The Caucus and The Camaro

20 02 2016

The jet took us from Miami to Chicago in just under three hours. It was a new frontier in traveling.

Yes, I packed all of my stale cliches into a couple of bags and boldly charted a course to Iowa, site of the first in the nation caucuses for the United States Presidency. I’m still trying to figure out just what the hell a caucus is?

Before Iowa, I spent a few days in Chicago, catching up with an acquaintance from the Florida panhandle. Billy is one of those online friends, who you meet in a club one night and become virtual buds. He is intelligent, handsome and 10 years my junior. I see some of myself in Billy, having been through emotional relationships and escaped what can be an intolerant Southern culture. Billy is dating a young man from Philadelphia and seems happy with life when we meet for brunch at the Golden Apple Diner on Chicago’s north side.

I ask him if he is in love and without hestitation he says yes. He is also quite passionate about a certain U.S. Senator from Vermont. Yes, Billy is a Bernie Sanders supporter. He spouts statistics about income inequality, criminal justice reform and big banks. He agrees with socialism and plays Modest Mouse records on a vintage turntable in his living room.

Knowing his political knowledge was strong I had asked Billy if he was interested in traveling to Iowa with me. He said he couldn’t get away from work, but wished me well. After crashing on his couch, I got up the next morning and motored into Iowa. The guy at the counter of the rental car company had struck up a friendly conversation with me about Pompano Beach. He upgraded my ride and I bought some insurance off him. I’d be rolling into Des Moines in a sporty red Camaro.

ChiCam

ChiCam

The Camaro was fast and fortunately the roads were not slick or covered with snow. It was late January and it was cold. I felt it in Chicago, the wind…. the chill. It had been quite some time since I had felt real wintery conditions. On my first night in Des Moines, I had dinner in the bar of the Bennigans near the interstate. There, journalists and politicos gathered to drink and discuss the day. I noticed a table full of Rand Paul supporters, four dudes, lots of testosterone and tattoos. Next to them were two European journalists who had been following around Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum. After my dinner, I approached their table and asked for their thoughts on the election.

“They are all fake,” I said trying to get the Swiss cameraman to show his cards.

“Sure,” he said, appearing somewhat surprised by my pronouncement and seeming bored with me already.

“Who do you think is the most geniune?,” I asked, in my best Cajun French accent.

“Trump,” he said.

This surprised me. The Swiss journalists said they had been at a Cruz event earlier in the day and one of the men boasted of his one-on-one access to Santorum, a former Pennsylvania Senator and stauch crusader of the religious right. Both men also mentioned their wives.

“People must come to their senses sooner or later,” I said, offering a distain for the campaign up to this point. The Swiss said nothing. I went back to my hotel across the street, but before going to sleep, I decided to check the weather forecast for the weekend.

Sunny and clear for the next day but a snowstorm was approaching out the southwest.

 

 

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DC Crisis

7 06 2015
Chocolate growing on Trees.

Chocolate growing on Trees.

No park service this summer, instead I wait, interview and write about sensitive subjects and matters. Talking to people on background and trying my dead level best to avoid any form of controversy.

I know there are traps out there. Each story pitch is analyzed in great detail.

I have recently returned from Washington, D.C. where I visited my friend Horacio for the first time. It had been over a decade since I last stepped foot inside America’s capitol. Much has changed in the nation’s politics since 2005. Horacio, however, remains as sharp as ever.

I was thoroughly intimidated by his younger crowd of friends, envious of how openly the gays live their life there and saddened about my inability to relate. I suppose this is gay mid life crisis.

I was grateful to secure a Capitol Tour through Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s office. Debbie is quite the champion for South Florida liberals and her staff reflects the diversity of the Sunshine state. I met with a nice Jewish young lady who had recently moved over from the State Department. She explained to me the details of the Congresswoman’s upcoming trip to Africa. In a sign of the technological times we are living in, I took no notes, instead recording it all on my i-phone.

I remain intent on discovering Africa. The destination, always, the last hurdle.

“The real value of taking this trip is understanding what the ground really looks like,” said the nice Jewish young lady whose name shall remain anonymous. She said the Congresswoman’s visit to hospitals in Kenya and Malawi would be for women only. This killed my buzz. After visiting with members of the staff and interns, I was escorted on a tour through the Capitol by a nice young man from Miami of Puerto Rican descent. He was very knowledgeable of the details regarding paintings, rooms, statues and other facts of history. The young man knew the rules and was precise in pointing out important areas of the U.S. Capitol.

For the first time, I was admitted into the House observation area. From this elevated view, we discussed how the Congresswoman came to the floor. My guide said seats are on a first come basis and that Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz typically moved around the room to, “make deals.”

After the tour, I thanked the young man and then ate lunch in the cafeteria. It was a beautiful day and I desired to go outside and walk about. The Capitol dome was going through a remodeling effort and, elsewhere, across the avenue was a stoic Supreme Court building bracing to hear historic arguments in our defining cultural times. All was quiet outside on this day, but protests were indeed coming.

Eventually, I found myself inside the botanical gardens. Horacio encouraged me to give it a look. The chocolate trees were interesting as was the apparant ability on the part of the curators to basically simiulate many different forms of climate. And as one walked from room-to-room, those climates, they were a changing. Zing!

My arrival in Washington was, for all intents and purposes, to set the stage for great things to come. I was grateful to be sleeping on a good friend’s couch in the district where power plays. Horacio would show me the way, but it would be up to me to fit in. After months in South Florida relaxation, this would be my challenge.

And, as always, challenge accepted.

Remodeling

Remodeling





Tea With The Cardinal

21 03 2015
All Aboard

All Aboard

My Hammam experience was far from thought on the train ride back to London. I was preparing for my next important interview — with an Irish Catholic Cardinal. I met the Cardinal a week earlier during a World AIDS Day mass in London’s Mayfair District. I approached him after mass during an informal coffee and conversation session inside the fellowship hall of the Church of the Immaculate Conception Farm Street. I gave him my card and disclosed my Catholic hertiage and interest in the Church. Much to my surprise, he responded a few days later, via e-mail, requesting I visit with him at his home in southwest London.

I left Paris before the break of dawn. The Euro Star is worth every penny. It is fast and connects people swiftly under the English Channel on a daily basis. This particular car was full. The man sitting next to me was a French businessman who shared his copy of “The Spectator” Magazine. I found the content, while obviously conservative, quite interesting. He asked about America, I said the country appeared headed for a re-run of the 1992 election. I asked about France, specifically the rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Ms. Le Pen was quite the talk back at the Paris hostel where I had camped out for the weekend. Many of the young ladies I polled in the kitchen one evening during dinner had rejected the notion that Ms. Le Pen was a feminist. I found this fasnicating as I did most of the Parisan culture.

The French businessman dismissed any assertion that Ms. Le Pen was not a woman. He seemed only interested in my thoughts on Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. I said an election between the two would be costly. After that we said nothing more on that subject. Once we arrived in London, he made a quick dash for the door, saying he was late for a business meeting. I was in no hurry, my appointment with the Cardinal was later in the afternoon, so I hung around the train station and took a few pictures. Much like Gare du Nord, London’s St. Pancras station is fascinatingly put together with a mix of modern conveniences built into old world architecture.

The Cardinal lived south of the River Thames. I got off the tube in Stockwell, directions in hand, and proceeded past an Irish corner pub and into a section of government housing projects. Once I arrived at the apartment, I noticed a sign on the front of the door which declared, “Sonny Does Not Live Here. Nor JD nor Taylor. Wrong Door!! No Sex No Drugs.” I found this quite interesting even though I was after neither, instead seeking simple counsel. Back in the south of Florida, I had begun writing about AIDS. The subject was challenging and broadened my journalistic abilities. It has traditionally been written about in the American media as a horror story and yet I was discovering more and more remarkable tales of bravery.

Cardinal Warning

Cardinal Warning

I was hoping the Cardinal could give me the United Kingdom’s perspective. I knocked on the door and Vincent invited me in.

“Come in, John, I’ve been expecting you,” he said. “The kettle is on.”

His apartment was full of books. It was small, humble and somewhat disheveled. I was there for almost three hours. Talking, sharing life stories. It was amazing. During our visit, a man and his apprentice came to check on the water line. Vincent was the building superintendent and the men needed direction. I said hello but nothing more. Once they left, I began my probe.

The Church, Disease, Power, Charity and, most important of all … Surrender.

 





Seeing Red

28 07 2014

No matter how hard I try, I cannot escape politics.

This summer I stepped right into it, unaware of just how delicate a situation I was entering. For the first time in decades, a new concessonaire contract was awarded at Glacier National Park. This contract includes the park’s historic fleet of red buses, which have been masterfully rebuilt from the frames of the original 1930s White Motor Company models. The red buses have come to represent Glacier, providing an iconic symbol associated with the park’s renowned Going-To-The-Sun Road.

The buses were previously operated out of East Glacier, their hub being the Glacier Park Lodge, located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. That all changed last year when the National Park Service, much to the locals’ surprise, awarded Glacier’s concessionaire contract to Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Xanterra, in turn, pitched its tent on the west side of the park near the rapidly developing tourist towns of Whitefish and Kalispell.

Red Ride

Red Ride

Losing the contract and its red buses has left East Glacier isolated and angry, its community suffering from a dramatic drop in revenue. There are hard feelings in the park. I experience them every day.

I lost count of how many times locals, posing as tourists, came in to question me about Xanterra’s operations. I found the questions odd at first, but then began to notice a trend and with it an unpleasant demeanor. I was a target no doubt, the new guy with the 10 gallon hat, riding in to represent the big corporate outfit from Denver — unaware of just how many roots had been ripped out in this move.

Early on, I tried to keep a positive attitude, but the constant attacks have worn me down. There are incredible logistical challenges here — it is a remote area drawing affluent visitors who expect every modern luxury while experiencing a true backwoods wilderness adventure. Delivering this total package is the challenge that gets me out of bed at 6 a.m. every morning.

Through all the complaints, raised voices and temper tantrums, I have managed to keep my cool. I am determined to leave here with my dignity intact. Again, I think of my father often now and what it must have been like to go through those hurricanes back in Florida — as he did many times — and manage to keep emotions in checks while restoring power to the masses.

Here in Glacier, appeasing tourists is just part of the equation. A big chunk of my time is devoted to our red bus drivers. Keeping them happy is as vital — if not more — than our guests. Affectionally known as “Jammers” for their gear shifting driving style, red bus drivers do require a certain skill set to succeed. The Going-To-The-Sun Road is no piece of cake with its twists and turns, falling water, ice and rock and God knows what else lurking in the other lane just behind the bend.

Jammers provide commentary along the way, each with their own unique personality. Some have been doing this upwards of 40 years, others like me, thrown into the fire for the first time. In the old days, it was college aged men driving the red buses across the Continental Divide. This year, in another first for the park, we have an equal number of women Jammers, including several college aged girls.

Evelyn, one of our veteran Jammers, is quick to cite statistics showing women to be much safer drivers than men. I’m not sure where she gets her data, but Evelyn is not one to pick a fight with. She’s a motherly hen type, her beautiful white hair braided in a long ponytail and her knowledge of wildflowers is unmatched. Evelyn recognized early on that I was in for a rocky ride this summer.

“Hang in there, John McDonald,” she said during a recent stop by my concierge desk at the Lake McDonald Lodge. “You are halfway there.”