Door to door for Obama
Many of my friends had worked for Obama for weeks or months, leaving me feeling a little guilty. I also remembered how bad the day after the elections of 2000 and 2004 had felt, so decided to spend Election Day doing what I could for Obama.
Unfortunately when I called on November 3rd to volunteer I was told that they'd love to have me volunteer... as a door-to-door canvasser. That's what I'd been avoiding for weeks. Explaining that I hate canvassing didn't get me any sympathy.
I hate talking to strangers, and I did more than my share of door-knocking as a Catholic school student selling candy bars and raffle tickets. I'd like to be done with that. But canvassers were needed, so at 9:30 a.m. I picked up my button and print-outs of names and addresses.
Four years ago both Joanne and I canvassed for John Kerry as part of the MoveOn.org effort, so I pretty much knew the drill. We had sheets that showed potential Obama sympathizers and our job was to encourage them to vote. The sheets had check boxes to mark whether they'd already voted, moved, or were not supporters.
This looked familiar, but the Obama campaign was far better organized. There were checkboxes for Pass 1, Pass 2 and Pass 3, meaning that we'd go back again and again over the course of the day until and unless we talked with someone and could mark "Already voted." After each pass we turned in our checked sheets. Those who'd voted, moved, etc. were deleted so that the next round of canvassers didn't go to those houses.
Canvassing, Pass 1, 9:30 a.m.
Dave, a young guy from Cleveland Heights, and I had a section south of Lorain between W. 41st and Fulton Avenue. As with most of the Cleveland's Near West Side, the area's houses show its diversity. A cluster of new homes that sold for $200,000 sit across the street from run-down, boarded up cottages.
At some of the homes it was impossible to tell whether the residents were gone for the day or gone permanently. Where we did find people at home, most greeted us with enthusiasm and told us they'd already voted.
The highlight of this pass was the house where four adults and a couple of kids were hoping that I was the cable guy, but invited me in to talk about how they planned to vote for Obama once this more pressing need was taken care of. I kept this house on the list, pretty sure that they'd need another reminder to vote later in the day. I sure hope they got to the polls, but wouldn't bet on it.
Canvassing, Pass 2, 1 p.m.
This time I was part of a little Rainbow Coalition of five black and white, young and old canvassers. We drove to Lakeview Terrace, a public housing complex at the north end of West 25th Street where white faces are usually few and far between. We split into groups of two and three to tackle our lists of names identified by apartment addresses.
The buildings have steel exterior doors with no window, buzzer or bell. About half were locked, so we moved to the next one until we hit an unlocked door. Inside, narrow stairways led to clusters of four apartment doors, all painted institutional green. Most had a number stenciled on the door, so when we found one on our list we knocked.
If there was a response at all it usually led to a conversation about voting for Obama shouted through the door. Occasionally someone opened the door. Most had voted already, and many wore the "I voted" sticker handed out at the polling place.
I've been to Lakeview on other occasions for other reasons, and as a white person I haven't encountered much anger or hostility but suspicion, for sure. Today our Obama buttons felt like magic talismans that granted us immediate kinship with the people sitting on porches and walking the streets. On this sunny afternoon we were among friends.
Canvassing, Pass 3, 4 p.m.
Duck Island, a tiny Cleveland neighborhood hidden below the Lorain-Carnegie bridge, was where I was sent on my third and final canvassing assignment.
Because time was running out—the polls would close in about three hours—we went individually, not in teams. I had 40-50 addresses to visit.
Right away the magic effect of my Obama pin seemed to disappear. The people standing outside were mostly white, and I couldn't judge from their expressions whether they were friendly or not. The fact that my pin didn't say Obama (something I didn't notice until today) kept my identity something of a mystery until I announced it.
As I walked down West 19th, hand-painted McCain Palin signs on several houses gave the impression that I wasn't in friendly territory. A block or two back, the guys standing behind makeshift yard sale tables on the corner had given me the same message after I cheerfully told them I was with the Obama campaign.
No one made any threats or said anything terribly untoward, yet I felt acutely alone and vulnerable in this enclave of white McCain supporters. A couple of teens riding by on bikes chanted something about Obama that I couldn't be sure was supportive or mocking. I had a brief flash of what it must feel like to be a minority standing up among an unfriendly crowd.
I was very happy that my return trip up this dead-end street took a turn onto Freeman and not past the yard sales guys again. A few blocks away the mood turned more neutral, sometimes favorable, and led to my strongest memory.
Blow up your stereotype
I try not to be prejudiced, but the group of young African Americans dressed in dark hoodies standing in front of the small house made me hope that it wasn't an address on my list. But of course it was.
As I got closer three of the young men headed for a car while the other remained in front of the house. When the first group passed they asked if I'd voted for Obama, so I knew I was good with them. All of a sudden they didn't seem nearly as scarey. My conversation with the man leaning on the fence hammered home just how wrong my stereotypes had been.
His small house looked shabby. Old toys littered the yard, and loud music came from inside. But as I talked with the man whose name I sadly have forgotten, he proudly told me that he and his wife? girlfriend? had already voted. He emphasized that he'd taken his nine-year-old son along to the voting place so that he could learn what it was like, and added that while we were talking the boy was inside writing a report his experience.
Wow. Talk about a civics lesson. Hearing this man's story made my whole day worthwhile. It gave me hope that maybe we Americans can learn again to work together, to mend the social fabric (as Bruce Springsteen said) that's been left tattered by the past two administrations.
After a rocky start my last round of canvassing left me feeling good again. I'd had several great conversations once I got out of the small McCain fortress.
Heading toward the last address on my list the sunset was warmly glowing behind the West Side Market.
I didn't allow myself to believe that Obama had won until John McCain came on TV and conceded the election at 11 p.m.
I'm not the first to say this, but I believe that if McCain had been as sincere and gracious during the campaign as he was in this speech, the election would have been much closer:
"Senator Obama and I have had, and argued, our differences, and he has prevailed... Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans."
Watch McCain's full speech here.
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