With the emotional roller coaster that was the presidential debates, I was starting to get stomach aches over the election. I felt that so much was at stake in this election - not only my beloved president but perhaps also the fate of the nuclear arms race. With election day nearing, and support for Obama in Oregon pretty much in the bag, I decided to contact my friend, River, an Obama campaigner in Ohio to see if she could use some help there. She gave me an enthusiastic "Yes." I booked a flight with a credit I had at Delta Airlines and the remaining fare came out an exact $44 dollars (for our 44th. President).
Thus I found myself on November 3 waiting for flight (I kid you not) #5050 heading to Columbus, Ohio.
I have OCD and I found that on my way to Ohio I keep obsessively looking for signs about who would win the election. My OCD is generally very well controlled but I would find myself interpreting the tiniest things - if I can get the cap off my new, sealed, chapstick in one movement, Obama will win the election (I couldn't). Flying usually triggers my OCD but this was worse.
So when I finally landed in Columbus and tried to rent a car I was spooked by the trouble I had - did it mean Obama would not win? Budget Rental went through no less than 5 cars trying to find one the worked right and matched their contract.
At 11 p.m. I finally drove off and went to my host's house. Sally was a volunteer with the Obama campaign and had welcomed me, sight unseen, to stay at her house for four nights. When I met her we instantly liked each other. Here is a picture of her taken on election night.
The next morning, Sunday, November 4, we both went off to see my friend River in her recently set-up field office.
River is really Daphne to me. She was a girlfriend of mine in the early eighties and has since changed her name to River. While we were together she suffered a terrible accident that left her with a high spinal cord injury. I had only seen her one other time in the nearly 25 years since we broke up.
Here she is the first day I volunteered at her field office:
The office was set up in a decrepit Somalian "Flea Market" that was really an excuse for a coffee clutch for Somalian men in a cavernous building that had at some point been divided into many small offices. The Obama field office was in a hallway and one of the office rooms. They had only been there for two weeks (River had been volunteering for 5 months already at another office) and were fighting to get the heat turned on. Yup. Grass roots.
River sent Sally and I out door-to-door canvassing. We were to knock on the doors of registered voters that the Obama campaign had determined needed persuasion to vote, and to vote for Obama. Here I am on the third house we visited:
The deeper we got into our list of houses, the worse the neighborhood got. I had forgotten how terribly rough some have it. I have to admit to being a little scared. There were crumbling houses, tons of dogs, kids with nothing to play with,
At one point, Sally knocked on a door and two large dogs started barking and leaping at the door. They the dogs actually pushed the door open and Sally had to hold the screen door shut with her hand, against the push of the barking dogs, until the owner called them away.
A bright spot was a little puppy, Maria, who helped canvass as you can see in this photo:
Along the way I must have gotten a paper cut.
Now that's commitment.
I saw this in one window on a pretty rough street.
After a lunch break at the campaign office, of Campbell's vegetarian soup and too many candy bars, Sally and I headed back out to an area with lots of apartments. It was here that I had my most profound canvasing experience. It was an ugly housing project with sloppy mortar squishing out from between the bricks. I knocked on one door and a tiny young teenage woman opened the door a crack and stuck a seven-inch knife with a raggedy blade, out in front of her. "Obama!" I shouted, "I am from the Obama campaign." I asked her if she was going to vote. The knife slowly receded and a toddler appeared clinging to her legs. The daughter had on dirty underpants, and the mom had messy hair. I tried to stick to our recommended script asking if she needed a ride to the polls, if she would consider voting early, if she was supportive of our President's re-election. But what I really wanted to do was sweep her off her feet and carry her away from the dark apartment and take care of her. She said, yes, she did need a ride. And I gave her a number to call. And left with a different concept of what America was.
The next day I put in a good 12 hours of supporting River and her staff of one. I got to do some canvassing and food buying. All morning and early afternoon, no one had shown up to canvass so I went out by myself and knocked on 72 doors. Here is what grass roots organizing looks like:
At some point I had to drop something off at another campaign office and was stunned by how much more established it was. Evidently it had been in place for over a year. Here are some photos:
I even got to meet a cardboard President Obama!
Notice my African Obama shirt - the envy of everyone there!
A Venezuelan TV crew interviewed me:
That night my wonderful host Sally took me to an African market that she said was very like markets she had visited in the middle east.
This woman was on the floor praying when we entered her store. She smiled when we said we were campaigning for Obama.
This shop keeper had just voted.
And you will never guess what we saw in the marketplace...an Obama campaign office!
The next day was election day and River was at the office by 5:30 a.m. I got there with donuts a little after 8. The goal was to get canvassers to visit all the doors in our neighborhood from our list of persuadable voters THREE times! We had narrowed down the list over the past few days by crossing off people who had already voted, were strong Romney supporters (not many in these neighborhoods!) or where the houses were vacant. By 9 a.m., volunteers were streaming in. One, named Gloria, limping, took charge of the room as about 40 people streamed in. She'd shouted "Fired up?!" and everyone would answer, "Ready to go!"
Here she is helping someone sign in.
And two by two, we'd train the door to door canvassers (most volunteering for the first time on a political campaign) and send them out the door with literature and lists of addresses.
The literature had the address of the polling place for that particular home:
I loved to see the pairs - people who had never met before - black and white together, obviously gay and straight together - heading out the door to canvass on election day.
Ready to go!
Over election day we had nearly 150 people come in to volunteer. Here are two:
I talked to a volunteer who had canvassed one of the routes I had gone on two days before. I said, "Did anyone pull a knife on you?"
"Was it a raggedy knife?"
She too had met this frightened child/woman. We decided to drive back there and offer to give her a ride to the polls ourselves. But alas, when we got there there was no answer at her door this time. We can only hope she had found a ride.
On our drive together to and from the apartment she told me that she had been an architectural student at the top of her class. But she needed surgery and the school had added the outstanding surgery bill to her school bill and kicked her out when she couldn't pay. The outstanding bill then barred her from getting scholarships. She was working three jobs hoping to someday get back to school. Friends were throwing her a benefit. She had this one day off and was so happy she'd have a chance to volunteer for the Obama campaign.
I know. It is all so ridiculous and moving.
About an hour and a half before polls closed I set out with two women to do the last (third) round of canvassing for this one apartment complex. One of the women had a young daughter with her. It was a ridiculous and wonderful pilgrimage in the dark, with flashlights. The apartment complex was giant and the four of us wandered around trying so see what the addresses were on the twenty or so buildings. Once we figured it out the building number we'd climb up and down the outdoor stairways looking for the apartment number. It was scary but we kept knocking on doors - asking if anyone needed a ride. I couldn't help but think that this was more of a spiritual journey: we did not talk to a single undecided voter. But we erupted in cheers every time we ran into someone who said they voted. And appreciated that our silly group of white females staggering around in the dark, cheering, couldn't help but bring some bemused smiles to the apartment community.
We called it a night when it was a half an hour before the polls closed. We headed back to the "Flea market" and saw that volunteers had completed dismantled the office - the landlord was insisting that we were out that night. There was not a single poster or flyer left. Only two boxes of cookies that hadn't found a home. I said goodbye to my Daphne, happy for our new bond.
Sally and I went to the bigger office and collected some flyers as souvenirs. We saw happy volunteers awaiting results:
The rest my friends, is history.