buttons – 03 – lebanon, ohio

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. Today’s post is Part Three, in which my future as a button vendor was sealed.  Future posts will occur once a week, usually on Mondays. An introduction to the series can be read here. All photo’s in today’s post were taken during a return trip to Lebanon, Ohio in February of 2010 (hence the snow). If you have any questions about this series, feel free to leave a comment or contact me at carl@honeybrownblues.com.

“C’mon, guys!  We gotta move, move!  There’s no time to stand around.”

Mirabel, John, and I were standing around.  More specifically, we were standing around on the side of the interstate.  Mirabel looked like she was in shock.  John was watching the the cop car that was approaching us.  I was awed by the full power of Phillip in complete panic mode.  There was merchandise all over the place.  Boxes were frantically being emptied and their contents frantically consolidated into other boxes.  The leftover boxes were then frantically tossed by Phillip into the woods next to the interstate.  He didn’t shut up the entire time.

“Goddammit, Mirabel, you told me your car was in good shape.  Don’t lie to me about these things.  You’ve fucked everything up.  I need people with reliable transportation.  Fuck!  Guys.  Guys!  Help me out, man.   We need to . . . is that a cop?”

Before we left Toledo, Mirabel – in one of the worst bits of foreshadowing ever – asked me to remind her that she needed to get an oil change on Wednesday.  It was Tuesday.  Wednesday was supposed to be our day off – we wouldn’t have another event until Friday, so we would be able to hang out wherever we felt like as long as we were in Dubuque by Thursday night.  Mirabel had some friends in Dayton, so she suggested hanging out there on Wednesday.  I had no friends between Dayton and Dubuque, so it didn’t matter to me what we did.

I was driving when it happened.  Phillip asked us to keep up with him, which meant driving at an incredibly reckless speed the entire way.  With Rick and Gary in mind, I obeyed.  Phillip had a radar detector, so he said we had nothing to worry about.

The car’s engine completely seized up about twenty miles north of Dayton.  We had something to worry about.  Even with my limited car knowledge, I knew things didn’t look good.  Mirabel started to freak out, weary of the inevitable wrath of Phillip.  She had to call him so he could turn around and pick us up.  It meant that all our merchandise, along with our luggage, and ourselves, had to be loaded onto Phillip’s truck.

The cop didn’t seem to notice the cardboard boxes at the periphery of the woods.  Phillip calmed down briefly and explained the situation to the cop, who called a tow truck for us before leaving.  As John and I tried to figure out how to load everything into the truck, Phillip took Mirabel aside, reassuring her that things would be alright.  He apologized for snapping at her and reiterated how much he appreciated her hard work.  He said he’d buy her another car if he had to.

We left her on the side of the road.  Dayton was out of the question now.  Originally, Mirabel and I were to work the “Ask President Bush” event there, then drive to Cincinnati to work an evening rally.  Phillip and John were going to work a town hall meeting in Lebanon, then meet us in Cincinnati.  The new plan was for Phillip to drop off John and I in Lebanon, then drive to wherever the tow truck would take Mirabel and her car and sort out that situation.  Phillip would then go back to Lebanon, pick us up, and head for Cincinnati.

“That girl’s trouble.  I can tell she’s gonna give me nothing but headaches.  Fucking hell, it’s common sense – you gotta change your oil regularly.  I change my oil after every trip – no exceptions.  Now I gotta get her a fucking ‘nother car.  Reliable transportation – I fucking told her that.  I’m losing so much fucking money right now.”

I was squeezed in the back seat of the truck, watching the dull Ohio scenery pass by.

“Hey,” Phillip said, turning back to me, “can you reach into that cooler and grab me a beer?”

Between sips of Smirnoff Ice, he continued to rant the rest of the way.  We got off the interstate and onto the state road that led into Lebanon.  When Phillip finished his Smirnoff Ice, he gave the empty bottle to John and – with a line of cars behind us – asked John to throw it out the window.

* * * * * * * *

I was on the verge of panic again.  Phillip dropped me off, threw a button board and a shirt bag my way, pointed to the front of the line, and told me to go there.  John ran out of the truck, in desperate need to find some place to use the bathroom.  I was on my own, about a block away from the line.  After all that had happened so far, I wanted to drop everything and find a place to hide.  Phillip had yet to pull away, though – he had to wait for John to come back and get his merchandise.  I took a couple steps forward and turned around.


I kept going.  There were two lines right next to each other leading from the metal detectors, through an alley, and out onto Main Street.  My slow death march to the front of the line complete, I excused myself and squeezed into the small space between the two lines, no doubt smacking children and grandmothers with my shirt bag.  Once situated in front, I took a deep breath, and faced the line.  Every single person was staring at me.  All I could do was weakly smile.

I was crushed.  One person came up to me, then another, then another.  No one wanted to get out of line, though, so they started calling for me.  My arms were flailing all over the place – taking money, pulling out buttons, grabbing shirts, giving change.  Every couple moments, I’d inch a little bit further along the line.  I was trying not to think – thinking led to anxiety, led to profuse sweating, led to the very real possibility of me screaming like a girl and heading for the hills.  Within minutes, and after only making about twenty feet of headway, there were several hundred dollars in my pockets – most likely more than I had made the day before.

And then it happened.  It took me completely by surprise.  I figured it would happen eventually, but not that soon, and certainly not while being virtually unable to move due to all the people throwing money at me.

I started to enjoy myself.  All the anxiety, fear, and panic gave way to the sick pleasure of taking people’s money.  The smile no longer seemed forced.  My interaction with the people in line shifted from stock responses about pricing and available shirt sizes to actual conversation.  I was hospitable, witty, downright charming.  I paid extra attention to the children, stooping down a bit so that they could see the buttons, always making a point to show off the Superman one.

“Do you know who you’re going to see today?”

“Pesdent Bush.”

[Big smile]  “That’s right!”

The parents ate it up.  More money my way.  More buttons hurriedly pulled from the board.  Another T-shirt sold.  A quick shuffle up the line, then it would repeat again.

“Where does the money go?”

“We’re sanctioned by the Republican National Committee, sir.  Twenty percent of our sales go to them.  The rest goes to cover the costs of the buttons, our travel expenses, and, of course, to help with my electric bill.”

“Ha, ha – that’s great.  It’s good to see you guys out here.”

“Thank you, sir.  It’s great to be in this wonderful town.”

It was too easy.  It was lovely.  On that Tuesday morning, I was the Ace, the King – all the freaking suits rolled into one.

“Do you have any children’s sizes?”

“Unfortunately, ma’am, we don’t.  Adult small is our smallest size.  However . . .” – and out of my mouth came the line that would make me thousands of dollars – “. . . they have four more years to grow into it.”

Laughs and laughs.  My pockets were bulging.

Once out of the alley, the lines would merge into one and snake along the brick sidewalks of Main Street for a couple blocks, cross the street, and go up Main Street in the other directions.  I saw John working the line.  He seemed to be doing well for himself.  I also saw the competition finally arriving.  No one else had hit the front of the line.  I felt victorious.  I wanted more.

John and I started leapfrogging each other.  Whenever one of us would stop to make a transaction, the other would walk by until stopped.  When the end of the line was finally reached, we’d cross the street and start over again, trying to get the second-guessers into biting.  I quickly started to enjoy the concept of crowd mentality.  Someone would buy a button or a shirt, someone else would see it and feel compelled to buy something as well.  No one wanted to be the only person without a button, the only person not contributing twenty percent of their money to the Republican National Committee.  That would be unsupportive, un-Republican.  And the only other thing an un-Republican could be was a Democrat, and that would draw the ire of the crowd.  So they bought and kept on buying.

The competition wasn’t a factor – there was more than enough for all of us.  We were running out of buttons, though, and – with Phillip not around – had no means to replace them.  All the popular ones were gone – the Superman, the “Luvya Dubya”, the stock “Bush” with stars above it and stripes below.  But people didn’t know what the popular ones looked like in the first place, so it didn’t really matter.

The only problem we had was that some local group had produced buttons specific to the event.  The President had come to speak at the Golden Lamb – Ohio’s oldest inn and restaurant (1803).  He would be the twelfth president to do so.  There were buttons circulating with a picture of the Golden Lamb superimposed with a picture of Bush, with the name and date of the event along the top and bottom.  Event-specific buttons were always the worst because everyone would want one.  They were normally sold by some well-known local organization – a citizen’s group, veteran’s group, even the local Republican Party office – who would use the button sales to raise money for their organization.  As such, they were usually cheaper, too – removed from the unwritten rule among all the vendors to keep all prices the same.  Even more heinous, some groups would give them away for free.  But they would never make enough to meet the demand, so after a while it would cease to be a problem

“Do you have the Golden Lamb button?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sold out of that one [it was always nice to imply that you sold them in the first place].  I’ve got plenty of other great designs, though.”

“Oh, okay.”

By the time the Secret Service started letting people into the event, the line was saturated.  Everyone who could possibly be hit up for a sale already had a button pinned to them or a shirt hastily put on over their regular clothing, most likely also with a button pinned to it.  I walked over to John and sat with him on the curb.

“That was fun,” he said.

“Yeah – a hell of a lot better than yesterday.”

Relaxing for the first time all day, we took a look at what was around us.

“Nice town,” John said.

And it was.  A perfect small town full of quaint antique stores and family-owned restaurants.  It was one of those towns that I would have never imagined visiting if it wasn’t for the job.  Even if the day had been as bad as the previous, the charm of Lebanon would still have endeared itself to me.

Phillip showed up and saw our thinly-stocked button boards.  He beamed.

“Holy shit – you guy’s rocked!”

Good cheer all around.  John and I wanted to stay and work the blow-off.  The line was saturated, but surely they would want to buy more buttons for their friends and families, especially from such affable and charismatic vendors as ourselves.  With only one car for the four of us, though, it wasn’t possible, so we packed up and headed for Phillip’s truck.

With a little less merchandise than before, it was easier for John and I to sit relatively comfortably in the back.  Mirabel was in the front seat, pouting.  As we departed Lebanon, John and I counted our money.  We sold about the same – $1200 each.  Phillip couldn’t have been happier.  John and I couldn’t have been happier.  Mirabel just kept on pouting.


01 – Niles, Michigan
02 – Kalamazoo, Michigan

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