"Is the publicist here?" said a woman. "These two kids just brought their pumpkin carved with John Kerry’s face."
Everyone at the table lifted their gaze to a young man in a blue T-shirt who stood there beside the woman. He looked a little bashful, and also eager, as though he had come to collect a prize.
Everyone at the table shrugged. We were all newcomers to the Kerry Headquater’s in Cincinnati, Ohio, located in a low brick building near the old downtown.
We were all newcomers to Cincinnati. A man with a cowboy hat and an American flag tie had driven an hour up from Lexington, Kentucky. There was a couple from Indianapolis. A woman from Connecticut. And an older couple from Lousiville, Kentucky.
The woman and the pumpkin carver moved off down the hall, and we all lowered our heads to the task at hand. We were folding and stuffing. Most of us were from the 3 pm canvassing training session. We had done a little folding and stuffing, gotten a quick prep on how to talk to voters, been given clip boards with names and addresses, a stack of literature, and been sent on our way. Now we had returned to HQ and, a bit exhausted but still swept up in the excitement, had elected to stick around to do more. There was only one person from our group who was not yet back—an older guy with bright white hair, and a bright beard, a kind of progressive Santa Claus figure in brown corduroys. Unlike most of us, he was actually from Cincinnati. He had been canvassing for days. He was a real enthusiast. He spoke about the campaign with excitement and indignation at the training session, recounting his previous experience. His breathing was heavy. Now it was after 8pm and he still wasn’t back. His wife had called several times. She was getting frantic.
I had been sent out with my fiancé Elizabeth to a neighborhood near Dana Avenue. It was all African-Americans. The houses were all old but dignified, sitting next to each other with neat front lawns, not Victorian but distinctly from another era than our own. They were grand, if a bit dilapidated. We began going from door to door. We had been told it was important to focus only on the people on the list; they didn’t want us to waste time freelancing. There didn’t seem to be too much opportunity. It was a hot day and the street was still.
Almost immediately it became apparent that Elizabeth should do the talking. They came to the door and discovered a pretty blond woman wearing white and beige, make-up, a big smile, and beside her stood a large figure, darker, perhaps a bit worried looking—me.
Stanley Crouch described Kerry has having this problem of leaving his body when shaking hands with another person, and standing off the side until the contact ceased. I wasn’t shaking hands. But I felt I may have been experiencing a similar problem. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that most of the people who came to the door were women, although there was a very nice man who was holding his great grandson in his arms, wide eyed, dazed, as though a human football. The man let us in, introduced us to his wife, took our literature, and assured us he would vote, as he always did.
The little boy stared at us, mostly at Elizabeth, who was very reassuring. For some reason whenever I said anything, people looked a little alarmed, whereas when she spoke they were at ease. I noted several little kids staring at her with eager, fascinated expressions.
She smiled and waved at one and all while I trod heavily beside her, and an aura of friendliness and civility enveloped us. I finally decided on my role–the bodyguard. I helped her up and down steps. I demonstrated what I thought were courtly manners. I bellowed out greetings, and then shut up. For a while, I experimented with delivering the bad news—the purpose of these visits was partly to encourage these voters to make sure they had time to vote on Tuesday, and had a way to get the polls. But it was also to let them know what to expect. There could be long lines. Someone might challenge them to prove they were who they claimed to be, so they had to bring identification. But even this information seemed to go down much better when Elizabeth said it.
Everyone was really excited. I mean they were focused, they were commited, they were going to vote. Even this guy who walked by us with a brown bag in his hand, and informed us that he couldn’t vote because he was a convicted felon.
“Three years,” he said.
“Maybe you can still vote!” I said. Though in truth I was not even sure. I briefly considered calling Kerry HQ as I tried to summon the facts, but they were swamped with more important things to do. And anyway he wasn’t on our list. Were you barred for life from voting if you were a convicted felon? I wondered if he would ever investigate the matter.
“I’ll sit this cycle out,” he said. He sounded very articulate for a felon. I later found out he was quite right, convicted felons can not vote.
He turned from us, walked across the street, and hailed a greeting to a friend standing in a nearby doorway. He entered the house with his brown bag, a jaunt in his step.
We spoke to a lot of ladies. They were generally fired up, except for two elderly ladies, both of whom invited us in and listened to us. One seemed to be the frail, thin matriarch of a household full of men sitting in front of a television set in the front parlor. She took our leaflets and said she was undecided. We gaped at her. I had expected to feel animosity for the undecideds, but I could not fault this woman. The men around her seemed dazed. At least she was somewhat in the game. She was the only one taking any of what we said in, even a little. And she brightened considerably when Elizabeth complimented her on her house. It was true. It was, like many of those houses on the block, a beautiful house.
The other lady lived in the house with her sister. “Old age got me,” she said, when we all sat down in the parlor. She had an oxygen tube in her nose. A needlepoint pillow rested beside her that read, "If at first you don’t succeed, do it like your grandfather did." Her sister was just a bit younger. She told us she doesn’t vote. “I gave it up when I moved here from Kentucky,” she said. We sat and smiled and nodded and then I noticed a plastic pill container, the kind that parcels out the doses for every day of the week, and blurted out, “Well, I hope the medication works!”
They received this graciously and Elizabeth pinched me when we got out side and said I must be out of my mind.
“I was trying to be optimistic,” I said.
The two sisters lived on a street called “Realistic.”
We hit a few more houses, and then visited the barbeque stand at the end of the block. The guy who ran it was very enthusiastic. He insisted on giving us sodas for free, and said he had cooked for John Edwards when he was in town. He was set up next to the local package store, a drive through with an Arab behind thick plexi-glass. We gave him a lot of literature and for a moment it was like a rally, all this good feeling and positive energy. It was also the moment when the concentration of men was greatest, dusk was settling in, and a guy suggested to Elizabeth that she give him her number, by sign language, it was funny and all that, but time to quit while we were ahead. I got the barbeque to go.
Back at Kerry HQ, the mood was unchanged. The place was a warren of rooms crammed with people, some of who had been working non-stop for a month, and others, like our gang, who had shown up that day. But after a few hours, you felt like a veteran, ready to do what was asked.
The boy with the pumpkin vanished, and I went outside and took a picture of his creation. A young girl stood next to it. “Wait,” she said. “There is someone else who made it, too, and he should be in the picture.”
There was an awkward moment, and then I suggested I just focus on the pumpkin, which she said was fine. I wondered if the idea of getting their picture taken with it had been her boyfriend’s. I never found out.
But at the last minute before we finally gave up folding and stuffing and coordinated folders and printing maps, the old guy with the white hair, the progressive Santa clause, returned back to base, still in high spirits, and optimistic about Kerry’s victory.