It's obviously an interesting and ironical backdrop for a Buchanan event?this more or less pristine blocklong example of vintage-era New York sleaze. And it's interesting, more particularly, as a backdrop for some of the faces and physiologies that Buchanan's either attracted or brought with him today?faces and physiologies that aren't often encountered anywhere in New York City, much less amidst the filth around Port Authority. It has something to do, no doubt, with the cultural and genetic pressures that differentiate here from there. Fodder for future anthropologists concerning themselves with American difference.
This burly fellow, for example, with a big round head and glasses thick and yellowed like frozen pond water, his girth stuffed into a gray suit and his hair swept back over his huge, grinning face?he simply doesn't exist in New York City's microclimate, he's not a part of its fauna, is the product of a different habitat. He resembles the guy you see posing with crewcut sheriffs in a photo from 1953 on the wall of a Mobile oysterhouse, having just consumed 112 shellfish and set a new record; or else he sells hardware from a roadhouse outside of Macon, and bass-fishes on weekends with Rotarians.
Another old guy resembles a number of my elderly male relatives, which is to say he resembles a Slav who worked for a living, and most likely next to blast furnaces, or underground. He's high-cheekboned and intense around the eyes, and rangy, with thick white hair in a pompadour and a muscular, ramrod-straight peasant's bearing. In fact, he resembles my great-uncle, who mined coal in western Pennsylvania for years.
Buchanan himself, tall and imposing in a pinstripe suit, worked the small crowd, posing for cameras in the fake-Irish ambience of the restaurant's second-floor barroom. Buchanan's face is?unlike, say, Al Gore's?multivalent, and, depending on how the light hits it, evokes images of an Irish brawler (which Buchanan is), or a disappointed father (which Buchanan can also be, to tedious effect), or an ornery, chortling hick who drinks with the sheriff and tortures chickens with a pitchfork (which is Buchanan at his scandalous best). Anyway, here he was, presiding over an event meant to aggrandize a supposedly intolerant right/ populist campaign?smack in the middle of 8th Ave.'s famous and constant filth. This testified to either a mature ability to navigate contradictions?a sense of perspective, in other words?or to a nasty sense of humor. I'm not sure that I've heard of the Gore or Bush campaigns holding events in Times Square.
I sat at a table with two Buchanan supporters who'd paid their way in, on this early afternoon, to see their man. One was a friendly, quiet, dark guy who looked to be in his mid-30s. He wore a suit in that self-conscious way in which people wear suits who don't often have to wear them, and who aren't used to wearing them. Intrigued, I asked him what he did for a living. He pointed out the window down to the northwest corner of the 44th and 8th intersection, where a parked white NYPD cruiser smelted in the skanky heat.
"That's my car," he said quietly, smiling. He explained that he patrols the subways often, but occasionally gets to cruise in a car. We talked about what it's like to be a cop. He explained that it's just as terrible as I'd imagined, that he and his peers all hate the job, and that their goal is generally to stay out of trouble until their 20 years are up, so they can collect their pensions.
The Upper West Side, he further explained, is the worst. It's the neighborhood where citizens treat police the worst.
"People yelling 'pig'..." he said. "I worked for a long time up in central Harlem, and I never had to put up with anything like that."
Our table companion was a good-looking middle-aged woman with an Emmylou Harris sort of wispiness about her, and a deep Southern accent.
"Everything about this paper disgusts me," she'd announced earlier, smacking the copy of The New York Times that lay in front of her on the table. Now, after returning from meeting the candidate, she returned to her seat next to us, surveying the policeman and me with a look of steely triumph.
"I hope my picture doesn't get into the paper," she said firmly. "I'll get audited."
"It won't make the paper anyway," she was assured.
"You think Buchanan's safe in New York?" she asked. "Do you think people will try to hurt him?"
What's one to make of Buchanan, anyway? He's that unassimilable kernel that ruins the body politic's digestion, the splinter that insinuates itself into the lion's imperial paw, and the discomfort of which the protective callus of skin that forms around it can't eradicate. He does to liberals what the Drug Wars do to conservatives: compels them into ecstasies of hypocrisy. He forces them to defend?just because he's the one attacking them?the corporations and the American military's spates of adventurism. It's a good trick.
Then he switches into his moralizing father persona, and his big, expressive face assumes that mournful expression you see on tv so often, and he starts in with the "social agenda" crap, with the railing against pop stars and gays, and he loses you.
But often, and especially with his economic leftism, he keeps things truly off balance, which in an imperfect world is all that an humane politics can really do?that is, throw stones at whatever is, at whatever congeals into something stable and dominant and inhumane and unworthy of trust or faith. It's a dance that's not destructive, as you'll be told it is by people who identify with and cherish power, but rather constructive, an expression of optimism?a process of keeping the margins open, of prying open the interstices, or making space for freedom, of performing the necessary human work of challenging whatever claims to be real.
Needless to say, inasmuch as Buchananism congeals into an institution, it should be reflexively abused, kicked around and imprecated, too.
Last week, Salon's Jake Tapper was refused media credentials for a couple of Buchanan events, on the apparent basis that Salon has less than the Buchanan campaign's best interests in mind. What a gesture that was. It was unassimilable to any canon of civilized behavior as we know it; it was beyond the pale, and aggressive, and scandalously offensive. Like a riot at a punk rock show, it's an act that can't be domesticated, that's perfect in its gratuitousness and brutality. It jams well-oiled gears?which, in the realm of politics, is always an ethical thing to do.
Buchanan spoke from a lectern set up within spitting distance of the bar, with?and there's no way to wish away the epistemological weirdness of this?his campaign cochair pal Lenora Fulani, in a black suit, nodding her head along at a table near him. Lynn Samuels, WABC Radio's Upper West Side liberal talkshow host, was in attendance as well, and seemed on friendly, joshing terms with the candidate. Once again there was the sense that you were being thrown a mess of scrambled significations. Fulani clapped her Socialist hands, 8th Ave.'s vestigial sleaze smirked and pustulated outside, and Pat Buchanan articulated both his conservatism and (huh?) his affection for New York.
"I do always enjoy coming up here to New York City... I spent four years [here], one in graduate school and three years with Richard Milhaus Nixon and its infinite variety and relentless energy never ceased to amaze me..."
Then he thunderously merged back onto message.
"This two-party monopoly sittin' there in Washington, DC, has got to be overthrown for the good of the American people!"
Tell 'em Pat!
"Now we got this boring race?between Albert, who don't know who he is, and Dubble-ya, who don't know anything!"
Haw haw haw haw. Har, har, har. Hawwwww...
Mobile's oyster champion threw back his head and his gullet shook with mirth; my Slavic brother just looked Slavic, which is to say severe and vaguely mistrustful. But the crowd was primed and receptive.
"And at that point they said, wait a minute. Isn't that old troll still out there under the bridge? Well, that old troll is right up here before you right now!"
"And we are movin' on that nomination... WE'RE GONNA GIVE YOU A BATTLE FOLKS WE ARE ON TARGET."
Go Pat, go! Go Pat, go! the small crowd chanted.
This occurred on a hot afternoon last week in Times Square, still apparently a place of considerable variety.