Philadelphia Story: Four Seasons Total Landscaping

by

11/11/2020

Neighborhood: Philadephia

It’s the morning after the election, and the results are unexpectedly close. It seems like vote counting will be going on for a few days. I speak with the Bureau Chief for the Japanese newspaper where I work. We decide to go to Philadelphia to report the counting there. I stick my computer in my briefcase and stuff in an extra pair of underpants and socks, but forget to bring my toothbrush and toothpaste.

We get into town and head to the Convention Center where they are tallying the mail-in ballots. If we can get a good photo, it will go on the front page. After going through metal detectors and waiting around for a while, a stern PR guy, hired by the city especially for this occasion, takes a small group of us to the floor where the vote count is taking place. But the 125 workers are on a shift change. We are escorted back to the pressroom. No front-page photo is taken. 

Lisa Deeley, the Chair of the County Commission in charge of elections, gives a press conference where she announces some numbers, offers bromides, and assures everyone that good progress is being made. Later I speak to some protestors in front of City Hall, one of whom is wearing a yellow sweatshirt that says “Count Every Vote” across the front. He explains that there are three different contingents of demonstrators—the Indivisible group, the Socialist Alternative, and Justice for Walter Wallace people, who are protesting the police shooting of a young man who was killed a week earlier.

Thursday: I’m still hoping to get that photo of the vote count. Again I am escorted to the convention floor where I’ll be allowed to discreetly take a photo. But this time we are told a court has just ordered that Republican Party observers be allowed to move up to six feet away from the vote counters. It had previously been 30 feet. The city is appealing the ruling. No photos will be allowed while litigation is ongoing. 

On Arch Streeet, adjacent the Convention Center, there are groups of dueling Biden (“Count Every Vote”) and Trump (“Count Every Legal Vote”) demonstrators on opposite sides of the street. The Biden people have a DJ and are having a dance party. There are maybe 200 of them. They will continue dancing  non-stop for the next three days. It is a young crowd, mostly under 30, and multiracial. The playlist is old school— Michael Jackson, Prince, C+C Music Factory. Given the city we are in, there really should be more Sound of Philadelphia stuff, especially if they’re going to be playing oldies. It is disappointing. I consider requesting the Macarena, but decide that would be injecting myself into the story. A big journalistic no-no. Anyway, the dancers are having a good time. 

The Trump supporters are a much smaller group—maybe twenty people. Nearly all are considerably overweight and they are older than the Biden supporters. Most of them look miserable. Many are waving Trump and Trump-Pence flags attached to long flagpoles. 

I do some interviews with people on both sides of the Arch Street.

That evening, I buy underwear, socks, and undershirts from TJ Maxx and get a toothbrush and toothpaste from the woman at the hotel front desk. 

Friday: Another press conference where the county commissioners give another update. Working for a Japanese newspaper, I am particularly attuned to what the assembled international press corps is making of all of this. This time the Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney also speaks. When a reporter asks him about President Trump’s allegations of massive fraud, Kenney says, “The president needs to put his big boy pants on and acknowledge the fact that he lost.” A German reporter asks me “What is this ‘big boy pants’?” Later I hear a French reporter doing a TV stand-up report, breaking into English to say something about “big boy pants.”   

But finally, in the afternoon, success. Along with my Bureau Chief, we get on the convention floor and take photos. People in yellow vests are feeding ballots into machines. There is a group of very bored-looking observers representing the Trump campaign chatting with each other from behind a barricade.

Our story makes the front page of the Saturday morning front page in Japan. It’s a heck of a good photo.

Saturday morning: I wake up in my hotel room feeling like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day. When I tell this to a former colleague in Japan, he writes back. “Yeah. Bill Murray. But that’s the wrong movie. You’re in Ghostbusters.”

I see a tweet from President Trump, “Lawyers Press Conference Four Seasons, Philadelphia. 11:00 A.M.” It’s about a mile walk from our hotel, and I head over with my colleague. Outside the Four Seasons Hotel, we see some photographers. “Big crowd in there?” I ask. A British photographer is looking upset. She says, “We are in the wrong place.” Trump had put out a subsequent tweet. The press conference is at Four Seasons Total Landscaping. An entirely different location. We get an Uber. It is nearly a thirty-minute drive. Wherever we are heading, it’s to the outskirts of Philadelphia.

While we are in the Uber, I get a news alert. Networks are projecting Joe Biden will win Pennsylvania and saying that he is the president-elect. 

We finally get to the press conference site. It is in the small gravel parking lot of a gardening center that is located in an industrial building. An adult bookstore called Fantasy Island is next door, and a crematorium is across the street. 

We are late, as are many others. And the gate to the parking lot is locked. Reporters from Japan, France, Germany, the UK, and Colombia are shaking the locked fence. A photographer from the New York Times is exclaiming, “I work for the New York Times” to a large African-American man just inside the gate wearing a polo shirt with a logo that says Four Seasons Total Landscaping. “Sorry. Can’t let you in,” he says. A producer, accompanied by his cameraman, is yelling, “I’m from 60 Minutes, damn it!” 

There is another group of reporters inside the parking lot who are trying to leave. Now that the election has been declared, they want to get to what they imagine will be street celebrations in downtown Philadelphia. But they are locked inside the parking lot, and we are locked out. 

The gate opens to let in two large white SUVs, one of which has Rudy Giuliani as a passenger. Those of us outside the gate can see and hear him as the press conference begins because reporters are playing a live stream audio of the event on their phones. The former mayor of New York is in full operatic mode, waving his arms and looking up at the heavens, as he informs his audience about the “massive fraud” that has occurred. Dead people are voting. Will Smith’s dad voted twice. The great Philadelphia boxer Joe Frazier, who has been dead for several years voted in the election. “You know he was a Republican, Joe Frazier. So maybe I shouldn’t be complaining,” Rudy says.

On the sidewalk there is a QAnon adherent, speaking to anyone who will listen, and a wiry guy in his underpants wearing a Biden mask yelling, “Biden is a pedophile.” A small group of Biden supporters is heckling from across the street. One guy with a megaphone is yelling, “Time to hire a moving company, Donald!” A pot-bellied Trump supporter is glaring at the Biden supporters across the street and telling his young son, “They don’t want to work, these people, and they hate white people.”

French TV is interviewing the guy wearing the QAnon cap who has wrapped a large American flag around his body.

The Japanese TV Asahi crew has finally gotten into the parking lot. The 60 Minutes guys have driven off.

The lithe white-haired man with the Biden mask and boxer shorts is talking to Colombian TV news. “You can call me Sleepy Joe. I’m a pedophile,” he is saying. 

It seems a fitting conclusion to the week. I book the 1:19 Amtrak Northeast Regional and call for an Uber to take me to 30th Street Station. I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve seen enough.

***

Jacob Margolies is the Managing Editor of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and a reporter for Japan’s largest newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

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