Arriving at the DNC

Election '04

Unlike Washington, Boston is not a converted malarial swamp. Yet tonight it feels similar. Clothes stick; the heat is damp; the riverbanks are green and lush; and the evening emits a faint buzz. Even the breeze over the Charles River has the slight chill of an oncoming fever. Because soon they'll be here: 5,000 delegates and three times as many journalists, and at their flanks an army of DNC volunteers, party hacks, party flacks, celebrities, strategists, logistics teams, and heavy security details – together turning the city into a frenzy of political celebration and speculation.

On Thursday, the visitors were still arriving in a trickle. Only a few Kerry buttons were on display at the bar at the Sheraton, where even a couple rooms were still open. "By Saturday afternoon I expect bedlam," said a porter at the Back Bay Hilton just up the way when I ducked in there looking for a bar. This weekend, the airports and train stations will fill with incoming conventioneers. The galas will start. The satellite trucks will multiply. As will the number of notable persons on the streets. It will be impossible to find a place to stay, unless you don't mind paying $1,800 a night for the Omni Park Hotel or lodging for cheap in southern New Hampshire.

A shortage of rooms, it turns out, is one of the reasons Boston has never hosted a national party convention. Whereas New York and Chicago are both financial centers with the infrastructure to house plenty of visitors, Boston only caught up enough during the commercial boom of the last decade and a half to bid for the DNC. Until the middle of last century, Boston also would have been a poor geographic choice. Chicago has seen more conventions than any other city because it's in the center of the country, and it was convenient for all the delegations to meet there by rail. That traveling was part of the tradition; New York's three trains would all come steaming into the station together, flags-a-waving. So in addition to summoning entire party leadership annually, the time en route helped people get to know each other.

In 2004, California's delegation to the DNC will make a much easier trip on many more than three planes, but they'll stay together at the Westin Copley Place. Not surprisingly, the hotels' quality tends to confirm the pecking order of their patrons. New York will be at a nearby tony address in the Prudential Center complex. Montana's delegation will be put up at Northeastern University's dorms, alongside many convention volunteers, while Kerry's campaign people are at the Sheraton, the nicest Sheraton, I might note, that I have ever seen. But there are exceptions. Little tiny Hawaii is at the quite respectable Marriott. And Kucinich, yet again, managed to buck the system; he will stay alongside Kerry's crew at the Sheraton when he arrives Saturday.

My situation is not one of these exceptions. Best Western is where the alternative presses and literary journals and other "special media" wind up. The Village Voice, I understand, has a house somewhere, which sounded pretty good, until a friend staying there said he had to be sure to track down an air mattress for himself. I have a room at a place called the Chandler Inn, but the reservation begins on Sunday. The Chandler Inn is no prize – the management, in a feat of euphemism, refers to its two-star converted flop-house establishment as a place of "European style" charm – but it sure beats the place I stayed my first night.

After an arrangement to crash at a friend's fell through, I had to resort, at the last minute, to the temporary/sublet section of Craig's List. It was there that I saw this posting:

"1 B/R, Hot Tub on Roof, overlooking Back Bay, for DNC, cheap!"

Seemed reasonable. Enticing even. As a lover of hot tubs, I had packed swim trunks and was sold on that point alone. Except that I didn't realize until I had walked all my stuff across Harvard bridge that it was a frat house. Nestled between the stately and quaint historic riverfront buildings of MIT was the squat, ugly, brick habitat of the university's Alpha Tau Epsilon chapter. I almost turned around, but Steve Elliott, who I've traveled with on the campaign and who is also in Boston, convinced me to give it a try.

"How bad could it be?" he said. "It's probably not, like, a typical fraternity. I bet it's more like Real Genius." He painted a picture of early Bill Gates types, misunderstood visionaries, soldering motherboards and ham radio components together and listening to Thin Lizzie. "It's probably a technical fraternity or something. You know, like they're all into electrical engineering."

I didn't think it was possible to sink lower than the EconoLodge in Manchester, but I had not yet experienced the reality inside the ATE house. The place was a nightmare of dereliction that exists only in shooting galleries, crack dens, and modern fraternity dwellings. There were no lovable nerds customizing computers – just jocks wallowing in filth. In addition to the usual underwear tacked to doors and lame stickers, the squalid rooms stank like mold. There was trash everywhere, and rotting food in piles. No one had bothered to scrape the years of hardened snot off the walls. Walking into the bathroom I saw, in this order:

1. Used Q-Tips on the floor
2. A note in the sink that said: DON'T USE SINK!
3. One grimy gym shoe
4. A stopped up shower full of brown water
5. Medicated dandruff shampoo

Almost more surprising than the scene itself was the realization that there is a contingent of full-force knuckleheads at MIT, just like in the rest of the world. Bernie, the guy showing us around, was nice enough, if somewhat delusional about his talents as a concierge. But he wasn't someone I'd ever imagined belonging to the MIT student body. He was beefy. He clearly lifted weights. He was not only acting as if the rat's nest he lived in was normal; he expected me to pay to stay there.

Steve's theory about all this, developed when Bernie left us alone for a minute, was that in any given slice of the population, the composition of people is identical. There will always be a certain percentage of smart people, a certain percentage of beautiful people, a certain percentage of soiled jocks, and so on; and the percentages for each category don't change with the geography. They're same everywhere, even at a place like MIT. I noted to Steve that MIT must be rubbing off him already, because he had just articulated a sociological version of the principle of self-similarity. That's the mathematical concept from fractals and complexity theory that Benoit Mandelbrot liked to illustrate on TV by breaking off a small shoot from a large piece of cauliflower and demonstrating that if you zoom in on that little piece of cauliflower, it looks indistinguishable from the big piece from which it came.

"Hmmm," was his response.

The tour continued to other floors. Each was more post-apocalyptic than the last. As we stepped into the dimly lit, top-most hall, I half expected to see a huddle of wild-eyed people in rags fighting over a chicken bone. I leaned over to Steve and said, "It looks like they're getting ready to film 29 Days Later in here."

There was in fact a hot tub on the roof, but it was padlocked, and no one knew the combination. Back down stairs, the room designated to be mine was one of many that go empty during the summer. The ATE leadership had hoped to exploit them for a little cash during the convention. I appeared to be the only person retarded enough to respond to their ad. I stayed that night, so as to not have to pick my bag up and take it somewhere else.

I couldn't sleep, though, mostly because bad music has been reverberating through the cinder block from the adjacent Kappa Delta house until 3:30 am. I went to the window for a while, at first to track down which jackass was the one who couldn't get enough P.O.D. at this hour. Across the street is the river, and across that, Boston. Nice view at least. From here, the entire city is in sight, starting with the distant silhouette of downtown, where someone soon will have to fill a contraption in the ceiling of the Fleet Center with two million balloons. A little closer is the John Hancock tower, and then the lights of the Prudential complex, where the cluster of hotels stand waiting for their guests.

To read all dispatches – large and small – as they're posted, go here.

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