I couldn’t get into the Xcel Center the other night, so I went to Minneapolis’s Town Talk Diner, famed for its cheese curds, to see how the convention coverage looked from outside the media bubble. Far, far outside.
The Town Talk Diner is on the south side of Minneapolis, close to a Cub Foods, several torta joints, and T’s Place, the only Ethiopian-Singaporean restaurant in Minneapolis, and perhaps the world. The diner’s television, hanging from the ceiling and being roundly ignored, is tuned to CNN; upon my arrival, Ed Henry is interviewing John Tyler Hammons, the nineteen-year-old mayor of Muskogee, Oklahoma:
Henry: What’s it like to attend your first convention?
Hammons: It’s a whirlwind. I have see governors, former presidential candidates, secretaries, senators. And they all want to meet me. They want to take my hand, want to get my autograph. That’s pretty cool.
Henry: So, it’s pretty cool. All right.
Hammons: Oh, it’s amazing.
The bartender, a bearded Tarantino lookalike named Adam, takes my order (cheese curds and a bacon Manhattan) and turns his attention back to a heavyset, sleepy-eyed regular named Ryan, for whom he is mixing a drink composed of rye whiskey and sarsaparilla. “I’ve been working like a maniac, man, sixty-hour weeks,” says the bartender.
“Last night I bought some really expensive rum, two bottles, and just drank the whole thing,” says Ryan.
“Made sure to get the pure cane cola. It was one of those nights.”
On CNN, the John Tyler Hammons interview continues:
Henry: Who’s the one person you haven’t met yet that you really want to meet?
Hammons: Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City. If I can meet him, it would make my dreams come true.
Henry: Well, they used to call him America’s mayor. You’re now the youngest mayor.
Hammons: … mayor.
The Town Talk patrons, for some reason, are indifferent to the details of the John Tyler Hammons Experience. In fact, the only convention news that seems to interest most of the people I’ve met is the news of frequent clashes between protesters and riot cops in downtown St. Paul—a story that has been little reported by the mainstream media.
“There’s, like, weird cops around,” Ryan notes. This is true—I have seen several policemen whose uniforms indicate that they are from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 277 miles from St. Paul.
“We had some riot cops in here for lunch,” says the bartender. ‘Things were getting crazy,’ they said.”
“They broke the window at Macy’s.”
“That’s just not cool. You’re taking money out of your community.”
“A guy I know went to Mickey’s Diner today, and walked right into tear gas. Was on the ground, crying. Awesome kid.”
Having wrung all the news value out of young John Tyler Hammons, Wolf Blitzer is now telling a story about the time he met John McCain’s ninety-six-year-old mother:
It was either the White House Correspondents Association dinner or the Radio and TV Correspondents Association dinner. And we just had a brief chat but I was, you know, certainly blown away by Roberta McCain. And I said to myself, she’s got some spice there. Now we know where John McCain gets some of that spice.
“Is that Wolf Blitzer?” somebody asks.
“One of the CNN headlines was ‘McCain Tapped Palin,” Adam notes. “Hee hee hee hee!”
“No way! Where’d you see that? On the Innernet?”
“And then on Sunday’s paper it was ‘Meet McCain’s number two.”
“Hee hee hee hee. Somebody’s not thinking, man.”
As the Town Talk patrons eat and drink, the exceedingly wealthy members of the CNN panel discuss the issues that matter to Americans: how Sarah Palin will appeal to heartland undecideds; how middle-class voters are in dire need of economic relief; how Americans are demanding reform, and change, and turnabout, and more reform and change. Later, Wolf Blitzer introduces a twenty-three-year-old country musician named Rachael Lampa, who sings an inspirational song entitled “When I Fall”:
When I fall, when I fall, I know will I be landing. When I fall, when I fall, you will still be standing. When I fall, yeah.
Somewhere I’m alone, won’t you take my empty hands. And fill them with your love, won’t you take me as I am.
Behind the bar hangs a black T-shirt picturing a man who resembles the country singer Willie Nelson. “It’s the bar manager, Nick,” confides Adam. “We call him Ranch Garvey. It’s his alter ego. He’s like John Belushi, but smarter.” He holds up a plastic container filled with spare change. “See? It’s Ranch Garvey’s quadruple bypass fund. ‘Cause the dude’s gonna have a heart attack.”
“Two bottles of rum. Me and my buddy,” repeats Ryan, obviously proud of his feat.
“Thank you. It’s such an honor to be here, you guys,” says Rachael Lampa.
“I don’t want to go down [to St. Paul], man, get shot with rubber balls,” says Adam. “I have to work tomorrow. They’ve got me chained to the radiator here. They only let me out to make your drinks.” He winks at the chef, who is walking behind the bar and carrying a plate heaped with fried pickles. The chef pauses momentarily to watch Rachael Lampa, who is singing a second song, entitled “Blessed”:
I may never climb a mountain so I can see the world from there. I may never ride the waves and taste the salty ocean air.
Or build a bridge that would last a hundred years. But no matter where the road leads one thing is always clear.
I am blessed. I am blessed. From when I rise up in the morning till I lay my head to rest. I feel You near me. You soothe me when I’m weary. Oh, Lord, for all the worst and all the best I am blessed.
The chef drops the pickles and heads back to the kitchen. “The voice of America, man,” he says, walking away. “The voice of America.”Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.