Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Trick Or Treat
Halloween, coming as it does, just before Election Day, makes for a strange contrast between the political process and a belief in legends and myths, a love of history and gothic horror stories, and the fetishistic attraction of (or personal desire to become) a superhero-in-uniform or a classically-costumed, Sacher-Masoch/de Sade-type, Neo-Pavolvian pervert. (The latter seem to be seen only at private parties, with the exception of a few renowned public displays in urban celebrations, especially the televised ones.)
All the masks with their attendant attire (fangs come with the cape; flag lapel-pins are optional), all the formulaic speeches (“I vant to sssuck your bluhd!”, “I’m gonna shake up Washington!”, etc.), all the public posturing (any group in KISS makeup will be certain to have Gene Simmons with his tongue out further than a dog on a hot August day at every stop; and the other?—eh, kissing a baby is pretty standard for the genre…)—in the end, you have to realize, if you are not out actively seeking to fill a shopping bag full of candy, you’ve gone over the line into fantasy.
So, is play-acting for adults a bad thing? No, not unless you hold the same expectations of thrill and exotic adventure for the morning after as you did the night before. Some would call it Sorcery, others delusional—and both would be right, in at least one sense of these terms.
Having canvassed the length and breadth of Bucks County, Pennsylvania every weekend since Labor Day (+/-), I can admit I have been under such a spell. My only visable identity is a t-shirt and a button but it is nonetheless my alter ego (as the old comics used to call it). The magic comes from Faith, the drug of Confidence, followed shortly by a chaser of confirmations by your immediate charmed circle. The “delusional” aspect is what replaces the “high” of participation: the loss of intoxicating support and creeping self-doubt.
Last weekend being the last weekend, it is a good time to look back without too much reflection on the whole (that will be later, when editing the video diary), and just summarizing the summit of this foray into madness. With mi espousa in tow for the final bow, we lit out for the territories: that being anywhere not one of the Five Boroughs. It was not that I wouldn’t have liked to do something closer to home, but home—while it may be where the heart is—ain’t where the votes are.
Dolyestown, however, is. The HQ from which I was first dispatched, and could actually walk to from the motel, was in a small, white-painted, two-story, wood-frame building opposite the courthouse, right at the crossroads of local arteries. (And, yeah, its address tells a lot: 72 Main Street. Why not “Elm” or “Front” or “State”? Because those were other streets, yup.) At one time, this was the nexus, the nerve center, but still folksy and casual. I could remember one Sunday, sitting on the front stoop with a couple of other regulars and Davy, the staff member who looked like the ultimate surfer dude, who lamented the fact that there was only one busload of volunteers that day. Since then, the operation had to open up one satellite office in the back of a Buckingham strip mall.
By the time we got in on Saturday, however, there was even one at the Hampton Inn, wherein I had to find accommodations after my regular motel was booked. The volunteers were such that, upon arrival, we were told that all the Walker Packets (Google maps and voter rolls) had already been given out and were summarily dispatched to Quakertown, up at the Northern boundary of the county, a half-hour’s drive away. In a two-car caravan (us with the locals, a VW Jetta filled with five sorority sisters from upstate NY following close behind), we snaked up the narrow 2-way blacktop through traffic that our driver described as something close to mind-boggling. By arrival, we counted ourselves fortunate that there were any packets undistributed. My only familiar contact was that my buddy Gene was also stationed there, and I at least got to say hello one last time before we shipped out.
Overlooking the last paragraph, I note how the Ghost-&-Ghoul holiday theme has overlapped into the military. This was inevitable; from the ground level, this is exactly how it looks. Never having been in the army, but knowing enough of the whole philosophy behind training and tactics, I understand this is what is meant by “doing Service”. This is what is also meant by a “campaign”. I am a footsoldier and we are, in contempo terms, the boots-on-the-ground.
The particular ground we’d drawn were three subdivisions, not all that different in character from those on my youth back in suburban Cleveland and Detroit. It’s usually easy to determine whether this was recently-sold farm acreage or not by whether the land across the road still has corn on it or not. This one was new enough, though, one where the model homes have names like Concord, Belvedere, Bay View, Newport and Bella Vista. (Do these actually mean anything?) It was the way the middle one began petering out that belied the waving banners and few balloons and the whole showroom atmosphere. Out at the fringes, it was little more than gravel pits and mounds as cement road curves around leveled lots overgrown with weeds before a line of trees; you could also note landscapers’ earth-moving equipment betraying signs of rust and a couple of empty contractor’s trailers. (Slight aside here, for a comment from my pal Gene, a lifelong construction guy with a small outfit of his own up in the Bronx. When we came across a similar situation, earlier in our travels, he’d noted how this was the first effect of the credit crunch. “These guys have already gone bust. As soon as they couldn’t get loans, that’s right when the hammer’s stopped, right there. Reminds me of some pals of mine back in the ‘70s. Same thing happened to them—they hocked everything to get the seed capital and lost it all in bankruptcy.” Whether or not Gene was right about that one, his words sure looked prophetic here; one empty shell was in progress—perhaps as a demonstrations of materials used, as if someone could be reassured by pine 2x4s and particle board—over by the models but looked as if it had been rained on more than once.)
Even under gray skies, it was about as merry a trot as could be got. At this late stage, everything is narrowed down to just supporters, seeing if they knew where their local voting place was (even though the office wasn’t yet equipped to tell us where that was) and hanging door tags (with a number to call) if they weren’t at home. And being as it was also the day after all the little spooks and princesses and parental units (probably on cellphones while doing separate escort duty), when you DID find someone at home, they were like as not to offer you some of their leftovers: Butterfingers, Reeses, Nestles’ Crrunch and even Quaker Oats Chewy Granola Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip bars. (Talk about a sweet deal!)
As if that weren’t enough to make any Baby Boomer nostalgic, seeing these freshly-laid-out tracts—some with sod having taken root after a second year, in swards flowing from one section’s backyard into the other’s without any of the wire fences which will most assuredly later blight the area as it always does when people feel the need to stake out their territory—was a Wayback Machine in itself. (For that cultural reference, please Google “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show” and go from there.) You want to talk childhood touchstones? Nothing quite matches the freedom of seeing you have an adjacent subdivision on your map and, instead of doing the proper thing of walking down to the end of gate drive and up into the next one, you simply and gleefully TRESPASS ON THE GRASS, walking IN BETWEEN THE HOUSES without a care in the world! (It is difficult to describe this sensation to those who have never really seen a world without fences. I will only refer one to the song “This Land Is your Land” by Woody Guthrie and ask that you pay particular attention to the last stanza, the one later excised from all school renditions of it.) Later in the march, I had even given up walking only on the paths up to people’s front doors and began CROSSING LAWNS! Strangely liberating, that.
So, with our jobs all done by late afternoon, our driver took us back to the hotel, his wife Claire pointing to a deserted gas station, remarking how she didn’t know why it popped into her head, but was sure that it was remembered from her girlhood as a place where Jack Kennedy stopped on his 1960 run for the White House. (And seeing as how it had an old Irish diner next door re-enforced that conclusion. Someday I would like to post that picture here, if I can find it because, heaven help me, I think I might remember it too, in one of those mind’s-eye, Hollywood/TV overlaps with grainy B&W newsreel footage) There then came the sudden realization that this was part of a story that had begun long before I’d entered it, as candidate after candidate, election after election crisscrosses Pennsylvania, searching for supporters. And more, was, in actuality, just another bit of dialogue exchange in the conversation that is the American political process.
By Sunday, I’d figured the score and just gone down to the office in the hotel after complimentary breakfast, picked up a new driver and packets, and we were on the road with Allan by 10:30. Another ex-New Yorker, now retired to the rolling hills, he takes his orders from the GPS and regales us with more tales of the trail to here, and such exurban shenanigans as the rash of lawn-sign thefts (later confirmed by the above, as who would fork over a fiver to one side just to make such a negative statement?) and the way the opposition will place theirs in front of ours at key intersections of the main routes. He was glad as any to have a job to do for the big effort, offering to squire us to any location and pick-up for lunch or dinner; whatever it took. This is yet another example of unstinting generosity, the character of everyone met on the Long March; courteous and giving and frequently as solicitous of one’s feelings as long-standing intimates, if not moreso (familiarity breeding contempt, or casual incivility).
As luck would have it, for the first time I was actually in a neighborhood I had come to know. Instead of being driven to remote locations to either jog along county roads, with neither shoulder nor verge beyond a drainage ditch, or up and down the aforesaid planned communities, I was in the heart of Doylestown proper. Starting off just off Font Hill Road and the forest adjacent to the cemetery ridge and the estate of the local 19th Century magnate named Mercer--so paranoid about fire that he had every place he owned encased in concrete--you were immediately put on notice that this was Olde Schuyool. The first wooden porch, with the plaque stating the house was built in 1903, makes you stop for a second. The next one was from 1912. Then you look across the long approach to the manor and all of a sudden the weight of place, the density of history--as if from a Charles Ives composition, or Currier and Ives print, or Thornton Wilder or Booth Tarkington--you get this rush like a breeze from Time's vast and eternal ocean. Not a great wind, no, but a chill nonetheless, the feeling that, again, this is part of a process you see at only a few occasions in your lifetime.
So, as I've just cast my ballot, it seems like as good a time to end this post as any.
It was, of course, Obama that got to me. Charismatic leaders don’t come along very often, and rarely ever make it as far as this guy. Does that mean I'm still high on my drug of choice? Perhaps. But it is just as likely that I might have learned the trick of the treat.
See, Superstition is a funny thing; it makes you susceptible to omens, portents, signs and a belief in divination from such ephemeral things as polls. Standing in the shadow of a gothic mansion that could have been the inspiration for Collinswood Manor, you can see the theater of the real as well. The media is window dressing, stage settings, props: I am, you are, we are, all in the play, the grand pageant, the passing parade. Shakespeare said "There are no small roles; only small actors," and he was right. Even if you only trod the boards for one night every year, as who you truly want to be, that's not a bad thing. And if you only get who you want to play the lead every generation or so, that's not bad either. Just get out there, speak your lines clearly and in a loud voice, don't bump into the furniture and exit quickly.
Now I want some Thanksgiving. And a Christmas present. After the polls close.