buttons – 01 – niles, michigan

Extended ramblings about my time as a seller of campaign buttons at political rallies in 2004. We begin this week with the origin story, which will be posted in three parts due to length. Future posts will occur once a week, usually on Mondays. An introduction to the series can be read here. Unless noted otherwise, all pictures were taken by me around the same time as the events described. If you have any questions about this series, feel free to leave a comment or contact me at carl@honeybrownblues.com.

Something was burning.

In the slow re-orientation into reality after an instantly-forgotten dream, that much was certain.  Also a certainty:  we were late.  The length of our lateness did not really concern me – I just wanted to go back to sleep.  More instantly-forgotten dreams sounded like the right idea.  But the smell that seemed to be getting stronger and more pungent suggested that more sleep was probably a bad idea.  The sound of sirens didn’t help.

“Hmph . . . oh shit!”

That was Mirabel.  She forgot to set the alarm on her phone or get a wake-up call.  I figured this would happen, but I didn’t care – again, more sleep was all I cared about.  Her focus turned to freaking out over us being late.  I remained unmoved on my half of the bed, though lingering on the smell.

“Shit.  Phillip is going to be pissed.  We gotta go, Carl – get up!”

I got up.  The original concept of an hour-and-a-half of sleep at the Golden Eagle Motel precluded any need to remove clothing, much less take off my shoes, so all I had to do was rise and I was ready.  Mirabel called Phillip to apologize for oversleeping.  He had yet to arrive.  He also had all our merchandise, so it turned out to not be a big deal.

“What’s that smell?”

That would be a bigger deal.

The view from outside our hotel room couldn’t have been duller.  Across the parking lot was a modest strip mall – a long, lifeless stretch of insurance companies, hair salons, and a podiatrist’s office.  Behind the strip mall, a tall pine tree showed off its verdancy.  Just behind the pine tree, one could make out the ubiquitous red-and-yellow of a McDonald’s sign.  Next to the McDonald’s sign – as is usually the case – was a McDonald’s.  It was in flames.

If it wasn’t so early – and if I wasn’t in Niles, Michigan – I would have called it a lovely day – all blue skies and puffy clouds contrasted by the thick, black smoke that was blowing in our direction.  By the time we were ready to take off, there were fire trucks and cop cars everywhere.  We pulled out of the parking lot and headed opposite the flames until we were blocked by a giant, engorged fire hose in the middle of the road.  A cop started walking towards us and motioned for us to turn around.  We did as we were told, heading towards the back of the strip mall, and eventually finding an alley that would lead us away from the action.  There were three teenagers standing next to a white building – three of many bystanders that had gathered to watch the McDonald’s burn.  In front of them was a fire truck, it’s ladder extended, with two firefighters pointing their hose at the flames.  Next to them, on the back of the white building, someone had spaypainted, “DANIEL MITCHELL IS A FAGG”.

Breakfast was out of the question.

* * * * * * * *

As a result of the oversleeping, Mirabel drove madly around the streets of Niles looking for the school, trying to get there before Phillip in order to avoid many pissed-off, “where the fuck are you?”, phone calls, the first of which came after fifteen minutes.  Mirabel had strayed from our directions when she had decided to find a hotel room at the end of our overnight drive into Niles.  The fire hose in the middle of the road prevented us from getting back to our point of directional deviation, so we drove and drove until we saw a line of cars and a bunch of cops who had more important things than a flaming McDonald’s to worry about.

The line of cars were being led by the cops and various volunteers towards a field next to the high school.  We followed the line and made our way onto the field when Phillip called again.  He had parked on the street, a block from the entrance to the school, and wanted us to park next to him.  The residential streets around the school were full of parked cars on both sides, turning the streets into impromptu one-ways whose direction was determined by a game of chicken between the cars at each end.  That made maneuvering our way towards Phillip even more difficult.  It also served to frustrate Phillip and Mirabel even more.

“He’s not a bad guy,” Mirabel told me, “he’s just really high-strung.  You’ll probably think he’s an asshole when you first meet him, but wait until we’re done working.”

“Alright”

“He smokes a lot of pot, but – believe me – he needs it.  More than anyone else in the world, he needs it.”

“I can’t wait.”

Phillip had parked in front of someone’s driveway.  When we arrived, he was pulling merchandise from the bed of the truck, manically throwing items on the ground.

“Those fuckers were supposed to follow me,” he said before we had even gotten out of the car.  “I told them, ‘follow me – don’t stray because we’re tight on time’.  But no – they have to fucking take a piss every fucking half-hour.  They’re still an hour away.  Goddammit!”

“Who?” asked Mirabel as we gathered near the maelstrom.

“Rick and Gary.  I fucking told them to follow me.  If they fuck up again, they’re done.  They don’t want to make any money – fine.  I’ll find others.  Hi, I’m Phillip.”

He extended a fist to me.

“Carl”, I said, slowly completing the fist bump.

“Sorry about this,” he said to me, “it’s been a rough morning.  I guess more people don’t have my stamina.”  He turned to Mirabel.  “Did you fill him in?  Does he know?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.”

She filled me in somewhere in Kentucky during the drive from Nashville to Niles, just before she yielded the wheel of her Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight to me and went to sleep.  This is what she said:  “The buttons are five dollars a piece, or three for ten dollars.  Trust me, people will pay it.  You’re going to have a board full of buttons and possibly a bag of T-shirts – I’m not sure if he has them ready yet.  All you have to do is walk the line, be a little vocal, make sure people know you’re there.  When the blow-off starts, you have to be really vocal because everyone’s going to be flooding out at once.  You have to get their attention in order to make them stop.  Once one person stops, others will too.  Don’t yell out the prices – let them come to you first before you tell them how much the buttons are.

“You’re going to be asked where the money goes.  Tell them that twenty percent goes to the RNC – the Republican National Convention.  Tell them that we’re sanctioned by the RNC to sell buttons for them.  The rest of the money goes to cover our expenses.  Okay?”

Okay.

“Oh, I’ve gotta show you the T-shirts,” Phillip beamed.  “They’re great.”  There were several blue travel bags on the floor.  Each one had 60 T-shirts, in various sizes, stuffed inside.  At that point we were running way behind, but Phillip didn’t seem to care anymore – he was more concerned about our opinion towards his great T-shirts.  He unzipped one of the bags and pulled out a shirt.

It was white with a design on the left breast.  The design said, “W’04”, in blue letters.  On the back was a huge red-and-blue shield with the letter “W” in white in the center.  Above the shield, in red letters, was the phrase, “Steady Leadership In A Time Of Change”.  It was ugly.

“It’s the official bus tour logo – make sure to let people know that.  Cool, eh?  What do you think?  Fifteen bucks.  Two for twenty.  Small, medium, large, and XL – a dozen of each in every bag, with an extra dozen XL’s.  Push the hell out of them.  They’ll sell like crazy, right?”

Mirabel and I agreed.  Our level of respective cynicism in this agreement was not brought up.

Phillip’s sense of urgency came rushing back.  “You guys gotta stop standing around here and get going.  Let me get you your boards.”

He reached into the bed of the truck and pulled out the button boards.  They were made of particle board cut into a roughly 30×30 square, painted white with a black border of electrical tape.  Small holes were drilled along the top and bottom.  Blue shoelaces were run vertically through the holes, forming eight rows.  There were sixteen button designs – two placed on each row in groups of ten, attached to the shoelaces on both sides of the board.  A small rectangle was cut out towards the bottom-middle of the board, which served as the handle.  Two other holes were drilled on the top corners, in which S-hooks were attached.  The ends of a red, nylon strap would go on the S-hooks.  The strap would go over the soon-to-be-aching neck of the button-pusher.  All in all, the board – with over 300 buttons attached to it – would weigh around 30 pounds.  The full bag of T-shirts, which would be carried over the shoulder, would weigh even more.

There was a small number written on one of the corners of each board.  We were to write down that number on the paperwork that Mirabel had, then count and note how many buttons were on the board.  As we were doing this, Phillip went back to cursing out the guys who had yet to show up, before turning his attention back to us.

“You guy’s gotta go, man.”

“We’re ready,” Mirabel said.

We were ready.  It was time to finally get things started.  I put on the button board and pulled the shirt bag over my shoulder.  My body instantly began to hate me.

“John’s already out there, so check with him if you have any questions.  Show some hustle guys.  You’ll do great!”

We started our clumsy walk to the event.


* * * * * * * *


The line had yet to start moving.  There were hundreds of people waiting to go through the metal detectors – hundreds dressed in their Sunday bests on a Monday morning.  Even the kids – no doubt reluctant to be there but probably happy to be missing school – were dressed impeccably.  I had put on one of the T-shirts – both of us had, per Phillip’s command.  The combination of differing style and the obvious ideological differences between myself and the people in line made me feel as out of place as I had ever felt.

As such, it didn’t go well.  My timidity was clearly showing.  Mirabel went right up to the people, smiling and chatting with everyone in her nasal tone.  I stood about five feet away from the line, with the meekest of smiles on my pained face.  Every once in a while, I would say, “buttons”.  I was the only person who could hear it.  The people in line would either ignore me or stare at me like the oddity I was.  Eventually, someone signaled to me and I moved my way closer.

“How much are these running for?”

“They’re five dollars, or three for ten dollars.”

Most people came with their families.  In general, the husband would ask the question, then look over to the wife to see if it was okay to proceed with the transaction.  The children would occasionally be asked their opinion, which was almost always affirmative.  But I didn’t know all that yet, so I stood there nervously with a stupid smile on my face until the husband started for his wallet.

“Go ahead and pick some out,” he said to the children, who – along with the wife – would control all further decision-making.  They pointed at buttons and I struggled to detach them from the board.  My shirt bag wasn’t open, and the board obscured the shirt I had on, so a T-shirt sale or two wasn’t in the cards.  I was just happy to finally sell some buttons.

Eight five-dollar bills were in my left pants pocket.  They were given to me by Mirabel to serve as my bank, so that I’d have change to give out.  Any fives or tens were to go into that pocket.  Twenty-dollar bills would go in the other pocket.  Dollar bills and loose change – though frowned upon (a large accumulation of them would slow down the counting process at the end of the day) – would be placed in my back pocket.

My first sale paid for three buttons with a twenty.  I gave the husband two five-dollar bills and thanked them.

“Where does the money go?” the wife asked.

“Um . . . the RNC.  Twenty percent goes to them.”

“Oh, good!”

I continued my way along the line, very slightly buoyed by my achievement in completing my first sale.  At some point, I walked past John and introduced myself to him.

“Is this your first time?” he asked.

“Yeah. Does it show?”

“A little bit.  Met Phillip?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Whatever you do, don’t drive with him.”

The line started moving, making it tougher to get people to stop and look at the buttons.  It was even tougher when they wanted to buy something.  They didn’t want to lose their space in line, so I would have to walk backwards as they moved forwards so that they could still see the button board.  With all the extra weight on me, a misstep followed by an embarrassing tumble seemed inevitable.

After slightly more than a half-hour of debacling my way along the grass at Niles Senior High School, Phillip called Mirabel to let her know we had to leave for the next event.  She came over and grabbed me.

“How’s it going?”

“It’s going.”

“Sold any T-shirts?”

I just laughed.

“We have to leave now if we want to make it to Kalamazoo in time.”

Niles was a small event.  Officially, it was called “Ask President Bush” – about a thousand, invited supporters gathered to chat with the President.  The spontaneity of the questions was suspect, to say the least.  The Kalamazoo event was a rally, featuring a much-bigger crowd – several thousand – all supporters, of course.  The bus tour would wrap up for the night with an even-bigger rally in Detroit.  We were scheduled to hit all three events.

Phillip was talking to the guy whose driveway he was blocking as we reached the car.  The guy didn’t seem to mind – they were chatting pleasantly about all the hullabaloo.  In the guy’s presence, Phillip was mellow with us when Mirabel told him that we hadn’t sold very much.

“No problem, guys – we’ve got two more to go.  Don’t worry.”

We were going to Kalamazoo to work the entire event.  Phillip and John would finish up in Niles, then work the entire rally in Detroit.  Rick and Gary were re-routed to our event in Kalamazoo – we would meet them there.  The four of us would then go to Detroit and work the blow-off.

Between my three pockets, I had $120.  That went down to $80 after taking out the money Mirabel gave me.  Factoring my commision, the fatigue and back pain had yielded me $24 so far.

I slept the whole way to Kalamazoo.

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