We've got a long history, Florida and I. Our paths keep crossing as if the fate of America's pregnant cabana accident capitol and I are somehow cosmically intertwined, and so naturally, when I found out that the Republican National Convention was being held in Florida this year, I knew I had to go. And that's how I ended up drinking by myself at a Hooters on a Tuesday afternoon.
I'd never been to Tampa before, but I've spent too much time in Florida because I spent too much time dating men who are from Florida. Five different Florida airports in my adult life. I don't even have any relatives here.
On the flight from JFK, I sat within two rows of a network news anchor with a difficult-to-spell last name (rhymes with Blorge Gleffanopolous) and one row behind a little girl who spent the duration of the flight staring at me and the pregnant, disinterested woman sitting in the window seat. At the beginning of our descent, the little girl removed her shirt and began to do what appeared to be an approximation of the Hula, much to the delight of her mother. Blorge Gleffanopolous had no comment.
I should also tell you this: I am staying in a murder hotel. The sort of place where Normon Bates breaks in and showerstabs Janet Leigh while she's on the lam. My room is at the very back of a multibuilding complex and I face a pointless artificial pond with a senselessly erupting fountain in the middle — the perfect place to end up drunkenly face down and unconscious, I think, thanks to way too many hours spent watching CSI: Miami. All the doors open directly to the outside. I am within walking distance of the football stadium where the Buccaneers play. It is a place where wide receivers have affairs with PR interns. It will be on an episode of Law & Order: Grim Places. The B-list celebrity guest star did it.
The flight and hotel details are necessary so that you judge me a little less for being so eager to start drinking at 4 pm on a Tuesday. And, like most humans, I don't like it when people hate at me to my face, and I was going into what I feared would be a lion's den, the RNC, a place full of people whose brains look like my hatemail. So, yes, it's accurate to say that I couldn't wait to start drinking.
Because I hate myself, instead of picking a semi-tolerable place I opted to go to Full Awful and head to a promenade that contains Hooters, the original Hooters, which is one of the prides/joys of Tampa, along with Magic Mike and so, so, so many Rock of Love contestants. I wanted to talk to people who weren't at the convention, and I knew that I couldn't unless my sharp tongue was dulled by watery American beer. If everything is the worst, it's kind of like nothing is. Right?
Hooters anchors something called Channelside Bay Plaza, a glorified cruise ship portside strip mall close enough to the convention that attendees taking a break could meander over for some wings and ogling of suntan-colored control top nylon stockings. Most of the tables were occupied by business casual men still wearing their convention ID badges, but a few lonely bespectacled journalists staring into beer added a nice air of sad desperation. A fairly steady stream of attendees flowed past the restaurant, interrupted by the occasional protesters yelling about money or Ron Paul. It was hot and sticky and nobody alone was smiling.
For a convention put on by a committee working its hardest to promote an image of unity, there sure seems to be a lot of grumbling among the party faithful. Every delegate or conservative I spoke with, from the bar to the sidewalk to my hotel, seemed lukewarm to mildly disappointed by Mitt Romney's nomination. He wasn't "gutsy" enough, explained one woman. You know, like Arizona governor Jan Brewer, or Michele Bachmann, a "fearless voice for life." "He's gotta take care of that tax thing," explained a man. "This convention is rife with douchebaggery," said a disappointed Ron Paul supporter.
"Have there been a lot of protesters?" I asked my waitress as members of Code Pink paraded by with a giant tarp banner that replaced the letter S with dollar signs.
"Tons," said my waitress, who looked a little bit like an exhausted, twentysomething Floridian version of McKayla Maroney. When I asked her what sorts of protesters she saw, she suddenly clammed up, responding curtly, "I don't know. We're inside most of the time and we're not allowed to talk about it anyway."
It seems like the Hooters staff had been expressly discouraged from engaging in any political conversations, that the organization itself had taken great pains to refrain from endorsing Republicans or Democrats or journalists or protesters. The de facto political gag order was enforced by paunchy, short-armed dudes in Hooters polo shirts who sauntered around like harem chiefs, standing within earshot of waitresses taking orders, blatantly eavesdropping. A blackboard above the bar declared, in girlish writing surrounded by doodled stars, WE SUPPORT RED, WHITE & BLUE! If you've got money with a US president on it, by gum, they'll take it.
But the ban on waitstaff political commentary didn't extend to patrons, who were only talking about politics. And because being a young woman at a bar by yourself is like being a strip of flypaper in a barn, it didn't take long before some dudes came up and started talking politics with me.
The first two were Ron Paul fans, one beponytailed, one with a waxed, carefully curled mustache. Both of them looked like the type of kid Mitt Romney might "prank" with a forced haircut. They had driven all the way from Virginia in their car to attend "Paulfest," a Ron Paul rally full of people convinced that if they just pushed hard enough, they could still get Paul to clinch the nomination, or at least disrupt the convention. They weren't successful, and they were very fired up about it. The establishment was fucking up! They just want to preserve how things have been forever! Liberty!
After they left, toting their RON PAUL signs and pointing at their RON PAUL shirts and jangling their RON PAUL necklaces, another pair of Ron Paul supporters came up to my table. "Are you a journalist?" they asked. I'm writing about this, yes, I said. Well you have to write about insurgent candidates, they said. Like Ron Paul! And, uh, Sarah Palin. Apparently she, or someone close to her, has been sending flyers to Oklahoma delegates, attempting to convince them to flip to her side. I asked the Oklahoman Paulites if they thought that maybe the VOTE PALIN flyers were a joke. "Isn't Sarah Palin kind of a joke?" one countered.
While Ron Paul fans wanted to explain the injustice facing their candidate, less-insurgent Republicans were interested in examining my views, cross examining me like I was a guest on their imaginary Fox News show. After I photographed a friendly woman in an adorable polka dotted dress who was walking in the plaza, she struck up a conversation with me that ended with her asking me what happened to me in my life that made me a liberal. She was a Santorum delegate — by far the least terrible, most pleasant Republican I met yesterday. She wasn't the only one confused by my lack of expressed support for Mitt Romney or for the Republican party. A trio of two men and one woman at the bar asked, totally out of nowhere, how in the world I could support a President who wanted to force Catholics business owners to pay for abortions. I ate a fried pickle before answering their question with a question — what makes them think I'm a supporter of the President?
"Two things," said the ringleader of the trio. "One, you were writing notes at a bar at Hooters, which means you're probably part of the liberal media. And second, you have black fingernails and your dress looks like you stole it from Judy Jetson's closet. A Republican would never wear that dress. A Republican would never have black fingernails."
I shouldn't have gotten that dark purple manicure before I left, but I stand by my weird dress. No apologies!
Overall, patrons, emboldened by drink and sun and herd, were adept at spouting the same prepackaged points repeated in the day's speeches. For people who don't trust the government, conservatives sure seem to trust speechwriters. There's too much regulation. The President is jealous of success. If he'd only stop encumbering small businesses and harming growth, then everyone who worked hard enough could be a millionaire. Tax cuts. And liberals just want to keep people dependent on the government, because liberals are sort of like a mom with Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Hurting America for the attention. AND ANOTHER THING! Why are we still talking about abortion? Democrats are obsessed with abortion! GET OVER IT, DEMOCRATS!
"Maybe women don't like the idea that they'd have to give birth to a rapist's baby?" I offered.
"It's not that hard to not get raped," offered a patron, helpfully.
To stave off the imminent rage stroke, I changed the subject to the political gag order on the waitstaff, about how it was strange to me that they'd be instructed to not say anything about the convention as they serve patrons of the convention.
"Do you honestly think that any of these women would have anything interesting to say about politics?" said the rape advice dude, gesturing vaguely toward a woman bending over and washing glasses behind the bar. That's when I decided it was time for me to leave. After what seemed like weeks in one of the closest things on earth to my personal hell, it was all I could do to keep from gagging.