Alternate Universe

By Neal Pollack

The Alternate is from West Virginia. He works as a union official. He supports everything about the Democratic Party and always has. This is his first national political convention, and he is proud to be serving his country in an elected capacity. But, he says, alternates are getting a bum deal. They are patriotic citizens who deserve a more democratic treatment from the Democrats. The Alternate doesn’t ask much. All he wants is a seat on the convention floor.

It’s the first night of the convention. The Alternate has been restricted to the United Center’s mezzanine. He’s wearing an American-flag tie, an American-flag baseball cap covered in buttons, and a pair of socks bearing stars and stripes. It’s time for the traditional roll call of the states. All about the hall people are whooping, hollering, waving banners, and dancing in the aisles. Everyone is happy, everyone except The Alternate. He clutches a thick black marker and writes down the names of the states and the number of their delegates into a steno notepad. His notes are very thorough, and he will check them when he gets back to his hotel room. This, he says, is his Democratic duty.

He leans over the railing and studies the floor carefully. He turns his gaze to the Pennsylvania delegation; many seats are empty. It’s 6 PM and the big show has yet to begin.

“Look down there. There’s only 40 delegates down there! They should fill those seats. Look down there–Colorado, Tennessee, empty seats. I’ve walked all over this place counting delegates. These people, they got appointed, they have some distinguished position. Now alternates, we are elected, not appointed. We are the true Democrats. Now, I ask you, where is the paar of the people? The people have no paar. I’m sitting way up here in the balcony of the Chicago Bulls. Now how am I going to make my voice heard when I’m just sittin’ here? Look at those states down there. There must be 15 different states with empty seats. Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, Maryland. All those people down there were appointed. I’ve got no special privileges. But I was elected. I worked hard to get elected. Getting voted in makes a man viable!

“Now I’m saying this as my own summation for all the alternates: it’s great to be here in Chicago, but I spent $4,000 of my own money to get here. And for what? To sit up here on top of the Chicago Bulls? Please! My plane ticket, my $175 hotel room, $14 for a fucking bite of hamburger? Well, I coulda stayed home by myself and watched TV. Coulda watched the whole thing on TV. I didn’t expect to be sitting way up on the balcony. Hell, no! Suppose they’re looking for me. They’re not going to be able to find me. They don’t know where to see me in case someone gets sick. Now how can I cast a vote that way? What are they gonna do, use a bullhorn? Send the police after me?”

The Alternate peers over the railing at his West Virginia delegation and opens a bag of potato chips.

“Let me tell you something. Just because the Blackhawks and Bulls play here doesn’t mean nothing to me. I’m not here to party. I’m not here to see the show, either. I could go downtown and see a show if I wanted to. No sir, I’m here to help put through the best platform for the working people of this country. But four years from now they need to look at how they treat their alternates. I am an elected official. I ran for this position.”

Another alternate takes a seat behind The Alternate. This alternate is a mailman from Sepulveda, California, named David Hyman. He’s short and has a mustache. He is wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers helmet covered with political buttons. The Alternate asks Hyman if he’s upset about his seat.

“I’m somewhat disappointed,” he says. “I was hoping there’d be a way to go down and get extra seats.”

“There are extra seats!” shouts The Alternate. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you! I feel rejected!”

“Hey,” says Hyman. “I’m happy to be here. But if there’s no way to get down on the floor, then I’ll do other stuff.”

“But what if they need you and can’t find you?”

Hyman has other things to keep himself busy. As a member of the American Political Items Collectors, he is mostly using this convention as a way to greatly expand his button collection. He has attended a number of different events, including a rally for the increase of the minimum wage and one for people with disabilities, in search of a variety of interesting buttons. “I’ve been collecting buttons since ’68,” he says. “Ever since I was 12 years old. So this is like nirvana for me.”

“We are both rejected,” The Alternate sighs.

“At least being an alternate doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the hospitality receptions,” Hyman says. “Sure, I’m upset. I’d like to be on TV. My parents will be looking for me. But hey, I can at least hang out in the hall and collect buttons.”

Hyman whips out his disposable camera and starts snapping pictures of the convention floor, which seems miles away.

“There’s room down there!” cries The Alternate. “There is!”

Later, Hyman wanders the ground level of the United Center, looking for a way to get on the convention floor. He has tried E-mailing his delegation. He has tried to use a free phone from Ameritech. He has tried talking to convention troubleshooters. He has tried getting past security. But nothing has worked.

Meanwhile, he has traded many buttons. He is depleting his stash of “Democrats for Israel–Los Angeles” buttons with President Clinton’s name in Hebrew letters. There are only 1,000 of these buttons in the world, but Hyman owns many of them and is using them as bait. He has cornered an “Arkansas and Clinton Proud” button as well as juicy numbers from Ohio and Massachusetts. He has one that reads “Cornhole Dole,” which shows a donkey mounting an elephant from the rear. “It’s a fantasy piece,” Hyman says. “But what the hell!”

After a while, Hyman doesn’t seem too interested in the floor. He walks around the halls as people–button collectors, mostly–greet him, swap, and move on.

“Wanna trade buttons?” asks a woman from Utah.

“Sure!” Hyman says.

“How about an official Utah ski hat?”

“I don’t ski much, and one time the brakes didn’t work so well.”

“Well, I have to see if you’ve got anything I want. Do you have Hillary pins?”

The woman offers Hyman the hat again. It’s bright pink. “It’s darling,” she says. “It will get you arrested.”

Finally, Hyman convinces the women to forget the hat and trades a Sierra Club button for a “South Dakotans for Clinton.”

“And here I thought you would want my Israel pins,” he tells her.

“I’m an Arab-American delegate. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. No, not really. I just wanted my picture taken with Donna Shalala.”

She walks away. Hyman examines his stash.

“When I go home,” he says, “I have six or eight display cases to put buttons into. I go home Friday and I don’t have to work until Tuesday. I don’t have anything else to do except catch up on the news in the LA Times. I have this stuff to fall back on. That guy upstairs, he doesn’t have anything else.”

A woman wearing a “Delaware for Clinton-Gore” pin walks by. Hyman’s eyes go bonkers.

“Hey,” he says. “Wanna trade buttons?”

Meanwhile, The Alternate is still glowering. He has been totally shut out of the day’s proceedings. He studies his notebook and studies the floor stealthily.

“I know a lot of people who love the Chicago Bulls,” he says. “But that isn’t the thrill of my life. I am here to elect a president of the United States. Why is an elected delegate shoved up into the balcony, unknown to nobody? If that’s the way an alternate is treated, then I don’t want to come no more. That speaks to my anxiety about the state of democracy. I’m lookin’ down like a puppy at my flock of delegates. Do I feel a pain? Yeah, I feel a pain. I feel a real sad pain. I’m looking around me and saying, “What the hell am I doing here?'”

The Alternate moans in frustration and throws up his hands.

“I can’t tell you how much power I have. That I could have. I carry a lot of influence. But I feel rejected. I feel the pain of the alternates, and I’ll sit here and suffer that pain. But don’t look for me to come back again. Ain’t no money in the world that could make me come back again. I could sit on the beaches of the Virgin Islands and let life go by. Spend my $4,000 that way. You don’t need me, and I don’t need you. Hah! I’m going on vacation. Well, they can stick it. What happens if they need a vote and can’t find The Alternate? He’s off in no-man’s-land. Lost in Chicago Bulls land.”

The Alternate looks at his notebook and looks at the floor. There are a few seats left, but the United Center is filling up fast.

“Look at me,” he says. “I am lost in Chicago!”