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.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Dispatches from Youngstown: Part One

I. I touched down in the Cincinnati airport late yesterday afternoon and was immediately seized by an amaranthine sense of yearning. To be so close, yet so far, from Kentucky. Learning, several minutes later, that the Cincinnati airport actually is in Kentucky was only the first of what I expect will be several days of humbling lessons.

Opportunities to be humbled abound in Youngstown, Ohio, where I’ll be spending the next several days canvassing and cajoling for the Obama for America campaign. The hub of the Mahoning Valley, an overwhelmingly Democratic region with little cause for optimism, Youngstown has weathered over thirty years of stagnation since the decline of the steel industry in the 1970s. Youngstown seemingly captures the political imagination every four years, only to be forgotten by the next wave of economic development and innovation. On 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen included a searing portrait, simply titled “Youngstown”, of a city and economy left behind:

Seven hundred tons of metal a day
Now sir you tell me the world's changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name

Thirteen years later, progress remains slow and expectations are muted. All is not despair; last summer, John Edwards praised “Youngstown 2010”, the city’s plan to crack down on blight through organized shrinkage, and the establishment of a downtown tech-job district, as “visionary”. But as America once again casts opportunistic eyes on Youngstown, Youngstown glances back suspiciously. Driving past the dark storefronts, missing street signs, and sagging traffic lights of Belmont Avenue, you come to understand how sympathy is ultimately as cheap as neglect. In a widely-referenced New York Times feature, Youngstown’s Downtown Director of Events and Special Projects, Phil Kidd, charges, “The problem is that this is a rubber-stamp Democratic area so they know it’s almost a guarantee they’re going to get our vote. We just have to hope that this time whoever wins won’t forget about us.”

As of the article’s publication (February 26), Kidd was said to be “leaning toward” Obama. Kidd is an interesting lens through which to view the Obama campaign. The creator of the “Defend Youngstown” t-shirt, featuring a towering steelworker swinging a hammer, Kidd has taken on the tenuous challenge of bringing not only visibility but respect back to the city. Kidd is also using the internet to further visibility’s too-often neglected cousin, transparency. His blog details exactly how his days are spent advancing downtown revitalization, and include - perhaps tellingly, perhaps not - a summary of his meetings with campaign to finalize the location of Obama’s headquarters.

What Kidd may or may not see in Obama is idle speculation, but I do feel obligated to explain why I’m here, and why now. As Michael Jones wryly reminded, (and as I acknowledged in a pre-emptive announcement last week), my dating life was not absent from consideration. Guilt has played a role as well: I was plenty unhappy about how my own state’s primary played out, and realized I’d done little to change it besides a few arguments held in the safety of friends. Once I decided to get involved, the choice of Youngstown was both symbolic and strategic. This is probably the toughest battleground in the crucial Ohio primary. Obama’s message of hope finds a receptive audience in the favorable acoustics of San Francisco Bay; here in the Mahoning Valley, skepticism is plainspoken and arises of necessity.

But hope is also vital in Youngstown. Despite the working-class hero iconography of the “Defend Youngstown” movement, the steel heyday of the mid-20th century will not return in its original form, nor will the jobs shipped oversees magically reappear. This is, perhaps, the essence of the Obama pledge. In his “Blueprint for Change”, Obama declares, “I don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights we had in the Nineties.” The dark side of this looking so firmly forward is the tacit acknowledgment that many of those fights have been lost, as have many in the new century. I’m not naïve enough to think Obama can succeed in fixing Iraq. I’m hopeful that Obama has the judgment not to lead us into an even deadlier entanglement in Iran. Likewise, foundries and sheet works are not going to erase the economic ravages of the past 30 years, some of which can be attributed to NAFTA and some to the simple vagaries of commodity and manufacturing markets. Instead, the hope is that Obama will have the foresight not to sign another NAFTA, and use government to catalyze, not stifle, innovation in building, transportation, and energy, creating both assembly-line and work-station jobs in the process. In both cases, the hope rests more on Obama’s intelligence, demonstrated prescience, and lifetime of working for the little guy than any sweeping legislative or diplomatic triumphs.

II. Neither complex economic issues or lofty rhetoric, however, have much bearing on the immediate challenges of Sunday, March 2: increasing the chances that both committed and likely Obama voters actually make it to the polls Monday and Tuesday (early voting is an option, and many of the voters I met today plan to take advantage). Logistical traps are rampant, and canvassing is more about filling in these gaps than changing people’s minds. For an elderly voter reliant on a walker, or someone without internet and television, a free ride to the polls or confirming the location of the county board of elections is the difference, not a new slant on the issues.

After an orientation lasting no longer than necessary, I set out to canvass in the suburbs just south of Highway 80. Obama’s gospel of participation is the main orthodoxy: there is no need to burden yourself with excess preparation, just hit the road and go. My canvassing partner is a nice middle-aged lady from western Pennsylvania, just 20 minutes east of Youngstown. She drives – you guessed it – a Prius, though it is gunmetal gray as opposed to the ubiquitous silver or burgundy models seen in San Francisco. It seems like a discreet nod to the location, but that’s probably reading way too much into it. Still, I can’t help but shudder, recalling how Hillary champion Tom Buffenbarger, president of the Machinists Union, denounced Obama supporters as “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies”. Coffee is served black at headquarters, and thankfully it’s too cold to be tempted by impractical footwear. Two out of three ain’t bad, right?

I started this trip with castle-storming ambitions to, as Michael put it, “struggle against the Forces of Darkness in the Battleground for The New Tomorrow.” Minutes after leaving headquarters to begin canvassing at an address 5.3 miles away, I’m ready to settle for just finding the damn place. Detours, indistinct maps, and most of all the aforementioned missing street signs make navigation a royal pain in the ass, and frustration is only overcome by the image, rife with symbolic possibilities, of the wayward Prius adrift in suburban Youngstown.

If the snow pack and basement cinder blocks, both showing several inches aboveground, aren’t enough of clue that Northern California is far away in every sense of the word, there are red-on-white signs, seemingly every third house, proclaiming “Keep 9/11 In Liberty.” I’m not going to argue this is good or bad. It is, however, ineffably different.

My partner is reticent to attempt to drive up on the frozen roadside, leaving nowhere to park but driveways. Hence, she drives almost from house to house, in obscene hiccups of motion, and we brave unplowed lawns and ring doorbells, usually to no avail. Live greetings are few enough to remember verbatim:

Fiftyish man: “Sorry, I’m a Republican.” But you can vote in this primary too! As Rush Limbaugh is reminding his remaining listeners in his effort to game the system by getting them to vote for Hillary in Ohio. On Friday, Fox News, alas, lacked the forbearance to give this latest stunt of an Oxycontin-addicted icon of both literal and metaphorical deafness fewer than the requisite fifteen minutes of coverage.

Fiftyish man, walking dog: “I guess it’s between Hillary and Obama for me. Well, I think he’s inexperienced. He’s not what this country needs right now. But thanks for your effort! It’s what makes this country great!” If I were in familiar territory, I would be certain he was mocking, not enthusing. Today, who knows. But it does make me wonder: What does this country need right now? More fear-mongering and tough-guy posturing? More compromise and obligations to lobbyists? More rhetorical questions? Always.

Fiftyish man, smoking a cigarette indoors. “Hell yeah, Obama!...I’ve been for him since the beginning…Can you put a sign in my yard?” In my experience, those who persist in smoking indoors tend to be individualists, and rarely decline to state allegiances. For good or evil is anyone’s guess at first glance.

Seventyish man: “I’ve picked my guy. But I like ‘em all!” That was a popular sentiment six months ago. These days, in my crowd, it’s Panglossian naivete at its finest. Unless you’re kidding, which is just too close to call anymore.

After a couple of hours, my partner decides to call it a day and return to Pennsylvania. However, I’m quickly absorbed by three students from the University of Pittsburgh. Our beat for the afternoon is a retread of a cluster of tenements closer to the industrial heart of the city. Almost all of the residents who were reached the first time around were Obama supporters; we are visiting the places where no one answered the door the first time around. In stark contrast to the suburbs, almost every knock is answered, and for a long stretch, the voters here are as overwhelmingly female as the suburban ones were male. At several addresses, painfully polite children intermediate between us and wary mothers or grandmothers.

Besides tallying who supports whom and offering rides, information, and toll-free numbers, we have door hangers and glossy leaflets to give away. I offer one to a man staggering across the road, who replies, “Thanks, man, I got boo-coup of those!” A little further down, a boy and girl, no more than five, ask what we’re selling. My partner, clearly more at ease with the very young, exclaims “Why, sweetheart, we’re not selling anything. These are yours to keep. But show them to your mommy and daddy.” Are we selling something after all, though? Emphatic no. On second thought, it’s too soon to say.

In some buildings, apartments are accessible only from inside, and we’re let in with remarkable ease. The Obama pin seems like a good-luck charm here; we’re saved many cases of fruitless knocking by good neighbors who let us know not only who’s sick or who’s out, but who’s likely to need a ride and what her phone number is. As we give out the last of our materials, someone asks for a pin like the one I’m wearing. Upon finding out we don’t have any to give away, she asks me the best rhetorical question of the day: “You’re spending a million bucks a day, and you don’t have a pin for me?” I step forward and remove mine. “It’s yours. But only if you recruit all your undecided friends.” Something tells me that won’t be too difficult. Then, we knock on another door, and another small boy intermediates between us and his mother upstairs. She is voting early, tomorrow. And would she mind letting us no for whom? The reply comes direct: “That’s none of your damn business.” Fair enough.

We return to canvassing headquarters again, having completed the full route this time. The gas station where we stop to refuel has an Obama sign in the window, making this particular gratuity to OPEC slightly more palatable, and some of the cheapest cigarettes I’ve ever seen. The lunch table has been restocked, and a crowd every bit diverse enough for a pamphlet cover trades war stories over fried chicken and spaghetti.

After a couple of hours of phone-banking and a round of Nerf football to unwind, I catch a ride back to my host family. Looking up Youngstown on Wikipedia, I learn that its most famous natives include a host of American icons: Catherine Bach, who played Daisy Duke. Ed O’Neill, better known as Al Bundy. Chris Columbus, who wrote “The Goonies” before producing “Home Alone" and numerous other, less distinguished films. And, as one of my favorite Warren Zevon songs tells us, boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, a lightweight champion whose epic, 14-round battle with Duk Koo Kim assumed tragic proportions when Kim died five days later of brain injuries.

Whether silly or sobering, these icons are each firmly rooted in an increasingly distant past. To suggest that the resulting void in iconography could be filled by the resolute, granite-steady face of Obama himself, however, would be forgetting a lesson all too recently learned. I’m here, with hundreds and thousands of others, in the belief that Youngstown itself can assume a new place in American iconography, that this embattled, depressed, and impossibly hopeful city will come to symbolize the reclamation of not only its own destiny but that of a nation.