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Wednesday, 03 September 2008

I Wish Someone Would Phone

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Please remember to vote for the August Excellence in Storytelling Award. The nominees are in the right sidebar. Voting remains open until midnight Sunday, 7 September.]

By Daisy of Daisy's Dead Air

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, I sat with a bunch of scruffy anarchists in a bleak motel room waiting for a phone call, any phone call. No cell phones then. This was the summer of 1980, in Detroit, Michigan, during the Republican Convention that nominated Ronald Reagan. I don't remember the name or location of the motel, but it was cheap and seedy, one of those that rented by the hour.

I peeped out the door, and there was an unmarked car with some sort of unmarked law enforcement inside. They looked bored and always seemed to be eating sandwiches. Whenever we opened the door, they looked up and started talking about us. Sometimes, they'd even wave.

Local? Federal? Oh, Jesus Christ. They scared me to death.

"It's an intimidation tactic," announced Froggy, one of my co-activists. Is it my imagination he went out to talk to them, Abbie Hoffman style? "What are you guys doing? Having a good day?"

At this apocalyptic juncture, numerous counter-demonstrators whose full, legal names we realized we didn't even know (and thus, couldn't bail out) had been arrested in front of the Renaissance Center for demonstrating overnight. The rest of us had the good fortune to be asleep in cars or on the Yippie bus that had traveled from New York City.

Our fearless leaders were gone and we were in a panic. We had no money and no dope, as in the infamous Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic. How were we going to pay for the motel?

Did those unmarked cops know about all of this? Should we ask them if they know? They might know more than we do. Go ask them! No, you go ask! I'm not talking to cops! Many rounds of rock, paper, scissors ensued to determine who should talk to the cops. In the end, no one did.

We felt like ants after you pour hot water on the anthill, scurrying about not knowing what to do. Law enforcement had effectively poured hot water on us. We joked that it was just like the David Bowie song, Panic in Detroit:

The only survivor of the National People's Gang
Panic in Detroit
I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home
I wish someone would phone

After many rounds of arguing, fussing with the ancient TV that contained no news, smoking the last of the reefer and eating the last of the Cheetos, we all slept. About a dozen people total, and significant overflow onto the floor, even someone sleeping in the bathtub.

About 4AM, a knock. Several of us jolted awake immediately. Staring at each other wide-eyed in the dark, it was decided that I should answer the door. Daisy will answer it. It was decided I looked "the most innocent.” One of the other activists proclaimed I looked like Samantha on Bewitched and consequently, they would never arrest me, just because. (And you know, they never did.)

Channeling Samantha (who I remembered was always covering up for some wild shit when she answered the door too), I opened the door. A Republican with a short buzz cut was standing there, wearing a shirt with one of those trademark GOP elephants on it. The shirt bore the Detroit Chamber of Commerce slogan for the convention: Detroit loves a Good Party!

I stiffened; who is this asshole?

He grinned at me.

It was STEVE CONLIFF! FEARLESS LEADER! He was passing for a Republican! I screamed.

He shushed me and ducked inside. I was thrilled he was not in jail, but shocked at the transformation and his short hair; it was as extreme and as shocking as if Jerry Garcia had suddenly shaved his head. (Simultaneously, I thought, what a great disguise, even I didn't recognize him.)

He pulled up a chair and began rolling a joint as two other people woke up, clambering off the floor. One glared at him. Someone whined, as if on cue, "Where the hell is Conliff? I thought it would be CONLIFF!" They sneered at the Republican, "Who is THAT???!!!"

"Yeah!" he said, lighting the joint, "Where IS Conliff, anyway?" It was his sweet grin that gave him away. Someone turned on the lights.

"Oh my God!" said one woman, "What have you DONE?!" and started to cry.

"Screaming, crying, Jesus Christ!" he puffed, satisfied. "As long as you didn't recognize me!" He grinned again.

A very young yippie marveled at the transformation, "That is fucking amazing, man!"

It was. Why had he done it? Because he wanted to go onto the convention floor, hang out with delegates at Hotel Pontchartrain, drink at the local discos. He wanted to infiltrate. And he had done that.

And for the next few hours, Steve Conliff regaled us with his stories of the day.

He had eaten lunch and dinner with hip Republicans, the kind who wore T-shirts instead of suits, snorted ultra-pricey coke and partied. He had shared scotch-and-water with them in local bars and listened carefully. And he told us: They are tired of Jimmy Carter, tired of global "appeasement." They hate minorities. They hate women getting abortions and deciding they can leave husbands any time they want to. They think we are a bunch of queers. (Back then, "queer" was still fightin’ words, and he paused to apologize to the gay, male hippie-couple in the room, then still sprawled on the floor. They both shrugged simultaneously, one still gaping at Conliff's hair, or lack of it.)

They are taking over, he announced. Ronald Reagan is the next president.

Somebody grunted from the corner, “But Carter is an INCUMBENT!”

“Gerald Ford was an incumbent too,” Conliff reminded them.

“Gerald Ford wasn't ELECTED!” argued the voice from the corner.

“Gerald Ford didn't have to deal with Iranian hostages!” Conliff snapped. "These Republicans intend to take over the fucking world. They don't care how long it takes them. Carter is just a blip, a detour, a pause in their program. They are in it for the long, goddamned haul!"

At the time, this all sounded incredible, like believing Dr. Strangelove was real.

"They want control of the whole Middle East," he said. "They don't care how long it takes them to get it. They are determined, more determined than we are. They WILL get it."

And the room was quiet. President Ronald Reagan?! Is that really going to happen? THIS BAD ACTOR IS GOING TO BE PRESIDENT?!?! Conliff's Republican infiltration had left him unshaken in his convictions and utterly certain: Yes, Reagan.

And then he added: Two terms.

"He'll die first, he's old," snorted the skeptic in the corner, the eternal optimist.

"Then they will prop his ass up like on that old Star Trek episode, and make it look like he is still talking!" Everyone laughed, but it was that uneasy, weird, scared, nervous laughter. Conliff's certainty was frightening, as well as depressing. Was he right? If so, what were we doing here? We were making no difference at all.

~ ~ ~

He laughed at accidental sirens
that broke the evening gloom
The police had warned of repercussions
They followed none too soon
A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive
Panic in Detroit
I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home
I wish someone would phone

My political mentor, Steve Conliff, was virtually always right in his political prognostications. And so, when he first explained to me what strategic voting was, I followed his advice.

“Always vote for the most liberal Republican in the primary, to draw the GOP to the left,” he said. “In the general election, vote your conscience.” I have taken his advice ever since. The man who told us the future, sitting in a bleak motel room, deserved to be listened to, his philosophy followed. He was right, after all.

And I never forgot that he was right.

And so, right-wing fruitcake or not, I will vote for the Libertarian, antiwar candidate, Ron Paul, in the South Carolina GOP primary on Saturday. I won't cut my hair or buy elephant shirts; I'm sure I'll be relatively easy to spot at the polls. They will look at me and know.

But if there is any other way we can stop them from taking over the Middle East, I am listening. I'm open to suggestions, as I was that night in Detroit, so long ago.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


"... uneasy, weird, scared, nervous..."--great evocation of another time. But, wait, it's not so other-timey, is it? Republicans still scare me, and they are half the country, it seems.

It is time for America to wake up. Your story is great and gives the background to the way the Republican machine operates. The same bad actors who were pulling Reagan's strings are pulling Bush's. All of Rove's strategies were geared to a permanent take over of the government by his party. They almost succeeded and it's scary.

It is time for America to wake up. Your story is great and gives the background to the way the Republican machine operates. The same bad actors who were pulling Reagan's strings are pulling Bush's. All of Rove's strategies were geared to a permanent take over of the government by his party. They almost succeeded and it's scary.

It is the same day over again. Loved your story! Those days really aren't that different from the mess of today -- well, maybe a little less long hair, but the same lousy politicians.

Keeping two opposing ideas in my head at the same time has always been a challenge for me, and this piece really sretched that ability.
God(If there is one)Bless America where activist too can have their say.

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