays I had used my extra airline miles to fly to London, Prague, or Berlin, but this year money is tight and the dollar is weak. Then it hits me: the DNC drumbeat is pounding away with the answer.
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It's Sunday night and I am on the couch trying to watch "60 Minutes" with my wife. With school starting the following week, my three boys are blowing off the final blasts of summer steam. I ask for some quiet. Nothing doing. As my 45th birthday prepares to bushwack me in a matter of three days, my long-simmering mid-life crisis, as in previous years, has me thinking about an escape. An Obama ad comes on the tube, "Change You Can Believe In." This gives me an idea. I love my family, don't get me wrong, but after a long summer "staycation," it's time to get away from these people. I need a change I can believe in.

On previous birthdays I had used my extra airline miles to fly to London, Prague, or Berlin, but this year money is tight and the dollar is weak. I need something fun and affordable. Then it hits me: The DNC drumbeat is pounding away with the answer. I put a hold on a "free" advantage ticket on the next flight to Denver. Well, free except for $105 in fees and taxes. That's okay; it's still pretty reasonable, and a buddy in Denver said I could crash in his basement, so this was not going to be an expensive trip at all. Which was important because it meant the wife wouldn't deny me. I floated the notion at breakfast. "I'm thinking of going to Denver for the DNC, flying on miles and staying with Curtis. I want to witness history, see Barack's acceptance speech the day after my birthday. Is that crazy or what?" She was buying it. "Oh, you should go, it's your birthday. Just don't spend too much, and don't have too much fun." I don't deserve her. I have 30 minutes to pull the trigger on my ticket and pack.

I'm in such a rush that I don't have time to eat before leaving the house. At LAX with about ten minutes before boarding, I swing through a Chili's and wolf down what's left of a chicken quesadilla that another traveler abandoned at the bar. Little did I know that this was the beginning of a routine that would serve me (literally) for the next few days. I was now living off the land.

My buddy picks me up at the airport and I ask him if he has a ticket for Obama's Thursday night acceptance speech. He says he was given one from a local friend at the DNC. "The stadium holds 75,000 people," He says, "So they're out there. You just have to work it." We drive downtown, where I'm to meet an old friend at the Darfur Awareness event at the Ditto Gallery. By the time we arrive I'm starving again, and the irony is palpable as I stuff my face with lettuce cups filled with shredded chicken and barbeque sauce. Videos documenting starvation and brutality play behind me. My old friend Bob arrives with his wife, a local political activist, and his grown daughter, a staffer from the Center for American Progress in Washington DC. My hunger sated, I am now gulping down box wine as I begin hustling my friend's daughter for a ticket to the Big Speech. She has one extra ticket, but has promised it to someone else, "Oh, and there he is now." I salivated as she handed the Golden Ticket to a disheveled looking photo-journalist who had been severely beaten in Darfur, punishment for the pictures he had taken of the suffering. I see how it is. If I "work it" like that guy I can get my hands on a ticket, too. I tell Bob's daughter a few details about my difficult upbringing, but I don't get any traction on an extra ticket. She generously offers me a ticket to the party. I accept.

The Headcount event is packed, and I am given a wristband that gets me upstairs with the VIPs. I work my way to the bar and order a Corona. The bartender opens the bottle and hands it to me, "That's five dollars". I'm shocked. I guess I'm not in Hollywood anymore. As I reach for my wallet somebody tells me that all the Miller beer on tap is free. Okay, live and learn. My total cost on the trip was up to $110 and I vow not to pay for another drink or meal. I am introduced to Nicole Boxer, daughter of the California senator. This is my big chance. I am from California and surely she can get me into the Big Event. I make my play but she seems to anticipate it, no doubt she's been asked the same question dozens of times this evening. No dice. I fill my stomach and get to sleep around 2am after watching a replay of Michelle's speech on MSNBC. I believe she accomplishes the unfortunate but necessary goal of convincing white America that she is just like them. Her brother, who mentions that as a child she memorized every episode of the Brady Bunch, drives the point home. There is no mention of Cosby. I remember thinking that she must be the hottest first lady in history, not in a jungle fever kind of way, but in a Jackie-O way. I deem this a helpful reality for the general election and allow sleep to overtake me.

The next morning I leave the house without eating breakfast. Someone at the party last night had given me an all-access pass to the Impact Film Festival at the Tivoli center. The films were all politically themed, the festival designed to bring the issues directly to the decision makers. There is a buffet. After some yogurt and granola, I watch a film about gay, lesbian and transgender domestic partnership rights in New Jersey followed by a brief panel discussion with Rep. Barney Frank. He speaks eloquently on the subject and leaves in a hurry, which is a good thing, because I am thinking about half-jokingly offering to blow him for a ticket to the Obama speech.

My friend, Curtis, suggests we go down and watch a taping of the Daily Show at Denver University. "We can get in for sure. Just work your magic, man." I agree to give it a shot. We get down there and it is blazing hot. We don't see any long lines of people lined up for tickets, which seems like a good sign. There is an open door and I walk right through it like I belong there, with Curtis bringing up the rear. Up a back stairway, past a security guard sitting in a folding chair, "Hey, how's it going," I say without breaking stride. As we move down the hall, we see wardrobe people, dressing rooms, etc. It must have looked to the guard as if I was a busy staffer ushering in an outsider. We finally come upon a more alert security guard who notices our lack of credentials and says as much. "Yes. We just arrived and we're looking for our credentials. Where the heck do we get them, anyway?" The guard points politely to a door down the hall. I thank him and spin on my heel. "C'mon Curtis, it's this way." We enter a busy office with a cute young girl at a desk next to the door. "Hi." I beamed at her. "We were told that you had our credentials." She looks under some papers on her desk. Oh my god, she's going to give us backstage passes. Suddenly she excuses herself, returning moments later with a man in his twenties who approaches us with narrow eyes and just enough respect so that he won't be reprimanded in case we turn out to be not full of crap, which we are. I tell him it's my birthday and we just want some tickets to the taping. He says that even if I was his mother and it was her birthday, he couldn't help me. On the way out, we walk a little quicker than before. I noticed a security guy shadowing us from behind. Passing Samantha Bee with her baby strapped to her torso in the hallway, I nonchalantly shoot her a smile and a wink, "Baby on board," I say. "Baby on board," she repeats. We hit the fire bar on an unfamiliar door and are back out in the hot afternoon sun with about 300 people lined up, tickets in hand. "Screw this. Let's go home. I didn't get enough sleep last night".

On the way to the car, Curtis stops at the Burger King next door for an iced tea to go. As hot as it is, I still refuse to pay for any food or drink. He offers to pay for it. "No", I say, "there's a principle here." I am determined to gut it out until that evening when I am to accompany my host to an event he is being paid to videotape. He assures me there will be a lavish spread. We go back to Curtis' house and check on Craigslist for Obama tickets, hoping to catch a nap after finding one at a reasonable price. The going rate was $600 a piece. There's no way I'm paying that much. I am starting to think dark thoughts. I might not be able to get a ticket, after all.

A couple of hours later, starving as usual, we arrive at the Colorado Convention Center for the California Nurses Association event. I have a politically charged moment during Hillary's speech, which is piped into the Four Seasons ballroom on a live feed. The food isn't that filling -- tiny little appetizers -- but on my third double tequila I feel the crowds energy as Hillary makes a good show of becoming a team player. This was her moment to bestow her menopausal minions to Obama -- finally -- and I allow myself to believe that despite the strident women I've seen chanting and holding Hillary signs in the street, the party is going to come together. Maybe it's the booze, but I suddenly feel very happy that I came to Denver. I am really feeling the excitement now. But there are no two ways about it, I MUST go to that speech on Thursday. I make a call to my friend Bob. "Hey, what's up? Any tickets out there?" "As a matter of fact I have one for you right here, to the SAG party at a place called The Mile High Club. It's supposed to be wild." I'm feeling a little light headed, my stomach grumbling. "Will there be food there?"

On foot, I follow the GPS map on my Blackberry, weaving slightly for what seems like at least twenty blocks until I find my friend. We drive to the party, and once again the special wristband grants me access to the inner sanctum. I get something to eat and decide to stick with tequila, having learned long ago that one shouldn't change horses in mid-stream when it comes to that stuff. I am making friends and "working it" as the night flies by when I get a break. I hear that the DNC needs volunteers at the Pepsi Center tomorrow, and that if I get in with those people, there is a good chance I could also work the Invesco event. I am filled with new optimism when suddenly a buzz moves through the crowd. Nelly is about to perform. I had heard of Nelly, and as everybody jockeys for position around a curtained stage, I am thinking, "Who is this Nelly girl? She must be good." Forty-five minutes later my friends find me dancing (apparently I'm quite good, given the space the rest of the crowd is giving me). They had been looking for me to wish me a happy birthday. It is after midnight and I am now 45 years old and having the best time I can ever remember having on my birthday. I don't get back to my basement cot until around 4am.

Inexplicably, I wake up at 7 the next morning, not feeling too bad. It's still my birthday and by God I am going to spend it serving my party and my candidate while ensuring myself a seat in the center of the action for the history-making event the following day. It isn't like just anybody can volunteer, either. You have to know somebody, and as it turned out Curtis' friend -- who had gotten him his Obama ticket -- had the connection and got my name on a list. I go to register at the Convention Center, allowing myself just enough time to crash a Progressive Democrats luncheon before reporting for work for the 3 to 10 shift. After going through security at the Pepsi Center, I find my new boss deep in the bowels of the building in an alcove next to a long circular tunnel that wraps around the convention floor itself. Her name is Jean and she lives in Denver, a volunteer for the DNC. She explains my job to me: When a speaker takes the stage on the floor, the Press Distribution Center (that's us) receives a copy of the speech from the teleprompter people. We then make several copies and distribute them to the press, who are located in several huge tents set up outside. The idea is to get the speech in the hands of the press as fast as possible, while the speech is still being delivered. It isn't until my second or third run that I find the bar, which is sponsored by Captain Morgan's rum and is located in Pavilion 2. Not having gotten a lot of sleep in the last 24 hours, I am starting to drag a bit by 5pm, so the logic is that I will brace myself with a little hair of the dog. It works beautifully and I am having a swell time before long. It's like I'm 21 again and back in the mailroom. I'm a runner for the DNC!

Every now and then, the Secret Service shuts down the huge hallway and everyone has to stay put until whatever political luminary passes on the way to or from the convention hall. Most staffers line up on the edge of the giant ring for a handshake or a cell-phone photo. At one point, normal traffic is shut down for almost a half-hour. With anticipation building as to what superstar will be coming around the bend, I can hear the disappointment of the assembled staffers as a dour John Kerry makes his way through, which is followed shortly by a loud wave of applause as Bill Clinton -- the reason for the shut down in the first place -- makes his way past, entourage in tow. This is like the political Oscars and the big stars get the big cheers from the crowd. But I am kind of surprised by how un-jaded the behind-the-scenes people are in contrast to Hollywood, where an assistant or other lower functionary would never dream of rushing Brad Pitt for a photo-op, particularly while on duty. But it seems that this is what's expected, that this is the reward for services rendered for the cause. At one point, I get caught in one of the access tunnels to the floor during a Secret Service shutdown. Hillary is in the house for the roll call, not 30 feet away from me as she throws her delegates to Obama. I snap a photo of her with my phone as she wistfully walks off the stage. The picture looks like a blur of turquoise polyester vapor being sucked out of the building.


The last speech of the evening is Joe Biden, and before he goes on, the Secret Service warns that they are about to close the hall again. We have the Biden speech early, so I bust a move while I still can and make my last run of the night... to Pavilion 2, where I get myself another drink and sit down to watch Biden's speech on one of several big screen monitors set up around the giant tent. A little more than halfway through his speech, one of the female runners I'm working with comes running into the bar. She is a mother of three, but she is giggling like a little girl. She had been waiting out the lockdown when they brought Obama through the hallway. She shows me video on her camera phone of him coming around the bend, smiling and waving. I can hear her screaming his name hysterically on the audio. I watch the video as Obama comes to her, takes her by the hand, and almost laughing, says, "Okay, take it easy now," before moving on down the hall and onto the floor for his surprise appearance with Joe Biden. My colleague is so excited she catches the attention of two black men in the bar. With thick African accents, they ask what's going on and she plays the video for them. They are journalists from Kenya, we learn. They crowd around her and beg her to show them the footage again and again as they beam, in awe, saying, "It is him. It is him." I notice one of them getting very emotional, tearing up. I ask him if he is going to the speech tomorrow. He confirms that he is. I tell him that I understand what this must mean to him -- the son of a Kenyan the next president of the United States. He looks at me, tears still running down his dark face and says that it means a great deal to him indeed, but he is crying because he very much wanted to share this moment with his own sons, back home in Africa. "This is a very important moment in history." He says. "I want to share it with them". I am deeply moved. I tip the bartender $20, bringing my total expenditure up to $140.

I catch the noon flight back to LA the next day and find myself right back where it all started: On my couch, eating birthday cake with my family. It is time for the Obama speech and I try to get my kids to settle down. "This is a very important moment in history." I say. "I want us to share it." We watch the Obama speech together. I have tears in my eyes, and my boys are quiet, listening to every word.


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