Tuesday, June 26, 2012


On Thursday, June 14, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, made an appearance at the Plaza Hotel, where I work regularly as a freelance cameraman and video engineer.
 I was hired as a cameraman to videotape the event, until the position was cut, and then I was moved to video engineer. When that was cut, I was asked if I could be A2, or audio assistant. Finally, that position was cut a few days before the event by the White House staff, but my employer, knowing I was very eager to be a part of the event, kept me on as a utility, or general PA.
My day began at 6AM, when a White House staffer gathered the entire video. audio, and staging crews, and local union stagehands, and told us in no uncertain terms that we were not to take any photos or videos of anything, during the entire show. If any secret service saw anyone using a cell phone, they would confiscate the phone and escort you out of the building. OK. As result of this directive, the only shot I have of the entire day is this one of the outside of a road case with label tape on it.
For the next four hours, I worked with a crew of local 1 stagehands to build the stage on which the President of the United States (POTUS) would stand to make his speech, 18 hours later. The stagehands were big surly dudes, with big beer guts and Long Island accents, and it took a few hours for us all to warm up to each over. They wanted us to know that they were old timers and knew what they were doing, but they were in our house and had to follow our lead somewhat. The third facet of the whole setup was the audio crew who was there to set up the sound system for Mariah Carey, the guest performer at that evening's event. Why were we there so early in the morning? Because once the stage, sound, lights, video and audio were set up, the entire building would have to be cleared so that the secret service could sweep the building, searching for any possible breach in security. They would bring in their bomb sniffing dogs and comb through every room on the floor where the main ballroom is located, as well as the floors below and above.

After the stage was set and the sound system set up, it was time for Mariah Carey's band to sound check. For about two hours, they worked on the same song. It was a new one the Mariah had just written for the occasion, called "Bring it on Home." Her backup singers repeated the line "bring it on home" for hours, until the song, the line, and life itself had lost all meaning. Finally at about noon, we were told that the ballroom had to be cleared because Mariah was coming on stage to rehearse. It was soon apparent to all present that miss Carey has a huge diva complex, and that it pained her to be upstaged by the pomp and importance of the POTUS. She had her own bedazzled mic stand on stage, as well as a fan placed directly in front of the stage to blow back her hair, and a special table with a Kleenex box on the path to the stage, in case miss Carey gets the sniffles. There was much discussion among the staff about where and when the bottle of water for Miss Carey would be placed on stage. At some point during the day, I began to fixate on her name, and I latched onto the fact that "mariah" is another word for hearse and "carey" in French means cavity. So from now until forever I will think of this chanteuse as "Death Cavity."

Eventually Mariah's soundcheck was finished, and my friends in the audio crew and I went out for lunch and to let the secret service do their "sweep." We were all exhausted so we walked across the street to Central Park to eat and catch a little nap.  By the time we headed back to the Plaza at about 5PM, the secret service had completely taken over. There were barricades along every street for blocks in every direction, and there was an agent set up at every entrance to the hotel. We were stopped at a checkpoint and had to wait for a staff member to walk us up to the third floor ballroom. Inside, the whole Plaza had been transformed. Not only was every single square inch of space cleaned, scrubbed, painted, and cleared of the usual trash. (Yes, the Plaza is usually very trashy. It's always very dark in there so you can't see the old food, broken  glass, and dirt in all the crevasses. They are so overbooked, with one event running into the next, that there is hardly time to clean the place between events.)  They had also built partitions of pipe and drape all around the main entrances to the ballroom, so that every access point was blocked by a security guard. We were on lockdown. Part of my duties included setting up a camera so that the staffers backstage could see what was going on on stage. This camera was not to record (as per the directive in the morning). I worked with the White House staff to set up their video feed, skirting around the various pockets of stress and strife emmenating from all of the various factions (white house, Carey, Plaza.)

Once everything was set, all that remained was to wait. We were told that this would be the 4th and final stop on the POTUS' agenda today, starting with Cleveland Ohio, then a school in New York, a party at Sarah Jessica Parker's apartment, and then finally our little gathering. As we waited for the guests to arrive and the festivities to begin, an eerie calm filled the room.  Compared to most events at the Plaza, which are crammed to capacity and always set up at the last minute, this was very different. The room was not very full (only about 200 seats as opposed to the usual 400+) and we were completely set up with hours to go. Adding to the feeling of calm was the fact that there were secret service guys at every single corner, hallway, and doorway, so there was almost no unneeded fussing and walking around. Usually when I am the video engineer at Plaza events, this would be the time when a stressed out client would come and make last minute changes and generally find things to complain about. For this event, there was no room for bullshit. It was very refreshing to sit behind the control booth and know that no one would be coming to bother me.

Finally the guests came in. Unlike the usual charity event crowd at the Plaza, they were much more diverse. Lots of different races and ethnicities, not just the usual privileged white folks. They arrived at 8PM, and sat in small groups, chatting quietly until the first guest went on stage. Why did I feel so strange? I realized that I had none of the usual enmity and disgust for the attendees of a function that I usually feel. These people were here to support the good guy, Obama. These people were on my team. My friend Paul opened the "voice of God" mic and introduced Death Cavity and it was time for her concert.

Carey and her band of professional musical mercenaries gave a concert of her particular brand of acrobatic radio fluff-soul. Feeling and literacy were replaced by acrobatic singing chops. She wailed and caterwauled her way through three songs, starting with the fledgling composition "Bring it on Home." After her first song, Carey made a panicked request for water. The promised water bottle was missing. Heads would roll. Her backup singer brought the boss a bottle of water, and Carey almost cried with gratitude. I can guarantee that the reason there was no water bottle waiting for Mariah on stage was because there were fourteen separate conversations about it between her handlers and the venue's banquet staff, and her ultimate wishes were obscured. The water bottle was 'fussed to death." Though Carey's music does nothing for me, I was oddly moved. All of these people are using their talent and power to re-elect a Democrat, to make sure the money-grubbing, lying, religious weirdo millionaire does not get a chance to serve up America to corporate interests. I loved her and her band for that, even as I find her  and her music nauseating.

As Death Cavity's second song ended, it was time for me and my two henchmen to go to the stage for the big change-over. Our task was to move a 20 foot by 60 foot panel of blue drape from behind the musical instrument to in front of them, and then to readjust the lighting, and set the Presidential podium and flags in time for the main event, the speech of the POTUS. While we did this, another, larger curtain was pulled across the front of the stage to allow us to do our work in hiding. But first, we had to wait backstage while Carey finished her last song, in the very tense zone between the stage and the Green Room, where at that moment the President and First Lady (POTUS and FLOTUS) were taking photographs with all of the attendees who had paid a tidy sum for the privilege. So we stood backstage, in our suit and ties, surrounded by secret service, as Mariah Carey and her band walked off stage past us. We then raced on stage, and few the next 45 minutes, we struggled with ladders to change the stage from a concert venue to a Presidential pulpit.

Once the curtains were moved into the correct line of blue in front of the backline, the lighting technicians readjusted the LED lights, and then the White House staffers came in with a line of six American flags, These had to placed at precise intervals of two and a half feet apart. They had to be fluffed open with the help of hidden coat hangers. And then the official POTUS podium had to be placed and plugged in. At last, the stage was set for the POTUS. Throughout the night, when something wen well or a task was completed, I yelled "POTUS!" The expression came to mean, in my mind, "awesome!" or the opposite of "bogus!" From the back of the room, the stage really did look POTUS.

Now it was getting late, but the crowd waited patiently. Alicia Keys was introduced, and she gave a very sweet, heartfelt speech introducing the event.  ( Here is a photo I found on the internet of her standing in front of the Communist hammer and cycle.) Another fifteen minuted passed. I was reminded of stories of Rolling Stones concerts in the 70's, when Keith was passed out, nodding off backstage, and the band don't go on until 1 or 2AM. Here it was 10:30PM and the audience was waiting patiently, not for a junky rocker, but for a brilliant visionary world leader.

Finally,  Corey Booker, Mayor of Newark went on stage and gave a very funny and inspiring speech. He then introduced Michelle Obama. She radiated health and beauty, and spoke with a relaxed and spontaneous ease. She joked about how late it was, and that this was a fun night for them, a "date night." Then she introduced the main event, her husband, the POTUS.
Out he walked to a standing ovation. He and his wife embraced and kissed, and it was clear that they are a real, loving, romantically linked couple. Their body language spoke volumes about their partnership and their real desire for each other. It was very real and refreshing, and it made me feel happy for Barrack. He has a tough sexy lady on his side. (This is the only photo from the event that I've been able to find online.)

And so the POTUS spoke and he took questions from the audience. He was relaxed, he was funny, he was articulate and genuine, and he made sense. This is a guy who knows what's going on in the country and the world and knows what to do about it. He is clear about the differences between him and his opponent, and he is looking forward to debating him. I am also looking forward to seeing him squash the Republican. I don't want to go into politics right now, let me just say that I am an Obama guy all the way. He is a leader who believes in a balance between capitalism and regulation, and knows when to let the market decide and when the government is there to make life better for all of us. Or to represent what we call civilization. Romney is at best a rich, out of touch, religious weirdo, and at worst an evil, conniving, greedy liar.

As the President was leaving, I went down into the street and saw the massive cavalcade of cars that was the presidential procession leaving the building. There were about ten police cars, then six or seven black SUV's, then four or five black vans, then an armored truck, then half a dozen more more police cars. Crowds of people lined the barricades along 58th Street and 5th Avenue and cheered as the cars passed. I marveled at the thought that this one man moved this many people and disrupted this much everyday business many times a day, all over the world. It really did reinforce the idea that he is "the most powerful man in the world."

I went back into the ballroom, and I worked for three hours dismantling the stage, loading out sound, lightning, and staging equipment, and packing everything into a truck. By the time I was finished at 2AM, I had been at work for 20 hours and awake for 22 hours. I was squeezed out like an old sponge, totally depleted. It would take me two weeks to recover physically. But I was happy to have given a little of my sweat for the POTUS.