Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Chloë’s Volkswagen is almost ten years old, with a radio antenna that has snapped at the base, and as we barrel down the highway towards Indianapolis it taps maddeningly, incessantly, at the back windshield, the sort of sound that twenty-four hours later would have had me admitting that I had planted a small nuclear device in the Astrodome, in the Meadowlands, in the knitting basket of an elderly librarian, please just please make it stop. Periodically, Chloë believes she hears a strange rattling coming from the passenger side; she is seemingly convinced that the car is about to break down, or shatter into a hundred pieces with us still inside. The three of us; Chloë, Caitlin, and I, are on our way to Indianapolis in this vehicle. We represent three generations of Neo-Futurist. We represent both genders, three different religious backgrounds, three different educational levels, three different stages in our respective romantic relationships. We represent the hometowns of Downers Grove, Illinois; San Antonio, Texas; Providence, Rhode Island. We represent Chicago. We represent the possibility of a President Barack Obama, and we are doing so in this metal machine that is today composed more of sentiment than trust, and oh my God this tapping this infernal tapping Chloë I will punch through the window and rip the antenna out with my hands I swear I will do it…
…and at the first rest stop we find in Indiana, she unscrews the accursed thing from the roof, and we discover that a portion of the coil had long ago rusted through, so it is unlikely that the antenna had been helping radio reception for these years that she had tolerated it.
We are driving four hours to Indianapolis despite the closer proximity of South Bend, because the Obama campaign has determined that South Bend will likely go blue and that our efforts are better utilized in the state capital. On I-65 we spot a billboard for a gentleman’s club located next to a help-line for bed-wetters. We spot a double-sided billboard that, for travelers southbound into central Indiana, proclaims HELL IS REAL…and for travelers northbound declares that JESUS IS REAL, which seems to me to be a curious affirmation to make. I have heard a number of doubts about Jesus Christ–about his divinity, his purity, his actual birthdate, his ethnic characteristics–but I can’t recall the last person who said that Jesus never even existed. Still, it must be a concern for the purchasers of the ad space, and in this country speech remains free even if you overpay for it.
We also spot a billboard telling us that Heaven or Hell is our choice, but the word Hell has been written in Comic Sans MS font, an innocuous typeface that I tend to associate with birthday party invitations sent to all of the children in little Joey’s kindergarten class, a font which clearly tells parents the two-hour duration of the event and warns them that there will be a clown who makes balloon animals. In that subconscious context, Hell doesn’t particularly sound like a place I’d like to spend eternity, but I don’t think that this image is what that house of worship was intending to evoke.
Hoosiers adore the name Lafayette. In two hours we pass by signs for a Lafayette Road, Lafayette Avenue, Lafayette Street, and the town of Lafayette. It is an elegant name, one that I might attach to a cat someday, but on a couple of occasions it becomes a burden on our navigation, like the Irish folk tale of the leprechaun who led his captor to the burial site of his treasure and then vowed not to remove the scarf the man tied around the tree, only to tie an identical scarf around every tree in the forest while the man went to retrieve a shovel. We finally arrive at the Indianapolis campaign headquarters around noon, EST, although we do have a few moments of wondering whether or not we changed time zones and whether or not we’re in one of the counties that doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time. We are directed to the Obama headquarters housed in the charming two-story home of one Kerry Dinneen, volunteer coordinator, whose property also includes the sort of vast, fenced-in field that makes you wish you had a horse and knew how to ride it.
One of the other coordinators, a man named Jeremy, lets us catch a few snacks from the buffet table and then sends the three of us out with Kelly, a local woman who has spent the morning delivering coffee and food to polling stations. We are handed a map of a specific area where we will be canvasing and a guideline script for our task ahead.
Our job is to go to the doors of known Obama supporters and make sure that they’ve taken the time to vote today. If they have not voted, we are to ask them why and then offer any service we can, including directions to the polling station or having somebody give them a ride. If we meet a McCain supporter or somebody else who is hostile about our actions we are to walk away and thank them for their time…and I admit that although I don’t seek out conflict, an immature and ugly part of me really wants somebody to ask me how I could support a radical Muslim socialist for President. But that moment passes; we are here to execute strategy and the strategy here is not to fight a battle for hearts and minds, but for the more practical goal of maximum voter participation. Our assignment is a large apartment community with five-to-eight units each building; Chloë and I split off from Caitlin and Kelly, begin entering buildings on our section of the list and knocking at doors.
There are two problems with canvasing an apartment community such as this one around early afternoon–the first is that few people are actually at home, and those that are at home are often not the people we have in the voter registration rolls, since places like this have heavy turnover in tenancy. So for the two-to-three hours we work, the four of us spend a lot of time marking our sheets with “NH” or similar. Caitlin and Kelly find one person who had not yet voted but who was still enthused to do so, and they give them directions to their polling station. Chloë and I find a lovely African-American couple who voted the day before, who are so incredibly impressed with the Democratic organization and “ground game” in place for Obama, and who are primed to see him win this election. We find a young man, a tenant who is not who have on our rolls, who seems shy at first to admit that he voted for McCain. Yet his reasons for doing so–his lifelong support for the GOP and his concerns about Obama’s experience–are sincere and heartfelt, and expressed with a genial politeness, so even though I disagree with his reasoning I am glad to see somebody so invested in the election as to vote with the whole of their conscience. He does also express that he doesn’t have any hatred for Obama, and will be okay if Obama wins. He also mentions that his fiancee has also already voted, and that she broke for Obama.
We find people who have never registered to vote. We find apartment complexes that reek of Pine Sol and ones that trigger Chloë’s gag reflex, invaded by an odor I remember from my summers working in the biomedical agar factory, a smell like cream of mushroom soup just after it’s gone rotten. We have one strange, Hitchcockian experience where we knock on one door and somebody in the apartment next to it starts to jiggle the doorknob, leading us first to believe it is a lonely and resourceful dog…until we knock on the first door again, and the entity inside the adjacent apartment mimics our knock perfectly without making any other sound. We spend three hours essentially proofreading the Indiana Democratic Party’s registration list, which may not sound like glamorous or even particularly effective work, but which for me falls into the category of Dirty Jobs that Somebody’s Gotta Do.
We bring the clipboards back to Obama HQ and then we depart back to Chicago in order to attend the rally in Grant Park that evening.
We have driven eight hours round-trip to do a mere three hours of that work and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It is the first time in my adult life I have been compelled to do something like this for a political candidate, the first time that somebody has so inspired me into service beyond that which was convenient or an efficient use of my time. As we get back on I-65, passing by the Lafayettes and the heavens and the hells, and the series of houses showing us neighbors breaking for both McCain/Palin and Obama/Biden, signs that remind me why we needed to be here on this day, I allow myself the optimism to believe that not only will I be ready to do this work again, and more of it, for the re-election campaign in 2012, but also that the four years preceding it will have been such that I will want to do this work again.