Drive-by counties

Apologies, I’m going to take a brief detour from the travel blog to share a political observation. Every state I have visited since I got off the train in Texas last week voted for Donald Trump in the election last November: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina.

And yet, every city I’ve visited in those states – San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville – voted for Clinton. I’ve been hopping from one blue island to the next, rarely dipping my feet into the scary red sea in between.

It’s no great insight that urban areas vote Democrat and rural areas vote Republican. As I speed through the conservative countryside on my way to the next liberal stronghold, there are occasional clues: a large sign in Texas saying that ‘God will punish Democrats’, a Confederate flag flying in Mississippi and the occasional NRA t-shirt or bumper sticker.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans (Trump won Louisiana by 20 points), ACLU volunteers feel comfortable standing in the street asking passers by to help them “resist Trump”. If they swapped places with gun rights t-shirt wearers in small town Texas, I’m not sure either of them could guarantee their safety.

It’s just as true in the western blue states. Driving down the Pacific coast through Washington, Oregon and northern California just a few weeks before the election last year, I was overwhelmed by the number of Trump yard signs. These three states voted Democrat almost entirely because of the liberal populations of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and LA, leaving their rural voters as politically isolated as a liberal in Alabama.

I am reminded of a conversation I had in a bike shop in a small town in New York state in 2007. The shop owner asked us what we thought of the US so far. As a cocky 22 year old, I assumed that a NY cycle shop would be a safe place to make a joke about then-President George W Bush. He didn’t laugh.

After Trump won, commentators talked about “fly over states”, those states that journalists only ever see from 40,000 ft as they cross from LA to NYC. But if we zoom in and switch from plane to car or train, our flyover states become drive-by counties: the rural districts between the big cities of California, Texas or Ohio.

Anyway, these thoughts led me to nod along to something on (#fakenews) CNN the other day about how the liberal bias in the US print media (perceived or real) is probably an urban/rural thing. Journalists for the big newspapers tend to be people interested in living in New York or Washington, and as we (both in Britain and in America) increasingly choose to huddle around opinions we already agree with, this leads to journalists with backgrounds that are less representative of a wider America.

To paraphrase President Obama’s 2008 victory speech, America is not a collection of red states and blue states, but a fragile union of blue cities bobbing in an ocean of red.

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All The Way To Reno

According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com – which is the gospel on such matters – California has a greater than 99.9% chance of sending its 55 electoral votes to elect Hillary Clinton. To put it another way: both of California’s candidates for the Senate are Democrats. It’s about as blue a state as there is.

Debate watch party #debate

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This makes campaigning here, especially in San Francisco (83% Democrat), a waste of time for both parties. The only campaigning I saw at a recent free music festival was by the Greens, a party most famous for providing the self-righteous with a way of electing George W Bush back in 2000.

That is why I spent this weekend in Reno, Nevada on a campaign trip organised by the Democratic Party. Nevada is a much closer race, with Clinton narrowly leading in the polls. The Senate race here is a dead-heat.

Door knocking for Hillary in a swing state

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The weekend began at 5.15am on Saturday as I was picked up as part of a three-person car share organised by the California Democrats. By 9am, we’d crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains into Nevada and, after stopping to let me pee in a roadside bush, we arrived at a volunteer’s house in Reno. These volunteers, mainly retirees and students, have been working almost thanklessly for well over a year, right through the primaries and the general campaign. They really are the unsung heroes of a democracy that is often perceived as dominated by big-money advertising, large set-piece rallies and televised debates.

We were provided with a list of addresses and jumped back in the car to go and meet the voters on the doorstep. This is a “get out the (early) vote” operation, so all of the voters are supposedly supporters of Hillary Clinton and our job was to remind them of that fact and highlight the availability of early voting in Nevada, which allows citizens to vote in any one of a few dozen public places at any time between next weekend and election day a few weeks later. These face-to-face meetings are also a good opportunity to push the “down ticket” Senate and House races to ensure that Hillary supporters would also help elect Democrats to Congress.

I’d already received a little bit of training in how to pronounce Nevada correctly (Nev-AH-da, not Nev-AR-da). This wasn’t because I am British, but because Californians get this wrong too. As it was, I only used the N-word on the doorstep once, which may explain how not a single voter batted an eyelid at the British guy telling them how to vote. Either that or they’ve finally gotten over colonialism.

The one time I said “Nevada” was in the context of the saddest conversation I had all weekend. A Clinton supporter – a Latina woman – told me she probably wouldn’t be voting because “the people higher up will vote on who wins”. Her friend hovering in the background was furious with her for this combination of disenchantment and ignorance. I broke cover and confessed that I didn’t have a vote, but that she – as a swing state voter – had the opportunity to have a real impact on the outcome of this election. She didn’t want Trump to win, yet she was unconvinced that there was any point voting to help stop it.

There was little evidence of Trump or his supporters around, save for the Trump sign I found in a dumpster and the two cartoonish Trump supporters who shouted “Vote Trump” at us from across the street. Little did they know that I was actually an immigrant who could do no such thing.

Right where it belongs #dumptrump

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After a day of canvassing in the affluent suburbs of north-west Reno, I checked into my hotel in the Circus Circus casino. This had been recommended to me by the campaign, giving a small discount. And I can heartily recommend it to you, if you’re a fan of paying $100 for any of the following:

  • A bed without breakfast
  • A hard mattress topped with a blanket and sheets
  • Easy access to a casino with free circus shows (unavailable until November 2016)
  • Low-grade toilet paper

I’m being unfair. Yes, I could’ve stayed more cheaply at a nearby motel, but then I wouldn’t have received a booklet packed with money-off vouchers for Circus Circus and the two near-identical casinos down the road. It was with this in my back pocket that I stepped out into the pouring rain to seek out my 2-for-1 beer. I drank my two pints of Coors Light (a homeopathic version of lager) in a dingy casino bar while listening to a hen party argue about Donald Trump and Secret Santas.

Remarkably, I was able to have all of this fun, inhale an all-you-can-eat bbq rib dinner and stare at some people playing roulette, and still be in bed by 9.30pm.

Day two of campaigning was a somewhat less pleasant experience. The stormy weather of the previous night had not abated and we were sent to a more challenging neighbourhood. After variously being frightened by loose pitbulls; followed incessantly by a cute (but unrelenting) Bolognese dog; shouted at by a man who didn’t believe a woman should be president; lectured by a self-confessed felon who thinks that Clinton will take his guns away; and coughed at by a sick woman who spoke no English, we finished up and headed home.

The rain made for a slow journey, that got even slower when it turned to snow over the Donner Pass. Thanks to my mum for pointing out that an expedition stuck in snow here in 1846 resorted to cannibalism. I assume this is why the donner kebab is so-called.

It's snowing…

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For the benefit of those who’d like to know what else I’ve been up to in the two months I’ve been in San Francisco but haven’t bothered blogging about, here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • A road trip to Santa Cruz, via the coastal road on the way down and the Redwood State Park on the way back
  • A road trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • A gourmet ice cream tasting evening with a group of other people who are new to the city
  • A drinks evening for Brits in San Francisco
  • Occasional games of football (soccer) in Presidio
  • Watching baseball at the Giants’ stadium with work friends
  • A pub quiz on a Monday night that wasn’t as good as the Monday Night Quiz
  • Presenting Mega Seating Plan at the Bay App Festival, following a back-to-school period which saw my app reach 5000 registered users
  • Watching the second presidential debate with the Hillary campaign
  • Learning French in evening classes at my school
  • Attending the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, featuring Cyndi Lawper and a guy from The Eagles
  • Watching some free comedy in Golden Gate Park
  • Writing a bit of comedy, but not getting around to actually trying it out on the San Francisco open mic circuit yet
  • Watching the US equivalent of the Red Arrows – the Blue Angels – pull stunts over and around the Golden Gate Bridge

And so on… I’ve been busy.

Next weekend I’m flying up to see Tim and Jen (and meet Jack for the first time) in Seattle and returning via a long road trip down the west coast. I intend to blog.

What I did on my holidays (part 3 – election night special)

Tuesday 4th November

Since our arrival in New York there had been a low frequency buzz on the streets about the election. It seemed like every conversation we tuned into on the crowded sidewalks contained snippets of “Obama”, “McCain” or “Palin” (poor Biden). It’s difficult to imagine an election in the UK creating such a level of interest, although I suspect this is no ordinary US election.

Despite this level of public interest, there was actually very little in the way of election publicity in the city. New York is one of the most reliably Democratic states on the electoral map, so neither candidate saw the need to waste money on posters or adverts. A good number of people , though, were walking about with Obama-Biden badges on their lapels (almost nobody had McCain-Palin badges).

One source of these badges revealed itself on our way to Macy’s (the world’s largest department store). A middle-aged black woman had set up a table on a 7th Avenue corner with an enormous selection of pro-Obama merchandise. She was so excited about the prospect of an Obama victory that she told us how she had voted at 6.30am; the Democratic campaign’s message of hope and change had genuinely become ingrained in the desires of people like her.

We bought some badges and headed to Macy’s. It’s basically just a big John Lewis, but it’s worth a visit just to ride the ancient wooden escalators on the upper floors. OK, it’s maybe not worth a visit just for that, but if you happen to be there you should at least take a look.

Realising that we didn’t really have any shopping to do, the Matts and I parted company with Neil, Andy, John and LJ. We headed towards the Rockefeller Center to check out the planned NBC election night party taking place around the ice rink. We’d been tipped off about the party by a news bulletin on one of the LCD screens that have been fitted into the back of apparently every taxi cab in the city.

A map of the country had been drawn onto the ice, which they would somehow illuminate state-by-state in either red or blue as the election results rolled in. NBC had set up a temporary studio next to where we were standing that appeared to be broadcasting live on the big screens above us. On our way out of the plaza, a man with a Blackberry stopped us and said he was looking for good looking young people to sit on the front rows of the following morning’s Fox Morning Show. Clearly, there was a shortage of good looking young people, so he handed the tickets to us; we’d have to be there at 7.30am, but breakfast would be free.

Another option for election night festivities was in Times Square where CNN had set up a big screen in front of the tiered seating that forms the roof of the half-price ticket booth. It was still mid-afternoon, but we took some seats and watched some CNN. They were showing off an artist’s impression that they had commissioned of what the candidates would look like if McCain were black and Obama white. McCain looked a bit like Bill Crosby, whereas Obama looked like a used car salesman.

While sitting in Times Square, a young man approached us with a clipboard and asked if we wanted to watch the Late Show with David Letterman being filmed the following afternoon. We said yes, and he said they were ours if we could answer two “simple” trivia questions. I cracked my Itbox-playing fingers, only to realise seconds later that the trivia was Letterman-related. Despite none of us having ever really watched it, the Matts were able to answer a question each to win us the tickets (for future reference, the bald band leader plays the keyboards and Letterman likes to throw his pen).

Later that afternoon we returned to our vantage point in Times Square and settled down for election night. As the clock ticked towards the first polling stations closing, the steps and the square below filled and the atmosphere began to crackle with anticipation. At 7pm, America reached the beginning of the end of this epic two-year long election when Vermont and Kentucky were called for Obama and McCain respectively. Not a single vote had been counted in either state (the polls had been closed for just a few seconds), but CNN used exit polls and common sense to put the first electoral college votes on the boards: McCain leads by eight votes to three.

Despite McCain’s early advantage, things were looking good for Obama who was neck-and-neck with McCain in Indiana (where votes had started being counted at 6pm), which had not voted for a Democrat in decades. At 8pm, ten more states were called without bothering to count any votes, eight of them for Obama, but it was the Pennsylvania result about half an hour later that reassured the crowd that they’d be going home happy.

McCain’s chance of victory was dealt a huge blow by Pennsylvania staying Democratic, but the celebrations couldn’t formally begin for some time yet. Times Square went wild when New York was called, and indeed every time the CNN coverage switched to our crowd. Ohio also fell to the Obama surge, meaning that it was now just a matter of the world politely waiting for the solidly-Democratic west coast states to close their polling stations so that the networks could push Obama over the magic 270.

That moment came at 11pm EST. The giant CNN screen moved from one of its many commercial breaks to one of their now-hourly countdowns to the closure of the next polls. The crowd in Times Square counted the last ten seconds out loud and, instead of calling any individual states, CNN immediately projected that Barack Obama had been elected the next President of the United States.

To say that the crowd went a bit wild would be like saying that Sarah Palin is a bit thick. All around us was cheering, crying and hugging; if there were any Republicans in the crowd at the start of the evening, they’d either slipped off or converted to Obamania by eleven o’clock. It was beyond anything I’ve ever seen at a football match or a rock concert, this was absolute elation among people who genuinely believed that things would now be different.

Cars around Times Square began honking their horns even more than usual, with Obama-Biden signs held out through their sunroofs. Eventually, the big screen cut to Arizona and John McCain’s concession speech. McCain’s audience looked uniformly unpleasant, a bunch of handlebar moustachioed rednecks and not a single non-white face to be seen.  The speech itself was gracious and humble, reminding the world of the McCain that used to command cross-party respect before he lowered himself to the level of the very worst elements of the GOP. These elements, however, were alive and well in his bigoted crowd who booed every mention of President-elect Obama.

Other than a few initial boos, McCain’s speech was well received in Times Square, receiving the applause it deserved. We did not show the same respect to his running mate: when Sarah Palin’s face filled the big screen, the boos echoed off the skyscrapers. We can only hope that she fades back into the obscurity that she emerged from in August, but I fear we haven’t seen the last of Palin and her brand of anti-intellectualism.

 After what felt like forever, the CNN coverage switched to the massive gathering in Grant Park, Chicago where Barack Obama and Joe Biden walked onto the stage accompanied by the new first and second families of the United States. 800 miles away in New York, our crowd was again going wild, anticipating a fine speech by a great orator. Sadly someone had alternative plans for our evening and as Obama opened his mouth to speak the CNN screen went dead. Thousands of people strained their eyes towards the Fox screen at the far end of the Square, but the subtitles were too small to read.

After several minutes, police began clearing our tiered seating, telling us to go home as the party was over. We followed the deflated crowds down the steps, but as we reached the bottom the screen flashed back into life and we were treated to the final five minutes of a great speech. When the 44th President left his Chicago stage the applause continued in Times Square for several minutes, as much of the crowd blinked tears from their eyes.

Our walk back towards our hostel was slow as we moved through the dense crowds. People were literally dancing in the streets; we saw spontaneous hip hop dancing on a street corner and a man moonwalk across a pedestrian crossing. It remains to be seen whether the world changed on 4th November 2008, but it was certainly a night we’ll never forget.

What I did on my holidays (part 1)

Saturday 1st November 2008

At an eyeball-achingly early time, Andy, John, Matt, Matt and I dragged ourselves to Heathrow Airport via seemingly half the tube network. We’d checked in for our flight online the previous evening and only had hand luggage, so were afforded the luxury of minimal queues to board Virgin Atlantic flight V003, bound for New York JFK.

The flight was actually the most comfortable I’ve ever experienced; the food was more than edible (starter, main, bread roll, dessert, wine and even a cheese course), there was actually leg-room and the back of the seat in front contained a wonderful media player. On demand, we could watch movies, TV shows, play battleships with our neighbours and even send abusive messages to John.

We took the impatiently long subway train from JFK right into the heart of Manhattan at Times Square. I had arranged for us to meet Neil outside the neon-signed NYPD station at 4pm. After a journey of 3500 miles, we arrived just 10 minutes late. Neil, however, had given up waiting and gone back to the suite in the Hilton that he’d rented for the previous night. Two phone calls and 15 minutes later we were all reunited under the dazzling lights of Times Square.

We walked a dozen blocks south to find our hostel on 8th Avenue and 30th Street. It appeared to be a little seedy outside, situated as it was above a Subway (the sandwich chain store, not the NYC underground system) and an apparently 24-hour florists. Regardless, the hostel was clean, secure, delightfully cheap and, importantly, very central.

After dropping our bags, we headed directly along 33rd Street towards the Rockefeller Center. Or rather that’s what I thought it was, instead of the Empire State Building which it actually was.  The fact that I (a buildings engineer) had failed to correctly identify perhaps the most famous skyscraper in the world proved to be an endless well of ridicule for my travel companions over the next week. In my defence, it does look a lot different from the photographs when you’re standing at the bottom of it looking east (although I have been up it before, so really should have known better).

We ate in a restaurant at the bottom that Andy, Neil and I had remembered to be very tasty from our previous visit to New York. Unfortunately it appeared that more than two weeks of American food in 2007 had done something to our taste buds that couldn’t be replicated after 8 hours of Virgin Atlantic in 2008; on this occasion the food wasn’t all that great. Never mind.

Up we went in the great elevators of the Empire State Building. I recommend that any visitors to New York save this particular rite until the sun has set; the Big Apple is as beautiful by night as it is loud and grubby by day. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but in my view there are many more attractive cities in the world than New York, but at night it turns into a magnificent array of lights that simply refuse to be ignored. There’s only one downside to looking at this metropolis from the top of the Empire State Building, and that is that you can’t see the Empire State Building.

 

Sunday 2nd November 2008

After a night of jet-lag recovery, we decided to walk from our hostel down to the financial district. Although we were staying on 30th Street, it turns out the numbering doesn’t begin from the sourthernmost tip of Manhattan, so we were barely halfway there after covering the 30 blocks to 1st Street.

We walked passed a terrifying Orwellian skyscraper with no windows; in fact, the only break in the smooth concrete surface was for a row of enormous ventilation grills about halfway up. Later research established that this was the AT&T Switching Center, filled with equipment that would prefer not to receive daylight and workers who presumably wished that they did.

We visited Ground Zero, the former site of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It is now a bustling building site for the Freedom Tower which is due to rise from the ashes by 2013. We called into the nearby St Paul’s Church which became a refuge for recovery workers in the days and months after the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001. It is now treated as a memorial site to those who died.

From here we headed down Wall Street and to the stock exchange. The turmoil that this area had both caused and suffered over the last few months was absent on this quiet Sunday morning. The area was silent but for the chattering of tourists and the clicking of their cameras. After making appropriately abusive gestures towards these cathedrals of greed, we stepped down into the subway and headed north to Times Square to watch some F1.

We settled down in the enormous ESPN bar and took a table close to screen number two of the twelve on the video wall. Our table had a small LCD screen on it too, so we turned off the American football and tuned it into the Brazilian Grand Prix. Perfect.

Unfortunately, the waiting staff weren’t quite so happy with our seating arrangements. It turned out we were meant to have been seated by one of them, so we had therefore jumped a queue by just sitting down. This was rubbish, as there was no queue and several empty tables. Nevertheless, they actively ignored us until we almost literally waved in their faces. Eventually we were served, on the condition that we spend at least $10 per person per hour; this wasn’t a problem considering the price of the beer.

We watched Lewis Hamilton win the Formula 1 World Championship on the very last corner of the final lap of the final race of the season, cheering happily in a cavern full of oblivious NFL fans. On a high and with a couple of tall beers inside us we marched up 6th Avenue towards Central Park in order to see the New York Marathon. On the way, we successfully adapted the lyrics of almost every Broadway musical to be about the 2008 Presidential election. Some examples included “Obama Mia” and “Hakuna Obama”. The album will be out in time for Christmas.

We stood at the half-mile to go marker of the marathon and were appalled by the lack of excitement being exhibited by the crowd compared to the London marathon earlier in the year. We attempted to make up for this by cheering the names emblazoned on every running vest that crawled, limped and jogged past us. It roused a few smiles just in time for the bank of press cameras a few metres further along the course.

For the evening we found a southern-style BBQ house a couple of blocks from our hostel. For $22 they offered all-you-can-eat ribs and all-you-can-drink Bud Lite, with a time limit of two hours. It turns out this is made profitable due to an apparent allergy of the waiting staff to serving customers their ribs and their beer. Their incompetency, however, was ultimately to our advantage, as they failed to notice that only three of our party had ordered the all-you-can-drink, yet none of us ever seemed to have an empty glass…