It is 8:30 pm, and everyone is nervous.
The numerous TVs around the bar — all tuned to Fox News — are showing a concerningly close race in Florida. Even the dependably red states are looking too close for comfort.
“How do you not win Texas...” the man to my right begins to say.
“By a landslide,” the woman standing next to him finishes.
"This is like the World Series and Stanley cup in one," the third member of their group observes. A lone TV in the corner is playing the New York Rangers game, for those inclined to believe the Stanley Cup would be more interesting.
We are standing in a dim, wood-panelled establishment off Railroad Avenue in Patchogue, Long Island.
It is an election-night party for
Trump supporters in the area, as well as their local candidates. Outside, a
school bus is covered in camo print, emblazoned with the message, “Secure
our country. Grow our economy. Vote Lee Zeldin.”
I’ve come in
from Manhattan, with the hope of seeing Trump surrogate John Jay
LaValle and talking with his supporters. After consulting with my
concerned boyfriend, I’ve decided not to tell anyone at the event that I
am a reporter.
I turn to the group to my right and smile. “Crazy, isn’t it?” I ask.
I circle the room, passing at least ten Trump-Pence signs and innumerable red, white and blue balloons as I look for a place to sit.
Finally I settle on a spot next to a boisterous group of middle-aged voters.
"You're from Virginia?" a man is asking the woman next to him. "My brother’s from Virginia! He voted for Obama last time." The man makes the “crazy” sign with his right pointer finger, and the two look at each other meaningfully. "He says he's voting for Trump this time."
Later, when the group lapses into a conversation about voter fraud, the man contends that the entire election is rigged.
"The Democrats have done a great job of bringing in people from outside the country and putting them on the voter rolls,” he says. "If we don't win this election and reverse this course, we will never win another election again."
"I. Want. The. Swamp. Cleaned,” adds his friend, slapping the leather booth with each word for emphasis. "I hate Washington with a passion!"
"Me too!" squeals a woman dressed entirely in red.
For the first time since moving to New York, I feel out of place in my all-black ensemble. The women here are dressed either in white or red, with matching leather pumps.
I try to blend in as I make my way toward the stage where LaValle has started speaking. But by the time I get close enough to hear him, he is already saying his goodbyes.
"Unfortunately, or fortunately, I will have to exit the building early,” he says. “I'm going to Manhattan to meet Donald J Trump — the next president of the United States!” The crowd erupts in cheers.
“You see those numbers, you see that map?” he says, gesturing to the electoral map projected behind him. “We have a clear map to victory. How many Trump signs did you see out here in Suffolk county? And how many Clinton signs did you see? Not so many.”
Seven months ago, Trump spoke at a Suffolk County fundraiser in this same building. The candidate drew crowds that stretched around the block, and the police had to set up special cordons. Smitten supporters tell me that the crowd that night numbered 10,000 people. (The New Yorker put it at about 1,300.) The county went heavily for Trump in the primaries.
Now, LaValle is saying he will bring that Suffolk County love to Trump’s election night party in Manhattan.
“I have to leave now so I don’t miss Trump’s big speech!” LaValle tells the crowd. “I think he’s going to make it at 10.”
He seems not to know — or maybe not to care — that it is already 9:50 pm, and Manhattan is two hours away. No one here tonight seems too beholden to the facts. After all, the election results are already blowing all the “official numbers” away.
The mood is noticeably lighter after LaValle’s speech. Most people make a trip to the bar to refill their drinks — some for the third or fourth time.
Two Suffolk County police officers approach me and offer to buy me a drink. They say they’re only there on behalf of the police union, to curry favor with the elected officials. When it comes to supporting local politicians, one of them tells me, the decision is fairly simple: "Whoever says I'll support you, we say, I support you too!"
“But of course, we all want fucking Trump,” he tells me, then looks around quickly. “Pardon my language.”
When I inquire further about the police unions, the officers tell me how much protection they get here, “up north.” Down south, they say, in places like Florida, cops are forced to write tickets for their own mothers. Even worse, they occasionally have to ticket each other.
“It’s crazy!” one of them says. “We're brothers. With all this Black Lives Matter shit, we have to stick together."
Our discussion is briefly interrupted by a woman pushing through the crowd, brandishing a red “Make America Great Again” hat.
“Did you get that for free?” her husband inquires when she waves it in his face.
“No, I just borrowed it from that guy to take a picture!” she responds. “Now take a picture with me!"
When they ask the man standing next to them — an elderly man, with a long beard and cloudy blue eyes — to take their picture, he seems not to understand.
“I just met my first Black Republican!" he exclaims instead. I excuse myself to go to the restroom.
When I come back, the foggy-eyed old man approaches me. He tells me he’s excited to see a young Republican here, because he’d almost lost faith in our generation.
“They’re too entitled,” he says. Even his own son has become lazy these days, asking his old man to pay for everything.
Right on cue, the son in question emerges out of the crowd.
"What're you two liberals doing back here?" he asks of me and his father.
"Talking about how much we love Hillary,” I joke.
"Ah, ok,” he says. “Enjoy your food stamps!”
Instead of leaving, however, the son proceeds to recount his detailed life story. He is a war vet injured in Afghanistan. He’s on “medical retirement” now, but he still has to pay for things like health insurance for himself and his daughter. He claims that under Obamacare, he’s seen his premiums triple.
"I work hard,” he tells me. “Why am I paying more? So Kanye can live off my back?"
For the second time that night, I excuse myself to the restroom. Before I go, however, he grabs my hand and introduces himself.
“I’m Charlie,” he says. “Like Charlie Sheen, but without the HIV.”
By 11 pm, the world outside of Patchogue is in panic mode. I’ve stopped checking Twitter, but my friends are texting me non-stop.
“WHAT IS HAPPENING?” writes a friend from college.
“How did this many people fill in the wrong bubble??” writes another.
Glancing up from my phone, I see a woman dancing around in circles in front of the TV screens, waving her arms in the air.
"You have to understand" she says, catching my eye. "Eight years of losing. Eight years!"
I smile at her briefly, remembering my own joy at Obama’s election after eight years of George W. Bush. But then the woman continues.
"Buh-bye Loretta Lynch!” she cheers. “Hello, special prosecutor!"
By 12 am, most everyone at the event has declared Trump our next president. Most are headed home, while a few are getting their last drinks in at the bar.
“Sweet Caroline” is blaring from the speakers, and a group behind me screams along when Neil Diamond croons, “Good times never seemed so good.”
I speak briefly with a woman named Annemarie, who lives in Brooklyn. She says she keeps her voting registration in Patchogue, where her parents live, and came here tonight to vote. She had been sleeping on the couch at 10 pm, when her father shook her awake.
“Wake up, honey,” he’d said. “I think Trump is gonna win this thing!”
Grudgingly accepting Annemarie’s father’s prediction, and gathering my things to go, I run into my cop friend again. He wishes me good luck on the train ride home, and introduces me to his uncle, standing nearby.
“Well hello!” the uncle exclaims, grabbing me by the waist and pulling me in next to him.
"Hey, go easy on her,” his nephew chides. "That's my girlfriend."
“Alright, alright, I'll go easy on her,” he responds, pulling me in for one final squeeze. “Gorgeous woman."
I finally escape the handsy uncle and am halfway to the door, when I hear someone call my name.
“Emily!” a familiar voice yells. It is Charlie-without-the-HIV.
“Hey!” I muster, turning around. “Whatcha doing?”
“Oh you know, just being white in America,” he says, sloshing his drink. “Isn’t it hell?”
Thirty minutes later, boarding my train home, I see a KKK flyer sitting in my seat. “Our race is our nation,” it reads. “Loyal White Knights of the KKK. Call us today.”
I burst into tears.