Editor's note: During the week of the RNC, columnist Jeff Houck will visit restaurants, shops and other places around the area to hear what people are saying about the convention and share what they care about (or whether they care at all).
It's 1:20 a.m. on Wednesday. The regular crowd is nowhere to be seen.
The after-midnight line waiting to order at Taco Bus is usually a dozen-deep by this hour. It is my favorite late-night people-watching perch in Tampa. This burrito-churning vehicle is like a bare bulb attracting all sorts of human moths.
Club kids in mismatched clothes. Weary shift workers on break. Stiff-legged sheriff's deputies standing impatiently with thumbs dug into their belts.
Tonight, there's a stream of customers emerging from the darkness of Hillsborough Avenue, but the funhouse quality stayed south in Ybor City, where Christian protesters are bellowing hellfire outside Homocon 2012 at The Honey Pot. The only hint of the Bus' usual flavor is a young man sitting alone at a corner table on the outdoor gravel patio. With several nose piercings and a pit bull named Zeus leashed and panting at his feet, the man turns to pour a bottle of Aquafina into his pet's mouth. Miraculously, the café con leche-colored dog spills not one drop.
Moments after he leaves, Jeff White and Jason Mendez walk up to order from the bus window and take their seats. White, 31, is wearing a white T-shirt. On the front is the red, white and blue GOP elephant logo. Behind it is the Romney campaign logo. The elephant, in a hunched posture, appears to be relieving itself on the logo. Two of the three words above the design say, in all caps, "THIS" and "STINKS." The middle word explains what the elephant is doing.
I ask White about the shirt. He smiles. His friend Bryan Womack made 10 similar silk-screen tees. Womack is not a Romney fan.
"I wore it live [in the background] on MSNBC down at Channelside," White says. He was doing a buddy a solid.
Despite the shirt, White says he's ambivalent about politics. He recently returned from a deployment in Afghanistan, just north of Kabul, with the Army Reserves. He plans to go back to school in January. He probably won't vote in November unless he knows by then who he wants to vote for.
"I should be less naïve about politics, since I'm in the military," White says. "Bryan is always listening to the news. He's always talking about it. I'm sure that's what inspired the shirt."
White is like many his age I've talked to this week who describe themselves as apolitical or indifferent about voting. It's an emotional transformation from 2008, when the youth turnout was the highest in 16 years.
That enthusiasm has dwindled, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The segment of 18- to 24-year-olds who say they intend to vote has dropped to 47 percent from 64 percent in 2008, according to a Harvard University's Institute of Politics poll.
As White and Mendez finish, three men in their 20s dressed in identical charcoal suits, crisp white dress shirts and black dress shoes sit down at a nearby table.
Their food comes on white Styrofoam plates. They eat with plastic forks. They check their smartphones. Their eyes are glassy with fatigue.
One wears an American flag pin on his jacket lapel. He is Ricky Gill, a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from California's ninth congressional district in Stockton. Nine hours earlier, Gill walked to the podium at the Forum and spoke for two minutes and 23 seconds. He used a Teleprompter for the first time.
His parents immigrated to the San Joaquin Valley from India and Africa. If elected, he would be the youngest member of the next Congress. He is 25. And he has rising star written all over him.
Gill and his aides are getting a bite to eat before flying back to California at 6 a.m. I ask why people his age seem so disconnected from the process. It's as if they've been unplugged from the electricity they had four years ago.
He repeats points he made from the podium. That unemployment among young people is crippling their spirit. They're dropping out of school to help their families make ends meet. They're disillusioned by seeing cities like Stockton file for bankruptcy.
"In my district, I'm reversing that apathy," he says. "We're ready to rebuild our American dream."
We fall into an awkward pause. If there is something to be said after a statement like that, I'm unclear what it would be.
So I ask about his carne asada tacos. He gives them a positive review. In the same tone of voice he delivered his campaign bullet points, he earnestly adds a side note.
"The salsa was very well-balanced."
Then he walks back into the darkness.