Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Dispatch from the Front Lines

"The Magical Mystery Tour
Is dying to take you away
Take you away,
Take you today"

[the following unsolicited report was received at HQ 16:06 8-7-12]

So, Saturday we took off for Philadelphia to do voter registration. I just got tired of watching things go bad on MS-NBC; you can only sit at home and scream at the TV for so long.

The transpo was arranged by the party here; the idea was to send a couple of buses down to lend some support to the effort in PA, especially with respect to the suppression efforts of their legislature…plus have an interstate birthday celebray for the Prez. I got recruited through NYC For Change, nice guy named Dale who I met in the lobby of the DemoHQ building on 8th and 36th, and brought along the Elf, figuring that the buzz would do her some good. Bad day to go crosstown by cab; the Park Avenue shutdown made everything from Central Park to 14th turn to sludge. By the time we ran there from the N, in my khakis and polo, I was pouring so much sweat it was dripping off me in splats. Fortunately, I had brought a change of shorts and campaign t-shirt and got to do the Clark Kent in the men’s room. Smartest thing I did all day.

On the ride down, just off the turnpike, I got my first glimpse of what it’s like in a big city outside of Manhattan. See, we don’t have any extra room in this city for gypsy encampments anymore (last one’s being the L.E.S. back in the ‘80s), but I know one when I see one. And I did—tents and lean-tos and canopies strung under some trees. I mean, I don’t have anything against them, but wow—you forget what “poverty” looks like on the other side of the river. Then, you get to see the rest of the Schuykill river, and it really feels like about 100 years ago: boating clubs with private manors, mansions, even a waterway management system looks as if it came from the 1876 Centennial, to resemble Ostia Antica in Rome.

When we finally got into the city, it was only the Northwest quadrant, I think, because that’s where our bus was sent to the duty. We were to stay on to stop 2, about 23 of us going deep into the heart of East Germantown. Don’t let the name fool you; ain’t been no sauerbraten in a while, dig? This is a place for Popeye’s, hair & nail salons, used furniture shops, liquor stores, storefront churches and mosques. When we got into the office at 7171 Ogontz—a former Subway sandwich franchise between a Nuevo-soul food store and a Pentecostal called The Church of Broken Pieces—we were told our area was one no canvassers had been at all. In all: we were Gus, an older guy with something of a Greek accent; Ernestine and Lisa, both church-lady types but Lisa more prone to quoting scripture to win over reluctant prospects; and Steve, our local group leader who drove his van over—young guy with impeccable diction, possibly of Hindu extraction. As he handed out our walker-packets, Steve explained that we were going into an area where a lot of houses were either abandoned or boarded-up, but as we were working in pairs, that shouldn’t be a cause for concern. And we were to exchange cell numbers. And stay hydrated.

Our route was up N. Sydenham and down N. 15th Street, actually the area between a park called Wakefield and the Cristo Rey High School and Widner Memorial School. All the houses were similar: two-story, wood-frame jobs built on slope rises so every lawn was miniscule and nearly vertical.

On the way over we passed a lot of park cook-outs and BBQ’s, which had Gus fairly chomping at the bit, saying we should forget the routes and just grab whatever we could there. It turned out he was probably right; no one answered any of our doorknocks until the tenth or so, and only about one-in-eight after that. But whenever we found someone at home, they were invariably courteous and over half also filled out “commitment cards”—meaning, they had promised to vote for our guy, and would receive these self-addressed reminders in the mail as November 6th neared. It got to the point where we felt comfortable enough to approach gangs of teenagers I would hesitate to pass in NYC and soon got cards from the one’s with valid IDs, and gave registration forms for those who didn’t. On at least three occasions, I made small talk to avoid looking at the giant spliff twists behind their ears as supporters cheered on our efforts. And probably were just as shocked by the novelty of seeing a middle-aged white man on the turf.

As we gathered to return—all our routes finished by six with enthusiasm running high, everyone so pumped by the effort—Steve agreed with Gus and pulled up to try one block party raid. Our last stop was Glenifer Street, between N. 18th and N. 19th. Like all the other throw-downs we’d passed on our trip in, it looked about as legal as those kid’s blunts: two cars parked nose-to-nose on one end with some caution yellow tape strung bumper-to-bumper. The slight rise to the sunset was a classic curbside happening: card tables and plastic chairs, few umbrellas and, in the center, two of those inflatable bounce rooms where the tweeners piled up their shoes and sandals outside to jump up and down to the funk pouring out of speaker stands. The beauty of it all was truly shooting fish in a barrel; no need to check off the voter rolls, just wade into a table, apologize for disturbing the festivities and ask 1) if everyone was registered to vote, 2) do they all have valid photo IDs, and 3) would they like to fill out a card? We were averaging 3-to-4 per stop, people putting down their fried chicken and ribs, plastic plates of potato salad and mac’n’cheese, licking fingers clean to take a clipboard. “Hey! You want a beer?” asks the table hostess.

Couldn't be friendlier. Felt absolutley no compunction about climbing up to someone's porch where a lady giving out hair-weaves stops long enough to make sure we get three cards. Point is: we were both anonymous and accepted, getting smiles that were both acknowledgements and dismissions. Someone would toast you with their Hennessy and then go back to their conversation.

It was only towards the end of the street when this lean guy in jeans and white wife-beater, sporting a friar's fringe and three-day stubble, comes down to interrrupt my sales pitch. "Get the hell out of here! This is OUR party! We don't want none of that stuff..." etc. Goes so far as to put his arms around our shoulders, shepherding both me and the Elf up the hill. When I point out that our car is in the other direction, he releases us and says, "Fine, now get yo' asses out of here!", following us all the way down and out like a picket escort destroyer. (When everybody else gets back to the van, a few minutes later, Steve says he spoke to the actual block captain and cooled things out, saying he was just the resident malcontent.)

Back at the ranch, there's another festive fete entirely. Cardboard cut-outs of the Man with red, white and blue leis and a party hat, right beside his big cake embossed with a photo of him in shades getting onto an airplane, which just might be mistaken for a pre-goatee Malcolm X. The feed here is basically not all that different from the fare on Glenifer: foil tubs of meatballs in tomato sauce, spaghetti, red beans and rice, curried chicken and jerk chicken and chunks of fresh fruit and salad on the side. As we set to chow down, I take a moment to notice our co-workers: church ladies, retirees, vets--the people whom give the word "community" a sense of home. But, as the bus had arrived for the return trip it had to be a rather rushed chorus of the obligatory "most hated song in the world" before the Barak stand-in, and a slice of cake to-go.

How much was accomplished? The tally that was texted our team captain on the journey was significant in that our 60 people managed to get 58 new voters signed up and something like 1,118 cards filled in.

I am the walrus...koo-koo-ka-jube...

No comments: