“Asher you must think I’m stupid if you think this is gonna be a surprise,” I chided my husband as we got ready to go to a pool party on Staten Island.
“I know Seth, but please humor everyone, okay?” Asher responded. “Tomorrow you’ll turn eighteen, and that’s a big deal.”
“Yeah, okay,” I replied. “I’ll try to act surprised, no matter how obvious it is.”
“And here I thought we were being clever, disguising your surprise birthday party as a Memorial Day pool party.”
I gave my husband my best, ‘yeah right’ look, which only made him laugh.
“What do you think, Seth?” Asher asked me as he held up his red speedos.
“Actually, I like you better the way you’re dressed now,” I quipped, admiring his naked form.
“You really want me to parade around a bunch of other gay boys in the nude?” Ashe asked with a smile on his face and a laugh in his eyes.
“I’m not worried,” I responded as I walked up to my husband and grabbed his package. “They all know you’re off limits, and besides which, not one of them can love you the way I can.”
“If you keep this up, I won’t be able to wear my speedo,” my husband pointed out.
“Serves you right,” I replied.
“Besides which, not everyone there will be a gay boy,” Ashe added. “Clarke’s sisters will be there. They live there, after all. Josh’s sisters will be there with their boyfriends, except of course for Stacey, who’ll be bringing her girlfriend. Tanner’s even bringing his four sisters, so we’ll finally get to meet them. Oh, and Zach’s brother, Jake, will be there, and he’s definitely a hetero from what I’ve heard.”
Seeing my husband wearing his red speedo was definitely a distraction, but then he donned a pair of khaki shorts and the cream-colored polo that looked so sexy in contrast to his mocha-colored skin.
“Ashe, you’re wearing your speedos under your street clothes?” I asked. “They have dressing rooms, you know.”
“Yeah, but the dressing rooms are small and it’ll just be easier to avoid them, rather than deal with everyone else trying to use them, all at the same time.”
“I guess I’ll do the same,” I said as I got out the green pair of speedos that Asher said matched my eye color. Donning them, I pulled my black shorts on over them and then added a dark green tank top.
“You might want to wear something warmer,” Asher suggested. “It’s only gonna be in the seventies and it’ll be cold on the ferry.”
“You know how warm I get,” I countered. “I’ll wear a light jacket until we get there, though, and on the way home.”
“As will I,” Asher agreed. “Even so, you should wear sunscreen. You know how easily you burn.” Then wiggling his eyebrows, he added, “I’ll be happy to do your back for you.”
“And my front,” I quipped as I pulled off my tank top and shorts.
“Need you ask?” He responded.
Although Asher didn’t burn as easily, I ended up applying sunscreen to him too. After taking matters into our own hands, or rather each other’s hands and mouths, we were able to get back into our speedos and then dressed for the trip to Staten Island. Donning no-show socks and sneakers, we grabbed our bikes from where we kept them, hung vertically on the far wall of the terrace.
Laughing, I remembered, “The last time we went to a party at Clarke and Carl’s place, you had to ask how to drive a bicycle.”
“That was nearly three years ago,” Asher pointed out. “Growing up, I lived in a small two-bedroom apartment with my parents, and we had only a tiny balcony big enough for a couple of lounge chairs. There was no room for me to keep a bicycle.”
“But you said your parents offered to get you one anyway, when you were eleven,” I pointed out.
Sighing, Asher remembered, “And I spent more time eyeing the young teenage boy that was in the shop than looking at the bicycles. That’s how my parents knew I was gay, even though I didn’t understand what I was feeling back then. In any case, I decided I’d be too embarrassed to ride the kind of beat-up used bike my parents could have afforded. But riding that tandem bike around Staten Island was fun! We had to get our own bikes after that; I just didn’t realize how much they’d cost.”
“It’s all relative,” I pointed out. “A decent e-bike would’ve cost a lot less, but then weight, rigidity and gears don’t mean all that much when you have an electric motor doing all of the work. However, when it’s your muscles that are doing the peddling, then it’s worth spending money on those things, ’cause it makes riding much easier, and more fun.”
“And I’d rather not hafta take a risk on the lithium-ion batteries catching fire and burning our apartment down – with us in it!” Asher said as he shook his head nervously.
“Good batteries cost a lot of money,” I countered. “So do the chargers. You know, Professor Arens has a full workshop of power tools crammed into the coat closet in their apartment. Josh showed me some of it; it’s all top-of-the-line stuff. You might remember that they gutted and remodeled their apartment themselves. I think that what shocked me the most was that the batteries often cost more than the tools they powered. The larger batteries cost over a hundred bucks, and some of the tools use two of them.
“Let’s face it Ashe, if you’re running a delivery service and trying to survive off of a few dollars per delivery, it’s hard to justify spending hundreds of dollars on batteries and a charger when you can import ones costing less than half as much from China. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for and tragedy after tragedy has been the result of that. It’s pretty hard to regulate the industry when the batteries are everywhere and so many people charge them in their apartments, not realizing the danger.”
“But e-bikes and scooters can go faster than the speed limit,” Asher argued. “Tomorrow, it’ll be four years since my mom was struck by a kid on an e-bike. It took several operations and months of rehab for her to get back on her feet, and a good year for her to fully recover. It nearly cost us the restaurant. The kid who hit her paid for his mistake with his life. There was no way a fourteen-year-old kid shoulda been riding a motorized vehicle on city streets without any training. E-bikes and scooters should be treated like any other motorized vehicle. Riders should hafta be trained, they should hafta know the rules of the road and they should hafta have a license to drive one. The vehicles themselves should have to be registered and display a license tag to be ridden on city streets.”
“It’s not just e-bikes and e-scooters, Ashe. Frankly, there have been way too many pedestrian fatalities caused by careless cyclists,” I pointed out. “Just spend a few minutes in front of our building and you’ll see a cyclist blowing through a red light, riding on a sidewalk or riding the wrong way in a bike lane. But if you wanna license twelve-year-olds to ride their bikes on city streets, you’ll hafta get that through the state legislature, and that’ll never happen. People Upstate would scream bloody murder if their kids had to have a license to ride their bikes to school. Hell, it was tough enough to get the law passed requiring kids to wear helmets. Then, once they reach fourteen, they still take the helmets off.”
“E-bikes used to be banned in New York City, yet that didn’t stop the store that put one in the hands of the kid who struck my mother.” Asher said with some disgust. “Then, well-meaning politicians let them in because the ban unfairly discriminated against people who were making deliveries, many of whom are undocumented. How crazy is that? Would the delivery workers have been unemployed if they had to pedal their bikes? I think not! Instead of leveling the playing field by keeping the ban in place and enforcing it, people like your father threw up their hands and legalized everything, and people have died as a result of it.”
“Leave my father the fuck out of it!” I practically shouted. Then softening my stance, I continued, “You know that sometimes politicians hafta choose between bad and worse options, and back then, no one appreciated the danger posed by substandard lithium-ion batteries. By far, the biggest cause of pedestrian fatalities in The City isn’t from bikes and scooters, but from cars. With congestion pricing coming to Manhattan next year, perhaps we’ll finally see some progress.”
“If the idiots who live in New Jersey, on Staten Island and on Long Island don’t manage to block it,” Asher replied. “To them, it’s their god-given right to drive into the city.”
“Never mind that taking the train, an express bus or the ferry is faster, greener and cheaper,” I agreed. “Dad once proposed banning private cars in all of Lower and Midtown Manhattan. It didn’t take him long to discover that it would’ve been a career-ending move.” We both laughed at that.
Asher and I barely fit in the elevator with both of our bikes as we descended to the ground floor. We made two stops on the way down, with one more passenger squeezing on and the other, who had a stroller, letting us pass. Exiting out through the lobby, I waved at George, who was on duty as the guard and doorman for the building.
In better times, we would’ve ridden through Corlears Hook Park and across the pedestrian bridge over FDR Drive to get to East River Park and the East River Greenway. However, East River Park was torn up in what many believed to be an ill-conceived attempt to protect us from flooding when the next Hurricane Sandy hits the East Coast. The contractor ignored an injunction against doing any work on the park and cut down all the trees, leaving the city little choice but to proceed with the controversial plan. Now, the project was a year behind schedule and way over budget. In my opinion, New York should have been building dykes like they have in the Netherlands. Ultimately, we’ll have no choice, after wasting billions and sustaining severe damage from the next major storm.
Asher and I rode down Madison to Montgomery, and then under the FDR to Pier 36, picking up the greenway there. As we rode, I continued the conversation, “I must say, I miss riding together to Stuyvesant in good weather. That was nice.”
“I miss it too,” Asher agreed. “I still like to ride to and from school in nicer weather, but it’s not the same as when we both rode together. Riding my bike takes half the time of taking the M21 bus, but it’s all on city streets with heavy traffic. It’s just not the same as it was riding together along the water.”
“For sure,” I agreed.
“And riding to Columbia’s not an option for you. You have to take the subway.”
“The Hudson River Bikeway practically goes the whole way there,” I pointed out, as I’d done a thousand times before.
“Yes, I know, and Harlem’s not as dangerous as it used to be, but your blond curly hair makes you a target,” Asher went on. “The thought of you riding alone at night isn’t something I want to contemplate, and I still can’t get the picture of all of those mangled bicycles outta my mind. You are not gonna ride your bike to Columbia, period.” It was an argument we’d had many times before, and although it wouldn’t have taken much longer to bike to Columbia as to take the subway, I wasn’t about to press the issue when it caused my husband so much distress.
Neither Asher nor I were in high school yet in 2017, when an Islamic extremist drove his truck onto the Hudson River Bikeway, killing eight cyclists, but kids who were there on that day still spoke of the chaos and fear they’d experienced. Asher and I often rode our bikes to and from Stuyvesant High School, but our path didn’t take us anywhere near where the terrorist incident had occurred. It was a simple matter to ride along the East River Greenway and then the Battery Park Esplanade, right along the waterfront. It wasn’t the shortest or quickest route, but it gave us a much quieter ride, free of all the traffic and congestion that greeted us when we walked or took the bus. The route to Columbia would’ve taken me right past the memorial for the cyclists who died.
We both graduated from Stuyvesant a year ago and just finished our freshman year of college. Asher was in the Stern School of Business at NYU and I went to Columbia University and was studying pre-law. Both schools were out for the summer and we had big plans that would mean being apart for most of it. Going to college had taken a big adjustment though, as for the first time since we met, we were apart from each other all day. At least we shared our bed at night, and Ashe always had an incredible meal ready for me when I got home, even if he wasn’t always there to share it.
Tomorrow, I’d be taking an early morning train down to Washington with my dad, on my birthday, no less. Dad was now a U.S. Congressman and I was gonna spend the summer working as an intern in his Congressional office. For a pre-law student who also planned on going into public service, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. It wasn’t my first time acting as a Congressional staffer. Back in 2021, Dad had just finished his last term as a member of the New York State Assembly, a position he’d held practically since I was born.
As Asher and I boarded the Staten Island Ferry, I thought back to how I ended up being in the Capitol on January 6. Dad was a bit of what some called a political wunderkind, graduating from Georgetown’s law school at the top of his class when he was only 22. He met my mom while she was in the midst of an internal medicine internship and on rotation in the Emergency Medicine Department at George Washington University. Dad developed a bout of acute appendicitis and spent several hours under her care while waiting to go to surgery. After he recovered, they started dating and before long they were inseparable.
Dad worked as a law clerk for President Clinton’s former Secretary of HUD and then followed him back to New York to run his campaign for attorney general. The campaign was successful and after winning the election, the new AG offered Dad a plum position in the AG’s office in Albany. Unfortunately, that meant having a commuter marriage, ’cause Mom was doing an oncology fellowship at the world-famous Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute in New York City. However, the state assemblyman who represented a district on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was indicted and convicted of corruption in federal court. Dad decided to run for the open seat; it was an opportunity to run for political office in his own right that might not come again.
For nearly two decades, Dad ascended the political ladder in the New York State Assembly, getting himself assigned to the powerful Ways and Means committee and ultimately coming to chair it. Dad’s former boss, the New York Attorney General, went on to run for governor and served in that role for more than a decade. Dad’s close friendship with the Governor opened doors for him, putting him in the position of being one of the most powerful men in the State Assembly before he even reached the age of forty. There was talk of Dad becoming the next Speaker of the Assembly and Dad had his sights on the governor’s mansion, but then things happened that forever changed his life.
“Are you planning to take another round trip on the Ferry?” Asher asked, making me realize that we’d docked on Staten Island and it was time to get off.
“Sorry, Ashe,” I responded, “With my leaving tomorrow, I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“You and me both,” Asher replied.
Riding our bikes off the boat, we headed west on Richmond Terrace until we got to the Snugg Harbor Botanical Garden, where we turned left and headed to a tiny street between Snugg Harbor and Allison Pond Park, in the Randall Manor neighborhood. The party was being hosted by our good friends, Clarke and Carl, in the sprawling mansion Clarke’s parents had bought with their ill-gotten wealth. Like so many crooks before them, they drew attention to themselves by living well beyond their means. There was no way they could have afforded a multi-million dollar mansion with an in-ground pool on two city government salaries.
When their parents went to prison, the children sued to keep the house as well as enough of their assets to be able to afford to live there until graduating from high school and college. It turned out there were enough legitimate assets in their parents’ retirement accounts to do so, but that turned out to be a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the assets seized by federal agents. Clarke’s parents had engaged in bribery, kickbacks and embezzlement, not to mention the terrible child abuse that had left Clarke scarred for life.
The house was clearly built where a teardown had been, nestled among a mix of similar mansions as well as more modest, older homes. Remembering the drill from our last visit, we parked our bikes inside the garage and stripped to our speedos, stashing our shirts and shorts inside our jackets, which we tied to our bikes, and doing likewise with our socks and sneakers. We entered through the garage into the finished basement. Inside, there were already a lot of kids going in and out of the two dressing rooms and just lounging around and shooting the shit.
One of Clarke’s sisters who’s name I didn’t remember came up to us – hell, she probably wasn’t even in her teens the last time I saw her – and said, “Hey Asher. Hey Seth. There are changing rooms behind me if you need them, which I guess you don’t, and there are huge pump-bottles of Super Goop Sunscreen located throughout the place. You can go directly from here out to the pool deck, or you can go upstairs, where we have an ample supply of drinks and snacks in the kitchen. There’s more food on the back and side decks, and Carl’s grilling up just about everything you can grill, out behind the back deck.
“Besides the usual hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken breasts, we have grilled veggies, vegan chili and homemade hummus with both pita bread and veggies. All us girls are vegan, so there’s plenty to eat besides meat.” Then after a pause, she added, “Oh, and we have a wood-fired pizza oven and Clarke’s makin’ all kinds of pizza, including some that are gluten and dairy-free, so there’s no excuse for goin’ away hungry.”
“Thanks, Jasmine,” Asher replied. I was amazed that he remembered her name, let alone recognized her, having last seen her some four years ago. We climbed an open stairway that led to the main floor and found ourselves in a large, three-story atrium with the front door directly ahead of us, a living room to our right and a formal dining room to the left. Turning around, there was a large open kitchen and behind that was a family room. Inside the kitchen were a number of kids who appeared to be in their mid-twenties. I recognized Clarke’s older brother, Joseph, who’d played football for Notre Dame and was a year out of law school. He was with a young woman whom I assumed to be his steady girlfriend of the last couple of years.
One of the other guys, a younger, less muscular version of Joseph, was obviously Clarke’s other brother, Scott. Next to Scott on one side was a young blond woman, possibly his own girlfriend, and on the other side of him were two young men, one of them African American and the other white. I remembered that Scott’s best friend was gay and had had a black boyfriend for a number of years.
“Hi, Joe, Scott,” I began as we approached.
“I don’t remember your names, but I certainly remember the two of you,” Scott replied. “I seem to remember that you’re married, and you got married when you were something like sixteen.”
“Asher was only fifteen, and I was fourteen,” I replied, drawing gasps from some of the folks I didn’t know. “It’s quite a long story, and involved getting a court order to allow us to marry, but Asher knocked me up and so we had little choice,” I added jokingly. “By the way, I’m Seth and this is my husband, Asher, and I never did manage to get pregnant in spite of all our trying.”
Laughing heartily, Scott responded, “This is my girlfriend, Connie, and this is my best friend, Jake, and his husband, Terrance.”
“And this is my fiancé, Jasmine,” Joe added.
“Don’t you already have a sister named Jasmine?” I asked. “We met her downstairs.”
“Yeah, we do, and she’s just gonna hafta change her name, so we don’t get confused,” Joe quipped, and then he continued, “Hey, we have plenty of munchies here, and there’s lots of food outside. Feel free to help yourself to a beer,” he added as he raised his bottle of Bud Lite, “or a soda if you prefer.”
With a snort, Scott said, “I wanted to order a keg, but Joseph nixed that idea.”
“The last thing we need around here is a keg party,” Joe countered. “The only reason to order a keg is for everyone to get drunk. Someone hasta be the adult in the room. Carl’s mom didn’t want to allow any beer at all, but then Scott talked about bringing pot, now that it’s legal, so she agreed to a limited supply of beer.”
Asher responded, “Seth and I steer clear of keg parties, and we do our best to avoid parties where there’s more than casual pot use. A good friend of ours, Francis San Angelo, who goes by Freck, has a history of alcohol and heavy pot use and nearly killed himself when he was eleven, so we don’t use either when he or his boyfriend are around. Not that there haven’t been times when a beer or a joint was thrust into our hands, but it’s just not our thing. Parties are about friendship and I like to remember them. Besides which, if I wanted to drink, I use a lot of wine in my cooking and have ready access to it. It’s funny, but I’ve yet to have anyone ask for I.D. when I sign for deliveries. However, as it is I have to be careful not to taste too much of it when adding it to my cooking or to inhale the fumes as it boils off. I learned that lesson the hard way, when I first started helping out in my parents’ restaurant.
“On the other hand, Seth will be turning eighteen tomorrow and I don’t know of many kids who wouldn’t enjoy celebrating that milestone with a beer or two if given the chance.” Asher concluded by raising his eyebrows as if to ask me the question.
Truthfully, I’d forgotten that one of the reasons for the party was to celebrate my birthday and I was curious as to why no one had even acknowledged it yet. I’d half expected everyone to shout, ‘Surprise!’ upon our arrival, but with so many of us coming and going and so many areas to congregate, that wouldn’t have been practical.
The truth of the matter was that I didn’t really like beer and barely tolerated it when given the opportunity to drink it, so I usually stuck to soft drinks, water or juice. But then Joseph interrupted my thoughts by saying, “Perhaps you’d like to try something special for the occasion? We have a few six-packs of Blue Moon Belgian White stashed away. If you haven’t had it before, it’s is a wheat-based pale ale, which is a bit stronger than beer, but it has a much more delicate, citrus flavor. People who don’t even like beer will often find they like it.”
Looking back questioningly at Ashe, I responded, “Okay, I’ll give that a try.”
“Me too,” Asher agreed and we were both handed open bottles with the characteristic Blue Moon label. Drinking a bit of it right from the bottle, I had to admit that I liked it. Not that I wanted to get drunk on the stuff, but it was refreshing.
Although there was plenty to nosh on in the kitchen, neither Asher nor I cared for the empty calories of most snack foods, so we headed out through the family room and onto the back deck, where a number of our friends had congregated. Freck and Kyle were seated at a table with Josh and Dave, so we headed there first. “Hi guys,” I called out as we approached.
“Hey, Asher,” Freck responded. “Happy birthday, Seth, or soon-to-be-birthday. Tomorrow, you’ll reach the age of majority. I won’t call you an adult, since you pointed out the difference last year when Ashe turned eighteen. And I should hope those are non-alcoholic beers your drinking.”
“These aren’t beers,” I countered. “They’re pale ales.”
“Same difference,” Josh said.
“And I’ve had a change of heart,” I responded. “Although technically still considered a minor, the age of majority confers nearly all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood, so I’ve decided that an eighteen-year-old is indeed an adult – a provisional adult. It’s kind of like having a provisional driver’s license.”
“Funny coincidence, how you decided that adulthood begins at eighteen, just as you’re about to turn eighteen,” Kyle quipped.
Noticing how well his hair had grown out since the injury that had nearly cost him his life, I commented, “You certainly look a hell of a lot better than the last time we saw you at one of Clarke’s parties.”
“Wow, I forgot about that,” Kyle responded. “That was back before the neurosurgeons replaced my craniotomy flap. My head had been shaved and it looked like it had been bashed in. I wore a brightly-colored hard shell over my skull for protection when I swam, and a bicycle helmet the rest of the time. Shit, I still used a wheelchair to get around most of the time.”
“You can’t even tell anything happened to you now,” I interjected. “Your hair’s grown out nicely and your face isn’t lopsided anymore, and your speech is as brash as it’s ever been.”
“I’m not apraxic anymore either,” Kyle agreed. “I still need crutches to get around on campus, ’cause I fatigue easily, but even that’s becoming less and less. Of course Freck can feel the craniotomy scar on my scalp when we make love, and judging from my dad’s history of male pattern baldness, I won’t be able to keep it hidden anymore by the time I reach thirty.”
“I’m just grateful you’re here with us today to celebrate my eighteenth birthday,” I countered.
“You’ve no Idea what Ky means to me,” Freck added. “He’s everything to me,” he said with an obvious tear in each eye. “By the way, we’re still planning to marry when he’s sixteen and I turn eighteen. That’ll avoid a quirk in the Massachusetts law that could technically make having sex with him illegal. Because my birthday’s on December 28, we’ll get married just at the stroke of midnight at the start of 2025. Of course you’re all invited.”
“And there’s our joint bar mitzvahs on July 1 this summer,” Kyle added.
“I’ll be in the midst of my internship, but I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” I replied. “You’re not just our very best friends; you’re family.”
“The feeling’s mutual,” Freck responded as the tears in his eyes finally overflowed and ran down his cheeks. I think we all had tears in our eyes at that point. However, the scent of barbecuing meat wafting up from below was making me insanely hungry. Noticing that Asher and I were staring at their plates of food, Dave suggested, “Why don’t you go get yourselves something to eat, and then we can talk some more if and when you make it back up here. Otherwise, we’ll see you when we come down for more food or to swim.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Asher agreed.
Heading down the stairs to the pool deck, Carl was manning a gas grill and Clarke was spreading toppings on pizza dough while the scent of smoke told us another pizza was baking inside an outdoor wood-fired pizza oven. There were several pizzas on a nearby table, already baked and sliced, and so I grabbed a slice of barbecue chicken pizza and a slice of what appeared to be mushroom and green pepper pizza. Asher grabbed a couple of slices as well, one pepperoni and one mushroom and green pepper. I added a hamburger with all the fixings to my plate, as well as homemade potato salad and coleslaw. Asher added a chicken breast with grilled onions to his.
With our hands full, it was then that I spotted Zach Wolf with his brother and his boyfriend, as well as a boy who was vaguely familiar along with a boy in a wheelchair and a girl that I didn’t know at all. They were seated at a long patio table with ample room for us and so I jerked my head in their direction and asked my husband, “You wanna join them?”
“Yeah, that would be great,” Asher replied as he started walking toward them.
“Mind if we sit here?” Asher asked as we approached.
“Of course you can, Asher,” Zach’s boyfriend, Tanner replied. He continued, “Guys, for those who haven’t met him, this Tiger Woods lookalike is Asher White, the famous Cajun-Asian teenage chef, and the hot-as-blazes boy with him is his husband, Seth Moore.” Hot as blazes? No way!
“Actually, Seth and I went to court and legally combined our last names,” Ashe pointed out. “We share the name ‘Whitmore’ now. It’s not often two names combine to form a real name like that, so we had to do it.”
As we sat down and before I could challenge the comment about being hot as blazes, the girl commented, “You were right, Tanner. He is hot. Why is it that all the sexiest boys are gay?”
“Are you sayin’ I’m not sexy?” Zach’s brother, who was sitting next to her, asked.
She responded, “Jake, you’re fourteen and more cute than sexy. Your brother, on the other hand, is nearly as sexy as Seth, but then again he’s gay, which kind of proves my point.”
“Sexy isn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe Zach,” Jake countered, “though as brothers go, he’s alright.” Then turning to me, he added, in case you don’t remember our names, I’m Jake and this is my brother, Zach, and his boyfriend, Tanner. I don’t think you’ve met my girlfriend, Sandy, but then she wasn’t my girlfriend when I met you guys at the Seder.”
“Is Seth the guy the cake’s for?” the boy in the wheelchair asked.
Sheepishly, the boy sitting next to him, who was vaguely familiar, gritted his teeth and said, “That was supposed to be a surprise.” Then turning to me, he explained, “I’m Craig, and you might remember my boyfriend, Simon. There’s a huge sheet cake, hidden in an alcove under the side deck, but because Simon’s in a wheelchair, he’s low enough to the ground to have noticed it when the rest of us didn’t. Like I said, it’s supposed to be a surprise for your eighteenth birthday.”
“I’ll be sure to act surprised, then,” I responded with a grin.
“Actually, I never met Seth,” Simon countered. “I only met Asher ’cause you took me to the tasting bar at the Ragin’ Cajun Café for my birthday.” Then looking right at me, he continued, “In answer to your inevitable questions, I have something called HSP, which stands for Hereditary Spastic Paraparesis, which refers to hundreds of genetic disorders that all affect spinal motor function. Not only do I have trouble moving my arms and legs, but I’m spastic. However, thanks to an implanted baclofen pump, my spasms are under much better control now,” he continued as he leaned back and pointed to something round and about the size and shape of a hockey puck, protruding from his abdomen, just under the skin. “It’s one of the things that’s gonna make it possible for me to join Craig at Bronx Science next year.
“And this gizmo on my left forearm,” he added as he lifted his left arm to show there was a small contraption attached to it, “is a modified Steadicam that Craig rigged up for me at Christmas. It makes it possible for me to eat a slice of pizza without getting the toppings and pizza sauce all over everyone else.” He then demonstrated by using a combination spoon and fork to stab the slice, and a curved knife that he used with a rocking motion to cut off a bite-sized piece, which he effortlessly brought it to his mouth. Although his arm movement was a bit jerky, the piece remained steady.
“I’m impressed,” I exclaimed.
“You should’ve seen him when he ate at the Ragin’ Cajun,” Asher agreed.
“Simon keeps doin’ better and better,” Craig chimed in. “The more he practices, the less dependent he is on others for help. He’s even getting better at doing things without the Steadicam. We go everywhere together by bus and I have a host of activities lined up for the two of us, all summer long. I’ve even signed him up for swimming lessons at the 92nd Street Y. They have an accessible pool, so he can be lowered into the water without using his chair. I’ve read that most people with spasticity do much better in water than on dry land —”
“If they don’t drown,” Simon interrupted.
“You’re not gonna drown,” Craig countered. “I’ll be right there, by your side, my flipper at the ready.”
“Your flipper?” I asked in curiosity.
“I’m an amputee,” Craig replied, standing up and lifting his leg to show us that he indeed was wearing a prosthesis that was attached just below the knee. “I had Ewing Sarcoma as a little kid and the rehab doctor recommended an amputation rather than limb salvage. With limb salvage, they’d have removed the cancerous bone and rebuilt my knee with an internal prosthesis made of titanium, but titanium doesn’t grow. Most kids with Ewing’s are in their teens and can adapt to a short leg, but I was only nine and would’ve had to deal with one hell of a leg length discrepancy. Amputation allowed me to have a normal childhood and better function in the long run.” Then reaching down, he lifted up what actually was a flipper and added, “This attaches to the same pylon as the prosthetic leg, and it gives me much better agility when swimming.”
“That’s pretty cool,” I responded and Asher nodded his head in agreement.
“You guys should eat,” Jake interjected. “The pizza’s fantastic, but yours is already getting cold.” Realizing he was right, I grabbed the barbecue chicken slice and took a bite of it. It tasted as good as anything I’d eaten in a pizzeria.
“So Seth,” Jake began, “everyone knows about your bein’ in the Capitol on January 6 and how you and your father were heroes and all, but I know there must be more to the story than what was in the press. I was the editor for my middle school newspaper and when I go to Stuyvesant in the fall, I definitely plan to join the newspaper staff when I get there. It’d be a hell of a scoop if I could write about the backstory… about what it was like to actually be there. A story like that would certainly land me a major spot on the newspaper staff. Could I maybe interview you sometime?”
“Of course you can,” I replied. “Maybe even while we eat. It wasn’t like my dad and I set out to be heroes or anything, though. We went to Washington because Dad had had a bit of a rough patch actually, thanks to a vendetta by the former president and due to the Governor’s own career implosion.”
“You already told me that story,” Jake responded. “I remember how your dad was indicted on corruption charges, but the reason was because of what he’d done to prevent us from going to war with Iran. Your grandfather is the head of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History and he has contacts at the New York Times. Whenever the former governor needed to leak something to the press, he’d hand it off to your dad, who gave it to his dad. That gave the Governor plausibility deniability and although the contact at the Times didn’t know the source of the leak, he knew it was reliable. The only one who knew the true nature of the leak was your dad.
“So when the former president made plans to attack Iran for supposedly sabotaging our air traffic control system, the former governor leaked the documents needed to prove the Air Traffic Control System failure was the result of a computer glitch and nothing more. However, the Feds were able to track down the source of the leak and they used bogus data to implicate your dad in a scheme of using his position in the State Assembly for personal gain.”
“You have a great memory,” I replied. “Much better than mine, apparently.”
“Much to my detriment, my brother never forgets anything,” Zach threw in. “That’s why he’s gonna go to Stuyvesant while I’m goin’ to Brooklyn Tech.”
“You wouldn’t have met me if you’d gone to Stuyvesant,” Tanner pointed out.
“Actually, HSMSE and Bronx Science were my first and second choices, but yeah, it all worked out for the best.” He then kissed Tanner on the lips to prove his point.
“What I probably didn’t mention last year,” I continued, “was that my dad had intended to run for governor in 2022 —”
“But it wasn’t gonna happen, ’cause the former governor was planning to run for an unprecedented fourth term,” Jake interrupted. “In the meantime, your dad lost his Assembly seat, ’cause he wasn’t cleared of the corruption charges in time to campaign for the primary. Then the former governor had to step down in disgrace ’cause of sexual harassment allegations. It’s always sex that gets politicians in trouble. Anyway, your dad couldn’t run for governor because that would’ve meant challenging the first female governor in New York State history.”
“I know I didn’t tell you all that,” I interrupted.
“You didn’t hafta. My family has online subscriptions to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and thanks to Apple News, the Atlantic, the Guardian, Politico, the Huffington Post and the New Yorker, to name a few, I read all of those regularly, too.”
“Good Lord, It sounds like you don’t need an exclusive with me to get a prime spot on the Stuyvesant newspaper,” I countered. “It sounds like you should be starting college, not high school.”
“Maybe I could, academically, but as my brother’s always pointing out, I’m not mature enough to go to college yet,” Jake explained with a mischievous grin. “My social development’s every bit as important as academics. Stuyvesant’s the perfect place for someone like me, but I know what the competition’s gonna be like. Because I wanna be a writer or a journalist, getting on the school newspaper’s a must. With a story like yours, I’d be noticed. Maybe even enough to make senior editor by my sophomore year. That’s part of my plan to earn my first Pulitzer before I graduate from college.
"Anyway, getting back to your story, your dad took time off to write a couple of books – I’m intrigued by his ideas for rethinking modern democracies, by the way – and when redistricting resulted in an open seat in Lower Manhattan, your dad threw his hat in the ring, and he won.”
“Redistricting turned into a real fiasco,” I explained, “’cause a conservative judge threw out the gerrymandered maps drawn up by the Democrats and implemented his own, which favored the Republicans. That one decision had a lot to do with switching the balance of power just enough to give the Republicans control of the House. The invitation from Congresswoman Velásquez to witness the certification of the Electoral College votes and to serve as a legal consultant to the New York delegation came before all of that. That was just after the 2020 presidential election, when my dad was finishing up what was to be his final term in the New York State Assembly. The offer was a political favor, extended by one public servant to another.
“Dad asked if I could come along and not only did our congresswoman agree, but she invited me to serve as a House intern for the entire month of January.” I continued, as Larry Sanders and Robin Arens came up and joined us, followed by Freck’s twin sisters, Lisa and Debbie. “That way, I’d be there for the swearing in of the new Congress, the certification of the electoral college votes and the inauguration of the new president. Keep in mind that most of the school year was still by remote learning back then, so it wasn’t hard to attend my classes while learning the ropes of Washington politics from a seasoned pro. I just didn’t realize at the time that I’d wind up having a front row seat for history in the making.”
“Was that like bein’ a page or something?” Tanner asked. “I thought paging in Congress was only during the summer.”
Shaking my head, I replied, “The Senate and the House each used to have page programs – one during the summer and another during the school year that included attending a dedicated high school. However, the House ended their page program in 2011, supposedly because the role of pages had been supplanted by electronic communications. The program was very popular with constituents, though. More than likely, I think it was discontinued because of all the scandals. Many a congressman got caught with their pants down, quite literally. It didn’t used to be acceptable for members of Congress to be openly gay and many of them led double lives. I guess the temptation posed by sexy young guys like me was too much for them,” I added with a laugh.
“Oh gag me” Debbie, or maybe it was Lisa, exclaimed.
“Now Lisa, surely you can see how a bald fat closeted middle-aged congressman would have found Seth attractive,” Larry interjected.
“Fuck you, Larry,” I responded, but then asked, “You can tell the girls apart?”
“When Freck said he could, based on how they sounded, I set out to figure out if I could hear the difference too. I’m not sure if I’m hearing the same thing that Freck hears, but with my background in music, I realized that there’s a slight difference in the timbre of their voices with certain vowels. Now, it’s pretty hard not to notice it. Genetics may be fixed, but language is something that’s learned. It’s unique to each individual – even in identical twins.”
“I’m gonna hafta pay more attention,” I said. “Any of us with an ear for music should be able to hear what Larry and Freck hear.”
“That leaves Jake out,” Zack countered. “He only listens to godawful hip-hop and rap.” Jake responded by giving his brother the finger. “By the way, what happened to the Senate page program?”
“As far as I know, it’s still around,” I replied. “It was suspended in 2020, during the pandemic, so there weren’t any Senate pages when I was there, but I’m pretty sure it’s resumed since.”
“I thought you had to be sixteen to be a page,” Larry pointed out.
“There’s no age minimum for an internship as long as you can qualify for a work permit. Besides which, everyone assumed I was sixteen ’cause I was a junior in high school. Interns are usually kids in college or right outta college, so I was young for an intern in any case.
“Dad and I arrived in Washington late on January 2, three days before the new Congress was sworn in. I was gonna stay through Biden’s inauguration, but that put me in the House chamber during the counting of the electoral votes. Having to barricade myself in an office with the other staffers and hide while an angry mob ransacked the Capitol was definitely not what I’d bargained for…”
“Sí señor, entiendo su preocupación, pero la posición de la congresista es que la elección fue justa y précis,” I reiterated as I spoke calmly into the phone.
“La elección fue robada. Trump ganó en Michigan, Pensilvania, Georgia y Arizona. Quizás también ganó en otros estados,” the gentleman on the phone insisted.
I calmly replied, “En todos esos estados, el Sr. Biden fue certificado como el ganador por los funcionarios electorales republicanos en todos los casos. Sin embargo, puedo asegurarles que la congresista escuchará cualquier argumento en contrario que presenten sus colegas. ¿Hay algo más en lo que pueda ayudarte hoy?”
“Solo asegúrese de que la Sra. Velázquez sepa que no votaré por ella si certifica la elección del Sr. Biden.”
The click in my earpiece told me the gentleman had hung up on me. “Something tells me you didn’t vote for the Congresswoman in the first place,” I said aloud to no one in particular.
“Your Spanish is excellent, Seth,” Congresswoman Velázquez said in heavily accented English from behind me, and so I turned to face her.
“Ms. Velázquez, I didn’t realize you were there,” I said. “I assumed you were on the floor, getting ready to certify the election results.”
“We rarely begin in the morning,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not because we’re lazy like you teenagers, but we usually take care of committee business first, and that often begins as early as seven AM. So how is it going, Seth, manning the phones?”
“It’s been one call after another,” I replied. “I’m surprised at how many New Yorkers are calling to express their dissatisfaction with the election results – especially Latin men like the gentleman I just spoke to. You’d think he’d have a vested interest in immigration reform, so why would he support Trump’s policies of the border wall and throwing kids in cages?”
With a laugh, the congresswoman responded, “One thing you learn early on, Seth, is that people are basically selfish. A Latino man who’s naturalized or was born here often sees new immigrants as a threat. He’s probably had to deal with ICE all his life and maybe even gotten caught up in their sweeps, but as longs as he has proof of citizenship, he figures he’s safe. Cutting down on undocumented immigration cuts down on competition for jobs. There’s also the macho factor. A lot of Hispanic men like Trump’s no holes barred approach. Yes, New York City’s overwhelmingly blue, but there are major Republican pockets. Staten Island is one of them. My district contains significant pockets of the Ultra-orthodox Jewish and Hassidic communities, and they often vote as a block. A lot of them feel the Democrats have abandoned Israel and so they increasingly vote Republican, and there isn’t a lot we can do about that. I’m already on record as a staunch supporter of Israel. Anything less would be political suicide in this town, yet even that may not be enough. Besides Latin men and ultra-orthodox Jews, a surprising number of African American men like Trump and there are some very conservative members of Chinatown who do as well, and I represent all of those groups.
“Seth, how would you like to continue our discussion over lunch, and then you can assist me during the joint session of Congress. You’ll have a front row seat in watching history unfold. The certification process is generally quite boring, but I have a feeling this afternoon could be interesting, especially with so many of my Republican colleagues planning to contest the results.”
“What about my dad?” I asked.
“Your father has a very important role to play. He’ll be in charge of keeping the certificates of ascertainment safe. He’ll likely be having lunch with Senators Schumer and McConnell —”
“Senator McConnell!” I exclaimed in surprise.
“Your father needs to earn the trust of the leaders of both parties; hence the meeting with both the Senate majority and minority leaders,” the Congresswoman explained. “He’ll catch up with us later. In the meantime, there’s no reason we can’t grab some lunch before the afternoon’s festivities begin.”
“Thanks very much for inviting me,” I answered, and then I asked, “The President wants Mike Pence to contest the results. What would happen if he did?”
“Constitutionally, the V.P. can only certify the results. He has no role in contesting them. Only the members of Congress can do so, and it takes at least one representative and one senator to do that.”
“But what if he does as Trump asked and refused to certify the results?”
“Then there would be a true constitutional crisis,” the congresswoman replied. “There has been some discussion and it would likely fall to the Speaker of the House to certify the results, but the Supreme Court would probably have to decide on the legitimacy of that. Keep in mind that the certification is just that – a certification, so a refusal to certify doesn’t imply invalidating the results. If Pence refused, Pelosi would be the in the line of succession. Come on, let’s go eat.”
Work on the original domed Capitol building was begun in 1793, but construction took decades while Congress took its time in allocating the funds necessary for completion. Then came the war of 1812 in which the Brits torched the structure, leaving it in ruins. In a sense, the Brits did the Americans a favor, allowing for a redesign with the incorporation of marble, which had recently been discovered on the upper Potomac. By 1850, the size of Congress had grown along with the growth of the nation and could no longer fit into the original House and Senate chambers, and so a competition was held to design for expansion of the building. The plan chosen by President Millard Fillmore involved adding a new wing for the Senate to the north and a new wing for the House to the south. The Capitol Dome was replaced with a vastly taller ‘wedding cake’ version, helping to maintain the building’s proportionality. Interrupted by the Civil War, construction was completed in 1868 and the end result was one of the most enduring symbols of democracy in the world.
However, space for congressional offices in the Capitol was limited and as the country continued to grow, it became apparent that additional space was needed. A series of office buildings were constructed, starting in 1908 with the Russell Senate Office Building and the Cannon House Office Building and ending with the Hart Senate Office Building in 1982, although a series of additional structures were repurposed to provide additional space in subsequent years. Construction of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress was begun in 1897, with the Adams and Madison buildings being added later. Originally housed on the first floor of the Capitol, the Supreme Court didn’t have it’s own building until 1935, nearly a century and a half after the court was established by the Constitution. All of the buildings were interconnected by a series of tunnels and underground tramways, which allowed for secure passage among them.
The layout of the Capitol Building is confusing to those not familiar with it, made all the more complicated by it’s position on Capitol Hill. The East Edifice has only three stories with the famous Rotunda being on the second floor, reached via a long flight of steps at the entrance. The original Senate chamber is still present in its original form to the north of the Rotunda, preserved as a relic of history, with the original Supreme Court chamber located directly below it. The original House chamber, however, has been replaced by the now-famous Statuary Hall. A pair of reflecting pools and an underground visitors’ center were added quite recently to the east of the Capitol building, providing a more appropriate point of entry to tourists wishing to visit the Capitol but lacking the authority to visit the halls of Congress when in session.
Most people are more familiar with the West Edifice of the Capitol, with it’s extensive portico and sweeping steps leading up to the broad terraces of the ground and first floors. It is the west side that faces the Washington Monument and the National Mall, as well as Constitution Avenue and the White House Ellipse. Every four years, the west side is also the site of the presidential and vice-presidential inauguration, requiring the addition of a substantial, terraced structure to the original portico. Begun back in February a year ago, preparations for the inauguration on January 20 were nearly complete. Consisting of an extensive bulwark of platforms and stairways, the additions matched the style of the Capitol so well that, to the casual observer, they appeared to be part of the permanent structure. Bleachers and seating had been set up for the members of Congress, the members of the Supreme Court, numerous dignitaries, the U.S. Marine Band and a number of performers, including Lady Gaga, who would sing the National Anthem. There would even be a National Poet Laureate, but she was someone I’d never heard of before.
President Trump had organized a rally on the Ellipse on January 6, and thousands of his supporters had shown up to listen to speaker after speaker claim that the election had been stolen. Nothing good could come of this, but even so, I considered it to the be the last gasp of the Trump presidency. Surely, once Biden was inaugurated, Trump’s supporters would accept the election results and turn their focus to getting someone else elected in 2024. Trump himself was scheduled to speak at just around lunchtime, ironically at about the same time the Congress would be convening to certify the election results.
Today was only my third day on the job and my first experience with a major protest. Protests are a fact of life in Washington, but from everything I’d heard, this one was different and even when I’d arrived in the morning, there was a thick crowd of Trump supporters lining up, waiting to walk through metal detectors before being cleared to attend a rally at which the President would speak. At least I knew those protesters wouldn’t have weapons, but there were a few hundred of his supporters lining up outside the perimeter of the Capitol, outside the barricades the Capitol Police had set up for the event. There was little doubt that the Capitol Police, perhaps with backup from the D.C. Metro Police and the National Guard, if needed, would keep the protests from getting out of hand.
Daniel Webster Hall, where I was staying for the duration of my internship, was located northeast of the Capitol and mere steps from the Hart Senate Office Building. Rather than taking a chance on confronting the protesters, I’d entered the Capitol Complex that morning through Hart and used the underground tramway to get to Congresswoman Velázquez’s offices in the Rayburn House Office Building, directly south of the Capitol. Because of the throngs of protesters, going out for lunch wasn’t possible and so most of the members of the House had chosen to brownbag it, or to have their lunch delivered to their own chambers, where they ate with the members of their staff. Because I was staying in dormitory-style housing, brown bagging it wasn’t an option for me. I’d expected to either eat with some of the other staffers as I’d done the last two days, or to simply grab a sandwich at Subway, but then the Congresswoman asked me to eat with her and I couldn’t help but wonder what she had in mind.
In addition to the many restaurants in the area, there were several food options located right within the House offices for those too busy to go out for lunch off-site. The Rayburn House Office Building contained a series of vending areas, a traditional sit-down restaurant, called the Rayburn Café, and three fast-food restaurants – &Pizza, Subway and Steak ’n Shake. I’d never heard of Steak ’n Shake before, but apparently it’s a major burger chain in the Midwest that reportedly served exceptional burgers and milkshakes. The other house office buildings added Au Bon Pain, the Longworth Café, Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin Robins, Jamba and the Ford Café. The Senate buildings offered their own food options, but even making use of the underground tramways, my lunch hours would have been taken entirely by getting there and back. Thus I was surprised when Congresswoman Velázquez led me to the underground tramway, to go to lunch.
Getting off the tram on the ground floor of the Capitol, we passed through the marble-clad halls of the Capitol Building itself. Bypassing the elevators, we climbed a flight of stairs and passed through the length of the beautiful Hall of Columns. Ahead of us, I could just make out the start of the Crypt. In spite of the name, no one was actually buried there, but it was directly below the Capitol Rotunda and had an extensive network of concentric columns to support the heavy marble floor directly above. To the west was a lovely outdoor terrace that was closed off for reasons of security.
Because of the gathering protest outside the Capitol, the Congressional Dining Rooms were quite crowded. We arrived when the House of Representatives Members’ Dining Room was just about to open, yet even so, there was already a long line waiting for the buffet. I was impressed that I recognized several prominent members of the House as well as a number of prominent members of the press. Unlike the other dining facilities on Capitol Hill, the House and Senate Members’ Dining Rooms are located in the Capitol itself, on the first floor of the connecting corridors between their respective wings of Congress and the original Capitol building. The Senate Dining Room, located on the other side of the Crypt and just past the original Supreme Court chamber, was reportedly much more formal, with traditional sit-down service and a more elegant and expensive menu.
Both Congressional dining rooms are open to the public, but access requires going through security and proper business attire is required. However, the Capitol had been closed to the public since the pandemic began and with it, the two Congressional dining rooms. Strangely, I’d seen some staffers conducting tours just yesterday, which I thought weren’t allowed, but then I was just a lowly intern. What did I know? Perhaps the tours were for VIPs from home, but they sure as fuck didn’t look like VIPs. Of course, there were still lobbyists who frequented the halls of Congress and the Congressional dining rooms, but with this being the start of a new legislative session, there was nothing for them to lobby just yet. However, the lack of lobbyists was more than made up for by members of the press, who were out in force on such an historic day.
Although perhaps not as fancy as the Senate Members’ Dining Room, the House Members’ Dining Room was still quite elegant, with white tablecloths and cloth napkins and with a large crystal chandelier overhead. The buffet had a set price, but I gathered that only one entrée was allowed and only one trip through the buffet line. The trays we carried were of a reasonable size, however, so I didn’t feel out of place choosing sufficient food to satisfy my teenage appetite. I started with a butternut squash and goat cheese flatbread, as well as a bowl of the House bean soup. I wasn’t sure if it was the same recipe as the world-famous Senate bean soup, but it looked good nevertheless.
There were a number of sandwiches and salads that looked delicious, but I was drawn to the Atlantic pan-seared salmon, which came with Thai basil coconut curry, Jasmine rice, pickled cucumber and radish. For dessert, I selected the pumpkin bread pudding. By the time we exited the buffet line, nearly all of the tables had at least one diner at them and with no tables seating fewer than four, it was evident we would have to share a table with someone else. I was shocked, however, when the Congresswoman headed straight to a table occupied by two of the other New York City congresswomen, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Yvette Clarke. “Do you mind if we join you?” Ms. Velázquez asked.
“Of course you may, Nydia,” Ms. Clarke responded. “It’s always a pleasure to have lunch with you.” Both of the congresswomen were wearing their masks around their necks. After spending the last couple of days wearing a mask wherever I went, I felt a bit self-conscious pulling it down, but when Congresswoman Velázquez did so, I did the same. Covid or not, there was no way to eat while wearing a mask.
The Congressional districts the three women represented were adjacent to each other and heavily gerrymandered, I suspected, to provide for as much minority representation as possible. Congresswoman Velázquez represented the seventh Congressional district, which encompassed an area that included parts of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Sunset Park, Red Hook, DUMBO, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Williamsburg, Ridgewood, Bushwick, Cypress Hills and Woodhaven. It was one of the most diverse Congressional districts in America. Ms. Clarke represented the ninth district, which included parts of Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Brownsville, Windsor Terrace, Downtown Brooklyn, Kensington, Midwood, the Flatlands, Gerritsen Beach and Sheepshead Bay. AOC represented parts of the East Bronx and Queens, including Pelham Bay, Throgg’s Neck, College Point, Steinway, Corona, Flushing Meadows, Woodside, Sunnyside and Jackson Heights. She also had the pleasure of representing the area that surrounded and included LaGuardia Airport and the infamous jail on Ryker’s Island. Although all three districts included some fairly affluent pockets, by and large they included some of the poorest neighborhoods in New York.
“I’d like to introduce my intern, Seth Moore,” Ms. Velázquez began as we unloaded our trays onto the table, handed off our trays to a waiting busboy and sat down. “If he looks a bit familiar, it’s because he’s Frank Moore’s son,” she added.
“I recognized you from the Ragin’ Cajun,” Ms. Clarke said. “Pete Wells did quite a writeup in The Times on the restaurant you and your boyfriend opened on the Lower East Side. You probably didn't recognize me, but I made it a point to eat there whenever I was in town. It was such a shame the Feds seized it to try to pressure your father into confessing to crimes he didn’t commit, but then he got his revenge in the end.”
“Unfortunately, that didn’t come in time for him to run an effective campaign for reelection,” I pointed out. “He’d planned to run for governor, but his old mentor seems dead set on running for a fourth term.”
“Not that I’d ever count the governor out; he’s a survivor, but his administration’s been plagued by scandals and I have it on good faith that he’s about to be hit with allegations of sexual misconduct,” Ms. Velázquez reported.
“No way!” I exclaimed, just a bit too loudly. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
“It’s nothing like with President Trump, mind you,” the congresswoman replied, “but the man’s made of Teflon and nothing else seems to stick, so some members of his own administration have taken it upon themselves to try to sabotage his run for a fourth term. We’re talking about some inappropriate touching and nothing more, but that’s bad enough, and there are pictures to back it up.”
“Damn!” I exclaimed, this time a bit more quietly.
“I hate to put it so bluntly,” Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez started to speak, “but the problem I have with your father is that he’s still a good friend of the governor.” It was a slap in the face, but I knew I needed to give her the benefit of the doubt, and so I did my best to keep a neutral expression on my face. “The governor is a career politician and he’s cut far too many corners in the name of expediency. His administration is one that has been plagued by scandal, and I fear we have yet to see the full extent of his corruption.
“For example, there’s the bridge that replaced the old Tappan Zee – the bridge he had the gall to name after his father. It cost four billion to build, and yet the contractor used faulty bolts and so the whole thing could collapse into the Hudson at any time. The governor was so intent on opening the bridge as quickly as possible that he circumvented the inspections that should have found the faulty bolts in the first place, and he abandoned plans to include a public transit corridor on the bridge, in spite of the sore need for one.”
“I think the governor had every reason to name the bridge after his father,” I responded. “He has every reason to be proud of him, and naming the bridge after one of the most beloved governors in New York history was a wonderful way to pay homage to him, and the state legislature agreed. We both know that the Governor’s hands were tied when it came to the inclusion of mass transit. He took what he could get under the circumstances, as replacing the old Tappan Zee couldn’t wait for Federal transit funds or a more favorable compromise. Unfortunately, he was constrained by the unions and by state contracts over which he had little control, not to mention by Upstate legislators who were dead set against spending money on public transit that provided no benefit to their constituents.
“What no one seems to realize is that the majority of problems with the current bridge had their origin in 1955, when the original Tappan Zee bridge was built. It was supposed to have been built by the Port Authority, at Dobb’s Ferry, but Governor Dewey – the same Thomas E. Dewey who lost the 1948 presidential election to Truman – nixed the plans, choosing instead to build a bridge further north. The reported reason was so that the New York Thruway could provide a direct route to Boston, which it already did in Albany and subsequently with the opening of the Castleton Bridge in 1959. The truth was that by going it alone, New York could capture all of the toll revenue from the bridge instead of having to share it with the Port Authority and New Jersey. Right away there were problems, owing to the exceptional length needed to cross the Hudson at one of its widest points. I’m not making excuses for the current governor, but some of the decisions he had to make had their roots in political decisions made more than a half-century before.”
“The boy’s a walking encyclopedia,” exclaimed Congresswoman Velázquez.
“And the son of a career politician,” Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez interjected.
“As pointed out by one of the most prominent career politicians in the House,” I shot back. “Please don’t take that as criticism, mind you. You’re clearly one of the most eloquent, if not outspoken members of the House, and yet you’re only in your second term. I may not agree with your brand of naïve progressivism, but it’s clear you’re going places.”
“Naïve progressivism?” the congresswoman asked with a bemused expression on her face.
“It’s a phrase my dad uses,” I explained. “It refers to a brand of populism that although well-intentioned, promises more than it can deliver. For example, I’m all for building enough affordable housing to guarantee everyone a place to live, but we can build a hell of a lot more of it in the Bronx than Manhattan. Insisting otherwise means we’ll continue to end up with middle-class housing for folks earning well over $100k a year, while those earning less than $30k sleep in shelters or on the street. The truth is that we need both kinds of affordable housing, but we can’t expect working-class folks living out in Ozone Park to pay the cost of building new public housing in the Financial District. People who slaved away for years to be able to afford a place with a ninety-minute commute can’t help but resent subsidizing someone who gets a brand new apartment in a prime location.”
“That sounds incredibly racist —” the congresswoman began, but I wasn’t having any of it.
“Don’t lecture me about racism,” I interrupted. “My husband’s half black and half Asian —”
“Your husband?” Congresswoman Clarke responded in surprise.
“It’s a long story,” I explained. “The short answer is that we got some bad advice from Asher’s uncle, who’s the family’s attorney on his mother’s side. He thought that by getting married, we could protect our own assets from the Feds, including our apartment on the Lower East Side, so we went to court and petitioned for permission to marry when I was only fourteen and Asher was only fifteen. It was a colossal mistake, as the Feds don’t care about ownership of assets and getting married so young only drew attention to what we had.”
“So are you going to get a divorce, now that the corruption charges have been dropped?” Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez asked.
“Not on your life,” I replied. “Asher and I love each other, more than anything.”
“I bet you weren’t expecting a response like that one,” Congresswoman Velázquez interjected. “Seth and his husband just finished their junior years at Stuyvesant,” she added.
“Were you aware that your high school is named after a slave owner?” Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez asked.
“Yes, as is Stuyvesant Town,” I answered. Peter Stuyvesant was the last Director-General of Dutch colony of New Netherland, which included much of what is now New York and New Jersey, including the settlement of New Amsterdam. Like his predecessors, he was largely inept at governance, seeing his role more as one of increasing the profitability of the colony, rather than one of establishing a working government and building a framework for the rule of law. His greatest success was in increasing his own personal wealth and he managed to acquire large tracts of land on Manhattan’s east side, including where Stuyvesant Town and the original Stuyvesant High School were built.
“I would definitely like to see my high school renamed after someone more reflective of its mission,” I continued. “Robert Fogel comes to mind, as both a Nobel Laureate and an alum. More importantly, I’d like to see a student body that’s more diverse, but doing that without compromising academic rigor will mean making a hell of a lot larger investment in education, starting with pre-K. We need to have state-of-the-art educational facilities for all New Yorkers, extended classroom hours and targeted after school activities to lure kids away from joining gangs. Fix education first and then we can talk about renaming schools.
“Renaming Stuyvesant Town, however, would be rather specious, don’t you think? Like it or not, he’s a part of New York history and I think it’s very appropriate that one of the most flood-prone housing properties in Manhattan be named after a failed politician. As a nation, we have a lot of soul-searching to do regarding our past. America was founded on the back of slavery, but its foundation also includes the genocide of the native population. I’m not talking about the decimation of the native population that resulted from the spread of European diseases. That tragedy resulted from the ignorance of the age, but the way we treated indigenous Americans was no less deplorable than the way we treated the African American slaves.
“There are a lot of cities, buildings and parks named after slave owners. This very city, Washington, D.C., is named after a slave owner. We have to own up to the fact that a lot of the people who founded America owned slaves. Does having owned slaves negate what Washington, Jefferson and Madison did for this country, or does it remind us what complex people they were? Personally, I think there’s a very clear line to be drawn between those who were born into slave ownership and those who actively promoted it. Our military bases should not be named after Confederate Generals and the twenty-dollar bill should not bear the face of a man who sought to expand slavery. Teaching about the failings of men like Washington and Jefferson if anything enhances our recognition of their accomplishments.”
“You said your husband is African American?” Congresswoman Clarke asked.
“Actually, his father is a black Creole and his mother’s an Asian American. The Creole culture began with the Acadian and Québécois fur trappers who came down the Mississippi and settled in Louisiana, but they were predominantly a combination of white and indigenous peoples. The black Creole are the decedents of African slaves who were brought to the Caribbean to work on the sugar and tobacco plantations. The number of slaves brought into the Caribbean was an order of magnitude greater than those brought into the United States. Of course, as with all of the Americas, the diseases the settlers and their slaves brought with them devastated the native population, which was almost completely wiped out. More problematic to the settlers, the slave population grew to be so large that it became unmanageable and the inevitable happened – the slaves revolted. Many fled to the mainland to escape the unrest, and many slave owners tried to escape the chaos, bringing their slaves with them. Among those were my father-in-law’s ancestors.
“The Creole cuisine that defines so much of my husband’s cooking is actually itself a fusion of French and Caribbean cooking styles, which includes African and Indigenous New World elements. To that, my husband adds Asian methods, giving his food its own, unique taste.” Then realizing I’d been going on rather than answering a simple yes-no question, I added, “Sorry to get carried away, but most Americans have no idea that the black Creole were not the descendants of African American slaves.”
“No, I appreciated your explanation, Seth,” Ms. Clarke replied. “Most of my constituents don’t realize that I myself am the daughter of Jamaican immigrants.”
“It’s not often we have an intern who’s so knowledgeable in both history and government,” Ms. Velázquez chimed in.
“None of which excuses the corruption of the current governor, nor your father’s role in it,” Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez countered.
“When it comes to my father,” I went on, “if anything, the recent charge of corruption and the outcome of the case against him have exonerated him of any wrongdoing. The governor may have been his mentor, but I think my father’s voting record demonstrates that he’s his own man. Although he’s not about to mount a primary challenge to the governor, they’ve had a bit of a falling out over the way the governor handled patients recovering from Covid at the start of the pandemic. Those were desperate times but by sending elderly patients to nursing homes, he made a bad situation untenable as the nursing home population came down with Covid-19. That was bad enough, but then he tried to cover up the excess nursing home mortality by faking the numbers. The AG’s report will be out soon, and the word on it from my dad is that it won’t be pretty.”
“In that case, your father should mount a primary challenge to the governor, regardless of whether or not he steps down,” Ms. Velázquez suggested, and I couldn’t help but notice the scowl on Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s face. “New York has never had a governor serve for more than twelve years. In serving a fourth term, the current governor would only serve to augment the rot that exists in Albany.”
“I’ve kind of told my dad that, but ultimately, it’s his decision to make.”
“Of course it is,” Ms. Clarke agreed.
Then looking down at my watch, I noticed it was already ten minutes past the hour and with Congress scheduled to begin its session at noon, I felt it wise to announce, “I hate to mention it, but we’re late.”
“Not to worry, Seth. Nothing will happen until we reconvene at 12:55,” Congresswoman Velázquez explained. “Not even Nancy Pelosi will be, or rather was there for the opening of the session, as she has more important things to attend to. She’s meeting with the Vice President to go over the proceedings for the certification of the votes of the Electoral College. Although Speaker Pelosi has been to several certifications, this will be Vice President Pence’s first time, so she designated Congressman Salwell as the Speaker pro tempore to preside over the opening of the afternoon session. Undoubtedly, they already had the opening prayer and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and the President sent a letter to the Speaker, to be read aloud, another executive order, this one forbidding the government to make use of software developed by Chinese companies.”
I rolled my eyes in response and said, “Not that there isn’t a significant threat posed by embedded software from companies controlled by foreign interests in general, but the threat from Russian hacking is so much greater and yet the President ignores it entirely. As far as I’m concerned, President-elect Biden can’t be inaugurated soon enough.”
“Amen to that,” Congresswoman Clarke chimed in and the other two women nodded their heads vigorously in agreement, and then she went on to say, “They probably already made quick work of the reading of the executive order and have adjourned in recess by now. Constitutionally, the certification of the votes of the Electoral College must begin at 1:00, so we’ll reconvene at 12:55, and then the Vice President and the members of the Senate will join us.”
“This is the only time that the vice president presides over a joint session of Congress,” Ms. Velázquez pointed out, “and that’s because it’s specified in the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution. Otherwise, it is always the Speaker of the House that presides over joint sessions of Congress. Seth, you asked earlier what would happen if Mr. Pence refused to certify the election. I’ve given it some more thought and I know for a fact that the Constitution is quite clear. The Vice President precedes over the certification process, but he has no power to void the results. Only the Congress can do that.”
“The Vice President has the sole authority to count the electoral votes and I think the intent is quite clear that they should be counted accurately, but the law is ambiguous,” I countered. “If Mike Pence were to carry out the wishes of the President and refused to allow the certification and counting of votes from certain states, I strongly suspect the outcome would be challenged and it would be the Supreme Court that would have to rule on the outcome, almost certainly in Mr. Biden’s favor. My question had more to do with what would happen if Pence simply refused to fulfill his Constitutionally-mandated role.”
“And I replied that we’d almost certainly follow the line of succession and it would be Nancy Pelosi who would certify the results,” Congresswoman Velázquez noted.
“Actually, I’m not so sure of that,” Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez countered. “I think we’d follow the rules of succession for the Senate, in which case it would be the president pro tempore of the Senate who would preside.”
“But who would that be?” I asked. “Ms. Harris cannot preside over the certification, as she won’t take office until the Inauguration on January 20. On the other hand, the new Senate has already been sworn in, but we are short the two senators from Georgia, who were chosen in a special election yesterday. It appears that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both won, but the results haven’t been certified and they haven’t been sworn in. Regardless, the Senate would still be in Republican hands, so long as Pence is the vice president, and Chuck Grassley would most likely serve as the speaker of the Senate. That said, the Constitution is very specific that it is the vice president, not the speaker of the Senate, who presides over the certification of the vote of the Electoral College.”
Congresswoman Clarke reiterated, “I’m confident that Vice-President Pence will fulfill his duties and preside over the joint session of Congress, and that the certification process will proceed accordingly. The vote from each state and the District of Columbia will be certified as mandated by the Constitution, in alphabetic order.”
“What about the territories?” I asked, “What about Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa?”
“Although they all have non-voting representatives in Congress, only the District of Columbia can vote for president.”
“That hardly seems fair,” I challenged. “Their residents all have U.S. citizenship. They can serve in our military but they can’t vote for their Commander in Chief?”
“Many things in the Constitution aren’t fair, Seth,” the congresswoman continued. “The very nature of the Electoral College isn’t fair. Representation in the Senate isn’t fair, and yet it was even worse when the Republic was founded, with senators chosen by each state house rather than by direct election. We came close to abolishing the Electoral College in 1970 under an amendment introduced by Senator Bayh of Indiana. It passed in the House but died under a filibuster in the Senate, even though it had broad popular support.”
“That was in response to the election of 1968, in which George Wallace nearly siphoned off enough votes to send the election to the House,” I recalled. “’Course you’d think people would’ve demanded direct election of the president when Al Gore and Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election. The trouble is, the demand for change rarely rises to the level that it affects state elections, yet it’s the state legislatures that would have to ratify a constitutional amendment.”
“The Constitution sets a very high bar when it comes to making changes: a supermajority of both houses of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of all states,” Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez began. “Many other countries don’t even have a constitution and in those that do, the vast majority of them can be amended by a simple majority vote or by referendum. Amending the U.S. Constitution may be frustratingly hard, but that difficulty has made the American system of government one of the most stable in the world.”
“It was, until the Republican Party figured out how to game the system, allowing only conservative judges to be appointed to the Federal bench,” I countered. “My dad has some excellent ideas on how to make our democracy more responsive to the will of the people and less beholden to special interests, but some of those ideas will require amending the Constitution, which the special interests will never allow. He thinks the only way forward might be to hold an Article V convention.”
“That would be extremely dangerous,” Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez challenged. “Once two-thirds of the states have called for a constitutional convention, all bets would be off and the existing Constitution could even be scrapped altogether. There are no restrictions on the process and as polarized as our country has become, getting anything meaningful out of an Article V convention would be doubtful. More importantly, I fear that too much would be given away in the spirit of compromise. Voting rights, affirmative action, gay marriage and abortion rights might all be on the chopping block, left to be decided later by congress or worse yet, by the individual states. It would be a disaster.”
“I’ve heard all the rhetoric,” I countered, “and I’m not buying it. Wouldn’t the Second Amendment also be open to revision? Let the Republicans try to restrict voting rights, abortion, affirmative action or gay marriage and we’ll counter by insisting that the right to bear arms be left out of the constitution, to be defined by Congress, or by the individual states. The result of an Article V convention must be ratified by three-quarters of all states. It would only take thirteen states to block passage, which makes any of those ‘compromise’ measures a non-starter.
“The far more likely result is that the convention would stick to amending just those things for which the convention was called in the first place. Only the narrowest of amendments with the broadest base of support would have a chance in hell of making it through 38 state houses, so I’m not worried. Actually, I’m far more worried about what the Supreme Court might do to gut existing precedent, changing how the Constitution is interpreted, regardless of whether it’s amended or not. Given the court’s conservative supermajority, I think that abortion rights, gay marriage and affirmative action are all in serious jeopardy.”
“Only sixteen, and already a constitutional scholar,” Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez quipped.
“Actually, I’m only fifteen,” I pointed out.
“Amazing,” Congresswoman Clarke added. “By the way, we have less than fifteen minutes to head upstairs.” I made quick work of finishing off my pumpkin bread pudding.
The Chamber of the House of Representatives is located on the second floor of the House Wing of the Capitol, with the House gallery located just above it, on the third floor. Multiple committee rooms and clerical offices are located around the periphery on all three floors, with the Offices of the Speaker of the House located directly east of the Statuary Hall and her formal offices located east of the House chamber itself. Two grand staircases provide access to all three floors as well as the lower levels, but the three congress members and I headed to one of the banks of elevators and took an elevator up to the gallery level on the third floor.
“It’ll be hours before New York presents its electoral votes for certification,” Congresswoman Valázquez began, “Nancy has asked that we socially distance in addition to wearing our masks, which is why we headed up to the gallery, leaving more room on the floor for those with a vested interest.” As we took our seats, she continued, “Because this will be a joint session of Congress, the Senators will be joining us shortly and by tradition, they’ll occupy the first few rows of the chamber. Until and unless someone objects to the certification of any state, it’ll be pretty boring, with each state’s electoral votes being presented by the tellers and Mr. Pence certifying the vote count and having the recording secretary record it for posterity.
“There are four tellers – two from the House and two from the Senate. Today, they are Zoe Lofgren of California and Rodney Davis of Illinois, and Roy Blunt of Missouri and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. They are the ranking members of the House and Senate rules committees. They’ll each take turns reading aloud the Certificates of Ascertainment and then Mr. Pence will ask if there are any objections. If there are any objections, they must be presented in writing by a member of the House and they must include the signature of at least one concurring senator. The word on the street is that there will almost certainly be objections to the vote counts in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In the event of a properly presented objection, the senators will return to the Senate chamber and each house will begin debate on the objection to certifying that state’s votes. You’ll have a front row seat to history as I’m sure the debate will be spirited, if not futile on the part of those raising the objections.”
I’d been in the House chamber yesterday for the swearing in ceremony, but that had been too brief to allow me to appreciate it. This was my first time seeing the House chamber from the gallery and it was much larger than I’d thought. Unlike in the Senate chamber, there are too many members to have a separate desk for each representative. The House chamber is therefore organized more as a giant auditorium, with plush leather seats arranged in concentric semicircles. There are no assigned seats but by tradition, Democrats sit on the left side of the floor, to the right of the Speaker when viewed from the Speaker’s desk, and Republicans on the right side, to the Speaker’s left.
In the very front of the room is the dais, which consists of the Speaker’s desk and two concentric semi-octagon-shaped desks in front of and below it. Today, there were two chairs at the speaker’s desk, presumably one for Mike Pence and one for Nancy Pelosi. Flanking the Speaker’s desk were chairs for the Parliamentarian, the Sargent at Arms, the Clerk of the House and the Timekeeper. Just in front of and below the Speaker’s desk was a semi-octagonal desk, the middle tier, at which sat the Journal, Tally and Reading clerks, and in front of and below that was a larger semi-octagonal desk at which sat the Bill, Enrolling, Tally, and Daily Digest Clerks, as well as the official House reporters. I noticed there was a podium in the center of the middle level of the dais and recalled seeing the president give the State of the Union address from that very podium, year after year. Cool.
Finally, I noticed a series of two very large desks, flanked by two smaller desks, arrayed within the concentric circles of general seating on the floor. Curiously, they were up near the front, but not in the very front, with two rows of seats in front of them. From what I’d read, these were used for general workspace during the presentation of committee reports and the like. Pulling out my smartphone from my suit vest-pocket, I snapped a few pics of the House floor. Ms. Velázquez said nothing as I did so, as I was far from the only staffer taking photos. Some were even taking selfies. As a rule, smartphones were banned in both chambers of Congress, as was photography, yet both were ubiquitous.
Setting my phone to silent mode, I couldn’t help but open the New York Times app to find out what was happening with Trump’s rally on the Ellipse. The Times had a live video feed as well as a running blog and what I read and saw was horrifying. Already, tens of thousands of protesters were marching down Constitution Avenue toward the Capitol, even as the President continued his hour-long speech. Already, there were thousands lined up along the police barricades in front of the Capitol. Scrolling down, I read that once again, the President implored Mike Pence to do the right thing and overturn the results of the election, although he didn’t exactly put it in those words. Armed protesters had been spotted outside the Ellipse, and there was a makeshift gallows erected with protesters chanting, ‘Hang Mike Pence!’
“Oh dear, that doesn’t look encouraging,” the Congresswoman exclaimed as she leaned across the empty seat between us and looked at my screen. A sense of foreboding washed over me as I came to realize that, short of immediate mobilization of the National Guard, there was no way the Capitol Police could fend off such a large, angry mob. Even then, I didn’t realize just how much danger we were in, preferring to think the calvary would come to save the day.
It was at that moment than I felt someone touch my arm and a I jerked it violently away, only to find myself looking into my Dad’s face. “You sure seem touchy, Seth,” Dad exclaimed.
“Have you been following what’s been going on outside?” I asked.
“I’ve been too busy to check,” he replied. “Is that the Times app open on your phone?”
“Yeah, and it isn’t good,” I answered as I handed my phone to my dad.
Instead, Dad pushed my phone away and said, “Keep it. You might need it later.” He then pulled out his own phone from his vest pocket and proceeded to scan several news sources in addition to the Times. As he did so, Nancy Pelosi gaveled the House to order and at precisely 1:05PM, Mike Pence and the full Senate entered the House chamber and proceeded to seat themselves in the front rows, maintaining social distancing rules as requested by the House Speaker.
Vice President Pence called the joint session to order and gave a brief speech in which he outlined the contents of a Tweet he’d just posted, explaining that he did not have the Constitutional authority to reject electoral votes. He then proceeded with the certification process, first calling on Alabama and then Alaska and recording their votes for Trump and Pence. Even as that was going on, my eyes were glued to my phone as Trump concluded his speech by announcing that he was gonna march to the Capitol with his supporters, and that they needed to fight like hell or they wouldn’t have a country anymore.
Looking up at my father, I asked, “Is there any way to ask the Mayor to call in the National Guard?”
“She’s already sending Metro Police as backup to the Capitol Police. However, even if she mobilized the National Guard, this is a federal facility and only the Secretary of Defense himself can authorize the National Guard to deploy to the Capitol.”
“What if the President tells him not to?” I asked.
“Actually, he’s only the acting secretary and he’d probably wait for the President to act before he’d authorize something like that.”
“Fuck,” I replied, and then added, “We need to get out of here, but more importantly, we need to get the members of Congress out of here.” Down on the floor, Paul Gosar and Ted Cruz were objecting to the certification of Arizona’s electoral votes, but I was oblivious to what was happening until I saw the senators leaving the chamber. It was surreal watching Representative Gosar with his mask hanging down well below his nose and with his mouth exposed. It was hard to believe the man had been a dentist, trained in the sciences and well aware of how a coronavirus is transmitted. He was arguing that there was massive voter fraud in Arizona without actually presenting any evidence to back him up. In the meantime, the situation outside the Capitol continued to deteriorate as the size of the mob grew exponentially. Constitution Avenue was filled with people marching from the Ellipse with a seemingly endless number joining the march every minute.
Opening his leather briefcase, Dad took out a thick courier’s pouch, similar to the one’s I’d seen in use around the Capitol and House office buildings for transporting legal documents securely. Handing it to me, he said, “I want you to hold onto this and protect it with everything you’ve got, short of your life. I don’t say that lightly and I certainly don’t expect that you’ll be in any danger, but if the Capitol falls to the mob, your chance of getting out of here alive will be much better than mine.” I was shocked. Dad was saying in words what my eyes were telling me, but which my brain refused to acknowledge – that we were in grave danger.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t ignore what I was seeing on my phone. Short of a massive military intervention, the mob was gonna storm the Capitol in a brazen attempt to prevent the certification of the election. That they were incited by the current president was even more shocking. They really believed him when he said the election had been stolen. I couldn’t help but notice that in spite of his promise to be right there with them, the President was nowhere to be seen.
“The pouch is water- and fireproof, and once I lock it, it won’t be able to be opened without a digital key,” Dad continued. “No one would ever suspect that a teenager would be carrying something so important —”
“What’s in the pouch, Dad?”
“When the states vote in the Electoral College, they certify the results in triplicate, a fact that’s not generally known by the public at large. The electors actually sign three identical Certifications of Ascertainment as a precaution against tampering. In some states they sign even more, but three is the minimum. One copy is held by the fifty-one secretaries of state or their equivalent officeholders in each state capital and in the District of Columbia. A second copy is brought to Congress and placed in its own folder, one for each state, and placed in one of the ceremonial, leather-lined mahogany boxes, which you can see down on the House floor. The third copy is kept out of harms way by the President and ultimately sealed and presented to the National Archives along with the other presidential documents.
“I think you can understand why Congresswoman Pelosi and even Senator McConnell decided not to hand those documents off to the White House Staff this morning. The President doesn’t know about the existence of additional sets of the certificates of ascertainment and he won’t know about them if I can help it. Given his willingness to use a Sharpie to modify an official NOAA hurricane map to cover an obvious gaff, I wouldn’t put it past him to attempt to alter the electoral vote count.”
“So this pouch contains the certification for the State of New York?” I asked, surprised that a single state’s certification could be so thick or weigh so much.
“That pouch contains all 51 individual certifications for each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia. If anything happens to the certifications in the wooden boxes, that pouch might be the only way to count the results of the Electoral College within the timeframe required by the constitution. Of course encrypted electronic copies have been made and those are stored safely away, but electronic media would always be suspect in the minds of those who subscribe to conspiracy theories. The certificates in the pouch are original documents with original signatures in ink, with the individual state seals embossed such that they cannot be falsified. It’s critical that nothing happen to that pouch.”
Opening the pouch, I carefully riffled through the documents inside. Each state had its own format, with some states having the certification of the electoral votes for both the president and vice-president, along with all of the necessary signatures, on a single page. Others had a separate page for the president and the vice-president, and some had additional pages to certify the legitimacy of the electors themselves. California had ten pages, most of those filled with signatures. The certifications were on various types of paper and some were thick and quite elaborate, resembling parchment, while others looked like they could have come from a cheap laser printer. Some even used a fill-in-the-blank format with the names of the president and the vice-president and their vote tallies written in by hand.
Dad took the pouch and its contents back from me and said, “It’s quite a menagerie of papers, isn’t it?” as he zipped the pouch shut and secured it with a click. “Now, only a handful of people know how to open this, and I’m not one of them.”
“But what if someone tries to take it from me?” I asked.
“They probably won’t even know what it is, but the best strategy is to feign ignorance,” Dad suggested. “Your ID badge identifies you as a Congressional staffer, but not what kind of staffer. Food service employees have badges labeled ‘VENDOR’, but your typical tourist wouldn’t know that, so tell them you’re a busboy from downstairs and you found the envelope on one of the tables in the dining room.”
“That’s ingenious, but should I just carry the pouch in my hands?” I asked.
Pausing for a moment to consider it, Dad continued, “Why don’t you hide it where it’s not too conspicuous. Perhaps against your back, under your shirt and held in place by your belt. If you’re searched and someone asks you about it, say you found it while bussing a table. You were trying to return it to whoever might have left it, when all hell broke loose. Tell them you have no idea what it is and you were even thinking of keeping it as a souvenir if you couldn’t find its rightful owner. Say you hid it under your shirt so the Capitol Police wouldn’t stop you.
“The most important thing is keeping you safe, and the best way to do that is for you to stay put until the police and the National Guard clear the Capitol. Hopefully, that’ll happen quickly. Let’s pray that the only interruption to the counting of the electoral votes will be from the idiots who are intent on catering to the whims of their constituents. The framers of the Constitution never intended for the Electoral College to be weaponized by those unhappy with the results of the election. Justice will prevail in the end.”
“But it might not be enough to stop a bloodbath,” I countered, stating my worst fears aloud for the first time.
Putting his hands on my shoulders and looking me right in the eyes, Dad responded, “As much as I’d like to reassure you that nothing like that will happen, all bets are off if any of them are armed. I’d like to send you far away from here, but it looks like the Capitol’s already surrounded and it wouldn’t be safe for you to even try.”
“What about underground?” I asked. “I could take the tunnels back to Rayburn and leave from there.”
“It still wouldn’t be safe,” Dad answered. “Unless you could get back to your quarters in Webster Hall and change into something more casual, so you could blend in with the crowd, there’s too much chance that someone would spot you and go after you. There’s also the possibility they’ll breach the office buildings and tunnels too —”
“Dad, yesterday I saw some members of Congress giving what appeared to be tours of the Capitol to people who were dressed as tourists,” I recalled. “I remember thinking how strange that was, given that the Capitol has been closed to tourists since the start of Covid.”
“That’s even more concerning, as it may suggest a planned attack,” Dad said. “With paramilitary groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers involved, nothing can be taken for granted.”
“I just hope they don’t take hostages,” I interjected. “If that happens, we could find ourselves in the midst of a standoff lasting days.”
“I’m not saying that couldn’t happen, Seth, but look at them. Even if there is a plan, the mob’s too disorganized for them to carry it out.” Then taking out his own phone, Dad texted with amazing speed for an older guy. “I’ve sent a heads-up to Schumer and Pelosi, but they were already aware of what’s going on outside.” Then after a pause, he added, “The Secret Service is already working on a plan to evacuate and secure the members of Congress off-site, should the Capitol be breached. Staffers, however, may need to shelter in place.”
“In other words, we’re expendable,” I responded.
“Not in a million years,” Dad countered, “but the legislative branch of the government must be preserved at all costs. That doesn’t mean throwing you to the wolves though. Once the members of Congress are safe, the next priority will be to secure the Capitol and everyone in it. Then after the dust has settled, Congress can deal with the President appropriately. He got away with his attempt to coerce Ukraine into doing his bidding, but there’s no way he can escape the charge of sedition.”
“Are you saying the president will be impeached again?” I asked in surprise. “Isn’t it a bit late for that?”
“He has to be, Seth. Future presidents who might be tempted to try to overturn the results of an election need to know that there are consequences. Impeachment will ensure that he can’t find another way to hold onto power, and once he’s removed from office, he can be held accountable and tried for his crimes.”
“But what makes you think the Senate will convict him this time?” I asked. “It’s as partisan as ever and even with both Warnock and Ossoff on board, you’ll still need seventeen Republicans and all of the Democrats to vote to convict.”
“I have every confidence that they will this time. Americans won’t stand for such a blatant attack on the law,” Dad countered.
“The crowd outside of this building would suggest otherwise,” I pointed out.
Sighing, Dad responded, “Overall, I think that most Americans are better than that. Certainly there are still enough Republican Senators with the integrity to do what’s right for a change. In any case, we each have our assigned tasks. I’ll take responsibility for assisting in evacuating the representatives. Your job is to stay safe and watch over those certifications.”
Looking at the screen on my phone and the continuing coverage of the mob, I saw that the Capitol police had been overwhelmed and the protestors had already breached the first set of barricades. The police were retreating up the steps on the West Side of the Capitol, attempting to establish a more secure perimeter to prevent penetration. It was then that I received a notification that my battery was down to 20%. “Shit, my battery’s gettin’ low. It won’t last long at all if I keep watching so much video,” I complained.
Reaching into this briefcase, Dad took out a rectangular object and handed it to me. Fuck, it was heavy. “Here, take this. It’s a high-capacity power bank with a built-in wireless charger and a fold-out plug. It should give you enough juice to keep your phone charged up for at least 24 hours.”
“But what are you gonna do, Dad?” I asked.
“Hopefully, I’ll have access to a place to recharge my phone, but if not, my watch has its own cellular connection, and it has enough of a charge to last more than a day. I can send and receive texts and even make phone calls using only my watch if I have to.”
Doing as Dad suggested, I removed my suit jacket and draped it over one of the seats and then I lifted up my shirttail and stuffed the pouch into the back of my suit pants, tucking the shirt back in around it, replacing suit coat over my torso. Dad was looking at his phone and then texting someone, and then he turned to me and said, “The Speaker wants me to move the boxes of certificates to her office and to secure them there, in her safe.”
“So you won’t need me to hold onto the copies you gave me?” I asked.
“Seth, we don’t know what might happen and even a 500-pound safe can be pried up with a crowbar and carried off by a few strong guys. You hold on to that pouch and don’t let it go.”
“Will do, Dad,” I replied. He started to turn away, but then he turned back and gave me an extra-tight hug before he left. We both had tears in our eyes, not knowing if we’d even see each other again.
Speaker Pelosi was still presiding over the debate on the objection to Alabama’s certification, when I saw Dad appear in the House chamber below and he began to remove the wooden boxes that contained the certifications.
I sat tight and returned to watching events unfold on my phone. The time was 1:58.
Time seemed to stand still as other staffers, some who looked to be as young as I was, gathered around me to watch the tiny screen, or watched news sites on their own phones. I dared not turn up the sound, so we all did our best to read the tiny captions displayed on our screens. The mob was now being referred to as a riot and the Capitol and Metro police were doing their best to contain it, using tear gas and pepper spray with little effect. The rioters were fighting back with sprays of their own, perhaps pepper spray or even bear spray. There were Trump flags and – good god – Confederate flags everywhere as rioters pushed back the police and climbed up the façade of the portico. Some of the rioters even climbed the scaffolding that was still in place for construction of the inaugural stage.
To me it was obvious that it was a matter of when, not if the Capitol was breached and so I texted Dad with an update. Dad texted back, ‘Secret Service and Capitol Police setting up House and Senate evacuation. Stay put for now. Plan is to evacuate staffers with members if at all possible.’
I texted back, ‘That’s the best news I’ve had all day!’
In the meantime, the video from outside the Capitol was getting more and more horrifying, as rioters used flagpoles, bear spray and what even appeared to be tasers as weapons against the Capitol police. I couldn’t believe it when I saw rioters attempting to smash a window by using a police riot shield. I wasn’t sure exactly where on the capitol it was, but the detail that was being captured and relayed live by the media was astonishing. Then the window gave way and the rioters pulled the remnants of bullet-proof glass and framing away from the window and started to climb inside. Shortly thereafter, an adjacent door was opened from inside, allowing the crowd direct access. When the camera panned out a bit, I could see that they were entering through the connecting corridor between the Senate Wing and the original building, on the first floor, across from the Senate Members’ Dining Room. In the meantime, rioters managed to breach the doors on the east side of the second floor, giving them direct access to the Rotunda.
Representative Gosar continued his diatribe on the floor of the House, making a drawn-out case for decertifying his state’s electoral votes, even as Nancy Pelosi was being ushered away from the Speaker’s Desk. Someone else took over as Speaker and he quickly gaveled the House into recess. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was Representative Jim McGovern of California, the ranking House member. Things started happening quickly after that, with Capitol police handing out disposable gas masks to the members of Congress on the floor of the house and ushering them out through one of the side entrances. In the meantime, the police set up a barricade at the rear entrance to the chamber, directly opposite the Speaker’s lobby, which was the most direct entrance from the Rotunda.
I could barely make out what was happening below when all of a sudden, there was the sound of a gunshot and there were screams from some of the people in the Gallery. Congressman Jim Crow, whom I would later learn had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, immediately motioned for all of us to lie down between the seats, so that we couldn’t be seen from below. He then whispered something I couldn’t hear, but it was relayed from person to person and one of the other staffers told me, “Remove your badge and hide it, so you won’t be identified as a Congressional staffer. Tell the congresswoman to do the same, and to remove her Congressional pin as well.”
Turning to Congresswoman Velázquez, I told her what I’d been told and asked her to pass the message on. Just then, one of the doors to the Gallery opened suddenly, causing me to nearly jump up from the floor, but then I saw that it was one of the Capitol police officers and he was motioning for us to move to the door, but then he only let the members of the House through, turning the rest of us away. Apparently, we staffers were gonna hafta shelter in place. The officer did pass out disposable gas masks to all of us, though.
I started to hear voices and shouting from below, making it evident that the rioters had reached the floor of the House chamber. We all ducked back down between the rows of seats. I dared not look for fear that I’d be seen and could only hope that none of the protesters thought to check the gallery or to take hostages. Only later would I learn that some of the protesters had actually brought cable ties expressly for the purpose of taking the members of Congress hostage.
It seemed like forever that I’d been lying on the floor of the Gallery, but a check of my phone showed it had only been about twenty minutes since the Capitol had been breached. The newsfeed from the Times app was showing remarkable detail of what was going on inside the building. Somehow, they’d gotten access to an internal video feed, perhaps from C-SPAN, which had been broadcasting the proceedings. Fuck, I recognized some video from inside the House and Senate chambers and there were protesters taking turns taking selfies of themselves and each other. There was a big guy who was shirtless and wearing what looked like a Viking hat with horns, and his face was painted red, white and blue. It was all so surreal that I was watching this on my phone when it was happening mere steps away.
When the video feed showed one of the protesters trying to climb up into the gallery from below, a fellow staffer whispered, “Come on, I know where we can hide.” In retrospect, it was actually someone climbing down from the gallery onto the floor of the Senate, but it was just as well that we got out of the House Gallery while we could.
Slowly and as quietly as possible, a group of us made our way down the row of seats, taking care to stay low enough that we couldn’t be seen. We stayed low as we made our way to the closest door. Looking both ways to make sure that there were no protesters in the corridor, we exited the gallery and headed out into the third-floor connector between the House Wing and the original building. Taking out a key, the staffer opened a heavy wooden door that led into a large office suite.
Once we were all inside, he locked the door behind us. Only then did he speak, but still only in a whisper, just loudly enough for the eleven of us who were with him to hear. “We need to move quickly to secure this office and the one next to it, which is connected through that doorway,” he indicated as he nodded in the direction of the door. “We also need to cover the windows so we can’t be seen. There are two windows to the left that can be seen from the House corridor, and two in the other office, that overlook the Statuary Hall. There are also open alcoves in back that are open to the Statuary Hall, but it’s doubtful we can be seen through those, nor heard over the echoes in the Hall itself.
“First, we need to barricade the door we entered through, so no one can reach us. We need to move the desk and as much furniture as we can in front of the door, so that it can’t be kicked in.” With twelve of us, it was fairly easy to move the heavy desk, credenza and file cabinets into position so that no one could break in. The task was a bit easier in the next office, as there was an antechamber in front of the door, which allowed us to wedge furniture in between. Once that had been done, we emptied some of the book cases in the rooms and moved them in front of the windows.
One of the other staffers had the brilliant idea of using an ordinary pair of office scissors to punch holes in the backs of the bookcases, so that we could look out the windows to see what was happening. A book placed in front of each hole was all that was necessary to block light from getting through when we weren’t using them to look out. Once we’d secured our location, however, there wasn’t really anything else to do until the Capitol Police secured the building, and that certainly didn’t appear to be a priority as the protestors milled about the building with impunity.
The one bright spot, if it could be considered one, was that the office suite had a small washroom. It was a good thing too, as I was beyond the point of needing to empty my bladder. Not that we couldn’t have found something else to use if necessary, but several of the staffers needed to empty more than their bladders and dealing with that kind of mess would have made our captivity that much less pleasant. Only later did I realize that the washroom provided something even more important than a toilet – access to water.
For the next few hours there was nothing for us to do as we all watched events play out on our phones. I volunteered Dad’s power bank, which I plugged into one of the electrical outlets in the office, and we all took turns recharging our phones as needed. In the meantime, we told each other a bit about ourselves and I learned that although I was the youngest at fifteen, only three of us were out of our teens, and barely. We hailed from all over the U.S., from as far away as Fairbanks and as close as Silver Spring.
Eventually, we heard shouting from outside our hideaway and there were loud bangs as people tried to kick in the doors, but we remained safe inside. Through our peepholes in the bookcases, we could see the protesters milling about the Gallery corridor and in the Statuary Hall. Chillingly, we heard someone calling for Nancy to come out from where she was hiding. Just after 4:00, President-elect Biden addressed the nation and demanded that President Trump call off the protest. Finally, at 4:17, Trump uploaded a rambling video to his Twitter account, expressing his love for the protesters and reiterating that the election was stolen, but telling the protesters that it was time to go home.
We never did see any evidence of the National Guard and only later would we learn that the governors of Maryland and Virginia, as well as the mayor of D.C. had mobilized their forces, only to have the acting Secretary of Defense hesitate to make use of them without presidential authorization. It ultimately fell to Mike Pence to authorize the use of National Guard troops to secure the Capitol and only then did Secretary Miller authorize the D.C. National Guard to come to the aide of the D.C. Metro Police and the Capitol Police. The Guard began assisting the police at around 5:40, some four hours after the Capitol was breached. Shortly after that, the Capitol was cleared of protesters. Even so, all of the offices had to be searched before the Capitol could be declared secure.
At 6:05, Dad called me on my phone to see how I was. I was ecstatic to hear his voice and actually let out a whoop when I saw his face on my phone. “Seth, are you okay?” he asked before I even had the phone to my ear.
“Yeah, Dad, I’m fine,” I answered. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Where are you?”
“I’m with Senator Schumer and Speaker Pelosi,” he answered. “I can’t tell you exactly where we are for reasons of security. I certainly hope there won’t be a next time, but we need to keep our location a secret, just in case.
“How about you, Seth? Did you get out of the Capitol okay?”
Shaking my head, which was pretty silly over the phone, I replied, “No, the Capitol Police ushered the members of the House out of the gallery, but they left the staffers and members of the press to shelter in place with nothing more than disposable gas masks for protection.”
“Fuck, they assured me you all were safe,” Dad exclaimed. I was shocked ’cause Dad almost never swore, and never to me. “Are you still in the gallery?”
“No, when we saw on TV that one of the protesters was tryin’ to climb up into the Gallery from the House floor, a bunch of the staffers and I hightailed it outta there and holed up in a couple of offices in the connector overlooking the Statuary Hall.”
“It was televised?” Dad asked in obvious surprise.
“C-SPAN was already televising the proceedings, and I guess all the news media were streaming their feed when the protesters breached the Capitol. The whole thing was carried on all the news sites.”
“I was so busy dealing with the certifications and then with helping to get the members of Congress out of the Capitol safely that I didn’t have the time to check on what was being reported by the news media. I should’ve realized it was all carried live. By the way, Seth, we’re referring to the protesters as insurrectionists and were calling the attack on the Capitol the Insurrection. If nothing else, we need to control the message before the supporters of the President have a chance nullify what happened here. This was a blatant attempt by the President of the United States to interrupt the official proceedings of Congress, so as to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” I replied.
“Congresswoman Velázquez suggested that I represent the Democratic Party in the impeachment proceedings related to today, and Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer have agreed. It looks like I’ll be spending the next few weeks here in Washington after all, at least until the President is convicted in the Senate and President-elect Biden is sworn in.”
“That’s great Dad,” I replied, “although I’d have much rather not gone through what we went through today.”
“Agreed. Anyway, the Capitol Police will need to go through the Capitol, room-by-room to make sure there are no insurrectionists still in hiding. You should stay put until then, so they can verify you are who you say you are. The plan is to fully clear the building by around 7:30 and then the House and Senate will reconvene to resume the certification process.”
“That’s only a bit over an hour from now,” I noted.
“Listen, I know you all must be starved and there won’t be much time to eat, and the certification won’t finish up until after midnight. Let me grab some food for you all and bring it to you, my treat.”
“Is anything open?” I asked.
Outside of the Capitol complex, just about everything is open for business as usual. Why don’t I pick up a couple of pizzas at Uno’s in Union Station?” Dad suggested.
“There are twelve of us here, so you’ll need more than a couple of pizzas, even with Uno’s.”
One of the other staffers tapped me on the arm and said, “Tell him we’ll order from Andy’s Pizza in the Streets Market, on M Street, right near Union Station. If we place the order now, It’ll be ready by the time he gets there to pick it up.”
“Dad, we’re placing an order at Andy’s Pizza in the Streets Market, on M Street. If you could pick it up, that’ll avoid the hassle of trying to get it through security.”
“They’ll still need to inspect it, much more thoroughly than usual,” Dad pointed out. “Just order an extra pizza – an everything combo of some sort, and I’ll give it to the guys at security. Nothin’ lubricates the gears of bureaucracy like free pizza. Just remember, I’m buying. If they take ApplePay, use your phone and charge it to my card.”
“Will do, Dad,” I replied. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Speaking of Pizza, you’ve hardly touched yours, Seth,” Asher noted as I neared the conclusion of my interview with Jake.
Shrugging my shoulders, I replied, “I’ve eaten plenty of cold pizza in my life, and it’ll probably be a staple of my diet when I’m in law school, your cooking notwithstanding.” I then took a large bite of the barbecue chicken pizza, which was still delicious, even cold.
“So I take it they didn’t need the extra packet of certificates, after all,” Jake said.
“Actually, although my dad secured the boxes in the safe in Nancy Pelosi’s office, he neglected to secure the certificates that had already been removed. He didn’t even realize they weren’t there. Without those certificates, there was no record that the counts for Alabama, Alaska and Arizona were legitimate. There could have been major problems if we didn’t present those certificates with the others to the National Archive, especially given the role that Arizona played. So we did need those three certificates from the pouch, after all.”
“What happened to the original certificates?” Jake asked.
Shrugging my shoulders, I replied, “No one knows. Obviously, someone took them and it’s likely they still have them, perhaps hidden away while they serve their time. It’s possible they’re circulating around the ‘Dark Web’, but if anyone were caught with them, they’d be looking at hard time in prison, just for having them.
“One thing I hafta caution, though. No one can know about the extra set of certificates. As far as the public’s concerned, they don’t even exist. If you even hint at their existence in anything you write, I’ll vehemently deny it and claim you’re making the whole story up. You can use anything I told you in your story, but not that.”
“I guess I can live with that. The rest of your story’s incredible. It’ll be a real scoop for the paper,” Jake exclaimed. “So I take it you all ate pizza and then went back to the House Gallery to witness the rest of the certification process?”
Laughing, I replied, “We barely had time to eat the pizza. We were starved and so we ordered nine large thin-crust pizzas, all of them loaded up with toppings. Dad musta had heart failure when he saw the bill. It came to over $300. I don’t know how in hell we expected Andy’s to make nine pizzas in the ten minutes it took my dad to get there, and then Dad had to carry all those back to us. He couldn’t park anywhere near the Capitol, and Uber and Lyft drivers weren’t accepting any requests from on Capitol Hill. He managed to grab a taxi, but the driver wouldn’t wait for the pizza. Dad ended up walking six blocks to Union Station, thinking he’d grab a taxi from there, but there wasn’t a single cab to be found, so he walked the rest of the way. One and a quarter miles might not sound like much, but try carrying nine large pizzas that far in twenty minutes, all the while worrying you might be held up at gunpoint.
“The delay didn’t really matter in the long run, ’cause they wouldn’t let him enter the Capitol until they declared the building secure. Not even a free pizza was enough to get them to break with protocol, nor were they willing to deliver it either. In the end, Dad had the Capitol Police fetch us from our hiding place and bring us down to security, where we split the nine pizzas with them.
“So we all feasted on pizza and then we hightailed it back to the House gallery, just in time for Ms. Pelosi to gavel the House back to order at 8:00. Then the house and Senate still had to finish debating the Arizona results and damned if Gozar still went on and on about voter fraud, without presenting any evidence. Finally, both the House and the Senate voted to accept the results from Arizona, and then the joint session resumed.
“Things went very quickly after that, with each state requiring only a minute or two to be certified. However, that didn’t stop some of the Republican representatives from trying to challenge the results for Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Even with what had happened right before, they still wanted to throw our democracy under the bus. Only the challenge to Pennsylvania’s certification had the signature of a Senator, so that was the only other state for which there was any debate.”
“Let me guess; Josh Hawley?” Craig asked.
“Of course,” I replied. “You could hear all the groans in the room, particularly from the left side of the chamber. Finally, we finished certifying the election of Biden and Harris at around 3:00 AM.”
“So you spent the rest of the month as a Congressional intern and you went to the inauguration?”
“The insurrection and Trump’s second impeachment took up all the oxygen in the room,” I explained. “We only had two weeks between January 6 and the inauguration, so we had to put together the case for impeachment without delay. I barely slept during those two weeks as I spent entire days in the Library of Congress, gathering the background info for the legal briefs my dad was building. Dad was so sure he’d get enough Republicans in the Senate to vote to convict, but as I warned him, it didn’t happen. It was naïve to think they’d sacrifice their careers when Trump had already left office by the time the trial in the Senate took place. Conviction would’ve sent a powerful message, but angering millions of Trump supporters just wasn’t worth it to the vast majority of them. The result was utterly predictable.”
“What about the inauguration?” Jake asked. “Was it cool to see it in person? Did you go to one of the inaugural balls?”
Laughing, I replied, “I saw it the same way you did, on TV. I watched it from just a short distance away, in the Rayburn House Office Building, but the inauguration was virtual and I didn’t rank highly enough to get a seat on the stage. You might remember that they filled the National Mall with flags to represent the people who would’ve attended, had it not been for Covid, but that didn’t stop the staffers from partying nevertheless.
“I hadn’t had a chance to get together with the other staffers who’d holed up with me in the Capitol during the insurrection, ’cause of all the work I was doing to support Dad during the impeachment, so I asked Congresswoman Velázquez if we could have our own inauguration party in her office conference room, and she agreed. We all ate Andy’s Pizza and drank beer while we watched the festivities on TV.”
“How the hell did you get beer?” Tanner asked.
“Two of the staffers were legal and brought in a couple of six-packs apiece. They had no trouble bringing it in and although I’m not generally a fan, I did drink a couple of beers, like everyone else. None of us got drunk or anything. We were there with Congresswoman Velázquez’s permission and we weren’t about to abuse her trust.
“So we watched all the same stuff that you might have watched, including the ‘Parade Across America’ and the ‘Celebrating America’ TV special. At the end of the evening, we all gathered outside on the Mall, just in time to see the fireworks they shot off while Katy Perry sang her song, ‘Firework’.
“In pre-pandemic times, there would’ve been inaugural balls to go to and there always was a ball for teens and young adults, so I would’ve taken Asher to that, but Biden nixed having anything that could’ve become a super spreader event. Between the formalwear and the tickets, it would’ve cost us a fortune, so there is that bit of a silver lining, and we’ll certainly go to Biden’s inauguration in 2025.
“The next morning, it was back to work, preparing for the impeachment trial, which began on February 9.”
“But your internship ended before that,” Jake countered.
Shaking my head, I replied, “Dad got Congresswoman Velázquez to extend my internship through the end of February, so I could help him finish the case for Trump’s trial in the Senate. The trial ended with his acquittal on February 13, but there was still much work to do related to cataloguing all of the testimony and collating it with the rest of the material from the impeachment trial. In the end, much of that went into my dad’s second book.”
“Did you keep in touch with the other staffers?” Tanner asked.
“Of course we all planned to, but then we all went our separate ways and we lost touch,” I replied. “We had the best of intentions, as so many people do when they make promises they intend to keep, but never do —”
“Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday dear Seth. Happy Birthday to you!” Clarke started singing while Carl wheeled an enormous sheet cake out onto the pool deck, with eighteen candles blazing, and everyone joined in, singing off key. Truthfully, I’d been so engrossed in retelling the story of the insurrection that I’d forgotten completely about my birthday, so I had no trouble feigning surprise. I really was surprised.
I made my wish and blew out the candles with all my might, but they all sprang back to life with the telltale sparks that told me they were trick candles. Turning toward Clarke, I said, “I’m gonna get even with you for that,” and then we both laughed heartily.
The cake was delicious, as was all of the food at the party. It may have been strange to have my cake and ice cream before I ate the rest of the food from the barbecue, but I’d been so busy retelling the events from two and a half years ago that I’d only gotten to eat a single slice of pizza and a half of a hamburger in the entire time before the cake was brought out. I wasted little time in getting more food.
The afternoon was filled with fun as we played volleyball and swimming pool basketball, rode our bicycles on the extensive network of trails in the parks of Staten Island, and just hung out, ate food and drank beer. The sun had already set by the time Asher and I boarded the ferry for the trip back to Manhattan.
Tomorrow, I’d head off with my dad down to Washington to spend the entire summer working in his congressional office, but before that, I’d officially turn eighteen at midnight, and Asher had promised me a special celebration, for just the two of us.
Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay teenage boys. There are references to gay sex and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. The reader takes all responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. Although reference is made to the New York City Schools and the elite specialty high schools, any resemblance to actual facilities, classes, teachers or students is unintentional. Reference is made to a number of well-known politicians and although every attempt has been made to represent their known political views, statements made in the story are fictional and should not be considered as fact. Extensive reference is made to the events that took place on January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol. Every attempt has been made to represent those events accurately, based on multiple respected sources. As always, opinions expressed by characters in the story represent the opinions of the characters and are not representative of those of the author nor the sites to which the story has been posted. The author retains full copyright.