May 30, 2010

Fly on the Wall: After Hours at the Capitol

By Cara Henis

A different set of rules governs the state Capitol at night. Gone are the three-piece suits, the bills and the deals. The activists, the lobbyists, the politically curious vanish from the pillared halls. From behind their thick gold frames, somber portraits of gray-haired men gaze tirelessly at all who enter the circular rotunda. The occasional brunette or straight-faced woman immortalized by brushstrokes does the same. The muted light and looming arches play off the winding staircases, making it difficult to discern whether you’ve wandered into the Capitol or a game of Clue. At any moment a polished office door might creak open and Professor Plum will appear, brandishing a lead pipe or a candlestick.

The state trooper nearest the door checks his phone more frequently as closing time approaches. It’s almost 9 on a Friday night, and everyone but a few straggling tourists has left the building. Though the building officially closes to the public at 9 p.m., the grounds are essentially an urban park, open to the public well into the night. A group of people begins to congregate outside, dwarfed beneath the glowing dome.

These are the first of the late-night Capitol dwellers. As the evening progresses, the Capitol becomes home to the lovers, the players and the people in between. Team God Bless America clusters and, after minimal debate, decides to hide its black beach towel on a hill. This towel is the team flag, and it must be protected. “The first, and most important, rule is, don’t be a dick,” says Team God Bless America’s defensive coordinator, Will Clay, a tall, smiling blond. He runs through a list of other basics. Capture the Flag is serious fun.

The sidewalks that snake the Capitol grounds are neutral zones. The lawns between them are chopped into two territories, each of which, on this particular Friday, belongs to Team America or Team God Bless America. Players must guard their team’s flag while trying to snag their competitors’. The jovial bunch of about 50 people who meet at the base of the Capitol is composed of newbies and veterans, mostly college students, all of whom discovered these monthly late-night war games on Facebook or by word of mouth.

Once teams are decided, the participants use duct tape to distinguish themselves from one another. Team America’s players stripe their sleeves or chests with thick blue tape. They blend into the night sky when running. Team God Bless America uses fluorescent pink strips that make its members’ frenzied dashes across the field look like highlighter ink spreading across a page. Anyone tagged in enemy territory is sent to jail. One captor holds invading players’ hands behind their backs as he marches them toward “prison,” a crooked tree marked with his team’s color.

During a lull in the game, one Team God Bless America defensive player, Huey Huynh, lies on the grass and curls himself into a ball. “I’m a rock! I’m camouflaged now,” Huynh jokes with another player. He knows he is actually doing everything but blending in. Huynh is wearing red running shorts layered atop red pajama bottoms dotted with cartoon roosters and the phrase “Chicks dig me.” The pajama bottoms are a gift from his mom. He, Clay and a player called Sosa form the final barrier between their flag and approaching assailants.

“I feel like when I’m on defense that I’m defending the Capitol,” Huynh says. “I grew up in Texas, and when you do, you really care about the Capitol. It’s like the Capitol is on my back and I can’t let these guys invade.”

White floodlights transform the Capitol into a backyard, down-home version of the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower or Venice’s Rialto Bridge. A young couple in sweats stand in the light, their bodies arched toward each other. Together, they peer into the sky. The young man points up, and she tries to follow his gaze. No, he shakes his head and shows her again. Maybe he is indicating the sharp-nosed statue atop the building, clutching a lone star. Perhaps he is looking at something else. The exact object of interest is only discernible to them. She is laughing. The bright light makes her hair glow white. He touches her shoulder.

The capture the flag game noisily rages on about 50 yards away, but the couple haven’t looked over once. They seem so far away. It’s past 11 p.m. and the cobbled pathways farthest from the shining building are dark and indistinguishable from one another. I’m on my way out when State Trooper Ed Touchet stops me. He is broad-shouldered, tall and at first unsmiling. His posture hints at military experience. I’m about to deny anything and everything when I realize he just wants to chat with someone.  Touchet courteously walks me to my car and this part of the adventure ends.

Night passes. All remnants from the evening before are gone, replaced by a cool, quiet morning. The front doors of the Capitol are unlocked, but only a few of the earliest visitors are beginning to arrive. They shield their eyes from the sun’s initial advances, and some attempt to manage the children they brought.

“Shh!” A woman hisses at her young son, who has just discovered the miracle of the echoing rotunda. “BAH BAH BAH,” he says.

Yet the backside of the building is still uninhabited; the tourists have yet to make it out there. A cool breeze rolls through the shrub-lined courtyard, uninterrupted, except by a lone gardener. He tends to a seemingly intact bush, never once lifting his head from his work. He softly pats the top of the waist-high hedge. In his other hand, he holds a plastic grocery bag filled with stray leaves and debris he’s collected this morning.

Nine hours have passed since Capture the Flag was in full swing. Nine hours since that young couple had gazed upward, laughing with each other.

An unshaven young man had dashed past these groomed shrubs in hot pursuit of another player. A curly-haired girl hid from view right across from where the gardener now stands. Yet, at this moment, the gardener is tidying up the grounds, completely unaware of all the memories made here the night before.