Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My worst week ever - Part 2

Herewith, part 2 of an experiment in longer form writing. If you need to catch the beginning of the story of my Worst Week ever, you can read part 1 here.

I’ve never thought of it this way before, but I should also have seen coming the second calamity to befall my worst week ever. That September, my English teacher asked if anyone wanted to volunteer on a presidential campaign. She knew the Pittsburgh campaign manager for (dahnt-dunt-dah!) Michael Dukakis, and they were recruiting volunteers. I and the rest of my classmates sat staring blankly until she continued that anyone who volunteered would get out of school early on Tuesdays until election day. Sign me up! I’m a - what’s it? - Democrat!

My house was kind of an apolitical zone. My parents considered whom they voted for a private matter, even from their own children. I never knew who my parents supported in any election, and despite asking point blank, never was told for whom they’d voted. We didn’t sit around chewing over policy issues or arguing positions either. The political scene simply didn’t permeate the walls of our house. This is the kind of background one needs in order to volunteer to campaign for one of the least successful presidential candidates of the 20th century.

For a few months of Tuesdays leading up to the election, I’d leave school in the afternoon and go down to campaign headquarters for a few hours. They put me to work stuffing mailings, combing through lists and manning the reception desk. When I think about it now, it served as a great introduction to how offices work and how to behave in that environment. Beyond that, though, I can't claim that the experience sparked a political awakening. I never got really clear on Dukakis's platform and had trouble defending him or my work on his campaign to my knowledgeable Republican friend. When election day neared, the campaign asked if I’d want to go door-to-door for Dukakis to get out the vote. That sounded like a whole day off school, so I signed up.

Election day fell, of course, on the Tuesday of my Worst Week Ever. When I reported to the campaign office, they paired me up with another high school student, Jennifer Brick from Wall, Pennsylvania. No joke. I now know that Wall is a community in the formerly industrial Monongahela Valley southeast of Pittsburgh. At the time, I thought this cuteish, professional-looking blond had made up her name and her city. Probably, I entertained notions that fate had brought my jilted self together with a fellow political crusader at just the right time. All in all, though, I’d have to say (apologies!) that she was just another Brick in the Wall.

A window onto why Dukakis and Bentsen did not sweep into office in 1988: the local organizers sent two kids from the suburbs to door-knock in public housing in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. On a very chilly morning, we went in and out of three-story public housing complexes knocking on apartment doors and saying “Victory ‘88, Dukakis Bentsen”. Because mostly, we knocked, said that and stood there looking at closed doors, the rest of our script remains hazy in my memory. I think we encouraged people to vote, informed them of their polling place and offered to arrange a ride if they needed it. We likely also had talking points about how Michael Dukakis was going to lead this country into a brand new day. Mostly, what we were selling, they weren’t buying.

With Salvation Army officers as parents, I interacted regularly with poor people. Pickups in the church van were a staple of Sunday mornings - driving around town picking up those who could not easily get to church. By 15, I possessed a keen awareness that the less fortunate are all around and among us. There lies a great void, however, between honking the horn at the curb in front of someone’s subsidized apartment and going inside. In fact, when one of my assigned doors opened on election day, I stood facing a woman from our congregation. It made sense that someone with her persistent health problems, slight mental illness and low IQ might live in public housing, but I’d never contemplated where she went after church. She did not vote for Dukakis or anyone else in the 1988 election. At other doors, we heard children’s voices and no adult voices. Good for them that they didn’t open the door, not even for our hopeful message of Victory.

Aside from coming face to face with people in poverty, I also remember the relentlessness of walking outside in the cold between entryways and then into a blast of unregulated heat. The stairways were so hot that in many places, people had opened the windows. While too much heat beats too little, the wasteful extreme of it seemed like another indignity heaped upon this group of potential voters. The alternation of fire and ice made Jennifer and me physically miserable, which only harmonized with the spirit-sapping effects of of our fellow citizens’ persistent indifference.

When we’d canvassed our entire assigned area, we returned to the polling place at which we’d been dropped off and awaited our ride back to campaign headquarters. And awaited and awaited and awaited. A second window into the failure of the Dukakis campaign: when they had two sharp tack political operatives like J. Brick and me on their hands, they left us stranded at the meeting place for an hour in the middle of the day. When they finally did get us back - cold-sweating and hungry - to the campaign office, they fed us something and sent us back out to introduce more citizens to the coming Victory.

As you know, the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket took nine states and the District of Columbia. They barely squeaked out Massachusetts, Dukakis’s home state. All my hard work down the drain.

When your girlfriend dumps you to start the week and then your presidential candidate flames out that badly on Tuesday, one would think the only direction the week could go is up. But one might be wrong. I did have a nice weekend event to look forward to, and there was some clothes shopping to do. Marshall’s, here we come!


Lauren Jackson said...

Never knew about all this early political activism. Way to go!

Azure said...

I love this new longer format! It's a good way to balance out the haikus.