A friend of mine had a screaming fight with his father a couple of weeks before the election. The subject of the fight was politics. The father supported Bush. The son supported Kerry. The fight was heated, and eventually the son slammed down the receiver. He hung up on his father.
Days passed. The phone rang at the son’s house.
“I just want you to know,” said the father, “that it is possible to have a civilized conversation with someone with whom you disagree.” The father was a man familiar with Washington.
“I want you to talk to someone,” said the father, and he handed the phone to another man.
It was George McGovern.
“Just don’t slit your wrists if Bush wins,” he advised. “We always manage to muddle through.”
“And then he said something about how he always supported losers,” my friend said when he recounted the moment. His voice drifted a little as he recalled it vaguely, as though he was remembering a dream. Maybe it’s because he’s a poet, but his voice got a little poetic and questioning when he recounted this last bit about the losers. He had the slightly mystified tone of the one who asks questions and looks for patterns.
Winners. Losers. Fathers. And George McGovern.
The phrase, “We’re all New Yorkers now,” is on my mind. For a short while there, in the midst of the stunned days after 9/11, one heard that phrase a lot. I think it originated in Le Monde, but it was the national, American embrace of the idea that moved me.
“No New Yorker expects the rest of America’s warm feelings toward the city to last very long;” wrote Phillip Lopate not long after the event. “It is like getting licked by a large, forgetful St. Bernard dog.”
But who could have guessed how far things would turn?
Now it’s come full circle. They’re all New Yorkers now. Not all, as in all of the country. But among that fifty million or so, the forty-nine percenters, those who slept fitfully Tuesday night and woke to have their worst fears confirmed, there are a lot of residents of Indiana, of Oklahoma, Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas too.
I’m talking about that nice young lady in Indianapolis, Indiana, working the night shift at the Comfort Inn, who was so excited to see our Kerry buttons when we walked in–she gave us a discounted rate and then talked breathlessly about how she had to drive forty minutes to vote but she was going to do it because we had to get Bush out of the White House. She was defiant, embattled, energized, and intelligent. She’s a New Yorker now, too.
I have friend from the South who, as a joke, would sometimes call out, “The South Will Rise Again!” in a shrill voice, like a redneck witch. It was meant as a joke. But it happened. The North is the new South.
I canvassed in Cincinnati, and in Philadelphia. These were small contributions but they edified me. I learned things about the way people live. For example, I learned that many, many people own dogs.
I was in Cincinnati a day before Halloween. In Philadelphia, two days after. In both cases, there were pumpkins on the porch. Not too many in Cincinnati, but in Philadelphia there were many in the neighborhoods I walked through. Many had faces carved on them, but the pumpkins had started to rot, and the faces were caving in on themselves.
The best account I’ve read of getting totally lost in a campaign, and the way its dynamics can affect your personal life for better and worse, is an essay called "Soft Money," by Robert Bingham. There is no copy of the essay online, but it appeared in this book.
Times Square, the night before the election. A young girl holds a sign above her head. “My daddy doesn’t know I’m here,” it begins. “Bring me up for my eighteenth birthday!”
She is surrounded by other girls, other signs, all hemmed in behind the police barricades. They are all looking upwards, all the girls, up towards the lights. Now and then they scream.
It is the first weekday with the new Daylight savings time. It had been a warm sunny day. It was an illusory warmth, though. With the first cloud in the afternoon the temperature dropped fast, and suddenly the streets got dark. Now the sky is a scary pale blue–scary because it is only 5pm. It is a goodbye kind of light.
Just across Broadway, in an anonymous old building surrounded by skyscrapers, is the New York Headquarters of the Kerry campaign. The building’s entrance is on a side street, not far from a sishkebab stand whose billowing smoke wafted into the lobby when I visited. The building is filled with the small offices of show business. Down the hall is "Prestige Theater Parties," and up on the 14th floor is the Actors Credit Union.
When I rode up to get some stickers, I shared the elevator with actors on their way to cash a check and peered into the Credit Union’s office. The stolidity of the building’s interior, the long hallways with many doors, the imagined yet somehow palpable smell of cigar smoke– it all reminded me of A.J. Leibling’s imaginary yet fact based Jollity Building, crammed with its many layers of hustlers, con men, and entertainers, which was brought to life with such brusque hilarity in "The Telephone Booth Indian." Now I was on Broadway again, a good place for politics and show business to mingle.
The girls screamed again as some cameraman in the window above turned towards them, and in the distance Henry Kissinger appeared. He gazed out over the bright movement of Times Square – most of the billboards feature moving images now. It was part of a promo for the Chris Mathews show, on which he was presumably a guest.
Here on the street, it was the girls and a few Kerry supporters. A Cameraman was panning across the crowd, girls were going bonkers, waving their signs and shrieking, and the dour, familiar, spectacled visage of Henry Kissinger looked on for another moment before the sign blinked and he vanished.
There were a lot of girls, and a lot of signs. For years I’ve seen them there, looking up and screaming their heads off every time a cameraman pointed his camera down at them from one of the window bays above. They were an extreme version of that increasingly familiar sight around town: a crowd of people standing outside a television studio, peering through a pane glass window. They wave into the a glass box at the people with whome they are familiar from the glass box they peer into at home, where there the television personalities sit, always with people waving in the background, on the other side of the glass.
I had stopped by because of the Eminem video.
There was supposed to be a slight political theme to this gathering. There were some Kerry signs here and there. A Flastaffian, Belushian, and generally excellent looking dude name Benedict held a Kerry sign and gave an interview to a reporter for the BBC online. He’s taking a year off after high school, he said, to be an activist.
Eminem is both one of the all-stars of TRL and one of its harshest critics. The first single from his new record is a starkly anti-Bush song called “Mosh.” Its story line involves the frustration of a soldier who returns from Iraq and is greeted by his wife. She holds a baby in one hand. In the other is a letter to the soldier, saying he has to go back to Iraq. “Fuck bush,” says the animated soldier, along with Eminem, and he joins the army of protesters on the march.
But the video was a cartoon. Here there were only two young guys in black hoodie sweatshirts, and they left fairly quickly.
Nevertheless, "Mosh" was hailed in some quarters as another positive drop in the bucket of Kerry’s momentum.
I was always suspicious of reading this moment as a positive development for Kerry. Never mind that your basic Eminem fan is not even voting age. He sells more records than anyone else, so this kind of anti-Bush sentiment could only fuel the fire, or so the thinking that I read went. But Eminem is shrewd. “Mosh,” and its accompanying video dropped a week before the election; the album is out in Mid-November. I think Eminem was betting that Bush would be around to be hated for more than a week.
In Philadelphia we canvassed in the afternoon and then again at night. Maybe it was that people were now home from work, in their socks, the evening news on loud, but the emotions ran much higher in the evening. It was also less stressful in a way. During the day, every house is a mystery—you knock on the door, ring the bell, wait and wonder if someone will come to the door. At night, you can tell who is home. We had many intense conversations in both neighborhoods, but none more so than the big burly guy who came to the door in his socks.
As with nearly every other house in that heavily democratic neighborhood, the TV news was on loud in the background. But he wanted to talk. He said how much he hoped Kerry would win. “I’ve got two cousins in Iraq and I’m praying we can bring them home.” He was a big guy with a round open face, dark skin. “And I have an Uncle in Afghanistan,” he went on. And here I noticed for the first time that the odd timing in his speech was in fact a stutter, albeit one he had under control. “My uncle is in the Rangers, he’s been over there two years straight,” he said. Somewhere in that sentence about his Uncle he froze up. We stood there in the darkness of his front door and endured the awkward silence made so much more excruciating by the emotion of it, the sense of all this feeling rushing forward to block the words. We commiserated for a while, and then we continued to the next house.
I looked up from my coffee on the morning after the election and saw a miserable looking woman walking down the street. I was sitting in my corner café, so I saw her through a pane of glass, in silence. She was surrounded by the beautiful leaves, the crisp morning light. She wore a Kerry button. I live in a neighborhood that is mostly pro-Kerry. In a city that is mostly pro-Kerry. In a state, in a region… but not a country that is mostly pro-Kerry. That is what I saw on her haggard face. The sense of grief and exclusion. It was a face for which worry was fermenting into grief. She was slender and had a somewhat less than robust look about her, a vegetarian attenuation, a veteran of lost wars. Or, in fairness to her, lost battles. I thought: that’s exactly how I feel. But I didn’t want to look like that. I didn’t want the grooves of worry and despair to define me, even though I was taking the unfolding news of the Bush win as hard as she was. It’s like a death. You can’t negotiate with it, I thought then.
It took a while to absorb that it is not, in fact, a death.
I’ve been thinking about the cross I saw outside of Forsyth, Montana. I came across that town on a gorgeous stretch of road called Rout 12. Like many town in America, there was a trio of crosses perched high on a mountain just outside of town. In this case, one of those crosses was made of white neon. It was dusk when I saw it. Perhaps because of the size of the sky, the craggy mountain landscape, my cross-country solitude, the image of the white cross seemed ominous. I mean, it seemed, martial. Defensive. Did they think I had come to attack them? No. And I didn’t even think the people of that town would come to New York and attack me.
Which doesn’t mean I was welcomed with open arms, exactly. That stretch, through Montana and Idaho, was notable for my desire to visit what seemed like the most hostile bars. Hostile to what?
“That’s a hell of a Roman nose,” someone remarked at one of these establishments in Montana.
”That’s not a Roman nose,” came a reply. I was sitting there with my BV Ditch, staring at the many stickers plastered onto the wall behind the bar. My eyes, as it happened, had just rested upon one that had the word “Nazi,” crossed out with a slash of red.
BV stands for Black Velvet, which seemed to be the Whiskey of choice in that region. A BV ditch is a whiskey and water on the rocks.
Why’s it called a BV ditch,” I asked someone. “Because you drink it and then you end up in a ditch,” was the reply.
Later on that same trip I came to an abrupt stop in front of a bar in rural Idaho. It was mid afternoon, and there were a good number of cars in the lot. But what got my attention, what made me stop on the road and back up, was the confederate flag that was flapping on the flagpole.
The two simultaneous thought I had then were: Idaho is not part of the confederacy, and, I suppose this is what i was looking for.”
I went inside, where it was sheltered from the bright light. I had a nice time. When it was discovered I was from New York there was some excitement. It turns out a local resident had been born in New York, and he was brought forward to meet the interlopers. The man I shook hands with was covered in leather and chains. He exists in my memory as a cross between some sort of Tom of Finland biker boy and that person called “The Gimp,” who emerges from the cellar in Pulp Fiction—shackled and covered head to toe in leather.
My man, the New York expatriate, was friendly. He informed me he had grown up on 56th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, which he pronounced, “Omsterdom,” as though he had picked up a kind of Afrikaner dialect out in Idaho. I had no time to calculate that there is no 56th and Amsterdam Avenue, (or Omsterdom) because I was too busy fielding questions about New York. The subject fascinated everyone. And very well acquainted with it. They were all avid watchers of “Law and Order.”
“Don’t you get disgusted with all that crime and dirt?” I was asked.
“It’s really not bad when you’re there,” I said. “I mean, everything looks scarier when you see it from a distance.”
I can say that about Idaho bars with confederate flags out front; everyone was really nice! And when I left, a little wobbly from my BV ditches, I heard a woman say, “See? Not everyone from New York is so bad.”
It made me feel proud.
But now that cross is back in my thoughts. It turns out that the people of those towns were actually convinced that their way of life was being threatened by the crazy liberals in places like New York and other cities. The fact that the attack of 9/11 – in which these same marginal liberal crazies were actually attacked – was used as a lever to make the good people of Forsyth feel threatened, is an impressive feat of ethical gymnastics.
Going door to door in Philadelphia on election day—if no one was home we were to leave a ‘door hanger.’ This item is a leaflet that hangs, a bit like a "Do not disturb" sign, on the narrow neck of doorknobs. The design was such that there were these little round blue button size pieces of paper that kept falling to the ground when you hung up the flyer. There were so many fliers already stuffed into the doorframes, hanging on doorknobs. I was in such a solicitous mood–Much of the time canvassing, I felt like a volunteer neighborhood sprucer, arranging and neatening the various campaign material that was almost as thick on the ground as the many leaves the residents were in the midst of bagging or blowing or raking.
I put each little blue button in my pocket. Today I finally took them out. They sit there like coins, amulets. Confetti for a party that never happened.