Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Stranger In a Strange Land

I'll let you in on a little secret. One that I've pretty much already told. But for the past few months now, I've been volunteering for the Obama campaign. It started off slow and tentatively since I'd never done anything like it before, so I unsteadily checked in at a locale office, attended some meetings, and made some posts on this or that message board. Before long, though, I was doing my best to live up to a promise I'd made a long while ago that if I ever encountered a candidate who made me believe, made me want to believe at the very least, that they should get elected then I'd do my best to do everything I could to make sure they did.

When Senator Obama began to call on people to help him get out the vote in his latest speeches, when he asked for people to make phone calls or knock on doors, I smiled. Because I already had.

I haven't talked about it, though, because my best really isn't very much. There are people who can and have and will do so much more. And I don't want to make it seem like my efforts are some how commendable. My volunteering wasn't about making myself feel good but, instead, about feeling like I was doing something. Contributing in some small but important way rather than just allowing events to pass me by again.

My efforts, though, were interesting, especially as the election is underway and they've now drawn to a close. Because I didn't just volunteer once or twice. I volunteered a few times and at several different locations. I travel a lot, you see. And there are over 80 in my home state of Michigan alone. And even more in neighboring states that aren't that difficult to reach.

So, when I had the time and even sometimes when I didn't, I'd stop in at the local branch office and see if they needed any help. If they asked, I'd explain that I lived in such and such a place but that I was in the neighborhood for a little while and wanted to help out. I've lived, after all, around the Metro Detroit area and its surrounding suburbs all of my life. From the west side to the east side, from the inner city to the exurbs, I've been there or known someone who lived there or spent time there and I wouldn't feel walking through Farmington, any more than I would in Warren or through Dearborn or anywhere else. I had a whole spiel laid out, when I started, for how I'd talk myself past the front desk but I never needed it because I didn't run into a single office that wasn't glad to have that one more person. Or, for that matter, a staffer who didn't thank me for coming down and spending some of my time to help out.

It was, I felt, an interesting experience because it meant I could see the many different campaign offices and compare and contrast. Some were fly by night operations, set up in dingy, abandoned store fronts with little more than card tables and a coffee machine. While others were slick, professional looking office buildings, comfortably appointed. Some were in the inner city and staffed by veteran community organizers. Some were in the suburbs and looked run by the local coffee clatch. But no matter what they looked like, no matter who the staff were, it was all the same once you got inside. The places were always full of activity with volunteers walking in and out of the door or phone calls being made. A hustle and bustle filled each place as the staff would chat or the volunteers would converse. I sat through training session after training session, getting the latest script or talking point, learning what stage of the effort we were involved in and just how I'd be doing my part. Listened to different staffers explain the same thing in different ways in different locales and I felt the same exact thing. That buzz. That sense of excitement blending with weariness and lack of sleep that pervaded each place. The excitement that I felt with being part of something. The expectation that everyone there felt, working at being part of the great engine of change. The exhaustion of too much coffee and not enough rest that goes along with being part way through and one day closer to the end.

I spent my time answering phones or entering data but what I liked best was when I got to head out and canvas. I'd take my trusty map and figure out where to head and then I'd wander around a neighborhood for an afternoon with a clipboard and a list, knocking on doors. It was nice to get out and get some exercise, better than any walk. And it was even better to get to talk to people, to ask them about their views. Hearing their opinions and having to try to explain to them my own was, I think, good for me. It forced me to confront my own idea, to have to refine them into words that ccould easily slip past my lips. To cram my high-minded ideas and complicated thoughts down into workable bites, something that I've always struggled with.

More than that, it was just nice to get to see so many different people and houses and towns. So many ways of living just within a few hundred miles. It makes me appreciate just how vast this great country is and how many perspectives and ways of life there must be, stretching from one coast to the other.

When I went home, for example, to visit my mother, I drove into the Pointes. A little oasis of red surrounded by a sea of blue. A place where the McCain signs were many and the Obama signs were few. Part of Wayne Country, true, but spiritually part of nearby Macomb, that great bastion of Reagan Democrats. A place of old families and older money – they say that when you grow up in the Pointes you tend to come back and I can see why, it's a beautiful place with a small town feel right in the middle of a larger metropolis. Good schools and friendly people, wide lawns of green grass with children playing on them and sidewalks filled with people taking their dog out for a walk. Grosse Pointe, where I grew up, is one of the original suburbs. Back when the auto industry first started, it was where the plant's managers and owners would live, driving a short way into work and, then, a short way back away from the industrial parks to their comfortable homes. The most valuable property was by the side of Lake St. Clair, along the Jefferson where the Ford estates once were. And when I took that trip home to help my mother clean her house and get ready for Thanksgiving, that's exactly where I wanted to go.

They said I was a brave man in the office, for wanting to walk in the Grosse Pointes. After a few hours of knocking on doors, I could understand why. With my Obama sticker and my liberal policies, I was definitely out of place. A stranger in a strange land that was all the more odd for being where I came from. That's the old selection bias for you, though, until I grew up I would have never thought that my neighborhood was anything but dyed in the wool liberal, just like me and my folks because that's who I'd been surrounded with. But, really, the GPs are a pretty conservative area. The Pointes, after all, are now a place for the graying and elderly and those are the people for whom McCain's politics of racial resentment have really hit home. Detroit is a city of de facto segregation if no longer of de jure, and the proud white folk of the Pointes have built up a lot of mistrust and enmity over the years.

The saddest, though, had to be the time I spent walking along the Eastside. Oddly enough, both of those assignments came from the same office since the heart of Detroit is only about a twenty minute drive from my mother's home. It's a world of difference, though, like driving into another country.

But I firmly believe that sometimes you need to be reminded of how lucky you are, so I took my nice car and my lily white face and headed into the fringes of the urban jungle, armed only with a clipboard, some pamphlets, and a smile. I needed have worried, though, even though I still rue that fleeting worry I felt as I locked my door and wondered if I shouldn't have tried to borrow my sister's less expensive, less likely to be stolen car. I worked downtown once, you see, and I still remember how that car was nearly stolen right off the parking lot in front of me. But although I got a few stares, I didn't get any meaningful looks.

I saw the kind of things that just break you heart, while I was down on the upper Eastside, that one chilly autumn afternoon. From the burned out shell of houses to mothers younger than I am, hanging on to a handful of kids while they nervously opened the door. Trash piled up on porches and paint peeling away. Wood work splitting and concrete steps that were starting to crack. Empty lots that were a sight better than the still-standing houses with broken windows and pried open boards just rotting away.

But the people? They were the same as I talked to anywhere else. A little poorer, maybe, but not as poor as some other spots to which I'd been. They were friendly and kind and full of hope. That audacity to believe that as bad as things are, they could one day get better. I could see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices. All over Michigan the feeling is the same, that the election was the day when the tide might break and the sorrows might well roll back. And more than most didn't have shabby, worn-down houses just waiting to fall apart. They had nice homes, well-maintained with fresh panelling or coats of paint stood proud and dignified amidst the squallor. A sign not of the increasing decay of a city that's too large with too few people but, instead, a promise that things can get better.

After I'd finished my list and returned to the office, I turned in my report almost in silence. Just drained by the experience and unsure of what to thing. What hits me the hardest whenever I go back to a place like that is that I was born in a house not very far off. I was born in Detroit, within the city limits, and raised for those first few years of my life that I hardly remember on a street, nearby. Over the years, my family's followed the flow of people out and away and into the burbs. But Detroit is where I started and where I'll probably always return. I've never gone back to look for my old house, though, because I'm not sure what I'd feel if it had been swallowed up by the blight and decay. But I imagine it would be something like what I felt standing in that campaign office that afternoon as the light was beginning to fade.

Still, all in all, I'm glad I did it. It was an experience worth having. It might not have been fun to pound the pavement until my legs ached or to wander around in the drizzling rain trying to keep my pages from getting wet. And I might not have made much of a difference. I knocked on, perhaps, a thousand doors, maybe a few hundred more, and talked to nearly as many people. And some of them I might have convinced and some might not otherwise take the time to vote and that makes me feel good. But then I hear about the millions of bells that have been rung and the calls that have been made and I can't feel too good because I was just one part of a vast effort and my contributions weren't so great, after all.

But it was worthwhile because of the experience. Like with voting, I've come to realize that it's not so much the result as the getting there that counts. My one vote probably isn't going to change any election in which it's cast but that doesn't matter. It's important because it's mine and I'm going to exercise it and be a part of that great, wider process. A process that would then include me. I'll remember the result, I'm sure, although I'll probably never be able to tell if I made any difference. But what I'll forget are what really matters. Those sunny days and cloudy afternoons where I was out in the world and being a part of it all. The experiences that I had along the way.

Some were funny. Some were rewarding. Some were scary. And others I just plain don't know what to make of them. Like the black men who said to me that they were voting for McCain with a straight face and holding on to the joke just a little too long. Or the elderly man with the raspy throat who looked around and told me that his area was all going for McCain even as his daughter stood behind him, pointed to herself, and mouthed “Obama”. And don't even get me started on the crazy Ron Paul supporters and their conspiracy theories while I nodded along patiently. For every dog snarling at me and straining at the fence or at its chain, there was someone who told me they weren't sure what to do but they were now leaning away from McCain. For every bigot and door slammed in my face there was that elderly person who needed a ride or that young voter who needed information about their polling place.

In the end, I think, it all balances out. And it doesn't mean much. But it meant something to me. And the secret is that I hadn't realized just how important that was.

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