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Just another day at the Capitol

Published Sep. 2, 2005

On the piazza between the capitols, the undertakers have put up a tasteful deep blue tent. The tent proclaims itself the property of the Independent Funeral Directors of Florida. It covers not an open grave, but lunch.

Outside the tent, old people in Easy Spirits and prescription shades queue for the barbecue, baked beans and buns the undertakers dish up. All of the food is the same shade of pale orange, and a couple of the old people crack jokes about embalming fluid. The undertakers just smile. They'll get your business in the end, and they know it. Not everyone votes, but everyone dies.

It is part of what passes for the natural order of things at the Capitol that the Independent Funeral Directors and the senior citizens coincide at the legislative session. This day was "Elder Day." As many of you have long suspected, legislators don't experience time the way the rest of us do. Days are called "I heart Phosphate Day," "Citrus Appreciation Day," and the developer-sponsored "Drain-It-And-Pave-It Day." (Okay, that's not exactly its real name.) Like dogs, every lobby must have its day, at least the ones (the lobbies, not the dogs) that can afford a catered meal for 400.

In the sweaty grapple over the budget that always breaks out a couple of weeks before the end of the session, the "days" and the lunches pile up like greasy plates. Lobbies want to remind lawmakers that they exist, especially in an election year. But there's no point, since the leadership (so-called) in both the House and the Senate is entirely consumed with Olympic-standard, vein-popping, epithet-hurling hissy fits that make the Fox network's celebrity donnybrook between rival trailer-babes Paula Jones and Tonya Harding look like a Junior League tea.

On the fourth floor of the Capitol, lobbyists with $200 worth of highlights and $10,000 worth of dental work swim like sharks between the two chambers. In the House, Speaker Tom Feeney defends his embattled aide, a former Hooters (it's an owl, honest) waitress who seems confused about what her major would be if she were still in college earning the degree she's supposed to already have in order to qualify for the job she's getting paid for. Is it risk management, as she claimed on her application? Or child development, as her FSU transcripts say? Is there any qualitative difference between risk management and child development when you work in politics? Still, the attacks on this innocent young person, Feeney says, "brought out the dad" in him.

Over in the Senate, President John McKay begins to look like one of those noble Romans who end up bleeding all over a statue of Pompey. The man actually thought he could scrounge enough money to raise Florida from 49th place in education spending to, say, 46th, dislodging Alabama. But there are potent forces at work in this state who don't see why they should pay sales tax when they can get poor people to do it for them. And surely no decent Floridian wants to pay a tax on tanning beds, for God's sake. That only hurts hard-working Hooters waitresses.

Outside on the steps of the Old Capitol, some of the senior citizens are line dancing to Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. Inside the new Capitol, just two floors below all the snarling and thrashing, the Upledger Institute is giving free "CranioSacral Therapy." Maybe it's Health Day; no one seems to know. Citizens lie down while practitioners exuding the calm of a Buddhist monastery poke slowly at their innards. This treatment is said to help with learning disabilities, emotional difficulties and infantile disorders. Obviously perfect for Florida legislators.

However, most of them prefer to self-medicate. At Andrew's and Clyde's, two venerable establishments a checkbook's throw from the Capitol, every day is Politician Appreciation Day. The powers that be and wannabe sit out in the spring air, scented with Japanese magnolias and Cuban cigars, drinking indifferent chardonnay and eating "JEB Burgers" and "GRAHAM-burgers."

One balmy evening last week, just as the sun was sinking low over state workers' morale, Elwood Blues was hauled out of Clyde's. Clyde's is the bar of choice if you want to mount a study of legislative mating habits. Elwood, or rather a life-size statue of him, was shoved into a white van, followed by Jake Blues. The Blues Brothers were then driven to an undisclosed location. What could this mean? A table full of lobbyists fretted over the sudden diminution of coolness on Adams Street.

Some dazed-looking legislative aides wandered down from the Capitol for happy hour. Many of them were sporting large red stickers on their lapels proclaiming, "I Hugged A Clown Today." It must be Circus Day at the Capitol. But then, you could argue that every day is Circus Day at the Capitol.

Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, is a professor of English at the University of Alabama.