Driving with Signs

by Thomas Beller

10/12/2004

I-95, Portsmouth, NH, to New York City

Neighborhood: Uncategorized

All the Kerry-Edwards signs on Madburry Road in Dover, New Hampshire, got torn up on Friday night. The vandal left the signs for Democrats running in local races, but the national ticket was not so lucky. The next day people were resurrecting them.

New Hampshire is a horse race right now, as it is elsewhere. The Kerry campaign headquarters in Dover was open this past Sunday, and I stopped in to say hello and see what there was to see:

A few people stood outside drinking coffee, including a man wearing a black T-shirt on which a stop sign was printed, except instead of the word, “Stop,” there was the word “Bush.”

Inside there was “Scripts” sitting in neat stacks on a table, waiting for volunteers to pick them up and head out into the field. It was a pastoral scene and you wouldn’t guess how dirty the politics can get in this state—the democrat’s phone lines went down in several districts on election day 2002; it turns out this was the work of a firm called GOP Marketplace.

(The man behind this bit of vote supression, James Tobin, was later appointed New England campaign chairman for the Bush-Cheney team, whose moto ought to be: “Electoral Crime All The Time!”)

At Kerry headquarters the names of the local candidates were strewn here and there on flyers, but Kerry-Edwards paraphernalia dominated the room. This small storefront had once been side by side with another storefront occupied by Dean’s operation, but that was long gone.

I spoke to the young man at the front desk about the energy, and he seemed optimistic but weary. My questions about New Hampshire and its likelihood to go to Kerry were answered a bit vaguely. How else to answer? Who knows? But then it turned out the young man was on territory less than familiar; he was a volunteer who had recently arrived himself, from Cambridge, Mass.

I asked for one of those Kerry-Edwards signs.

“I’m just passing through here, and I’m headed back to New York City, and I want to stick it on the car.”

“Well, we try and save them for locals,” he said. But he went to ask.

I watched as he made his way further back into the room. From behind a desk packed with papers, a woman’s face rose up. The look of preoccupation and fatigue and hope was all palpable from thirty feet away. She glanced at me. I must have passed some test. Or maybe she felt she should to with the momentum. The trend is your friend, as a Wall Street guy once said to me. I got the sign.

I was driving a rental, a Ford “Escape,” with Florida plates. On the drive up on I-95, through Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, I had been amazed at how few cars had bumper stickers for either party. Was it apathy? Or maybe people felt that what happened on Madburry road could happen to their car. At any rate, I counted two Bush-Cheneys and one Kerry-Edwards. Then there were the American flags. I had to resist the temptation to assume that the cars with American flags were Bush supporters. They don’t own the American flag. But then they posses none of that self-awareness as to what the possible downsides of excessive flag waving might be.

Two to one, out of a thousand of so bumpers I must have scanned on the 274 mile drive. One of the Bush-Cheney stickers was on a pick up with North Carolina plates. An older man with a trucker’s cap drove next to a woman who I presume was his wife. He was a skinny guy, a pencil neck. And the truck was an older truck, but lean, clean, well maintained. We drove together for a hundred miles or so before it got dark. Then the debate came on and I started screaming at the dashboard when Bush spoke. I was almost fond of that pick-up and its driver by the time I lost them, though.

Now it was time for the return trip. I taped the poster onto the outside of the Escape, and set off down to New York. I have a sticker on my own car, but this was different, more brazen. It was the size of those posters you see people waving at the rallies. It was there for all to see and putting it there I realized that I was still possessed of a tiny sense of fearfulness about coming out in public as a Kerry supporter. I don’t mean personally fearful, but fearful for my car. Yes, my own car, also a Ford, has the Kerry bumper sticker, but that car doesn’t venture far from New York these days. Here I was on the road. On the road in New England, yes, not exactly Odessa, Texas, or Mississippi, but out on the Interstate.

And… it was hard to tell how people reacted. One car with a Bush-Cheney sticker neatly applied to the center of the rear window (I had been fastidious in my taping, fearing that as a Democrat it was important not to be slothful in any way), sped up and veered in front of me for a while. A man drove, unaccompanied. Then there was a moment when another car, a van in this case, swerved in front of me, and out from the window came a cigarette. It was dusk now, and the cigarette did that pretty mini-fireworks thing, bouncing along on the highway. Was this belligerence against my sign, or was this just some guy throwing his cigarette out of his van?

The rental was returned in Stamford, and now we piled into my own car, another Ford, this one a Thunderbird of ancient vintage. The Kerry-Edwards sign went in the rear window, but it felt less impressive. The car has New York plates. There is another bumper sticker that accompanies the Kerry-Edwards one (“For a Stronger America”). It reads, “Borrows, taxidermy, Delhi, New York. THE BUCK STOPS HERE.”

We drove home without incident, switching between radio stations, looking for more news of Kerry’s October surge,

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