Forbidden Secrets: Part I, My Interview with a Presidential Candidate
Despite the fact many of the events in this article may or may not have taken place, I am obliged by legal force to change some of the events and names so as to protect those whose permission I was not given, regardless of the innocence or lack thereof. As a journalist with the aim of upholding the truth of a story sometimes fictions are created to better get at the truth as sometimes truths are used to better embellish a fiction. These are the blurred lines of the written word in which I exist. When we live in a world where a truth off the record must be altered to become a fallacy so as to avoid legal constraints, the blending of life and art, truth and fiction, reality and politics are married together in which a bastardized offspring will inevitably be born. I am not complaining, mind you. Like the rest of us out there, I am just trying to find my way through the dark with a book of cheap matches. The story you are about to read I do not have permission to tell. So the truths imparted are actually fictions, everything that truly happened was all made up, and the events I may have made up could turn out to be the biggest truth of all.
It all started about two weeks ago. I woke up on the floor next to my Bob Dylan records with a burnt out cigarette butt between the pink cheeks of my two lips and I don’t even smoke. It was just after 6am. The wife and daughter were in Vermont for the week visiting family on a maple syrup farm and I was left with dried French Toast and a melted stick of butter on the table from last nights breakfast. I had been chasing leads all week trying to find my next story for The Culture Quarter. The psychic siamese twins of Tarrytown were booked. If I wanted to travel to the Catskills I could maybe interview the Yiddish reggae singer of Yonkers for a few minutes and cobble together a piece of schmaltz. That seemed appealing except I would most likely need a translator which meant forking over a little dough. Trouble was there was no money in the bank and no gas in the tank. I needed something in the city or I would have to fabricate a story entirely. I thought I would find motivation taking a cold shower but I had too much trouble rinsing off the soap. I was at a dead end.
I dried and dressed. Looking at my phone there were three missed calls. Two from the wife and one number I didn’t recognize then I went to the fire escape and watered our dead plants, hoping for a miracle of photosynthesis in the warmth of early autumn.
Boni and Amara were having a great time in Vermont. It seemed the outdoors were treating them better than I could plus their pancakes were dripping with fresh syrup. She explained to me some of the finer details of maple syrup extraction and I was kicking myself for not going on the trip. The farm sounded like a nice little story and country air with the family would have been good for the soul.
“So, how’s the writing?” said Boni, slipping in the question like a prosecutor to a defendant on the stand.
“Well, it's always a work in progress. But good,” I said, lying through my crooked bottom teeth.
“You should have come with us. Could have been a good story,” she said reading my mind.
Before I could come up with a bullshit response another call was coming through. It was the mystery number. Usually a mystery number is not good to answer but when you are desperate and dying for a lead, even bad news sounds good.
“Babe, let me call you back.”
I switched to the other line.
“Seth Kurke speaking.”
“Is this Seth Kurke?”
“That's what I said. Enough about me. Who the hell are you?” This guy’s voice sounded like a whistling tea kettle and was already starting to get on my nerves.
“My name is (didn’t receive permission to use his name, so from here on out he will be known as No Permission). You actually contacted us about a month ago.”
“Did I? Refresh my memory.” Lately I had been throwing my name out to anybody like pasta to the ceiling, trying to see which spaghetti string would stick.
“I am with the Ronald Grump (real name not able to use) campaign. You wanted to do a piece on the day-to-day operations of our New York City Headquarters. You are with The Culture Quarter, are you not.”
“I am The Culture Quarter, skinny legs and all.”
“Forget it. So when do we do this thing? My schedule is pretty packed,” I lied again. It was just one of those days.
“Well, Mr. Kurke, how does today sound?”
Today was as good as any, I figured. Anyway you cut the cheese, I had little expectations. Probably just a healthy dose of propaganda from some volunteers about what it's like to campaign for another politician who positions themselves as the man (or woman) of the people. Either way, I wasn’t one of those people who get all powdered and cinched up in a corset for anything political. But I had my story for the week. Living week by week isn’t pretty but it's better than some of these people running on the campaign trail living lie by lie. I tell the story, they live it. I sleep bad, the bad don’t sleep at all.
I hitched a ride on the D train to the city and then at Broadway/Lafayette I took the 6 to 68th/Hunter College. I didn’t have to be there till noon but I arrived an hour early, the final strange words of No Permission still bouncing around in my head.
“Just be at the Armory, Lexington avenue, by noon sharp,” he whistled, “noon sharp.”
I sat at Shakespeare and Co. Booksellers and had a black Americano on the rocks, remembering the days when I was a student across the street at Hunter College, and I recalled how President Obama praised the school as one of the best in the nation. Then I thought of Groucho Marx when he said “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member,” and I thought the same for me at Hunter. But perhaps I was selling myself short, or the school, or both, or none at all.
At 11:50am I walked to the Armory and leaned against the wall, wishing I had some fingernails to nibble on but they were all used up. A long black Lincoln Town Car slithered up to the curb and idled for a moment. Then the back door opened. A small man with a big moustache leaned out of the door and smiled.
“Mr. Kurke?” His voice was the same on the phone but surprisingly deeper, and his black leather gloves on such a warm autumn day seemed out of place especially since he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. I got in and we took off down 67th, then hung a left on 5th Avenue.
"I know, what you're thinking," he said as I admired the scenery, "I look exactly like Ken Bone. But I'm not. I am not Ken Bone."
I was really dying for a fingernail or two.
"You are really a heck of a mind reader, Ken" I said noticing the hot dog vendors and booksellers as we came to 59th.
“The city looks different through tinted windows, doesn’t it?” The annoying whistle was starting to come back in No Permission’s voice.
Letting the question hang in the air, I stared straight ahead. “Where are you taking me?”
“You writers always like to be in control of the surprises, don’t…”
“I was talking to the driver, not you. Where are you taking me?”
The driver was faceless, just a hat and a set of eyes in the rear view, this is why I was surprised to hear a woman’s voice.
“To where I am supposed to take you. No more, no less.”
Her voice was calm, with an accent I couldn’t place. I leaned closer to get a look but the window between the passengers and the driver rose up placing a divider between us.
No Permission had an amused expression. He sat their with his gloved hands and large oily moustache, grinning.
“I trust you are anxious. Don’t be. This will all work to your benefit. Even if it doesn’t.”
Riddles I was never good at and No Permission seemed to speak in them fluently. But I played it cucumber cool and shrugged, turning my attention to a rising structure, scaly and ominous, which swallowed us into its parking lot below.
I came out on the 64th Floor after No Permission bid me farewell with a kiss on both cheeks as if we were old Parisian mates of the Left Bank. He stayed on the elevator. Before the doors closed between us, it appeared he was peeling off his moustache yet before I could tell the doors closed for good and that is the last time I ever saw him. I wasn’t sure if his elevator was taking him to a floor high above me or back down to the bottom. But he was gone and I was alone.
The building had the pulse of a city but the vertical nature and partitions of the floors, doors, elevators, and halls gave this building a detached, controlled demeanor. Each movement was barricaded. Each natural behavior muted by the walls. All people were separate from each other, destined to actions dictated by those who constructed this building but invisible to all others. Divide and conquer. The silence of the walls was a protection against intrusion, inviting secrecy. You could have family and friends, but the walls made you an individual, alone, left to intercom conferences with voices riding the static.
I came to a waiting room neatly decorated in 1950’s Soviet-era film posters. The tacky furniture was expensive but without taste, as if the people who made it bought the most garish fabrics and molded it in the most ludicrous fashion and sold it as lavish product to someone who thinks all of those are characteristics of high quality. The more exotic ornaments disguised as culture they lacquered on, the more cheap it felt, and the higher the price tag. It was a racket I should get in on if I was looking to waste my breath hustling rich old ladies to reupholster their townhomes.
I walked to the windows and looked across the city from a pigeon’s point of view. Manhattan seemed all grids and blinking lights. From my vantage point, the people and structures underneath came under the illusion of living within the dominion of the man who ruled the empire of this building. It was a distorted perspective but I could see how it would rub off on someone. For me, I like to survive if I decide to jump. From the 64th floor, you wouldn't even be able to save the fancy jewelry. Despite all of this it was strangely unimpressive. But no more unimpressive than the man who shoots up and down streets with his mid-life crisis sports car hoping the shine on the hood can blind someone young and dumb into thinking this stuff actually matters.
“I bet you’re thinking none of this matters and that this is a bunch of tacky crap,” a familiar voice said from an intercom.
I looked around, not seeing the camera or the microphone. It all suddenly felt like I was trapped in some KGB spy novel.
“You'd be right to think so. Go to the door in the back, next to the vodka bar, and enter. I will be waiting on the other side.”
I went to the door and noticed the name of the vodka: Grump. Usually how I feel after drinking too much, I joked to myself. I stepped through the door into what I can only describe as a raging angry heat, vicious like a dry flu. My feet walked over sand but against my better judgment I closed the door behind me. Before me was a vast expanse of what looked to be a desert at midday. Now I was impressed.
“Its funny what money can buy. And what not having money can buy. Your shoes are absolutely awful. I am going to make a phone call after this meeting to somebody I know, a really great guy, somebody who I believe, because I mean, those are some terrible shoes.”
“They are Chuck Taylors.”
There he was standing next to a cactus. His hair appeared more orange because of the the fake sun lamps. He was still wearing a suit, as always.
“Do you know where you are right now? And I am going to answer for you because you don’t. You have no idea. You are in the desert between the United States and Mexico. That’s where you are. I have people who need to know, my people. I have a lot of people. Some of them are from Mexico. And they love it, this room. It's more than a room. Its big. A friend of mine, we lost him, for twelve hours, in this room, we lost him. He was Mexican, and I think, because of who he was and where he is from, is why he is not dead. Do you know why you are here?”
No, I shook my head looking down, starting to feel embarrassed of my shoes.
“Come with me, and don’t worry about your shoes. I have people, I will make a call.”
We walked through the desert. It was hot and I needed water. But he led me through like he was Moses and the Russian movie room seemed like ages ago. Blasted on the walls from a hidden projector were images of a merciless desert horizon. Each step the lamps seemed to become brighter. The further we went, the weaker I became and he became stronger. I started to stumble and slow down. Could that be a vulture flying above me? He was getting further and further away from me. He turned past a large red rock. I tried to speed up but my feet were dragging in the sand.
At last I reached the mouth of a dark cave. Gasping for any moisture, I fell to my knees. I looked up and there he was.
“I am thirsty,” I said, grabbing at the sand.
“I am sorry but I don’t keep water in here. But the cave is nice and cool.”
He reached down and I took his hand then he led me into the cave. It wasn’t cool but compared to the desert it gave me the opportunity to come to my senses, and rest my eyes but thirst was becoming more violent.
“I bet you are wondering why, what, why, how? Who knows why. I don’t. Do you? I called you here. Almost random. I suppose, sometimes, even a guy like me has things to get off of his chest.”
“I need water, Mr. Grump.”
“In this desert you will either live or die. You see, all media, journalists, these people who make things up and sell it, I don’t trust, or I act like I don’t trust. But acting like something and being something can be the same things if people believe it. In this race, this campaign. Lies. Lies. Too many. A lot. A lot. Just disgusting things being said. Really awful things. It can be...you don’t have a hot mic? Do you? No, you’re not that smart. Or stupid. You can be trusted. All desperate people can be trusted. Or mistrusted.”
My throat was becoming like pine needles, my nostrils were dry and filled with dust.
Through the darkness of the cave, Mr. Grump stood. His suit was still impeccable. His hair unflappable.
“With money I can build this. This. All of this. On the 64th floor. I can also have a suit made that has air-conditioning. Like the one I have now. I am not hot. I am actually cold, while you are dying. This is my point.”
Then behind he reaches back to furthest wall of the cave which seemed much further but could not have been too far back and he pressed a button or turned a knob. A door opened. He took me by the collar and dragged me out of the desert.
The next room was calm lit by dim candles. A little stream flowed through the center. The room was made of marble and glass. Marble and glass. It was breathtaking, like being in the harem of an ancient God. I crawled across the floor and looked at my reflection in the water.
“Go ahead and drink the water. Its imported from the Himalayas. People who have bathed, drank, farmed with this water for thousands of years now are dying. They are thirsty. Their crops dead. Drink the water. It is very expensive. Because they die you can drink. It would be disrespectful not to. I bought it from them. Good people. Honest. Now I have their water.”
I felt faint, I drank, and was restored but stayed on the ground. Grump walked over to me and sat on a chair that seemed to appear out of the ether but in actuality must have been there all along.
“This chair is pure crystal. Pure. But this is not why I brought you here. This is not why. No. I did because...well, you will never write about this. You don’t have the legal resources. So my secret will be safe with you. It's a dirty, dirty secret. So dirty. Clinton dirty. You know in China they serve human fetus at restaurants? I tried it once. A disgusting thing. Horrible. But if you didn’t know what it was it would be absolutely delicious. A delicacy. But just so you agree with me, this whole conversation is off the record. None of this ever happened.”
While he spoke I laid on the ground, hearing his voice, drinking the water, then before I fell asleep he told me something which won’t surprise some and will shock many.
I woke up in Central Park. It was dark. The night stick of a cop was poking me.
“Get the hell up and get the hell out of the park,” she said.
“Holy shit, what time is it?”
“Time for you to get a watch.”
I walked out of the park and headed back to Lexington. I had a clarity of thought but my body was tired, my feet felt strange. I looked down and saw a pair of Christian Louboutin sneakers on my feet. My Chuck Taylors were sadly gone.
I was back at the Armory and around the corner from Hunter. Nearby was a nice French restaurant Orsay, and I went in there finding a spot at the bar. The bartender came up to me and asked what I wanted.
"You have Grump Vodka?" I said, testing waters.
"Oh god, no. Haven't seen that stuff in a whole generation of alcoholics."
He looked at me with suspicion. It could have been the fall leaves in my hair, or the parched look of a man sleeping too many days in the streets. I took out my debit card and put it on the bar, a sign of monetary peace.
“Tough day,” he said pouring the drink in front of me.
“Depends on what you mean by tough,” I said and took a sip.
“Well, we’ve all been there.”
“I guess so,” I said taking another sip. “What’s your name?”
I started laughing and shook my head.
“Donald, not too many of you left are there?”
“You know what Donald, I am going to want another one of these right after I finish this one. This is a damn good drink.”
I sat there and replayed everything in my mind and thought how crazy it seemed. Especially the last thing Ronald Grump said to me. A man who was running as a Republican, who had destroyed the establishment of his party...it was starting to make so much sense. “I am a Democrat. Seriously. I had to tell somebody. And nobody would believe you, so I just thought what the hell. No one will even believe that this happened. But we saw your email, you called the headquarters a few times. You and your little magazine, who is just pretty much you. I thought and thought, and I felt I had to do it. It was sort of weighing on me. Just a little bit. So that’s it. I am really a democrat. We are working from the inside to destroy the GOP. How funny?” Then he started laughing and laughing, and before I passed out I mumbled one last thing, “What would happen if you won?”
I arrived home late. Boni had just put Amara to sleep. They were back from Vermont. She walked up to me and kissed me.
“Where were you, is everything ok?”
I sat down on the couch and looked at her and smiled.
“I have my story for the week.”
“I have been trying to get a hold of you for hours. I was worried sick.”
“I’m sorry, baby.”
Then she just stared at me and finally asked “well, what’s the story?” Then she looked down and saw my shoes. “Where the hell did you get those?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, “ I said and she sat next to me.