Sunday, April 13, 2008

Doing our civic duty

[I don't know to what extent the philosopher's insistence on naked blogging was designed as punishment, and to what extent it was instituted as just another demonstration of his control, but it is a royal pain in the ass. but of course, that doesn't stop me from obeying - and I do feel very owned in the process.]

So it was back up to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania yesterday, for another visit to Obama headquarters. It's a wonderful old brick building about a block from the state capital and walking distance from a collection of Irish bars. Coming back felt very comfortable; I'm growing rather fond of the area.

I made the 2-hour trip with my best female friend and steady canvassing partner. Any pseudonym would feel false, so I will just refer to her as M. Last time we went door-to-door registering voters, explaing that you can't vote in the Democratic primary if you are registered non-partisan; in Pennsylvania there is nothing wrong with switching your registration for the primary and then back right afterwards.

Our previous visit saw us driving from one far-flung over-sized suburban house to another; in a heavily Republican area the independent houses were quite scattered. This time, we focused on registered Democrats, and our mandate was to persuade. We ended up doing all our work in a public housing apartment building across from the market building and not far from the Capital.

Now one key tenet of the Obama campaign is that we have to look and think beyond the distinctions that have always divided us. We needn't be bound by stereotypes of race, gender, class, income, and so forth. Still, stereotypes die hard, and our hearts sank as we contemplated our target territory. Would we be welcome? Would we be safe? Would we even be allowed into the building?

But the people hanging around outside on this unexpectedly beautiful day were friendly, and the guard distressingly lax about letting us in. The hallway walls were of cinder block but clean and brightly painted, and there were no traces of urine smells. At first we took the elevator, partly out of laziness but also, admittedly, from nervousness on my part about drug addicts or other attackers in the stairwells. Eventually we were shamed into using the stairs by a man we ran into in the elevator, and they were in fact as clean and well-lit as the rest of the building. ("What? Do you think we need the exercise?" I asked. "Yes," he replied bluntly.)

As usual with canvassing, a lot of people weren't home. The rest of our targeted Democrats were often at first coy about their preference, but in the end most confessed to being for our guy. Some just nodded their heads towards us, some pointed at our campaign buttons. One woman whose door decorations testified to her religiosity wouldn't open up for us but said from within that she likes Obama and is praying for him. I hope this has an effect, because one of our undecideds said that in the end she would pray and that God would tell her whom to vote for. I wonder who gets to make the phone trying to get His/Her vote?

We did hit a couple of Hillary supporters, and despite our curiosity we stuck to our orders and didn't attempt to satisfy our curiosity and find out why. And then there were our undecideds.

When you feel really strongly about something, it can be hard to fathom how anyone could possibly be undecided on the matter. But there are plenty who still struggle with the decision. One woman likes Obama but was afraid to vote for him because she thought very few other people would. We assured her that he seemed to have good support among the Democrats in the building and would quite likely win Harrisburg. Another shared the fear that many of us keep buried that such an extraordinary leader is just inviting assassination. We said we can't hold back in fear, we must move forward, we must have hope, we can't lose this chance to change the world. Many said the two candidates are a lot the same, and we agreed before sharing our own views and passions - from which I will spare you all.

Every time we've been sent out we've been firmly told NOT to go into people's houses. Our suburban jaunts have always yielded offers of water or coffee, and once each outing we've asked with a little embarrassment and a lot of gratitude if we might please use their bathroom. On this trip, the offers to come in were made from such a font of natural hospitality that there was no way we could think of refusing. Besides, what do you do when your target already has her door open, so she can call out greetings to her neighbors as they pass? We entered and found her lying in her recliner. Her body is hard to maneuver, her speech hard to understand. With difficulty she transferred herself to her wheel cheer and invited us to sit on the couch, so we could converse without standing over her. The cause of her problems was unclear, but I think she referred to some sort of accident when she was a young mother. She is of course worried about health care, and hates this stupid war. She doesn't need us to point out where the money is going that could buy her a new and better wheel chair. She will vote if someone can come and push her to the polling place at the school next door. She is white and calls the black woman down the hall "Mom."

Another visit was to the home of a woman struggling with asthma or emphysema and tethered by a long tube to an oxygen tank. A retired state worker, she, too hates the war. She, too, responds to moving beyond divisions of race and class and gender. And she admitted what the others never would - it was a lonely Saturday afternoon and she was grateful for some company beyond what the television could offer.

Then there was the black woman who seemed much younger than her listed 67 years. She mentioned something we'd never heard before. All the other black leaders, she said, kept hearkening back to how they had been slaves, to what had been done to them. She had heard all that in the 60s and ever since. Enough, she said. Obama doesn't talk that way. Obama doesn't get stuck on race. Obama doesn't linger on victimization. Obama looks to the future. He SHOWS what black people can do and be.

This woman had the cutest smile. We talked at the door for a long time, while I drank in her sunshine-flooded living room, filled with large healthy plants. I wished I could be photographing the faces of the people we met, filled with hope and fear and frustration and determination . Added together, they will decide our future.

And the one who made me cry? Small and bent over, she clung to the door knob to stay upright. She likes them both, she said, but thinks Obama should be president because he is the man. Clinton is good, she said, but she should be second to him. I stuffed down my urge to launch into feminist protest. Arguing wouldn't change her mind, and at least in this case her old-fashioned convictions helped our cause, though it wasn't help I really wanted.

She went on. She always votes, she said. And gets out plenty. Struggling with osteoporosis and who knows what else, 86 years old, living behind one door of many in public housing, she is always out there helping others who have less than she does. She puts together packets of things for the needy, and delivers Meals on Wheels. You'd expect she'd be on the receiving end, but she's the one out there giving. My eyes filled as we headed back down the hall.

Did we win anyone over? Who knows? But when they step (or are wheeled) into the voting booth, I'm sure they will remember those two white middle-class women who drove up from the suburbs to spend a Saturday afternoon walking the halls of their building, sitting on their couches, visiting and listening and earnestly speaking of someone who believes in tearing down walls.

Next stop - North Carolina?

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