Random Acts Of Election Tourism

28 Aug

Four years ago, I went down to Florida to knock on doors. I volunteered for both the McCain campaign and the Obama campaign. I just wanted to experience an election—a moment of history thatI knew people would be talking about fifty years later. I ended up in all four corners of the United States that year. I learned that there are two versions of America. It’s not the cherry picked CNN version you tell your grandkids about four or fifty years later.

I. Little Havana, Miami

“I spent my evening watching the coverage and knitting a pair of socks. I’m going to tell the person to whom I give the socks that they aren’t just any socks; they are historic socks. And also 10% cashmere.”

posted by orange swan at 9:07 PM on November 4

It’s midnight. He is talking.

We’re squeezed into a red Toyota. Either a Corolla or a Camry. Bodies are twisted up out of sunroofs and rear windows, tiptoe on benches and fire hydrants. You don’t see their faces. Just limbs that flail with hand-painted signs about the fate of the world. VOTE.

    HOPE.

       AMERICA.

One says PLEASE. Not McCain or Obama, not God hates fags, not save the whales or lower taxes. Just PLEASE. The woman holding it does not flail. She’s on her knees in front of the curb, head jacked up to the heavens, eyes closed. I remember a coldness creeping into the humid air. Then horns, bells, screams, whistles, curses, chants, weeping. The passage of time, which had accelerated with such certainty for 52 weeks, towards this single day that had itself unfolded simultaneously in past and present tense—all of it finally just snaps. The red Toyota pulls up. The guy inside screams, “let’s go!” Five strangers push in. A gay lawyer from California. A black engineering student from down the street. A middle-aged woman from Peru who only knows Spanish. A steely-eyed man, who I think is her son. And a Canadian who just wanted to be close to it.

The woman wears a stained janitorial uniform. I wish I could remember, right now, the logo on her breast pocket—what make the Toyota was—as we drifted through Little Havana in slow motion, and you could just barely hear him talking on the car radio.

I remember the air conditioning. I remember an old Cuban man in a McCain t-shirt slinging a rock across Calle Ocho at a young Cuban man in an Obama t-shirt. I remember continuing to shiver. I remember the student burying his head in his hands. “I don’t have words,” he said, voice cracking, then falling apart completely. Everyone, all night long: there are no words. I remember the driver turning off the air conditioning. I remember my pocket vibrating again and and again and again with text messages. And it only occurred to me as I began writing a long letter about it in a motel room looking out at a complicated US1 interchange, that we kept shivering in that humid South Florida night because every human being around us was in physical shock.

class portrait obama

Like everyone else in the world, I’d given up on America. I hadn’t realized how deeply America had given up on itself as well

II. South Central Los Angeles

“This is what makes history…

it’s people who are historically challenged…

they don’t even know it can’t be done.”

—A stranger that night in Miami

I remember LA, exactly twelve months before, caught at midnight in a neighbourhood my guidebook suggested to “exercise extra caution.” I had been walking all night in one of those giddy Los Angeles trances. When I realized it was close to midnight and I was in the middle of that neighbourhood, I boarded a passing bus—to go wherever less caution ought to be exorcised. As I scrounged in my pocket for change, the bus driver, who was an enormous bearded white man, told me: “Put your damn money away.” I thought he was kicking me off the bus, but instead he erupted in laughter. “Everybody rides free tonight!”

He yelled this at everybody who got on the bus. When they realized he meant it, the day’s tension would melt from their face. I asked the lady beside me: “Where does this bus go?”

“Where are you from?”

“Further north.”

“How far?”

Canada.”

She cackled. (This gag always works on Californians.)

Because it’s the beginning of November and I don’t know what Canadians who end up in Compton at close to one in the morning are supposed to say to black women who tell you they have just been evicted from their apartments, all I can think to say is: “so this Obama guy…”

She doesn’t think much of this Obama guy, though. And she actually looks at me with pity. That I have been sheltered from some very obvious truth.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

She shakes her head again. Because there are no words for when you’ve lost the knack to simply wonder: what if?

Obama Is My Slave

At a New York City storefront a year before the 2008 election, I began collecting photos of Obama art—t-shirts, folk art and misc propaganda—which culminated in a visit to Art Basel in Miami.

III. Harlem, New York City

“There is a country out there where tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, select as their leader a black man of modest origin, the son of a Muslim. There is a place on Earth—call it America—where such a thing happens.”

-A New York Times correspondent writing from Gaza on November 5

When you climb up out of the subway into Harlem on the 4th of July, you remember the way the sun suddenly blinds you, the dude doing chin ups off the steel scaffolding along 125th street. The sidewalk is packed with history books and men selling incense, and because this is July 2008, every kind of version of his face is on a shirt. Only available in XXL.

And before you can even get out the ma in his last name, you’re told, “I’m not voting for him because he’s black.” A Haitian tells you: “When I come to America, a policeman tell me that Republican work hard and Democrat go on welfare. So I say, ‘I want to be Republican.’” You’re actually told, as you return to Harlem again and again that month that 200,000 people went to see him talk in Berlin: “I haven’t voted in eighteen years.” And at the end of every one of these conversations, you are also told, “but this is different.”

IV. I5, Seattle

After polls close, should I: (1) head for the official rally, (2) watch results at some anonymous Miami dive, (3) grind it out until all hours at one of the field offices?

Nov 4, 2008 4:53:07 pm

Roll to big party.

-Gordy Hoffman

Nov 4, 2008 5:27:13 PM 

I remember dipping down into the state of Washington for the long weekend, just to feel it. The star spangled banner before the Seahawks game. Lesbians joking about the Palin VP announcement in coffee houses on Capital Hill. We pass a McCain sign on the I5. A look is exchanged. Then this screeching sound of breaks. We leave the car idling, the doors ajar. We climb a barbed wire fence and sprint 250 feet back towards where we have just come, back to where a six-by-four foot McCain sign is attached by stiff plastic brackets—which we cannot pry apart. Physically touching a glossy piece of cardboard, our hands cut from the barbed wire fence, it’s so deeply satisfying.

You think that because I have an exaggerated sense of awe that this is about Obama. But it’s not about Obama. Before arriving in Miami I remember typing emails to field offices from both campaigns, asking how I could help. McCain didn’t return any of my messages. Not one. Obama gave me directions to a Democrat outpost in South Beach. Nobody there asked where I was from or what I thought it was all about. I was given a clipboard with a dozen pages of addresses. Glossy fliers with early voting locations. Stickers to hand out. A button that said CHANGE. And a t-shirt, which I folded carefully and began to put in my backpack—to save for the next fifty years.

“Aren’t you going to put it on?” the office manager, who was from Texas, asked.

It never occurred to me that I’d have to wear the t-shirt. That I’d have to pint the button on my backpack. That in order to be a part of it, I’d have to physically knock on doors, with this clipboard, and say, I’m with him. I remember people staring uneasily as I hiked up Washington Avenue, wearing the t-shirt. A small black lady nodded with more approval than I’d ever been nodded at by anyone anywhere. One block later, another small black lady frowned. From an SUV, someone yelled “Obama guy.” I pretended to ignore it, waiting for the lights to change. “Hey Obama guy!” There was this goading Phillip Seymour Hoffman inflection, and this similar kind of concentration in his face. He had flown in from LA because Southern Florida—the battleground—was what he wanted to remember fifty years from now. He spoke about watching on TV in 2000, about the fact that he and I simply being here was enough to break the karmic loop. He taught film at USC, and had written and directed some features, including one starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He had an acute sense of the week’s mounting drama. It dawned on me that I had become a character in it myself: cynical Canadian, who travels three thousand miles to get one symbolic vote and locate lost sense of idealism along the way. He thanked me on behalf of—I don’t know who, exactly—that version of America that was still possible. He dropped me off on Michigan Avenue, where the demographic of South Beach drastically shifts, and I had to knock on my first door. I had a script, which I’d forgotten by the time I got to the first door. I knocked on a whole block of apartments, but nobody answered. It was raining now. The wind blew my umbrella inside out. Every paged on my clipboard was drenched—as was my new tshirt. At 1455 Michigan Avenue, I knocked on a door which was already ajar. A white man with tattoos up his neck appeared in the frame. I imagined him holding a sawed off shotgun behind his back. I was supposed to say: “I’m here because I support Barack Obama,” but immediately became tongue-tied. He watched me with patience. I stuttered: “Sorry to bother you…have you…ummm…voted yet?”

“I can’t,” he replied. A hint of southern accent.

“Sure you can!” I said. “We can go right now.”

“I’m a felon,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been in prison.”

They didn’t give you a script for this.

He nodded sadly.

I turned to go, and he said: “Thanks for doing this.” Then: “I’d vote for him if I could.”

I remember wanting to tell him that I wish I could have too, but could’t because I was Canadian. (I had intentionally spoiled my ballot in our election a month earlier.) I remember, drenched and uncertain, as the rain poured more forcefully, vowing to deliver two votes to a voting station.

I knocked on 200 more doors that morning.

I did not get those two votes.

V. The Fifth Corner

“I’m also a bit miffed that the writer chose to kill off the grandmother on the eve of the election! Needlessly dramatic. Still, I guess it did make the following day’s outcome that much more meaningful: ‘Win one for the grandma.’ Who could ever forget the candidate’s tears of joy that mingled with his tears of sorrow.”

-posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:05 PM on November 3

There are two versions of America. It’s not the cherry picked CNN version you tell your grandkids about. Somewhere between the two, is the panic of Halloween in Miami—four nights before the night. The governor issuing an emergency order to extend early voting. People waiting in line hour after hour, day after day, to vote. The mantra: “don’t forget Gore lost by 537.” The mélange of Obama masks and Palin beehives that night on Lincoln Road. And that damn CNN clock counting seconds to the point of no return.

What I remember is dialing a 1-877 number every morning. No matter what zip code I entered, I’d get connected to an office in Little Havana, where the same voice would say, “thanks for helping hon.” She’d send me out with hand fliers to a mall in North Miami or let me know who was hosting a phone bank downtown that night or a guerilla group of canvassers in the part of Coconut Grove that’s 99% black. In the Miami Beach field office, I saw Gordy the LA guy again. I knew instantly, looking at him, that we hadn’t cracked the karmic loop with our door knocking. All we’d managed to do was update some incorrect addresses in the office’s database. In a couple of hours, he had to fly back to LA. We combed nervously through the sundry of Obama souvenirs. It was at that moment when the whole future of the world seemed lost, a phone call came in from a retirement home on Collins Avenue. “Could someone there get Fanny Guiterrez and Mary Seigel over to City Hall before the polls closed?”

We’d been waiting our whole lives to get Fanny and Mary to that poll (“We vote for chocolate!” they said when we arrived—and we talked Mary’s nurse into coming to vote for chocolate as well.)

I know the thing that I ought to remember was that my Obama t-shirt was made in Nicaragua. Probably in a sweatshop. I ought to remember the fast food on styrofoam plates I ate in the field offices, the cases of bottled water were piled high in every office, the billion glossy pieces of junk mail I helped distribute. And the hundreds of millions of dollars driving this endeavor that could have changed real lives over the world—none of us mentioned any of this as we repeated “be the change you seek.” It was in many respects the most hypocritical endeavor I had ever taken part of in my life. What I imagined instead was, win or lose, this unprecedented machine of people who wanted change the world would become more than a database that the Democrats could pull out 36 months from later when the next election began—but the greatest instrument of goodness that had ever been assembled. I mean, why not? I was driving grandmothers to vote for chocolate with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s older brother in the bottom right corner of America. I will remember the fleeting possibility of it.

—CHRIS KOENTGES

(all photos by Chris Koentges)

POSTSCRIPT: One last thing I remember was being sent to a voting station at ten minutes before seven to make sure nobody was turned away. The station was inside the Flagler Dog Track. Not off to the side, but upstairs in the clubhouse, surrounded by hundreds of people making bets. At exactly seven, the Presidential race in Florida ended and the name Blue Ice Time Lady flashed on screens around the clubhouse. I don’t know if she was a dog or a horse, but she paid $240 for the win. You couldn’t help but dig the symbolism of her name.

While most of my fears about those euphoric weeks have been realized, there is an attempt right now to restart the fire. And while it feels like we’re going through the motions this time around, I know where I’ll be travelling at the end of October.

Please leave any suggestions for this November’s most thrilling election tourism destinations.

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3 Responses to “Random Acts Of Election Tourism”

  1. globalexplorer1 September 2, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    A brilliant piece of writing. It’s interesting to reflect back on Election 2008. My wife and I were in Salem, OR, wearing that same Nicaraguan T shirt and carrying that same rain soaked clipboard. I think I did get two people to go vote, and the celebration party (and cleanup the next day) is a lasting memory. Thanks for the vivid memories. Although I think reigniting that flame will be a tough thing. Still, we are hand carrying our ballots to the Vice Consul of Panama to make sure our votes are included.
    Mike

    • veryethnic September 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

      Thanks Mike. What’s the mood like in Salem these days? Are you volunteering again? I thought I might give Michigan a try this year…although my heart’s really not in it.

      • globalexplorer1 September 14, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

        Salem is a college town (Willamette University) so it leans left. However, it is also heavily Hispanic in the city core, and many families find only seasonal work, so it is poor. Across the Willamette River is neo-Nazi country, and it is an ugly racist, white supremacist environment. My wife refused to go there without me along because she is Italian and can be mistaken for Hispanic.
        We are in Panama now, and involved with Democrats Abroad to help get the vote out among expats. We miss family, of course, but we love it here as you will see from some of my blog entries.

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