Jer-ry! Jer-ry!

Democratic Extravaganza

When John Kerry stumped in West Palm Beach last week, the pro-Bush sign-wavers were out. One young couple jiggled a banner that read "Florida Is Bush Country" beside the life-sized bronze elephants that freeze-frolic in the median of Okeechobee Boulevard. And a man in a white cowboy hat demanded that passersby "Dump Dan Rather now!"

But inside the Palm Beach Convention Center, at a lectern planted in the middle of hundreds of dignitaries and hoi polloi alike, Democratic attack dogs were revving up with fully matured tirades, including this statement from State Sen. Ron Klein: "We know Republicans have a deeeevious plan. They want to intimidate our voters."

Then the candidate bounded into the room, and the crowd welcomed him with a chant of "KER-RY! KER-RY!" that sounded eerily like the opening moments of The Jerry Springer Show. Ol' Ironcheeks, with a throat infection, could barely speak above a seductive whisper. "George Bush has a real problem with the truth," he murmured. The crowd responded like a Greek chorus. Shouts of "Liar! Liar!" rained down, followed by widespread shushing.

As the candidate worked the joint with his patented stump speech, the auditorium became a frothy sea of Bush bile. At the back, Melinda Clark of West Palm Beach bounced and hollered Beatlemaniacally in a homemade T-shirt with "Women for Kerry" written in red marker on the front. She had whipped up the shirt, she said, because the authorities at CityPlace, across the street, wouldn't let her hold a sign. "Women are the best weapons we have," she said during the Q&A, demanding that 50 percent of the cabinet be women. Hey, don't worry, Kerry replied. Les femmes will be represented.

The press was mostly unimpressed. The traveling media, reporters from larger newsgathering organizations who could afford to send their scribes on the road, remained in a partitioned bunker, out of view of the speakers or the crowd, tack-tack-tacking at laptops atop white-clothed tables, checking their Hotmail accounts while -- yaaaaawwwn -- elected officials waxed wary about democracy. Sheesh. How many times are you supposed to listen to the very same speeches?

After the rally, a wax-skinned, 88-year-old, Boca Raton man named Matt Klasfeld lingered. His main gripe against the incumbent president? "He's killing kids every day," Klasfeld said. His T-shirt too was ammunition for his walk outside, past the anti-abortion protesters and the retirees brandishing cardboard flip-flops. It read, in white block letters on a black background: "BUCK FUSH." Go Ahead. Inhale.

Speaking of voting: As Tailpipe trudged along Fort Lauderdale Beach on a recent weekend, encouraging people to register, a shirtless, muscular, scraggly haired Brazilian fellow asked, "Can you smoke pot and still become president?" The 'Pipe recalled leaders current and recent and offered that, yeah, in this great country, you can smoke a heaping grocery sack of bud or snort snow off a high school cheerleader's bare midriff, just so long as you keep your fool mouth shut about it.

At that, the man draped a purple bath towel over his head and sparked a bowl underneath, content that he wasn't sabotaging his ambitions. Mum's the word. In the 2020 or 2024 presidential sweepstakes, look for a bristly, heavy-lidded Brazilian to throw his hat into the ring.

Turtle-ocracy

Sea turtle eggs aren't the only thing buried on the shores of Hillsboro Beach. The town's commissioners have buried their heads there too. While virtually every other coastline town in Florida has complied with federal regulations and approved ordinances restricting lights on beaches, which disorient the endangered hatchlings as they make their way to the sea, the leaders of this small, northern Broward burg won't budge. During a recent commission meeting, a concerned resident proposed, once again, that the city get legal by adopting an ordinance. "Too much government is not good," intoned Mayor Howard "Chuck" Sussman. Hizzoner has no qualms, however, about accepting government cash for hurricane cleanup and for replenishing beach sand beside private homes and businesses along the sea.

"We love our turtles," Sussman professed. "We love our residents. But people pay taxes and own property; turtles don't. These are people who've paid a fortune to have beach access." That includes the mayor himself. "I have 100 feet of windows facing the beach," he said. "It would cost me $20,000 to cover them."

Meghan Conti, a sea turtle expert with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, suggested that sooner or later, federal or county officials would enforce the rules if the town doesn't.

"Let the feds come and enforce them," sneered Vice Mayor Richard McCarty. A Ton of Bricks Awaits Us

So you were expecting the general election to run flawlessly in South Florida, eh? A little word from the lawyers who monitor these sorts of things: Prepare to wince.

"Florida's always a worst-case scenario," said Cara Fineman of Boston, a staff attorney with the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "And not much has changed since [2000]."

Fineman spent August 31 in the tenth-floor, downtown Fort Lauderdale offices of Gordon, Hargrove, and James, in a conference room about the size of a Dodge Neon (an auto this tube is particularly fond of), where data lines dropped like stalactites from the ceiling down to laptops. She and other lawyers fielded about 90 calls of complaint from roving volunteers and disgruntled voters at ten of Broward's 769 precincts.

Hardly bedlam, but as Elliott Mincberg, legal director of the People for the American Way Foundation, put it, "We have some concerns." The biggest problems involved perpetual crashes on the supervisor of elections website -- leaving voters without an online source of information about polling places -- and poll workers incorrectly turning away voters without IDs. For Florida voters, here's the rub. Monday, October 4, is the deadline for registration (forms available at election.dos.state.fl.us). By now, the swamped elections office probably won't have time to mail you a voter registration card. Show up at your precinct on November 2 and you should have no problem.

And hey, bring your photo ID when you vote. Though it's required only if you're a first-timer who registered by mail and hasn't previously shown a self-portrait, they may demand it anyway. "There's going to be voter intimidation," Fineman predicts. Election problems will be different from 2000, she said, but "in terms of the level of problems, it's going to be the same." Anyone hassles you on November 2? Call volunteers at the voter protection hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE.

This all gives the 'Pipe a case of the shudders, and not just because he's dangling from a chassis by a coat hanger.

Jeanne the Bitch

Sunday afternoon, a day after Hurricane Jeanne blew through West Palm Beach, not even Covasia Richards straightforward sales pitch could entice the johns. As cars slowed along a sketchy stretch of U.S. 1 aptly named Broadway, a strip that used to pop for hookers like a pinball machine, Richards lifted a long T-shirt, his only item of clothing, to reveal that his package was neatly taped between his legs. “I’m waiting for them, but business is slow today.” Out of boredom, he twirled the ends of a long wig that hung past a chin of two-day stubble. “I’m waiting for them FPL men to get horny. You know, they’re working hard, and them boys need some fun.”

That Jeanne. She was one big troublemaker, throwing a huge wet blanket over the usual ka-ching ka-ching of commerce everywhere. For many, with no prospect for an infusion of FEMA funds, there was nothing to do but swallow their losses.

A few blocks south, on the corner of 16th Street, a 23-year-old working girl who goes by the name Sierra also complained that the emergency workers get too busy to stop. “They just don’t take time out of their day,” she protested. Sierra had spent a lonely morning standing in the rain, her blond hair plastered down her neck and her knees covered in scabs from a recent fall. She had no money to show for her morning on the corner, and she said the bad business was likely to continue. “A lot of guys are working, you know, on shutters and stuff, and they’re just not stopping by to talk.”

Nearby, Michelle pondered a day without a fix. “I’m a drug addict. That’s why I’m here,” explained the 33-year-old, who wore a tattered sundress. “I’ve been here for an hour and nothing, and that means nothing for me. Usually, it takes 15 minutes.” She talked longingly about the previous couple of days, when the rain brought out the boys. “I don’t know why, but I guess the rain makes them horny.

“Anyway, you’ll have to let me get back,” Michelle said, giving Tailpipe the brushoff. Seconds later, a white pickup pulled up to, um, talk. It was good to see business returning.

-- As told to Edmund Newton

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