Leading up to the Republican National Convention, I was expecting the nights to just be filled with parties: free drinks, decent music, and exceptional people-watching. But from what I was told by convention-going veterans, this week seemed tame and oddly subdued, socially.
“Cleveland: It’s no Tampa,” a stranger told me, sitting at a bar.
Walking around downtown each night after the convention ended, close to midnight, there seemed to be fatigue in the air. People were dispersing to their far-flung Airbnbs and hotels. And many of the venues mirrored that sentiment, with private parties shutting off the sale of alcohol at midnight.
The Jack Casino, however, right on Public Square, was open 24 hours a day. And it was serving alcohol until 4 a.m. because of the convention, instead of the normal 2 a.m. Also, it was a casino. Because of these facts, there was a very interesting late-night scene there. You could see a smattering of RNC suits among the blackjack and roulette tables, in addition to the many regulars. (You can tell a regular by the presence of a Players card, or when a dealer asks someone about their spouse by name.)
Jack Casino was a reprieve from the media bubble that I frequently found myself a part of in Cleveland. It was the only place I was actively surrounded by — and socializing with — people here to attend the RNC, not simply here to cover it. But it was also one of the many reminders of how odd it was for me to be at the convention in any capacity.
There was no real blending-in here for me, regardless of apparel, but a suit was my best shot. Still, Cleveland black people in plain clothes and white people in suits were constantly confused by my presence, and seemed, to some extent, distrustful.
And it made sense. I was confusing.
After three longer-than-necessary, non-expensable casino nights, I woke up and realized I had some chips from the night before in my pocket. So I walked over to the casino in my suit to claim my money. Standing at the cashier around 1 p.m., I heard celebratory shouts from the roulette table. There were three men, all with beers and all wearing suits, clearly thrilled over a big hit.
Looking down at the money that I clearly should have walked out with immediately, I went over, laid most of it on the table, and joined them.
As things sometimes go, our chip stacks were steadily growing, causing the camaraderie on the table to blossom. It wasn’t even 2 p.m., but multiple rounds of beer had been ordered and high fives were becoming commonplace. My companions were consultants who lived in D.C. When they asked me if I did consulting, I said, “No, I’m from New York,” which is a ridiculous way to answer that question.
Two of the guys went to play blackjack, leaving one with me at the roulette table. Very casually, he asked me if I had gone to the Warehouse last night.
I didn’t have the slightest clue what he was talking about.
I said no, and was about to launch into a story of my night, which was fun by my standards — but then he saved me from myself.
“We were there until like 3 a.m. It was insane. If we keep going like this, though, we might not make the Boehner Warehouse tonight.”
The. Boehner. Warehouse.
This was exciting, but my window of finessing more information was small. I’d already played myself slightly by saying I didn’t go, but that didn’t mean he knew I didn’t know what it was.
After a few more rounds of roulette, I threw my fastball.
“I work at New York Magazine and we might be throwing a party later. Let me know if y’all want to come through. And maybe afterwards, I’ll come check out the Boehner party.”
It’s not the best stuff, but it’s my best stuff.
There was a pause, and then he nodded approvingly, and I told him to take my number and text me right away so I’d have it.
I felt like the Baryshnikov of midday casino bromance.
For starters, it’s a secret party in the sense that it’s a secret kept from lames like me, but is very much the opposite for those in the know —making it a very exclusive event. Most of the relevant tweets that appear when you search for “Boehner Warehouse” are from back in 2012, during the last RNC, with commentary about how late it went. There was also an Instagram post about it, which had a picture of the ticket and referred to the party as “top-secret.”
And then this tweet, from two years ago, which made a bold declaration about the 2016 RNC:
Or maybe it wasn’t bold. Maybe I’m just so out of the cool-kid-Republican loop that I’m completely blind to the fact that Boehnerpalooza is the equivalent of Kanye at Webster Hall.
Technically, it was the Speaker of the House’s party — so, Paul Ryan’s party — but was still being commonly referred to as the Boehner Warehouse Party. According to a blog post in The Atlantic from 2012, former speaker John Boehner began this tradition of throwing nightly GOP Convention warehouse parties in 1996. In the piece, there was a picture — sent to the writer from a Republican aide — and the party was described as one for “GOP bigwigs.”
That’s a carousel. A goddamn carousel in the middle of the party. I had to go. But seeing that it was already Wednesday, I only had two more chances.
That night, around 11 p.m., I sent a text to my roulette friend. I told him that the New York Magazine party (which I had completely made up) wasn’t happening, and that I was wondering if they were at the warehouse.
No reply. I asked a few friends of mine if they knew where the party was, but they didn’t have any idea what I was talking about.
The roadblocks were frustrating, but the near-unattainability made me want it even more. There really were two Americas: the one that did know about the secret John Boehner warehouse party, and the one that didn’t.
Discouraged but not defeated, I decided to do what I did on all the other nights: go to the casino. Two hours in, I was playing roulette when I heard two people scream. It was a young man and woman, both dressed for the RNC, hugging each other. They had definitely just hit something big.
Over the next 30 minutes, the size of the crowd around them grew. People seemed to be trickling in from the same place — a fun place. I bet they were at Boehner. It had to be. One of the people in RNC garb was about six-foot-eight. I couldn’t stop looking at him. I’d never seen someone so tall have that much fun. They were having the time of their lives, and I was losing money.
Figuring out how to get into the party was my singular priority for Thursday. I was thinking about it all the way up until the moment Donald Trump began to speak. My discomfort then intensified along with the crowd’s passion at each hateful charge he made about the current status of the country. I’d just barely gotten comfortable with being at Trump’s RNC, and in minutes that all disappeared. All I wanted to do was get out of the building, and out of Cleveland.
Leaving the arena, I went to a bar and had dinner and a drink alone, sitting in fear of what could happen to our country, if he won or if he lost. I didn’t care about Boehner anymore. I just wanted to hang with someone familiar, so I tracked down a friend. We talked about what had just happened, and then decided we needed distractions, which led us to a party that ended up being the tail-end of a Bret Michaels concert, sponsored by Revolt, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The weirdness of it all felt perfect. The room wasn’t packed by the time we got there, which was actually nice, because the end result was an intimate Bret Michaels show at which he played energetically, as if 50,000 people were there. It was the perfect distraction from Trump, and also gave us the lifeblood we needed to give Boehner one more try.
All we knew was that Boehner’s Warehouse Party was near a Kid Rock concert. And we knew where that was, so we got an Uber and headed there.
In the car, my friend mentioned the word “warehouse” and the driver asked, “Are y’all trying to go to the warehouse party?”
Yes, we were.
“Is where we’re going the warehouse?” I asked. “Nope,” he responded. “But I can take y’all to the warehouse.”
It was meant to be. This angel was sent here from God to take us to Boehner.
He dropped us off and there it was, a gigantic warehouse — along with an unmoving line of roughly 200 white people trying to get in.
At that point, I remembered the ticket from the Instagram. Yes, there was a physical ticket that many people in line were holding. Not even saying I was Michael Steele’s son was going to work.
Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. By the looks of the line, the party was going to make the convention floor look like Black Bike Week, and I wasn’t sure if I could handle another event filled with stares of confusion, especially with this kente-cloth bow tie under my chin.
My friend suggested we take one loop around the building, just to see. After our first left, we ended up walking behind a few people. A third of the way up the block, a miracle: A man in a suit opened a side door from the inside, and the five people in front of us were being gestured in.
Was this a trick? After all of this, it felt as if we’d finally made it to a safe house on the Underground Railroad, but I couldn’t tell if this guy was an abolitionist or was about to turn us in.
I looked at my friend; we knew this was it. We put on our best game faces and inched a little closer to the pack. The five people walked right through the door, we followed them, and then the door slammed behind us.
The first thing I heard was Stevie Wonder. We walked into the large open warehouse space to find about 500 people, many of them dancing, a ten-piece band on an elevated stage, with food and an open bar.
It felt like we’d crashed a wedding — specifically, those last 90 minutes of the party when everyone becomes best friends forever.
Doing a loop of the room, I saw a familiar figure. It was a man, and he was six-foot-eight. I walk up to him and ask if he was playing roulette with a bunch of friends last night.
“Oh yeah, see you there tonight,” he said.
“You know it,” I replied.
My time had come: I was finally inside Boehner.