Monday, March 03, 2008

Dispatches from Youngstown: Part Two

One day in, I wake up just in time to take a shower, dress respectably, and scramble downstairs to meet my ride to canvassing HQ, and in a quiet moment on the way over reflect how quickly we assimilate to routine. I've been in Youngstown less than 36 hours, and it's already another day on the job. This is a good thing; outsized expectations and lofty ideals have a tendency to put undue pressure on what should be the simple task of crossing names off a list. If it sounds unromantic, it is, and that's for the best. You have to forget, to sail away from your illusions, before, as Crosby, Stills, and Nash put it, "you understand now why you came this way."

My canvassing partner today is John, a retired high school math teacher who began his career in Youngstown in 1960. Our beat is a ramshackle stretch of South Youngstown, almost entirely black, some two miles south of HQ. It's sunny and mild, and while a welcome relief, this seems to underscore the omnipresent decay. John warns me in a tone that is grandfatherly yet ominous that we will see numerous houses boarded up, or simply abandoned; many properties are worth less now than they were twenty years ago - not adjusted for inflation. Looking at the street names - Glenwood, Park Cliff, Fairmount, Ravenwood - you could be anywhere in any city in America. The WASP street name aesthetic is alive and well, belying a squalid and essentially segregated reality.

After an opening stretch where almost no one answers the door, we find fertile ground away from the main road. People open their doors
with justified suspicion at first, but tend to warm up when we say who we're with. John reminds me to hold up my door hangers prominently so that the image of Obama is the first impression. When given a few seconds of goodwill past our opening pitch, we urge the more passionate-sounding voters to come by and help out tomorrow. John points out, time after time, "This kid came out here from California to work on this campaign!" It's an effective line and seems to engender genuine appreciation. Underneath, it feels more like a luxury than a sacrifice.

An hour or so into our route, we see a car pulling into a driveway, towing another, almost identical one close behind it. This seems like a moving enough parable of humanity, until the driver's eye catches ours, and she steps out and welcomes us onto the front porch. She is thirty-something, determined, and voting early, and giving rides to her extended family. She takes enough flyers and stickers for all, and enthuses, "Regardless of who'll be elected, I'm just so proud to be a part of this century, where a black man and a woman have a chance to be president." She trembles, and adds, "I'm sorry, this is just really touching me", before bursting into tears.

The glow of the interaction lasts well into lunch and is not interrupted until we resume canvassing on Glenwood Avenue, even sides this time. A middle-aged black man answers the first door with a shaking head, then announces with discernible glee, "Obama? You've come to the wrong place. I'm voting for the blonde!" John asks wearily if anyone else in the family might be for Obama, and the man replies "Not in this house!" as the door closes emphatically. This exchange should provide plenty of material for problematic race and gender themes, but for me, the lesson is this: the true battle is always against whomever we perceive as the uncool parent.

During the longer stretches between assigned houses, John fills me in on how much the area has changed since his first classroom forty-eight years ago. Dollars are tough to standardize in your mind, but there is nothing ambiguous about this statistic: Youngstown's population has declined from a peak of 185,000 to fewer than 85,000 today. A high environmental cost preceded the economic and psychic toll of the steel decline; the Mahoning River once had an average temperature of 107 degrees along the stretch of steam mills that powered Youngstown's industrial heyday, and the water was reputed to be the most polluted in the United States. It is one of countless mistakes we hope that progress will not cause to be repeated, another exhibit of evidence for reinvention, not restoration.

Nearing the end of our route, we approach the first white man we've seen all day as he steps into his car. He wastes no words. "Democrats, I assume? Well, there's only one issue for me: abortion. You've pushed a lot of Catholics out of the Democratic party!" He backs out of the driveway as we tiptoe around patches of rapidly melting slush, and drives off, shooting us a look of accusation as if to suggest John and I were personally responsible for the political disapora of the believers.

I return to canvassing HQ happy to have finished a route from pages 1 through 15, and head for the tables. I'm beginning to feel like a part of the family now, but reveal my vestigial Northern Californian diffidence when I search furtively for a plastic knife. A kindly older woman asks what I'm looking for, and laughs at my sheepish admission. "Honey, you eat chicken with your fingers!" Evidently, that was all I needed to hear.

By this point, the collective din in the hall makes phone banking next to impossible for me, and a few tortured, half-understood live interactions convince me there must be some other way to contribute. This spurs me to catch a ride a few minutes away to the local Obama HQ downtown, a bustling, white-lit, modest space reminiscent of the all-night computer lab where I wrote two dozen or so of my more desperate college papers. There was usually a great sense of accomplishment which I later realized was actually relief.

After a few minutes of helplessness, I start coloring in the letters of a "Honk If You're Voting For Obama!" poster, joining Jessica, a young, blonde mother of two who looks barely more than twenty, and Elaine, a middle-aged lady whose voice makes everything sound like a lullabye and whose utopian vision for the country makes Obama himself seem downright cynical. Elaine announces that "God is good! I got tomorrow off work!", and given the swiftly closing window before the polls open and the ground force enters its most concerted and crucial push, I nod feverishly in agreement.

Once settled in, any resemblance to my collegiate haunts quickly gives way to an overwhelming sense that I'm back in the first grade. Now as then, there aren't enough Magic Markers to go around, and the seemingly bottomless black one is in high demand. I press my marker tip flat against the paper and fill in the blank spaces with firm, parallel strokes, trying to cover the most paper with the least ink. Our supervisor praises the resulting poster as a "work of art!", and her teacherly tone transports me once more to the first grade.

And for the first time since, I find myself genuinely believing anyone can grow up to be President.


Anonymous Moses said...

Good on ya, Gabe.

7:41 PM  

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