TOTN producer Susan Lund is in St. Paul, keeping an eye on the constantly changing GOP convention story as it flexes and responds to Gustav news. She's been there for a few days already, and has been sending impressions of a city where Pepsi is King, Charlie Brown lolls in the grass downtown, and where, after a chance encounter with an Iraq war vet, Susan realizes she's not in DC anymore...
I arrive at the Minneapolis airport early afternoon on Saturday. Walking to the baggage claim area I see a pizza place and decide to get a slice. "Do you want something to drink with that?" I'm asked. Coke, please. "We only have Pepsi." Hmmm, I'm one of those who really could take the Pepsi challenge and tell right away which is Coke, which Pepsi. No thanks, I say.
Check-in at the hotel. NPR has about 40 reporters, producers, editors, audio engineers, IT and logistics staff in St. Paul. Many have come straight from Denver. Some, like me, are joining the GOP leg. The hotel is decorated with American flags, red, white and blue bunting and bunches of colored balloons. I see a vending machine and go to get a Coke. Only Pepsi. I stop by the hotel restaurant hoping I can get a coke there. Nope, just Pepsi.
Four of us head into St. Paul for the media party. NPR's hotel is about 20 minutes from St. Paul in a place called Lake Elmo. We walk around downtown trying to find the place. I see a bronze sculpture thing ahead, it's close to the ground. Is it a statue? Public art? We get close. It's the Peanuts's character Schroeder. He's playing the piano — and there's Lucy leaning on it and gazing into his eyes. Awww, that's cute. We walk some more. Wait, what's that? It's, it's Charlie Brown sitting on the grass at the base of a tree. We walk on.... Who's that? It's Linus, with his blanket, and next to him, Sally, Charlie Brown's sister. They all look exactly like Charles Schultz drew them. Adorable. They are small, at the height of children. Nice touch. We wonder, was Schultz from St. Paul? TOTN listeners, let us know. (By the way, at the media party I ask for Coke. "Is Pepsi okay?")
Not everyone has cars out here so we send out emails regularly asking for or offering rides to and from the NPR workplace. Reporter and host Linda Wertheimer, and Carol Klinger, an editor at All Things Considered, ride with me. Thanks to Linda's personal GPS we find the work site no problem. After getting oriented in our workplace at the spacious, and highly secure, studios of Minnesota Public Radio, Carol and I head to the Xcel Energy Center, site of the GOP convention. We find NPR's table on Radio Row — right across from the food court — noisy already and the thousands of delegates aren't even here. Today it's just journalists and members of the RNC. Hmmm, will we be able to do our live interviews from here? We'll have to check with NPR's crack audio engineers. We then go way, way up to the top of the Xcel Center to find NPR's broadcast booth. Three engineers are there getting everything ready. I walk straight to the edge of the booth... I'm looking straight down on the stage where John McCain will stand. It's an incredible view. NPR is smack in the center of the action. Off to the right, there's CNN's booth and the BBC's, among others. Over to the left, PBS and the Newshour with Jim Lehrer — NPR is right in the middle high above the stage. Amazing location.
Susan meets an Iraqi war vet, after the jump.
I stop off to get lunch at a restaurant near the Xcel Center. I see a waiter carrying a plate piled up with fabulous looking onion rings. Whatever I get, I think, I'm getting those onion rings. I sit at the bar with a view of people passing by the convention center. Want something to drink, the waitress asks? "Do you have Coke?" I ask warily. Only Pepsi. Iced tea, please. I order a club sandwich and the onion rings. I strike up a conversation with a guy sitting one seat away. "What's the name of this place?" I ask. Wild Thyme. And it lives up to its name, he says. You'll like it here. You'll feel comfortable. We begin to talk. He's an Iraq war vet. He was there for two years, based in Basra. He was proud of his service. He said he was part black, part Native American. He had a long tattoo on his left forearm. I asked him if he was from Minnesota. "Yes, ma'am. I'm a native Minnesotan," he said proudly. "I served my country, but sometimes I feel like people don't appreciate that." He went on to explain why in what was a rambling way — he seemed a bit sad, a bit angry, a bit misunderstood, a bit lost. I wondered if he feels his country hasn't given him enough respect. He seemed to have found his identity in Iraq, and now, back in the US, he's just a vet who feels lucky to have come home with no injuries, unlike some of his friends, but doesn't know what is future is now.
He leaves, we say good-bye. I add, take care. I ask the waitress for the check. A man comes up behind me. "Are you going to eat the rest of that sandwich?" "Who are you?" I ask, very surprised. "I see you getting your check and wonder if you're done with your food." I have never had this happen to me before ever, in any city I've lived in or visited. I'm stunned. He's standing so close I feel uncomfortable. I look at my plate. There's the half-eaten sandwich. I wrap it in a napkin and give it to him. He thanks me and walks away.
I walk back to the NPR worksite. Thousands of politicians, delegates, journalists, protesters are here in St. Paul. The world is watching. I'm excited to be here. There's a lot of action and we lucky ones are right in the middle of it. But most Americans aren't in the middle of it. They're going on living their lives. One is wondering what happened to him when he got back from a war, one is wondering where his next meal is coming from... Others are going to work, taking care of their children, paying their bills. It's important to be here to see John McCain accept his party's nomination to be President. It's important to me to also see how regular Americans are living their lives far far away from the media glare.