Pissed off and hung over.
That’s how I remained for about four days after South Carolina’s recent elections. I spun in disbelief in the shocking results, which included the nomination of an unknown Democratic candidate who (we learned only after the fact) is currently facing obscenity charges.
This ran the name of the party, the state and each and every Democratic voter – yours truly included – through the gutter. And back again, too.
But I knew I’d have to wake up, pump down the coffee and ibuprofen, and get back in the swing of things. And to do so, I’d have to meet this Alvin Greene face to face.
And after doing so, I must admit that my sentiment quickly changed. Not to anything positive, mind you. But very different than what it was 90 minutes before I entered his Manning, SC home.
I walked into that meeting with a grudge. After all, this is the unknown, charged-with-obscenity guy who somehow beat my favored candidate, the renowned Vic Rawl, who was expected to be a major threat to incumbent Sen. Jim DeMint.
When I walked away from that meeting with Greene, though, I felt … shocked. Speechless. And – I hate to admit it – horribly sympathetic.
I am not a doctor. I’m not a therapist. Hell, I can’t even figure out how to independently put on a band aid, so please don’t think I’m offering any legitimate diagnosis. But, in my personal opinion, Alvin Greene is missing something.
This past Saturday, I joined others for an informal meeting at Vic Rawl’s campaign headquarters in North Charleston. Sort of a therapeutic, “South Carolina Democrats Anonymous” support group kind of thing, I guess. The campaign staff themselves were keeping very busy going over the numbers precinct by precinct, demographic by demographic and coffee cup by coffee cup.
To stay out of the way, Rawl supporters Tim and Bekah Patrick joined me in another room, where we found Erin McKee, president of the Charleston Central Labor Council. McKee was as shocked as we were.
It wasn’t just the freakish win that bothered us, but the fact that he was all over media – local and national – making the incident loom darker and darker after each “when we come back” sound bite.
“He’s spending so much time talking to reporters,” Tim said. “Why hasn’t he ever spoken to us?”
Tim had a sudden inspiration to answer his own question before any of us could. He sped over to a desktop computer, looked up Greene’s home phone, and started to dial.
The rest of us just shrugged our shoulders. “He won’t answer,” I said. “His phone has probably been ringing off the hook since Tuesday night.”
Greene did answer Tim’s call, however. And quickly. And even though he at first tried to shy away from request for a meeting, Tim didn’t give up.
“Well, we’re Democrats in the Lowcountry area. We don’t know you. And if you’re our candidate, we should.”
And soon Greene agreed to meet us, inviting us to his own home, in fact.
The very next day, the four of us were joined by Ken Riley, president of the local International Longshoremen’s Association chapter 1422. He and McKee both had personal interest in Greene’s “union-free” comments issued to the media, and wanted to learn more about his actual labor stance.
While traveling the 90 miles to Manning, we reminded each other to keep our noses clean and only talk professionally. We can’t try to stump him with trick questions, we agreed. No one should issue threatening challenges, either. And we shouldn’t bring up his recent arrest, we thought, because that might just trigger him to end the conversation.
And we knew to be ready to deal with others who may be there with him, too. Included in the many different news articles on Greene was occasional mention of his brother interceding with his media interviews, after all. We wanted to get the word straight from him and with no outside influence.
But when we pulled up to his home, at first we didn’t think anyone was there. Everything appeared still and lifeless when the five of us stood in the high heat trying to decide which of the two houses, one brick and one pre-fab, we should approach.
All I could think about then was how stale and motionless and depressing and deprecated everything in the immediate area seemed in this rural edge of the small Southern town. It was like a still shot from “The Last Picture Show,” except in color.
There were many vehicles parked between the two houses, with two that didn’t appear to have moved in years.
The lawn looked like it had only recently received a last-minute, sloppy and overdue mowing, leaving long shards of brown clippings spewed in front of the house.
A young and frail-looking cat I assumed to be a stray came looking for handouts, crawling out from under an old and broken-down El Camino and getting a stripe of old and burned-out motor oil upon its back as it did so.
We knocked and Greene came to a window, directing us to a side door through the open garage. He seemed quite happy to see us, too.
He pushed open the screen door and accepted my handshake. He then turned his back and walked away as the screen closed, leaving Riley and I looking at each other in confusion. “Do we just follow him?” I whispered.
Riley went first, and I was glad. The house seemed unlit and I couldn’t see anything.
“Back here,” we heard. We walked down an unlit hallway through two unlit rooms and into a third to join Greene. Sunlight entering partially-closed curtains was the only lighting we had.
The Patricks and Riley took a couch in front of the window, while McKee sat in a rocking chair in the corner. Greene sat on another couch; I sat next to him.
He wore athletic pants and a t-shirt. A broken wristwatch was strapped to his left wrist. The slight spattering of gray in his hair was also found in the whiskers on his unshaven face.
As my eyes adjusted to the poor lighting, I saw that I was in the same wood-paneled room used for many of Greene’s television interviews. And then we all saw the beaming smile on his face. He was happy to see us, and seemed unbelievably at ease and comfortable with us five complete strangers.
That’s why I was partly surprised when he seemed to have trouble speaking at times.
I saw many of Greene’s television interviews, and noted his delayed responses issued in monosyllabic repetition. I gave him benefit of the doubt, though, and assumed that could be the result of simple nervousness. After all, he went from unknown to national news overnight.
So if he appeared so comfortable and pleased in our presence, then that stammering repetition he issued to us could simply be a speech impediment, I presumed. No big deal.
But he only seemed to have that problem when trying to provide full sentence responses to current events topics in present tense.
Ask him about something that happened years ago, you’ll hear “yes, that’s absolutely correct, and thanks for asking. I sure did.”
Ask him about something that happened yesterday, though, and he answers “…. um …. y’y’y’… y’… … … yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean …. y’ … yeah.”
When he spoke about original military experience, for example, he swapped stories with Navy veteran Tim. “You know what they say: ‘once intelligence, always intelligence!'” His eyes shone bright in direct contact with ours; his facial expression was assertive.
But when it came to his last term in the army, the shine in his eyes seemed to dull as they were directed elsewhere, perhaps to master some recollection, and which was only offered in a shunted, terse format. “Yes. …um … well.”
I’m sure that right now you’re thinking that manner of response could simply indicate he was uncomfortable speaking on that particular subject. But it happened throughout the one and half to two hours we spent there going over other topics, too.
I explained to Greene why I was there, and what I hoped to achieve. Since he was a surprise winner in the primary, the Democratic Party offices and organizations throughout the Lowcountry were very likely to receive numerous questions about him, and that we’d need to know how to answer them.
“Can you tell me the issues you find most important to the people of South Carolina?” I asked.
“Yes. Issues. They are jobs. Education. And justice.” This seemed like a practiced meter in response, and which I would certainly expect from a political candidate making public address on issues.
I then offered that most folks would know how to interpret his stance on the first two topics; I’d need more details on the last topic of justice, though. “Oh, um … it’s um….I mean…” He didn’t seem prepared to offer more than one-word responses to questions on his platform.
His stance seemed to change midway through, too.
What I was first able to surmise through his broken response to my question was that first-time offenders of nonviolent crimes are typically over-sentenced, that such costs too much money, and that the money could be spent on other projects such as education. That took quite a while to summate, too, with some of it coming from his “yes!” agreements to our “do you mean” prodding.
When we started to nod, indicating that we understood his statement, he may have taken that as encouragement to expound. Except his position seemed to flip when he continued.
“Punishment fits … fits the crime! … We need … to … need to enforce!”
This change in positions occurred more than once, as well, such as when Riley and McKee asked for clarification on his previously-issued statements against organized labor. In an earlier interview on MSNBC, Greene said he wanted South Carolina to stay “union-free.”
McKee and Riley were quick to point out that unions are present in the state – over two dozen with hundreds of chapters, in fact, representing almost 100,000 workers in a wide range of fields, ranging from postal workers to telephone company technicians to longshoremen to federal government employees.
Their members also make more money and receive better benefits than non-union workers, they pointed out, and which are greatly needed in the current economy. And those 100,000 union members in South Carolina are voters, too, they added .
“Well … I guess … um…,” began Greene’s response, as he seemed to search his memory for a practiced response. “Large … large unions …. large unions transform … form … the work…work culture.” He then nodded his head, as if in self-confirmation that he withdrew the correct answer.
Riley informed Greene that labor unions traditionally support political campaigns through donations, but only for candidates who have a confirmable stance on organized labor. There’s money to spend, Riley said, but not on candidates who make statements against unions.
“Well … um … I guess I could guess I could … um … learn more about that.” He nodded.
Greene seemed to be under the impression that the Democratic Party would fund his campaign. And when he made such statements, he seemed to happily expect it, as if it were an established fact.
I had to explain that campaign financing is the responsibility of a candidate and, just as Riley had explained regarding union donations, no portion of the party is obligated to provide funding to each and every candidate.
Our county parties are not in financial position to provide funding, either, I explained, and would hold local candidates in higher priority. The state party doesn’t typically aid campaigns financially. And the DSCC will only provide funding to candidates it believes are in a good position to win an election.
I stipulated that I was no spokesperson for the state or national party, and that he himself should certainly make contact with both for confirmation, and at least for advice. But I reiterated that he should be looking into other methods of campaign financing.
He looked disappointed. “I was told I would,” he said.
I asked who exactly told him that, but he didn’t answer. Whether it was a refusal to identify his source, I can’t exactly confirm, though, because he quickly changed the subject to a happier topic. And his tone of disappointment quickly changed, too.
We only had one interruption during our conversation when Greene’s phone rang. He assumed his father, who was in a room right next to ours with the door closed, would answer, I guess.
After about the fourth ring, though, we heard “answer the phone!” come through the door.
Greene asked his father to take the call, but after another few rings, “answer the phone!”
He excused himself and went to another room to take the call, which apparently came from a stranger offering congratulations. I heard him tell of his excitement over the surprise win.
We sat and listened. The door to the side room shuffled a bit, apparently due to his father ensuring it to be closed.
“What’s your name?” we heard Greene ask the caller. “And how old are you?”
When we closed our conversation that afternoon, Tim asked Greene if he’d take some pictures with us. He agreed and suggested we step outside.
We stood with assumption that he would lead us out, but he took a quick turn to the rear of the house. “I need to change my shoes,” he said, telling us to continue on out.
“Gottagetmyshoes, gottagetmyshoes, gottagetmyshoes,” he whispered to himself as he walked away, leaving us to exit the home alone through that dark hallway.
We again met the stray cat, this time in the garage, and with long strands of dried grass clippings stuck to the grease that remained on its back.
After we took the pictures, Greene thanked us all for coming. He then walked back into his house, leaving us standing right outside the open garage.
That eerie feeling of being stuck in a still shot from “The Last Picture Show” came upon me once again as I turned my head to look around.
When I later saw the photos, I noticed that Greene’s appearance and expression seems unchanged in each one.
Frozen. Blank. Distant.