The Republican National Convention transformed my hometown into a replica of a very memorable trip I took to New York City two years ago. Over the last week, the term “southern hospitality” vanished. Taxis, private vans and buses, the predators of the roads, took control of transit, as people from all over the country stayed in Tampa for that week.
Driving for The Wall Street Journal is a job I signed up for last week, and I have to say that by the last day of the convention I knew how to maneuver a Dodge Grand Caravan with ease. Apparently, everyone else obtained this ability too, along with a New York City driver’s attitude.
Before the convention, I would gladly let other drivers pull out in front of me from side roads; I would even wave them ahead of me. On day two of the convention, they were lucky if I used my blinker to warn them before I cut in front of them. It was nothing personal, but I realized no one cared to give me an open space on the road, so why should I? Pedestrians forgot the term “jaywalking;” they crossed the road in the quickest way possible even if it meant weaving in and out of traffic.
It has been said the life of a New Yorker is fast-paced; they have no time for chit-chat and “good mornings.” I guess Tampa residents were in the same boat last week with the RNC, potential of Hurricane Isaac and the beginning of classes for students. Vendors waited outside of the convention center selling Mitt Romney and Ron Paul buttons. A woman with a pin that read “delegate” stopped to take a look at the buttons. A group of reporters circled around her getting shots from every angle. Who’s this? I questioned to myself. I saw another pin that said “No más Obama.” She was talking in Spanish to the vendor explaining that today’s Hispanic youths are ignorant of their own language.
“Por favor, puedo tomar un foto de todos ustedes juntos? (Can I take a picture of all of you together?)” I asked her. “Vengan aqui, ella quiere un foto (Come here, she wants a photo),” she yelled to her company.
As I took her picture she explained, switching between Spanish and English, that she, Dianne Costa, was the mayor of Highland Village, Texas. She said she leads her city with strength and will not be bullied. She ended her talk with the vender, looked at the crowd that gathered around her and exclaimed, “In Texas, if you break the law we shoot you!” The fascination I found on the streets followed me inside the convention center. I had the privilege of visiting the workspace of The Wall Street Journal. It was much more advanced than a simple laptop and a reporter at a desk. Ballroom A was a second home for members of the journal. They had all they needed at their fingertips. Long blue cables ran across the floor to provide access to a necessary wireless connection. Every desk was equipped with a handy landline to make interviews possible and efficient.
I expected journalists from The Wall Street Journal to be “too cool” to talk to me, but my experience this past week has taught me the exact opposite. They actually gave me a pass to get onto the delegates’ floor. I felt like a kid visiting Disney World. After all, how many times does a media event like the RNC come to your own town? I took a walk with Dave Dolinger from the tech crew to get an inside look at the arena. This is the Tampa Bay Times Forum? I thought to myself. Pictures of Mitt Romney and a plastic elephant in a Tampa Bay Lightning jersey were a few of the Republican memorabilia inside. What a transformation! “There’s a Republican gift shop too,” he laughed. “I went inside and asked the cashier, so what are the Democrats supposed to buy?” Sure enough the moment we split ways he saw someone famous. I went back to The Wall Street Journal workspace while he double checked all equipment in the arena. When he came back he showed me a picture he had just taken with a man that looked familiar to me.
“Who’s this?” he asked. Could it be Angelina’s Jolie’s dad? “He looks like a famous actor I know,” I said.
Sure enough, Jon Voight was at the convention center. I gotta check this out, I thought. He was supposed to be in the Google room. I walked from one side of the convention center to the other with no luck. One more lap around the convention center and … there he was. Oh man! The camera was off; how was I going to get a picture? I looked up at him, disappointed I would not get my camera on in time, and he smiled as he walked by, in the middle of a conversation. That was a famous encounter one could only expect in Hollywood or New York City, and I had it here in my backyard.
Laughs in the car helped ease the stress of the hustle and bustle downtown. I had the privilege to ride with the Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Gerard Baker, and the Bureau Chief, Jerry Seib. The assistant to the Bureau Chief, Jude Marfil, asked me on Thursday, the last day of the convention, if I was able to go back to the delegates’ floor. “No, I had to work on my protester piece, so I didn’t have time,” I said. “Oh, you write?” asked Seib. “Yeah, I’m writing for my university paper. I asked one girl what she was protesting and she said blisters,” I replied. “So, what’s your position on, blisters?” laughed Baker.
I was excited I got to talk to these two gentlemen about my position on my university paper and I was even more excited that they seemed to be genuinely interested in it. I was afraid after his first experience in the car with me that Baker wouldn’t want to have me as his driver. You see, I picked him up from the airport and instead of going north on I-275 toward the convention, I took I-275 south across the Bay to St. Petersburg. I’m pretty sure I made him late for his dinner meeting. I apologized the way over the bridge and back. No one would ever refer to Tampa as the Big Apple. Tampa’s too small to be compared to New York City. With the RNC in town it was a completely different atmosphere. I questioned many times whether I was really at home or in the heart of that big city I visited two years ago.
Kelly St. Onge can be reached at email@example.com.