Extended ramblings about my time as a seller of campaign buttons at political rallies in 2004. Today’s very special post occurred exactly eight years ago today – it takes place in Minneapolis, Minnesota (and St. Paul). Future posts will occur once a week, usually on Mondays or Tuesdays. An introduction to the series can be read here. Links to earlier posts can be found below. Unless otherwise indicated, all photos in these posts were taken by me at the time of the events described. If you have any questions about this series, feel free to leave a comment or contact me at email@example.com.
The news reached us as Mirabel and I returned to our motel after an afternoon spent in the Dinkeytown area of Minneapolis, next to the university. With plenty of free time prior to an evening John Kerry fundraiser in St Paul, we chose to hang out in Dinkytown because it let each of us do something we really wanted: Mirabel was able to get her hair done at a salon in the area; I got over an hour to myself while Mirabel was at the salon. Both of us couldn’t be happier.
But now Reagan was dead. What a piece of shit – couldn’t even wait until after the election. They could have at least held off on announcing his death until after the election – it’s not like anyone would have noticed.
His death meant that – out of respect – both Bush and Kerry would suspend their campaigning until after Reagan’s funeral, which wouldn’t be until Friday. It was currently Saturday. We’d be without work – without a chance to make any money – for a week.
What a piece of shit.
* * * * * * * *
We had arrived in Minneapolis two days earlier, driving in after an unsuccessful George Bush event at the Harry Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri (it was on federal property, which they would never let us sell on, so we tried to sell from a distant parking lot, which didn’t go well at all). Phillip zoomed up Interstate 35 in his truck, accompanied by a perpetually-stoned-looking fella named Aaron who I had only met briefly at Phillip’s apartment a couple days earlier. Mirabel and I were still traveling together in a rental car. At one point during our drive, she started crying.
“I just don’t know where I stand with you.”
Given that we had been working together for a month – a month in which I never expressed any interest in her (because I didn’t have any interest in her) – I had no idea what she was talking about. I could deal with Phillip and his many manic eccentricities. Mirabel was another story – at that point, the only thing that still left me doubting whether I could keep selling buttons throughout the entire election was the fact that I didn’t know how much longer I could tolerate Mirabel.
“Oh, stop,” I said, and said nothing more, leaving her to her quiet sobs while I searched the AM and FM stations for a hockey game.
The four of us would be sharing two rooms at a Motel 6 in Roseville, slightly northeast from Minneapolis. We were coming to town to work a John Kerry rally at the University Of Minnesota, followed by the St Paul fundraiser the next day. Our fellow competing vendors were in town for the same thing – two of them ended up staying at the same Motel 6 as us.
Phillip had always told us to stay away from the competition – to treat them like enemies because they were just trying to find out where we’d be going next. We were all in the same boat, though – all of us chose to wander the country for months at a time, suspending our lives in order to make easy money selling useless crap – so it was hard to follow through on Phillip’s edict, even for Phillip. For one thing, it was just nice to find others to talk shop with – share stories, brag about the really profitable events, and bitch about local cops at events who’d bug us about stupid things like having permits. For another thing, we were all narcissists with varying degrees of drug and alcohol problems – combining forces for off-the-clock camaraderie guaranteed an extra crazy time.
There was a sports bar next to the Motel 6 – the four of us, plus the 2 competing vendors met up there for a very long evening of stories, chicken wings, cigarettes, and a shitload of beer. By the end of the night, Aaron and I were stumbling back to our motel rooms. The other vendors left with Phillip to try and find a nearby strip club. Mirabel had started a conversation with a guy sitting at the table next to ours – she ended up disappearing with him. This made me very happy – it meant I’d most likely have the motel room all to myself and wouldn’t have to deal with another night of Mirabel asking me why I didn’t find her attractive.
Our rooms were side-by-side, with a door that let us go between the two. We entered through Phillip and Aaron’s room because Mirabel had taken her and I’s room key with her to the great unknown of a Minnesota bedroom or backseat or whatever. Before heading over into my room, I watched Aaron slowly empty out the contents of his pockets onto the desk. For some reason, he had been carrying a pack of the John Kerry playing cards with him since Independence. That went on the desk, along with his wallet, his cell phone, a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, an empty container of Tic Tacs, a small rock, and some cash and coins.
“Where’s your camera?” he asked me, his eyes turned towards the detritus on the desk.
“It’s in my room.”
“Take a picture of this. Please.”
I went over to my room and grabbed my camera. He moved over so that I could stand in front of the desk and adjust the aperture and focus of the camera.
“Look at it,” he said while I snapped the picture, “that’s the life of a button vendor. That’s what I’ve let my life become. I live with a girlfriend that I love very much, and . . . and here I am, in Minneapolis, drunk as fuck, trying to make a living selling buttons, T-shirts, and these stupid playing cards. I’ve chosen this. You’ve chosen this. Why the fuck did we choose this?”
I didn’t respond. We both kept standing by the desk, looking down, until curiosity finally got the best of me.
“What’s up with the rock?”
“I – I don’t know.”
* * * * * * * *
The following afternoon’s rally at the university went well for all of us, including our competitors. We ended up with the monetary edge, though, because Phillip had sweet-talked one of the Kerry staffers to let us sell inside the event, while the competition remained outside. That was especially nice because it allowed all of our hungover asses to get out of the bright sunlight and into the more-welcoming, air-conditioned confines of the UM Sports Pavilion.
Mirabel showed up at the motel just before we left for the rally. She didn’t say anything about where she spent her evening. Though she was clearly anticipating it, none of us cared enough to ask.
There were 24 hours until the Kerry fundraiser in St. Paul. Since it was just across the river, we had a rare opportunity to use our free time for something other than driving for hours to get to the next event. Aaron and I decided to catch a Minnesota Twins game. Phillip, Mirabel, and our vendor pals thought it was good idea, but wanted to find some place to get drinks first. They would eventually show up around the third inning of the game, spend more time at the concession stand getting beer than watching the game, then leave in the seventh inning after deciding they were bored and wanted to go back to the sports bar by the motel. Aaron and I stuck around for the whole game. We were quickly becoming good friends – my only other partner in relative sanity.
I once again had the room to myself for the evening. Less drunk than the night before, I slept soundly after giving a special bedside thanks to whichever guy or guys had low enough self-esteem to fuck Mirabel and keep her away from the Motel 6. Aaron likely slept soundly, too, until around 4 in the morning, when a massively-drunk Phillip started pounding on the door. After being let in by Aaron, he proceeded to puke all over his bed before moving over to the bathroom and doing the same there.
* * * * * * * * *
So Reagan was dead, Mirabel had a new hairstyle, and our plans for the next week were fucked. After hearing the news, Phillip and Aaron headed back to St. Louis to briefly resume their normal lives, leaving Mirabel and I to work the fundraiser in St. Paul. Because of the whole no-campaigning-til-after-the-funeral bullshit, though, Kerry skipped out. The headline slot was taken over by James Carville, who proceeded to piss off the people who forked over a good amount of cash to attend by talking for less than 10 minutes before skipping out (I still managed to get a handshake out of him, though). Because they were pissed, they weren’t buying, so the event was a waste.
The fundraiser was being held in a nice hotel with a lobby bar, so it at least offered me a venue where I could get some drinks after the event while watching Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Calgary Flames and my hometown Tampa Bay Lightning (which Tampa happily won in the second overtime). It also gave Mirabel and her new haircut the opportunity to meet yet another man. When the hockey game was over, we drove to the Motel 6 in Roseville. After I got out of the rental car, she wished me a good night, and headed back over to St. Paul. Once again, I had a lovely evening by myself.
Two days later, I was back in Phillip’s St. Louis apartment, watching CNN’s broadcast of a hearse transporting Reagan’s body to his presidential library in Simi Valley, California. Whatever road the hearse was on featured many overpasses. Each overpass was crowded with hundreds of people.
“Goddammit,” Phillip said after each overpass came into view, “we should have gone there. I could’ve had buttons ready by then. And T-shirts. I could’ve had one guy at each of those overpasses, making a killing. Hell, I could’ve gone and bought a pallet of bottled water and made a bundle just selling that. That would have salvaged our week. Goddammit.”
During a lull in the cursing about the popularity of the funeral procession, I asked Phillip how he thought I was doing.
“You’re a bit quiet,” he started, “but otherwise, you’re doing great. If you were just a little bit more vocal, you’d probably be my number one man.”
“Thanks, Phillip. I’ll try to work on it.”
“That’s what I like to here.” He extended his fist at me. I bumped it.
It was time to get to the point. “When do ya think I can go out on my own – have my own crew?”
“You sick of Mirabel?” he inferred correctly. “Yeah, me too. I don’t know what to do with that girl. She’s a mess.”
The hearse winded it’s way up the path that led to the entrance of the presidential library, removed from overpasses and distractions from our conversation. Phillip reached over to the coffeetable and grabbed a lighter and his one-hitter.
“How about,” he said as he put the one-hitter to his mouth, “I put you and Aaron together. He’s still a little raw – could use some seasoning. I’ll figure out what to do with Mirabel later.”
“That would be terrific.”
Phillip lit up the one-hitter, took a drag, and passed it over to me so I could inhale what was left. Ronald Reagan’s flag-draped cofffin was carried by a military honor guard into the lobby of the presidential library, where it would lie in repose before being shipped over to Washington for a couple more days of ceremonies and mourning.
I never saw Mirabel again.