Representative Charles Rangel celebrated his 80th birthday on Wednesday night, an event that many New York Democrats did their best to avoid due to the ethics charges against him. Chadwick Matlin was there.
A black man gets out of a car in front of the Plaza Hotel. An onlooker, unaware that this man is not Charlie Rangel, screams, “Happy Birthday, Chucky Boy!” It would be a sweet gesture if moments earlier he hadn’t also yelled, “Happy Birthday, Crook!”
Inside, Chucky Boy is the center of attention, making his way through the grand ballroom's cherubs and crystal. As he approaches the stage, more supporters swarm, and he can only be seen by tracking the path of the flashbulbs.
Onstage, he grabs a microphone. “Yo!” he says. The crowd won’t shut up, so he shushes them repeatedly. Then: “I’ve been to a lot of funerals lately, but this damn sure ain’t no funeral!”
That gets him everyone’s attention, but he quickly loses it by name-checking every old friend in the room. After running out of individuals, he turns to ethnicities. “Are the Koreans in the house?” Soon after, Congressman Joseph Crowley introduces David Paterson, the evening’s master of ceremonies, as “a man who’s known trials and tribulations himself.” Embattled politicians from Harlem are not in short supply this evening.
For the next 45 minutes, Paterson invites nearly every politician in the house to get up and say a few words. The only big names who abstain are former mayor David Dinkins, who earlier in the evening fended off a heckler with some sign language, and current congressman Anthony Weiner, who made a surprise appearance after suggesting he might not make it. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver: “Charlie has lived the old adage better than anyone. When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” Mayor Bloomberg: “A few people couldn’t be here tonight because, as they tell it, either they had to get a haircut unexpectedly, or they were sure they’d have a headache.”
Al Sharpton, speaking to the media, says, “You have started and executed the political crucifixion. But stay tuned for the political resurrection. Charlie Rangel will rise from the ashes.”
By the time Dionne Warwick gets onstage, the crowd is restless. But the first note out of her mouth puts an end to that. The cameras are rolling, and soon she has the entire room singing.
For good times, and bad times
I’ll be on your side forever more
That’s what friends are for.
Afterward, Rangel stands center stage while the crowd sings “Happy Birthday,” arms outstretched like a bird stretching his wings for the first time in weeks. He bows, stands up straight, and clasps his hands to his chest. Then, with his family by his side, he walks over to his birthday cake, bends over the candles, and takes a deep breath. Out go the lights.
Update: Rangel is a hell of a dancer.