This past weekend I dragged my ass out of bed (it had been a bestie’s birthday the night before), put on whatever was on the floor (not what I wore to bestie’s birthday), and walked down to Hillary Clinton’s campaign office on 103 and Broadway. About thirty people were already there, milling around outside. They held coffee cups and the little green ticket the office had handed out—a ticket down to Pennsylvania for a day of knocking on doors and canvassing for Hillary in Bustleton, a struggling blue collar neighborhood in the swing-state of Pennsylvania.
I’d never done much political work. I remember making a couple of signs in middle school and standing with a few friends on a traffic median once, asking people to honk if they opposed what would later become known as only the First Gulf War. People honked. I felt sort of good. I went home, threw the signs away, and went to bed confident we had made a serious dent in America’s relentless march toward war. I did not realize that people were probably just honking because kids like Max and Sarah and Fiona and I were short and cute and emphatic and anyway, we were all growing up in a very liberal, anti-war San Francisco. We weren’t so much effecting change as confirming established beliefs.
There’s more skin in this game. Relentlessly, more and worse examples of Trump’s misogyny come to light. His bigotry is undeniable, a shelter for the weak. His hatred for groups of Americans, such as Muslims and the disabled, is revolting. And there is more and worse out there. The election is nearly one month from today, and it will be a brutal, salacious month. So I guess the broader question facing my country is not “Who has not yet made up their minds?” but rather “If you have not made up your mind by now, what more do you need?”
Those were a couple of the things on my mind as I boarded the bus. Most of the people around me appeared to be in their 60s or older, white haired, retired. A woman named Elizabeth, one of the organizers of our volunteer crew, grabbed the microphone and led a boot camp training from the front of the bus. Things got rowdy quickly because, well, because we are New Yorkers and no one can keep it simple and easy. Someone asked a question about an obscure tax loophole and Would Not Let It Go. Another person got riled when it was suggested that everyone—Republican and Democrat—be entitled to voter registration forms.
I even found myself chiming in with the statement, “While I am here to support Hillary, I am certainly not here to disenfranchise anyone.” And I seriously contemplated asking a question about Pennsylvania law with regard to the voting rights of those with past felony convictions. Gracious, it was like we were all acting like we were the ones about to step out onto a presidential debate stage. And maybe, as we hit the streets of down-at-heel suburban PA, we were. Like I said, skin in the game.
I tried to fall asleep on that bus, but everyone was shouting at one point or another and it was no use. There we were, all these hyper-educated white people pouring down from New York, tasked now with role-playing potential conversations we might have while canvassing an impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood. I mean to tell you—the woman behind me held a PhD in sociology from Columbia and the other was her undergraduate roommate from the University of Chicago. If we were headed down to PA to do astrophysics, we would have had that thing on lock. But we were, maybe, headed down to do something much harder—broach the socio-economic divide rending our country.
“Do you want to be the person at the door, or the canvasser?” I asked my neighbor.
“I’ll be the canvasser,” she said. So from across the isle I practiced with her, taking on the stature of an ornery, laid off factory worker indifferent to politics but pissed about the direction of our nation. I shot questions at her like, “Well, your candidate sounds fancy and all, and I’m sure she’s had all the nice jobs you’ve described, but where is my job? What am I supposed to do now? I got laid off three months ago already. Now what?”
My impersonation was not too far off from what I encountered as I knocked on doors and met people across that day. America is hurting, and that hurt has turned, once again for some, into a toxic mix of fear, rage, entitlement, and shame. But there’s hope and honesty, laughter and good will, out there too. You just need to walk the streets, knock on the doors, ask the questions, and be ready for the answers—and there are a lot of answers.
The organizers paired us off at headquarters, which was little more than a tent and an abandoned storefront in a largely abandoned strip mall. Someone passed out apples and granola bars and there was a whole situation around the use of the single bathroom that might have cost us 45 minutes to an hour. Like I said, we were a cranky, eager, fighting lot from New York.
I got paired with Keith, a software salesman who had a gentle turn of phrase and easy manner. We gabbed about our lives as we walked the streets and knocked on the doors of our designated section, a list of perhaps 60 homes and names. Everyone we had been assigned to talk to had been identified as a potential unregistered voter or an undecided voter and, given the swing-state nature of Pennsylvania, better registration means greater voter turn-out and, ultimately, better results for the Democrats. (Look only to the current registration contest in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Matthew to know more about that.)
Keith and I walked a struggling neighborhood that showed signs of former glory. Original beveled glass windows peered out onto the street, and comfortable porches boasted old woodwork and delicately carved pillars. But people inside often opened their doors to dark, spare interiors full of small children, animals, cardboard boxes and discarded beer cans, all of which had a way of spilling out onto those old porches.
Scott and Nicole answered their door to reveal a frenzy of kids and cats. Scott said he wanted to vote for Hillary but was unregistered, so he sat down to fill out one of our registration forms. Nicole said she was also a Democrat but had no interest in voting, and waved us away. So we waited for Scott to complete his form, and gave him a little information on the other Democratic candidates on the ballet. Nicole slipped back onto a couch covered with a bed sheet. We moved on to the next house. But while we stood there waiting for their neighbor to answer the door, Nicole appeared at her own door again and waved us back.
“I think I do want to vote,” she said. “Can I have one of those registration forms?”
We walked for hours, knocking on over 60 doors. Many people were not home. Those who were mainly said they were already registered. We met a ton of Hillary supporters—some who even took to pounding the walls of their homes and even the sidewalk with their bare fists to express the strength of their support. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” a group of young African-American women shouted. “Sign me up!”
Would you guys be open to volunteering, we asked.
“Yes, oh hell yes!” They shouted back, before filling out every last form, taking every scrap of information, and wishing us a good day. “We’ll see you on November 8,” I said. “YES!” they cried.
Others simply greeted Keith and me with a tart “It’s none of your business”. One young man slyly said he’d be voting for Trump. “I like that dude!” he called after us, his smile taunting. But when he steps into that booth, I have a feeling he’ll be pulling the lever for Hillary.
As we wrapped up our day, we wanted to get just one more Democrat registered if we could. But the last man we stopped on the street assured us he was registered, had Hillary’s back, was all set to go. We sat down in a sandwich shop and called an Uber to come take us back to the local headquarters.
Our driver pulled up minutes later. She wore pale pink sweats and asked extensive questions about our comfort levels before easing back into traffic. So we started chatting. Did she support Hillary? Yes. Was she registered? No. Suddenly our whole team scrambled over each other to get that registration form in her hands.
“But I’m not a citizen,” she responded ruefully. “I only have a green card. I’m from Egypt.” We told her how much we looked forward to having her join us at the polls as soon as she did become a citizen. “Oh, absolutely,” she replied. “No question about that. I didn’t come here to not get involved.”