12 November 2004

A few weeks ago, I got lost in the Hamptons.  The Hamptons are cold this time of year: the wind whips through the elms from the ocean, sick with winter.  I was there videotaping a film festival, and the sidewalks were grey and lousy with the superrich.

On the way home through Mid or East Hampton (I forget which), I stopped off at a corner restaurant for a cup of coffee and an overpriced omelette.  When I left the restaurant, I had lost all sense of which way was East, which way was West, which way was Out Of.   Boutiques and suspiciously quaint storefronts sprawled in every direction.

I pulled over and stepped onto the sidewalk.  A woman was ambling up the street.  There was something vaguely off-putting about her—giant Gucci sunglasses framed her leathery face, an imperious black wrap was thrown around her tiny shoulders, and her heels clacked ominously--but I thought to myself: she’s a local.  I strolled to her:

“Excuse Me—“

“Oh, no,” she warned.  “Don’t Do That.” 

I turned and watched her walk under my nose.  Following her, I pleaded,  “But I was wondering—do you know how to—“

“I have enough problems of my own—“ she insisted, still walking.

“But I just want to get to Route 27—“

“I’m sorry, no.”  Then, almost as an afterthought, with her back toward me, she threw her right arm outward, finger jabbing.  “That way.”  She marched on.

Baffled, I walked around to the driver’s side of my dented, rusty, lower-middle class vehicle.  I turned my key in the door.  I Don’t Belong Here…

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry.”  The woman was now standing twenty feet away, looking at me.  “I thought you were—a soliciter.”  Her sunglasses were still on, but her voice was rounder, more New York.

“Do I look that bad?”  I asked.  I was conscious of not having shaved.

She ignored the question, and proceeded, “It was the paper cup.  I thought you were…”

“That’s just my morning coffee.”  I smiled, raising it as though proposing a toast to mornings and coffee.

She remained unmoved.  “Are you going 27 East or 27 West?”  West, I replied.  “Go down Main Street , and keep going until you reach the Mobil.  Then take a left.”

Thank you/I’m sorry/That’s okay, have a nice day we both said to each other, one of us peeved and bemused, the other lost in some private world of wealth and sorrow.

A week later, from Saturday, October 30th to Wednesday, November 3rd, I volunteered to help with the final, massive get-out-the-vote effort of the Kerry/Edwards campaign.    I wiped the dust off the Howard Dean and John Kerry bumper stickers on the back of my beat-up pickup truck and I headed up northwest.

Give me rural Pennsylvania over the Hamptons any day.  It was great.  Pennsylvania has a crumbling beauty to it, like an old mahogany table left out in the rain.   I took a detour through the Poconos, where the trees were bright and dark and resplendent.  I saw huge black roosters running wild in people’s driveways.  I stopped in at a place called the Chat & Chew in a decrepit, pothole-laced strip mall on Route 115.  It was ten in the morning, and the waitress was dressed like a wicked witch.

I went to Wilkes-Barre because I knew I could stay with my great aunt Lillian Munley.  Lil is a short, 80-year-old woman who quilts and gossips on the phone while trying to get her hearing aid to work.   She will stare at you with huge, icy blue eyes and wag her crooked little index finger and say things like: “U.: Be, Your, Own, Doctor”  And “U.: I, Hope, This, Kerry, Wins, It.” She lives alone, and keeps her huge two-story house in Swoyersville spotless.

Making my way between towns, I got hopelessly lost several times over, and enjoyed it immensely (hills like chocolate and beer, leaves running red like you’ve never seen).  I ended up meeting Ned McGinley on West River Street in Wilkes-Barre, just off the Susquehanna.   Ned is a short, compact, seventy-year old fightin’ Irish troublemaker with a shock of white hair and a solid row of porcelain teeth.  (You get to see those teeth a lot if you spend any time with him.)  Within five minutes, Ned had given me his instructions and scurried off with his grandson in tow, and I was out canvassing alone. 

Canvassing is putting on a Kerry/Edwards button, tossing a bag on your shoulder, shoving a thick stack of printouts into a clipboard, and walking around bothering strangers in their homes.   You’re trying to cover a map of the neighborhood with people’s names listed by street number (odd up one end, even down the other).   The first rule of canvassing is to keep walking.   Every time you approach a door, you quickly check the first names on the printout: “Hi, are you Deborah?”  “Hi, are you Melvin?” (At one point early on I got flustered and asked a middle-aged woman if her name was Victor.  She laughed.  I took her name, and kept walking.) 

The second rule is to not be too worried about people disliking you.  You develop a patter: “I’m turning out the vote for Kerry and Edwards.”  “Do you know where your polling place is?  It’s the Marts Center.  Over on Franklin just off of Ross.”  “Good luck to all of us!”  Before you ring the doorbell, you take a breath, and tell yourself, I can do this.  Then you push the worn-down button, give your pen a few nervous clicks, and meet someone new.

The worst I got was at one bungalow where a couple was arguing inside.  As soon as the door swung open a giant bearded man took one glance at me and moaned, “Aw, get the fuck out of here!”  SLAM.   Otherwise, it was a lovely small town tour.  At a house a half mile down the road, I woke a young woman up from her nap. “Temeka,” I pleaded, “The weather’s beautiful outside.  Why not take a walk and help swing it to Kerry?”  She smiled sleepily and said she would.  My favorite was the short, weatherbeaten man who wasn’t even on my list, but whose dark, quiet eyes told me he had lived in his townhouse since before I was born.  “Kerry…” he said with a hard glance before he closed the door.  “He’s a good man.”

I chewed my steak at Hottle’s restaurant the night before the election. On the wall was a garish mural of the sports heroes of Lehigh valley: some golfers, Notre Dame, the Boston Red Sox, and oddly enough, the New York Giants.  Ned put his beer down and pointed his fork at me. “I have a good feeling about this one,” he said.  I couldn’t disagree.  I was in the heart of small town America, and all around me people were grumbling when the word “Republican” was mentioned.   That, and the Redskins had lost on Sunday—always a good sign for the challenger.

It was gloriously sunny all day Tuesday.  I walked up and down the streets, and heard people quietly mutter, “Kerry Edwards!” to me as I walked by.  The sun sparkled on the sidewalks, and Ned and I got 62 infrequent Democratic voters to get out and vote.  I even convinced one woman to hobble to the polling place on crutches.  (By the middle of the day, they had had the largest turnout there since 1968.)   The Republican who was camped outside the polling place in a placard-bedecked SUV left early, in a huff.

At 6:30 p.m., I checked the final exit polls on my palm phone.  Sure enough, Kerry was ahead by solid margins everywhere: 2 points in Florida, 2 points in Ohio, six points in Pennsylvania.  The energy in Pennsylvania was being duplicated in swing states across the country, the reports said.  We all started to call our friends back home.   It was really happening. 

When I got back to my aunt Lillian’s house, she fixed me a kielbasi sandwich with horseradish on rye, and some pieroga.  As I wolfed down my meal,  Lil said she was going to stay up late and watch the coverage.  She flipped on Fox News, and there was Brit Hume clutching his reading glasses, fixing his hooded gaze on America, with blood red graphics that made a swooshing sound boiling underneath him.  Exhausted, I turned from that image and went to bed.

That night, lying in my late great-grandmother’s bed, I dreamed of the America that ordinary people dream of.  Somewhere through the darkness floated the sound of Mozart’s Magic Flute: my cellphone.  I wondered who it was.

When I got out of bed, I went downstairs check my messages.   It was Audrey first: “Lancelot, it’s one in the morning and I’m freaking out.  Call me.”  Then You: “Hey doll, it’s two in the morning.  I’m going to go to sleep and hope for better news tomorrow.”  Lil walked into the kitchen: her eyes were watery and tired.  She looked old.

I had awoken to a parallel universe where Bush had won.

I entered Staten Island a few hours later with advil, coffee cups and change for the tolls littering my front seat.  I picked up fifty cents and handed it to the toll booth operator, a fat, bald little man with quick, efficient hands and rubber surgeon’s gloves.  He waved me on my way, but as I accelerated out of the booth I distinctly heard his voice, small but clear:

“Hah, Hah!”

For my birthday, You surprised me with a pink New Orleans t-shirt, a couple of tickets to New Orleans, and an informal gathering at a New Orleans-themed bar with Alaska, Grace, Not A Retard, Bob, and Sally.