The headquarters of Ron Paul's New York City grassroots campaign is a far cry from the buzzing hub his supporters might expect it to be.
I went in search of the New York City base of the 2012 New Hampshire Republican primary's second-place finisher Wednesday morning, following a MeetUp.com post advertising a "phone bomb" telephone banking event to 178 Mott St., a.k.a. LibertyHQ.
After emerging from the Spring Street 6 train station, I strolled up and down the desolate Chinatown-fringe block of Mott between Kenmare and Broome in search of the building. The entrance to 178 Mott looked less-than-promising, so I ended up fruitlessly inquiring about the Paul home base's location at the front desks of the Mott Street Senior Center and the Chinatown Head Start on either side.
After about 20 minutes of searching, I decided to investigate the foreboding 178 Mott building. The black cast-iron door bore a small hand-scrawled sign I hadn't noticed when I passed the walk-up the first and second time, and that read Phone Bank--LiveryCab.com--Bartending.com. I figured I had to be in the right place, no matter how run-down the structure looked.
A Department of Buildings work permit issued in 2008 and posted next to the Phone Bank sign said "Demolition of Partitions at 3, 4, 5, 6 floors," and an authentic, old-school, black-and-yellow-metal Fallout Shelter sign was bolted above the ancient red awning.
Elderly Chinese folks with walkers and young immigrant and hipster families pushing strollers shuffled by as I read the signs then swung open the heavy unlocked door and entered. I passed through a nondescript interior door and scaled six flights of metal stairs to find myself under a dingy skylight on the top floor, having seen and heard no sign of Ron Paul callers or any other life.
I caught my breath for a second and headed back downstairs, peering through peepholes and keyholes in a couple of the doors off the stairwell to find nothing but hollowed-out shells, empty except for the occasional trash bag, cigarette butt and broken piece of furniture.
On the second floor I stopped next to a half-finished mural that seemed to be a dated nineties paean to multiculturalism. Next to it was a door with two paper signs, one reading "BartendingLicense.com--Livery Cab LLC--Public Appeal, Inc." and the other bearing the words "UrbanRentals.com--Your resource for temporary city space."
I pushed on the door and it gave slowly, opening to a wide-open cavern of Chinatown despair: walls stripped of fixtures and decor, two dozen cheap, unmatched chairs thrown together for some long-forgotten meeting or class, and a soulless excuse for a bar with a BartendingLicense.com sign posted on its front.
At the back of the long, empty space I spotted the figure of a tall, unmoving man looking my way. I progressed across the filthy floor and he waved as I neared the plastic cube Paul supporters affectionately call LibertyHQ.
He beckoned for me to enter, so I pulled aside an old tattered blanket that had been hung as a makeshift door, then entered the office, which was simply a wooden-framed enclosure wrapped in transparent plastic sheathing. It brought to mind the type of hastily-constructed hot-zone decontamination chamber seen in movies like "Quarantine."
Some basic office accoutrements were scattered around the room, and a younger man was casually splayed out on an office chair at a dinged-up desk in the center of the room.
I gave the two men business cards and informed them that I was there to talk to Paul backers about the candidate, and to observe the campaign's phone-banking procedures. The elder fellow replied that unfortunately most of their crew was still on their way back from New Hampshire and he wasn't even sure whether or not the phone bomb had taken place.
The younger man took me to see the phone bank standings board and on the way offered that he's "just an intern - head intern," before showing me the board, which said that the top NYC phone bomber had made 12,267 calls, while tenth-place honors went to a supporter who had called 2,040 numbers as of Tuesday.
The older guy told me he needed to call the person in charge of the headquarters, dialed a number into his cell, and after a short conversation with him or her informed me that this unnamed boss was not OK with my presence at LibertyHQ.
"I'm going to have to ask you to leave," he said, and when I inquired about a phone number I could call for further information about Ron Paul's New York City operation, he told me "Ron Paul's PR," and declined to provide the name or contact information of whoever had given him the dictate that I could no longer be on the premises, adding before I left that "we don't really know who you are."
Later that day, an email to a representative for Ron Paul's national campaign, and a call to a phone number listed for his New York City campaign operation were not returned. No national Paul representatives were available Wednesday by phone.
The older gentleman hurriedly rushed me out the door, but not before I could snag a couple of Ron Paul 2012 fliers.
"That's national literature," he sneered just before the metal door slammed behind me.
I descended back out onto the street among the pigeons and street people, contemplating the sorry state of Ron Paul's grassroots campaign operation in the nation's largest metropolis.