Trip to Harrisburg Results in Reflection

Categories:  News & Politics    Opinion
Tuesday, March 1st, 2011 at 3:01 PM
Trip to Harrisburg Results in Reflection by Cory Vaillancourt

Before dawn, the Silver Bullet struggled to an unenthusiastic start. It was hell on a car battery, the cold. In that pre-dawn dark, half-lit in the ubiquitous orange glow of municipal illumination, Harrisburg beckoned. Upon sufficient warm up, the trusty silver 2002 Saab convertible began hurtling through the breaking Tuesday twilight, Southeast-bound. Closing in on Harrisburg from the opposite of directions, a travelling companion would converge on that fair city, and with luck, we’d be able to spend a few hours debauching ourselves before attending the Inaugural Ball of the 46th Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, later that night.

Politically, times are lean. From the Federal government on down to the Erie county commission, everyone’s breakfast consists of budget crunch, served with sparse amounts of milk and honey; forget all about pork. Belts tightening everywhere have provoked austerity measures, and there is not as much celebrating going on as there was during the relatively freewheeling ‘90s. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Look at Wisconsin, where something apparently motivated thousands of Packers fans to put down their cheese curds and Old Style and take to the capitol en masse, in the midst of snowmobiling season no less. People are hungry. Times are tough. But, there’s always a party somewhere, and the one in Harrisburg was just getting underway.

The entire suite of inaugural events would begin early that Tuesday: the Family Program hosted by Susan Corbett and Suzanne Cawley, the Inaugural Benefactor’s Dinner, and the Celebration of the Mass at Saint Patrick Cathedral. The swearing-in ceremony for Lieutenant Governor-elect Jim Cawley would take place in the Senate Chamber, by invitation only. Governor-elect Corbett would be inaugurated on the east-wing steps of the capitol building shortly thereafter. The traditional nature of these events insulates them from excessive campaign talking-points creeping into their format, thus, these events would reveal little about the mood among the Commonwealth’s new leadership. The Inaugural Ball, however, seemed to offer more opportunity for messaging, implied and explicit, covert and overt, unintentional and intentional. If there was any opportunity to gauge the mood of the new Corbett administration, this would be it.

On the Road Again

After several hours of blue skies and balmy 45-degree temperatures, bright white clouds came down to meet the mountains like some dreadful toupee crowning the woody peaks with white, wind-whipped snow. Winding through snow-swept valleys, each turn in the road marked the ending of one ridge and the beginning of another; this particular curve descended into a white, lifeless plain, with an ascent on the other end where the road looks like it just keeps on going, into the sky.

Just then, all at once, the Silver Bullet had the mechanical equivalent of a heart attack: a small blockage in the circulatory system temporarily impeded the unrestrained flow of black, oily lifeblood to the heart of her powertrain. Cresting the hill, all power and life support systems were lost. She silently rolled to a stop on the side of the road, hundreds of miles from anything; a great and terrible feeling of naked loneliness came down like a cold, wet blanket. The irony of running out of oil near the birthplace of the modern oil industry was not overlooked.

Flashing lights appeared in the rear view mirror. Authorities were quick to the scene, huddling around the disabled carcass of the Silver Bullet. It was but a short time until the decedent was properly mounted atop a shiny red flatbed tow truck. Clamoring into the truck, Sonny, the chauffeur, pressed for a destination. After being notified of the destination, he announced that while some people may be going to Harrisburg on this snowy day, he was indeed not one of them. He had a kink in his back and little desire to ride two hours each way. Returning to his shop to find someone to carry out this journey, he awaited his relief in the driver’s lounge, watching truckers watching superstations, for at least an hour.

Carhartts and camo heralded the arrival of a hulking, forty-something driver with a brilliant red moustache who went by the name of Wayne. Clamoring into the driver’s seat, he immediately asked if country music was all right. It was quickly surmised that when sitting in the passenger seat of a tow truck, the only appropriate answer to this question is, “Hell yes.” These were the last words Wayne uttered for the duration of the trip. He took a deep, satisfying hit from the gallon-jug of “peach tea” he’d brought and released the air brakes. The truck shuddered and then lurched southeast, Harrisburg-bound.

Two silent hours and more than half a thousand dollars later, Wayne skillfully guided crew and cargo to the unintentional destination. In the service department of a luxury car dealer in the appropriately-named settlement of Mechanicsburg , with the smell of Armor All strong in the air, sat the Silver Bullet. Assurances were given that their staff of highly-educated technologists would do all they could for the dear, dire patient, and I was told to be patient while ushered out the door to await word on the final disposition of heretofore trusty convertible. Not knowing if the Silver Bullet would ever be seen alive again, the smell of sad uncertainty displaced the relatively pleasant Armor All. This sad uncertainty was displaced in turn, as aforementioned travel companion arrived on the scene in a sporty rental of her own, after a journey of many miles, a welcome ray of sunshine on an otherwise overcast day. Somehow, the unfortunate, possibly permanent disabling of the Silver Bullet had to be compartmentalized, and this was a good start. Plotting a southeasterly course, her car eagerly lunged forth, Harrisburg-bound.

The Inn of Iniquity

Entering the business office of the Inn of Iniquity, an authoritarian Indian woman checked credentials and dispensed policy. Perusing the various and sundry products offered for sale to augment any lodger’s stay (cheap champagne, scented candles, personal lubricant, cigarettes), it began to dawn on us that this hotel was everything we had hoped and dreamed that it would be.

This particular inn, and indeed this particular room, were selected for their unique features: a hot tub, AND an in-room pool. Often, adventures like this one begin and end in one of several cookie-cutter mega-chain hotels; to stay at one Hilton is to stay at all Hiltons, with generic artwork depicting some relevant local landmark and LSD flashback-inducing paisley bedcovers. Situated at the top of a steep hill, just off the interstate, there was not a car in the parking lot of this inn, which, we would soon find out, should have been noted as some sort of sign.

The “Beach Room” contained hopelessly outdated décor that was too old to be current, and too new to be kitsch. It looked like the place was probably state-of-the-art in the 1980s, with the blue and tan flannel sheets and seashell motif evoking the spirit of the redneck Riviera of Tybee Island. The room sported more mirrors than a funhouse- above the bed, behind the bed, beside the bed, possibly even under the bed. Anywhere there wasn’t a mirror was crammed a really unfortunate seascape oil painting showcasing a seahorse, seagull, sea lion or sea foam. One was simply signed “Don,” although my companion remarked that it looked more like “D’oh,” as in, “D’oh, I’ve just painted another clichéd seascape that makes Thomas Kinkade look like Salvador Dali.”

Basking in a shabby, ragged glory, decades removed from better days, this place evokes a solid feeling of uncertain future, like The Great Gatsby set in Rome, perhaps AD 200 or so – togas, topiaries, Tanqueray, and a dangerously repressed knowledge that wolves would one day appear at the door. This place was once great and new, gilded and giddy. This place was once competitive, and confident, and probably a bit cocky and condescending. This place once occupied the preeminent and proper position in the pantheon of her peers. This place got old and fat and proud. The wolves were no longer closing in; they were practically underfoot.

The Situation as it Stands

Last fall, voters in this country – a country still mired in two wars while nursing a foundering economy and a general malaise showing no signs of abatement—ushered in sweeping change just two years after “hope” offered similar promises of departure from preceding administrations. Recent fiscal misadventures have exacerbated the federal budget deficit, which some analysts predict will reach $1.5 trillion this year (almost 10 percent of the nation’s total output).

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s fiscal health can only be described as questionable, with a $4 billion shortfall expected to test members of Governor Corbett’s administration before many of them even figure out where the capitol bathrooms are located. As with many other states facing budget cuts, Pennsylvanians may have to pitch in; if he’s not careful, Corbett may have his “read my lips, no new taxes” moment soon.

It is said that a river of money flows through Washington DC, and one can go there with either a bucket or a thimble; whatever the case, the Commonwealth will soon have one less person to carry their water. Pennsylvania is expected to lose a congressional seat when redistricting occurs, and thus, 1/19 of its clout in the crowded marketplace of ideas known as Congress. As a result of the constant migration of Americans from the bitter, frozen north to any state featuring sand as its soil-of-choice, this is simply the continuation of a trend – in 2000, Pennsylvania lost two Congressional seats.

Even Harrisburg, capitol city, our hostess for the evening, shows her ribs like a street dog. Straining under nearly $300 million in debt from a botched incinerator project that burned more cash than trash, Harrisburg is one of the most financially distressed cities in the nation. Akin to a person making $50,000 a year being saddled with $300,000 in debt, the $300 million tab for this decades-old fiasco dwarfs the city’s annual fifty something million-dollar budget. Unemployment in this burg is over 24 percent, more than doubling Pennsylvania’s average of 11 percent.

Back at the inn, corks were popped, cigarettes were smoked, and confirmation was obtained that free pornography was offered on the television as promised, the cavalcade of mirrors making it viewable from every part of the room. Given the fact that the final hour of our trip took four hours, we were extremely grateful to be anywhere but inside a tow truck or truck stop; however, the resulting timesuck cut dramatically into our debauchery.

We had just under two hours to be dressed and presentable, so we dove into the 5-foot deep pool (“No Diving”) and proceeded to prime ourselves sufficiently for the event, tearing through cheap booze like thirsty camels, testing pool, hot tub, and shower, thoughts of the Silver Bullet fading into the backs of our bubble-addled brains, trying to ignore hundreds of our own reflections, recast madly in the refractive glory of the funhouse.

A Change in Power is Often a Hopeful Time      

The wise decision was made to cab it over from the Inn of Iniquity to the event venue, as the forecast called for icy rain to begin coating the rusty brownfields later on that evening; considering our current and future states of inebriation, a more ominous forecast could not possibly be issued. Plus, the Silver Bullet was (hopefully) resting comfortably in stable condition, tended to by a doting array of technicians. Our man arrived, and we were off.

The doors to the Farm Show Complex opened at 7:30 p.m. Arrival was a tedious process – a small, semi-circular drive was packed to the limit, despite the efforts of the capitol police to keep vehicles moving in an orderly manner. Buses, cabs, and limos jockeyed for position, dispensing their occupants and moving on like bees in and out of a hive. Our driver offered to return for us later, an offer we wholeheartedly accepted, rather than brave the midnight-scramble later on.

Situated on North Cameron Street less than a mile from the Susquehanna River, the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center is an important economic asset to Harrisburg, drawing over 200 conventions and trade shows each year, in addition to serving as the home for several semi-professional sports teams. Famously, the Pennsylvania Farm Show is held here each January, and, in fact, just wrapped up less than four days prior to the inaugural ball. Awards were given (“Supreme Champion Awards”) for your standard board of fare: Swine, Poultry, Goat, Lamb, and Steer, as well as the Draft Horse, which we were told it is frowned upon to consume.

We were optimistic that adequate cleanup had been performed, as the upcoming livestock show would showcase some of the Commonwealth’s finest breeders and their proud new creations, just as the preceding show had. However, the smell of hay and manure still wafted through the air as we made our entrance.

Security was tight. Pre-event emails cautioned against large backpacks, purses, collapsible batons, and the like. Police presence came in every possible flavor – from the obviously uniformed wand-wavers at the entrance, to their tuxedoed and badged supervisors, to the suit-and-tie guys (with dates!) whose only tell was the curly clear coiled cord spouting from their earpieces, connected to some magical command post in the sky. All appeared armed. Later, a detachment of four fatigue-clad, body-armored riflemen were spotted backstage. It is not known how the unpleasant business that recently transpired in Arizona affected the security for this event; however, such a thing could never happen here, so the question was obviously moot.

Here be Liquor

The hall resembled a very large convention center; the default look was one of pipe and drape high-ceilinged darkness. Pink-lit chandeliers perforated this darkness with a soft neon glow. At either end of the exposition, ramps and risers led to elevated lounge-like areas replete with couches of velvety softness and tables that would have looked more at home in a trendy New York City club. Perched atop these oases were two or three small bars showcasing only one particular type of liquor. There was a Bacardi bar, and a whiskey bar, both outdone by the Vodka bar. This Vodka bar, sponsored by Pravda (the Vodka, not the paper), offered an ice-luge of sorts, in case anyone wished to put their lips on something that dozens of folks had already had the pleasure of mouthing.

Back at floor level, dozens of bartenders staffed several large, square, centrally-located bars, slinging everything from bad Merlot to Yuengling and bottled water. These bartenders, harried and overworked, grimaced each time some idiot ordered an intricate concoction, or the complicated martini-of-the-moment, but dutifully delivered regardless. The combination of the elevated lounges at either end of the hall and the bars running between them down the center meant that one was never far from a drink. Any interruption of the unending flow of spirits could have even the most regal crowd thrashing about like unkempt savages; thankfully, its flow unimpeded, civilization prevailed.

Not to be outdone by the booze, five food stations flanking the perimeter of the bar-strip showcased regional delicacies from around the state. Separated by region (Northeastern, Southeastern, Northwest, Southwestern, and Central), each station featured an outer perimeter where heavy snacks were offered, and a central core where they were prepared. Chefs labored here, some decorating pastries, some arranging cheese, others shooting flames high into the air.

As if the magnificent largesse of the food and beverage menu was not enough, various distractions were offered for those not currently consuming (or, rather, for those already consuming too much). Two separate areas featured an array of participatory amusements – Wii bowling, a basketball free-throw shooting machine, one of those annoying dancing games that only non-dancers seem to favor. These were a constant source of amusement throughout the night, both to the observers and the observed. Nothing says hilarity like an out-of-shape, drunken buffoon shaking their groove thing to some god-awful KC and the Sunshine Band track. We quickly scanned the room, noting the presence of Automated Electronic Defibrillators.

Also featured was an interesting take on the event-standard photo booth. Couples, groups, or individuals stood in front of a green screen and took two photos. Upon delivery, these two photos were merged into one, evocative of crackerjack prizes, or the old Sportflic baseball cards that showed one image from one angle, and one image when viewed from another, the green screen giving way to a golden sheaf of bubbles, appropriately suggesting that these photos were taken from the inside of a champagne bottle. Opting for a moderate level of silliness, we (she) sifted through the table of props, bypassing the moustaches, cowboy hats, and wigs and instead opting for a feather boa and heart-shaped sunglasses. Our attempt to persuade the group behind us to form a human pyramid was unsuccessful.

A large stage crowned one side of the venue, with giant video screens adorning either side. It was here that the crowd’s attention would be focused most of the night. Of particular note, the Buzz Jones Big Band rattled off classics of the American songbook with machine-like efficiency, no doubt the result of playing the same songs over and over again throughout a career made up of reflecting on the past.

As the music subsided, the new administration was introduced. Members of Governor Corbett’s cabinet appeared on stage, dutifully waved, and departed amidst partygoers’ claps and cheers. Just before his introduction, a short video presentation was displayed detailing Corbett’s life and career. An attorney by trade, Corbett is also an Army veteran, former Allegheny County District Attorney, and former Attorney General of Pennsylvania, an impressive record of public service that implies a no-nonsense, all-business persona.

Later in the evening, as drink turned to dance, The Cityscape Orchestra took over the stage. A 22-piece band with four lead singers as well as full string and horn sections, they covered everything from the contemporary (Lady Gaga) to the classic (Beatles) in a smooth, professional, impressive manner. Around this time, the floor was cleared as Governor Corbett danced with his wife to the delight of onlookers, craning their necks and standing on tipped toes, straining to see.

Most of the several thousand folks in attendance seemed less concerned with seeing than being seen. Large congregations of party-goers massed on the elevated lounges, straining over the crowd in an oft-futile attempt to locate a person or persons of interest as though perched at the prow of the Titanic. The lucky managed to snag seats at one of several standard banquet tables, while others stood, sheepishly manning the cocktail tables, quickly scarfing down one or more of the evening’s delicacies in a sort of private shame, as this basic human need interfered with the copious amounts of inane networking taking place. Many people came and left throughout the evening, paying their respects, kissing rings, and departing early with the god-awful fear of an early, drunken Wednesday morning looming. Others filtered in to take their place. This crowd was steady, if anything.

The layout of the room facilitated a circular, track-like pathway that offered the opportunity to peruse the entire scene by taking a lap around the room: Bars in the middle, food on the outside, cocktail tables interspersed, the herd constantly circling like pilgrims at Mecca venerating the sacred objects contained therein. Skilled and unskilled political operators made their rounds, shaking hands, kissing cheeks. The less interested focused on the food.

For some, the event was about who was there. For others, the event was about what they were wearing. “Black-tie optional” is a much- hated term. One always runs the risk of being the only fool in a tux, or the only fool not in a tux, much the way “casual Friday” ensures that some fool will show up in ripped sweatpants, stinky Birkenstocks, and a bongwater-stained Phish t-shirt. This crowd, a representative sample of the Republican voters who swept Tom Corbett into office, was young, white, and mostly-tuxedoed. Women were attired in everything from the tasteless to the tasteful, recycled maid-of-honor or prom dresses to elegant and understated gowns. Not to be outdone, some men wore ties purchased during the Nixon administration, flailing limply over the accompanying suit, hiding the shirt buttons straining to hold back the decades-old fat sweater acquired since that original purchase. Perhaps it was the particular crowd we were immersed in, but a number of bow-ties were noticed; these must serve somehow as the neckwear manifestation of the self-reliant, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, I’m-so-much-smarter-than-you attitude favored by today’s young conservatives. Horn-rimmed glasses were probably not far behind, which would complete the incongruous co-opting of the late Senator Paul Simon’s look.

Corbett, a self-described moderate, may find himself forced further to the right, held hostage by the budget-slashing to come. Late in the evening, he strolled through the crowd with a sizeable contingent of security personnel, not a sign of worry engraved on his still-young looking face of 61 years. The crowd had noticeably dissipated. The festive mood of the vast, deep, hall had transitioned to one of an empty, lonely, impending darkness as Corbett made his final rounds, preparing himself for the job ahead.

The scene was set, but the question remained. What would make someone pay $150 to get all dressed up on a cold Tuesday night to attend an event of this nature? Hell, by inference, the question should have been, why throw a party like this? At a time like this? In an economic climate like this? In a city like this, where nearly one-third live below the poverty line?

Conversely, the question can be reevaluated. After all, this event was not paid for by taxpayer dollars – only private donors. It is easy to imagine how some could infer that the partygoers were decadent, gilded Gatsbys, wearing togas and socializing while Rome burns. But was it a rowdy celebration? Definitely not, unless you count the drunken trollop who accidentally dumped an entire glass of red wine down the front of a certain guest’s white shirt. Was it a tasteful gala? Undeniably. But perception is reality, and one could argue that any event of this sort may send the wrong message to City, Commonwealth, and Country, no matter how subdued and austere.

The prevailing mood for the partisans in attendance seemed to be one of magnanimity - after a hard two years of defeat and humiliation at the hands of the Obama Democrats, after eight long years of the Rendell Democrats, things were starting to go their way for a change. It’s only natural to celebrate the victorious accomplishment of a goal with lavish shin-diggery, but did they pull it off without looking like wealthy elite, out of touch with the common people of the Commonwealth?

The Less Obvious Answer

Returning to the Inn of Iniquity, we faced ourselves in the mirrors. Hard not to, really. More champagne. More debauchery. As we were pouring the last few bottles of cheap champagne all over ourselves in the pool, a flash of insight revealed itself briefly. This grotesque reflection, a collage a born of images created earlier in the day – the disabled convertible, the $657 tow, the $225 room, the $150 tickets, the cabs, the booze, the hot tub and pool and the cigarettes and the porn: people strive to maximize the amount of times they can have maximum fun, and we were no different. Recession? What recession? To hell with austerity! Put on your monkey suit! Man the ice luge! Sling the brown sugar-encrusted foie gras and damn the recession! Excess was not brought to battle on this day. Not a word of protest ensued, no sit-ins occurred, no sign wavers nor ranting ravers. Was Corbett’s Inaugural Ball a bad idea?

The less obvious answer here is that no one really cares, and that alone should speak volumes about the times to come. Like the diet that starts tomorrow, the maxed-out credit card, and the something-for-nothing litigiousness that pervades our society, the unwillingness of the American people to truly engage their leaders has become yet another staple of American culture. This event occurred if only because thousands of people were willing to attend. With apologies to Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy, and they is us.                                                                                     

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