The Third Candidate
THE WEEKS DRAGGED BY IN ORDERED BEWILDERMANT. John had embraced the martyrdom of the third candidate, religiously maintaining the lethargy of his unbending schedule. There was training in the morning, mostly memorizing speeches; hand shaking in the afternoon, construction sites and shopping centers; and fund raising parties in the evening. The social affairs were most often at John’s apartment, but sometimes at other very stylish locations, residences that made his own highly-adorned space appear downright shabby. What the candidate overheard at these gatherings made him aware that a steady flow of generous donations had been pouring into his campaign. When John asked how much money they had taken in R.A. told him: “It’s not your damn worry, just keep on doing what you’re supposed to do, and we’ll keep up our end of it.”
After some quick calculations John came to the realization that the amount of money they were paying him, and for the apartment and car, which in the beginning had seemed like such an enormous amount, was insignificant when compared to the money they were apparently spending on the rest of the campaign: for the staff, the headquarters, the van, radio and TV spots, newspaper ads, and whatever else. He suspected, however, that despite all these expenses, with the money they were pulling in “the corporation” was probably even making a nice profit for themselves, in addition to whatever the incumbent was paying them to provide their third candidate spoiler.
John had never considered what a big industry politics really was, and how many people made a living at it working as fund raisers, speech writers, campaign managers, lobbyists, and so forth, all supposedly dedicated, but more than eager to move to a different camp for a better price. He had often wondered why a person would spend millions of dollars to win a seat in congress that only paid $167,000 per year. Now he realized that a lot of the money donated to a candidate’s campaign fund had a way of mysteriously disappearing into other bank accounts. Wasn’t political office supposed to be a part-time occupation? He had read that the framers of the Constitution went back to their farms and businesses after the meetings were over. Now the members of congress apparently spent most of their term running for a subsequent term. While he considered it strange, John had no contact with the rest of his campaign organization. He dealt only with R. A., Manders, the doorman, and three or four other goons whose main purpose seemed to be to run the odd errand now and then, and serve as sort of de facto body guards, more often than not keeping him from actual contact with the public rather than protecting him from any potential harm.
He was aware that his campaign had another office somewhere in midtown Manhattan, supposedly located in an ad agency. This was the place the speech writers, fund raisers, bundlers, media consultants, bloggers, content providers, accountants and all the other upper level functionaries worked out of. While some of these types did occasionally manage to turn out for his meet-and-greets he didn’t actually know any of them, and had never been taken to see this uptown office, which John supposed must have his name on the door and picture on the wall. Nothing much went on at his storefront headquarters, he had discovered, since he began checking in there from time to time when he thought Joan Pope might be working.
His campaign had turned into the equivalent of having a role in a long running play, which John could only imagine from hearing other actors talk about it never having been cast in a successful anything himself. Every day was more or less the same; delivering the standard lines, shaking hands, smiling for the cameras, waving, making the thumbs-up gesture. Where once it had surprised him, and even given him a secret pleasure, John had become accustomed to seeing his name cropping up everywhere, not just on the official signs, banners, buttons, T-shirts, and bumper stickers, but scrawled in chalk on tenement walls, and even spray painted among the graffiti on a highway underpass.
The two other candidates, seeing John picking up points in the polls, decided to take their gloves off. One of the challenger’s big money supporters gave an interview to the New York Times in which he pointed out a number of inconsistencies in John’s platform. The supporter, a noted Hollywood personality so quite obviously a political authority, also was quoted as saying: “John S______ is the kind of person to whom a false statement comes quick and easy.” Despite R.A.’s telling him not to worry about it, John was upset by the attack. He never lied, at least not intentionally. He only followed the scripts he was presented with. Hedge, dodge, and spin; he went by his book. If there were inconsistencies in his answers it was not his fault.
But how could John explain this to the public, which was being fed a steady diet of how completely inexperienced he was when compared to his two opponents. A few of the political pundits actually hinted that the third candidate had been set up merely as a spoiler, a growing theory his camp vehemently denied. In his support, the head of one of the country’s more powerful labor unions wrote a newspaper piece so strongly praising John’s abilities that he wondered if the man might be in the employ of R.A.’s people himself. Nevertheless, R.A. continued to counsel John not to take the attacks personally, and reminded him he was not supposed to win anyway, which did not help matters as John was more and more beginning to accept this whole scam as a reality.
The flap over his honesty caused John to drop a few points in the polls. This decline created some concern for R.A. as the challenger was now running about neck and neck with the incumbent, and even slightly ahead in some polls. John’s camp decided that in order to draw down the votes in the numbers they needed they would have to begin to play dirty too. The Manhattan office was put on red alert. Mud slinging began in earnest. The controversy ebbed and flowed. Then, having exceeded a certain point of decency, the friction became unclear and troubled. Feeling under pressure from the attacks, without warning John stumbled over his own excessive facility.
John was accused, not without cause, of being a racist. Several of the statements he made at a “get tough on crime” talk, in front of a mainly white Italian-American audience, had been acted out. His speech had included words like: gangsta, hip-hop, rapper, Black Mafia, and the Black KKK, all carefully inserted in the text prepared by the Manhattan office in a way that should offend no one.
Unfortunately, John had always had a tendency to mimic whoever he was talking about. He would spontaneously slip into a Russian, or Jewish, or French or whatever accent he needed while telling a story, sometimes acting out two, three, or more of the parts in character. He did this unconsciously, often not even noticing that he was doing it until the person he was talking to remarked on what they were hearing.
Perhaps it was this natural tendency, which he had been consciously resisting these past months, or boredom, or the desire to play a different role than the one had been playing, that caused John to break into a black accent in the middle of his speech.“We gotta git dem dare gangsta asses offa da streets,” he said, bending over and making an imaginary gun with his fingers. “Yeah man. Dere’s too much drug dealin’ n’ gang bangin’ goin’ down, Bro. . . .”
Hip-hop got a little dance step, and by the time he got to the rappers his shirt tail was out and he had somehow snatched a baseball cap from someone in the audience and was wearing it backwards while moon-walking across the stage. The crowd was hysterical with laughter. John loved it, feeling he had a natural talent for stand-up comedy. Improvisation had always appealed to him more than repeating previously memorized lines invented by someone else.
“What the hell got into you out there?” R.A. growled at John as he came off the stage. Behind him laughter and enthusiastic applause resounded through the hall.
“You hear that? They want me to take a curtain call,” John said turning to go back onstage.
R.A. grabbed John’s arm. “This ain’t fucking vaudeville,” he hissed into his candidate’s ear.
“You heard that response. The audience loved it. They’re all going to vote for me.”
“Maybe this here white-folks-only crowd will . . . . but when word of your damn skit hits the news tomorrow, there ain’t gonna be a nigger in Hell who will give you the fucking time of day.”
“So what if the blacks don’t vote for me . . . I’m not supposed to win this election anyway, am I?” John said defensively after R.A. had hustled him out to the car.
“Kid, it ain’t about the fucking votes,” R.A. said as the SUV pulled away from the curb. “If I were you I’d be worrying about your lily-white ass. You’ll be damn lucky if you don’t get shot.”
“Shot! The whole thing was just a little joke.”
“Just a joke! The Black Mafia doesn’t take kindly to jokes like that. But don’t worry; they only shoot rap stars and sports figures. A punk like you? They’ll probably just break your fucking legs.”
“Break my legs!?”
“We’ll start working on the damage control first thing tomorrow. I think we can handle it. It’s a good thing you don’t do Yiddish.”
R.A. was right. The next day John’s brief “Sambo” episode, as the press was calling, it was all over the media. And the bloggers were burning up the both ends of the Internet: Downright racist. John S______’s minstrel show clown act was despicable, one wrote. Can’t you jigaboos take a joke, was the post below.
The first thing R.A. did was to have John issue an apology. By 10:00 a.m. the Manhattan office had drafted an appropriately contrite statement. By noon the text had been e-mailed and faxed to everyone that mattered and then some. A press conference was called for 3:00 p.m. the next day at the campaign headquarters in Brooklyn.
“Can’t you just say I was drunk, and check me into a rehab clinic for a few days,” John joked. In his heart he wasn’t exactly trying to be humorous. John was by now so turned off by this whole political game that he would have welcomed being put into a clinic, for a few days, weeks, months, or preferably until sometime after this election was over.
John S______ saw something tragic in the great glut of attention; TV station vans with satellite dishes on top, reporters, cameramen, photographers, hangers-on, and the idle curious, that clogged the street in front of headquarters when he and his handlers drove up. Surely, John thought, there must be much more important things going on in the world than his little speechmaking gaffe of two nights ago.
“Remember, no more fuck-ups,” R.A. warned his recalcitrant candidate. “Just act real sorry, read the statement we gave you, word for word . . . no ad-libbing . . . and get on with the rest of the show as we have programmed it.”
“Don’t yu vorry; I’ll be a real mensch. . . .” John said using his best Yiddish accent. R.A. gave him a dirty look. He was not amused. Was our John becoming overstressed, and perhaps on the verge of flipping out?
As John reached for the car door handle R. A. squeezed his arm tightly and held on to it. “Do you recall when you first got into this here operation . . . the story we told you about the shoemakers?”
Shoemakers? Taken by surprise John had to think for a moment, and then he remembered. He saw a body wrapped in a black plastic bag sealed with duct tape. The feet sticking out were wearing huge, concrete shoes. He felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck. A cold chill ran down his spine. John grew speechless and pale, hit by the poignancy of R. A.’s reminder. That his will was completely conquered showed in the expression on the candidate’s face. R. A. smiled at him, his lips back, as usual displaying way too much of his teeth and gums.
Someone outside the car pulled the door open, and John immediately was tumbled into a sea of cameras and hand held microphones. “Mr. S______, do you have any comment on your overtly racist display the other night at the Sons of Italy Hall?”
“Was it all preplanned?”
“Do you always mimic black dialogue?”
“Did you mean to depict black people as stereotypes?”
“Your opponents are calling you a bigot. Do you deny this?”
‘Do you think Italians hate intrinsically hate blacks?”
“Mr. S______! Are you planning to go into vaudeville if you’re not elected to congress?”
John had a hard time keeping quiet to the vaudeville question, but he followed R. A.’s advice and avoided giving any answers.
Cameras clicked, buzzed and whirred.
“Take it easy! Let us through! In just a minute you’ll hear it all inside!” R.A. shouted to the reporters as he, Manders, and Ramos worked John through the milling crowd of people. The candidate smiled and waved and made the thumbs-up sign. What else could he do?
Cameras flashed and whirred again as John mounted the small platform inside headquarters. Photographers in the back held their cameras over their heads and clicked away hoping for the best. John stood there waiting for things to quiet a bit before beginning. He wondered where all these many pictures being taken would end up. He knew from past experience that despite all the shooters at any given event the same TV footage usually appeared on all the channels, and the same stills in all the newspapers. John was looking out at the audience, contemplating this vast graveyard of dead images, a mountain of unwanted photo prints somewhere out in a Staten Island landfill, when suddenly everything went quiet -- so he began.
John delivered his speech beautifully. I will not go into a detailed account of what was said, or how skillfully he expressed it. Suffice it to say, a more remorseful man than John S______ could not be found in all New York City’s five boroughs that afternoon. But, as R. A. pronounced afterwards: “In public life contrition is more about opportunity than sorrow. It was the treats we gave out at the end at that sold the show.”
Not only had the deeply apologetic candidate promised to “work for the betterment of the black community” in his district, but also, as soon as tomorrow, he would begin to deliver on his promise. John announced that he and X. X. L. (a star point guard for the New York Knicks) were going to make the rounds of the neighborhood playgrounds and hand out free, autographed basketballs. And further, for the neighborhoods that didn’t already have basketball facilities, he and Dollar Ninety-five (one of the city’s top rap artists), and some members of his crew, were going to take a tour of those areas and arrange to install backboards and baskets in vacant lots, on lampposts, or wherever else it was feasible.
The show was then wrapped up with flair. Tape recorded sounds of “God Bless America” blared from the sound system as volunteer worker Joan Pope led the NBA player and the famous rapper out of the back room where they had been waiting, and stood them on either side of the now beaming candidate. The three joined hands and held them over their heads and waved. It was a kind of mock Olympic ceremony photo op, all done with the precision of a rapid cut movie sequence. The stars nodded and continued waving, flashing their diamond-toothed smiles, and gold chains. Then the music changed to rap, and the assembled media crowd went wild with applause. Here were real celebrities, and a genuine scoop, something that had not been announced in the press handout. Cameras opened up a barrage. John S______’s apparently racist actions of the night before were forgiven and forgotten. After all he was a true friend of the black population in this town, or at least those persons of color that were multimillionaire sports figures and entertainment high rollers.
The only question asked at the end of the event was what playgrounds John and his two newly found buddies were going to visit and when? R.A. took the microphone and excitedly announced that the schedule had just been put up on the candidate’s web site. Everyone broke for the door, eager to file their stories, and to make plans to cruise the playgrounds with John and his crew over the next few days. What more important news would they have to cover? And it could get them out of the office.
“Give them circuses,” R.A. crowed as they were being driven away in the SUV. He leaned back in the seat, feeling very smug about the way he had handled the situation.
“Give who circuses?” John asked.
“The people. . . .”
“The Romans,” R.A. replied. “I think it was Nero who said it.”
“I thought he was a corrupt emperor who played his fiddle while the city of Rome burned down. . . .”
“It’s just a legend, him fiddling, nobody can prove it. But the people really loved his circuses, that’s a known fact. Lions eating Christians alive must have been a real exciting thing to watch; just like in the movies . . . only real. Imagine it.”
“I think it would have been a sickening spectacle. So we gave them a circus today. Does this mean you’re not pissed off at me anymore?”
“Ya know . . . this whole thing really worked out in our favor. I mean we got tremendous press coverage, not just here in New York, but nationwide. You’re a household word now. Maybe we shouldn’t have had the press conference so soon, dragged the story out for a few days longer. But ya never can tell, some damn fool of movie star might have been arrested for indecent exposure or something like that, and we would have been scooped right off the front pages.”
“Yeah, you never know what’s going to happen next,” John said wistfully. “Some crazy kid could shot up a high school . . . or there might be a devastating hurricane . . . or somebody kidnaps a baby . . . or maybe blows up a shopping mall.”
“We’ll get good coverage for the next week or so when you go around to the playgrounds. Hey, do you know how to play basketball? Maybe we’ll have you shoot some hoops for the cameras. Play a little one on one. . . .”
“I can’t play basket ball. I’m too short. I tried out for the team in high school but didn’t make it. I was a very accurate free-throw shooter though. Coach saw me practicing and said that I was just wasting my time. I was never going to get fouled, because I was never going to get in the game.”
“So you’re in the game now . . . we’ll have you two shoot free throws. . . .”
“Me! go head to head with an NBA star. . . .”
“Look kid, remember, you’re only in this whole thing for show. You’re window dressing. There ain’t nothing you’re expected to win.”
“Whatever you say. . . .”
John’s mind left the conversation. He was thinking only about Pope Joan, how pretty she had looked leading out the two celebrities, although she was wearing too many bracelets again. R.A. must have chosen her to be on stage because she was the most attractive of the female volunteers. His love affair, if that’s what you could call it, was not going anywhere very fast. He and Joan never seemed to be able to be free at the same time. And their meetings at headquarters were not exactly in what one would consider romantic circumstances. Still, he held out hope.
For the past few years John had been living without passion, never even considered it, in fact had made no provision for it. He and his body were at peace, quiet, logical. But now Pope Joan had appeared and started the juices flowing in him again. He might even go so far as to call it lust. He wasn’t sure why; but then he wasn’t sure why about most things these days. He was aware that his fate was no longer in his own hands, if it ever was. Once he had believed in possibilities; if he worked hard he might achieve something in this life. Now he was aware that the circumstances of most people’s lives were not theirs to control.
A fly landed on the car window. John pressed a button on the door panel and the glass began to slide down.
“Close the damn window!” R.A. growled. “We got the air conditioning on.”
“I just want to let this fly out. . . .”
“Squash the fucker. . . .”
“It’s annoying you isn’t it. . . .”
“Not really . . . I can live with it.”
“So what are ya now, fucking Mahatma Gandhi or something?”
With a quick sweep of his hand John scooped the black speck out the small opening and into the rushing air. He pressed his face to the window and watched it disappear behind the car, imagining himself flying free, following the fleeing insect down the street. When he turned back around the folder of papers on his lap slid off on to the floor.
“Hey, be careful, don’t get those sheets out of order,” R. A. warned him. “That’s the speech you gotta learn for tomorrow.”
John had read the speech over several times. He didn’t think it would matter much if the pages were out of order. All he ever said was just a repeat of what he had said before, and none of it was very meaningful anyway.