If you don't know where you're going at the Republican National Convention, one of the things you notice first is that nobody else does either. The upside of this is that, once beyond the security cordon, you can do pretty much whatever you want, in an event surrounded by federal agents. The downside is that it's chaos.
Spatial- and assignment-unawareness goes beyond the beloved phenomenon of people hurriedly walking past you, halting directly in your path, then looking up around them, as if the buildings have the answers. There are many of those, to be sure, but even the people who are nominally your guide are as much at a loss as you are.
This is a problem.
"There are 300 of us, and we're learning something new every minute," said a woman named Nikki, who is part of the regular Tampa Bay Times Forum event staff. These are the people who handle scores of Tampa Bay Lightning games per season and normally know where everything goes. Now it's just a mess.
"That's usually our lost and found, but I don't know what that is," she says, pointing at something now labeled "GUEST SERVICES" and consisting of two painted older blondes wearing pink sashes around their waists and diffidently drinking bottled water.
The problem Nikki and her coworkers face is that everything has been capriciously re-labeled by the RNC, for reasons that make no sense. The 100 Level of the arena is now "Level 3." Press passes come with numbers that look like they denote sections but describe nothing in reality. If you work for the New York Times or FOX News, maps displayed on easels around the concourses point out where you can find home base. There is nothing labeled "press stand" despite every member of the press being issued a PRESS STAND pass.
"I'm trying to find my wife," says Dr. Robin Armstrong, a tall, African-American man with a broad smile and a polo shirt designed like the flag of Texas. "I've been up and down this staircase once already."
As we go up it one more time, he has a chance to tell me what brought him to the RNC. "I'm a national committeeman for the Republican Party of Texas, and before that I was the Vice-Chairman," he says. "I think African-Americans have a lot in common with the Republican Party in terms of social values, especially on issues like abortion and traditional marriage. And those were what drew me to the party and from there I found more things I had in common."
His personal-values story is a familiar one, and it's a nice one that blunts the edge of GOP racial rhetoric. He has the chance to explain it as we're turned away by a white-polo'd volunteer and sent back down the same stairs and around the bend to an escalator. We are not allowed to use the elevator behind the volunteer, because it is only for disabled persons. Party members can't shortcut it to drop their stuff with their wife and head down to the floor. The volunteer does not believe that Dr. Robin Armstrong is my personal physician and that I have a debilitating condition.
The volunteers are part of the problem. They outnumber the Times Forum event staff by about 5:1, flanking every delegate entrance, network entrance, prayer center, corridor, escalator and elevator, and they do not know where anything goes, in an arena where they do not work.
"We've been getting questions all day, and we're learning to answer them, one by one," says a white-shirted volunteer with close-cropped hair, a salt-and-pepper beard and the same eager-to-please expression everyone else has. He looks like the well-meaning local policeman who gets eaten by the monster in the second act of every X-Files episode.
"We don't know a lot of answers yet," he says, when I ask about his training. "Wait, I can't talk to you." Is that a part of the training? "We're not allowed to talk to the press." But what about maps of the building, delegate and press assignments, crowd management or any emergency or evacuation protocols?
"We are allowed to say 'Welcome to Tampa, we hope you enjoy your stay,' and that's it."
Good luck, everybody.