I am a little pent-up. Okay, pent-up is a not quite it. I’m a wreck. I go to sleep thinking about votes flipping in West Virginia, I wake up worrying about vote caging in Ohio. During the day I seethe over early voting suppression tactics in the early-voting states. I walk around fuming about robocalls that say Obama has “close ties” to “terrorists” and the anti-Obama “He’s Not Who You Think He Is” mailers that McCain apparently thinks are so great. And I toss and turn fretting over the people who believe the calls and the sleazy e-mails and the Rovian whisper campaigns, and the paperless voting machines. And that thing has returned, that knot that feels like a small boulder in my upper back. So I was looking forward to my trip.
My sixteen-year-old son and I, along with a friend and her son, drove to Nevada this past weekend in hopes of helping out the Obama campaign. Yes, I opted for the four-hour drive to Las Vegas over phone-banking from the privacy of my living room. I hate phone-banking. I know it’s supposed to work, but I just can’t do it. I’ve done it before and it makes me want to crawl in a hole. I mean, I hate getting political phone calls, they make me feel surly, so why should I be the source of someone else’s annoyance? So we made what ended up being a six hour drive (rush hour), arriving at our destination late Friday night.
We reported Saturday morning to the field office, got our marching orders and instructions, and headed to the car, clutching three packets containing pamphlets, a list of names, and a neighborhood map. Heavily armed with sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses. Or at least some of us were. In case I forgot we were traveling with teenagers.
“Honey, do you need any sunscreen?”
“I put some on earlier.”
“Did you put on enough?”
“I’m good, Mom.”
“Do you have a hat?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
“Edison, you need a hat. It’s really hot.”
“Nah, I’m good.”
“Sweetie, then at least put on my sunglasses. It’s really bright.”
“Nah, I’m good.”
We started off all energized and hopped-up. Expecting to come head to head with fence-sitters and people eager to hear about how they can vote early, which was our main directive. Only to meet dead-end after dead-end. Large, run-down apartment complexes displaying large “No Tresspassing” signs, with their own lipsticked pitbulls guarding the front desks. We knew the Obama supporters were in there, according to our list. All we needed to do was to let them know about early voting, and encourage them to avail themselves of the opportunity. But apparently many of them work all night and sleep during the day, and we couldn’t get past the suspicious gatekeepers.
At one building, three women in shorts and tank tops sat out on the front stoop, smoking. Apparently everyone smokes in Las Vegas. I asked them, “Any of you registered to vote?” and received a proud, “Nope!” in response. And some sneering and chuckling when we said we were with the Obama Campaign.
At another building five men were hanging out on a second floor balcony, and when we couldn’t get in that building, we asked if they were planning on voting. Laughter ensued. “D’ya think my vote is really going to count?” said one. Then we told them we were here on behalf of Obama’s campaign for change. “Ooh, you could get shot saying that name in this neighborhood.” More laughter. Our boys looked a little nervous. We proceeded to our next street.
Throughout the day, we ran into people who, if they voted at all, seem to have willfully been voting against their own best interests for the past eight years. And the contrast to our fairly comfortable lives was stark. We’re a paycheck-to-paycheck family, most of the time, on the edges of the creative middle class. We live in an ethnically-mixed mid-city urban neighborhood in Los Angeles, which is no way resembles Mayberry. My kids have never been driven in a mini-van to organized activities, and they often venture out by foot, bike, and bus to get around town. But even with that modicum of exposure, I realized how sheltered they really are. I felt like a shiny-scrubbed suburban Pollyanna out there on those scabby Las Vegas streets, giving my child the grand tour of hopelessness.
It may have been the first time my son has seen people who live in trailer parks. I use the term “trailer parks” loosely; the hot, treeless junk-filled lot with a scattering of derelict trailers was actually down on our list as the “Palm Court Apartments.” But we went ahead and started knocking on screen doors, and finally one was answered by a friendly, chatty gal who was watching the Sci-fi channel with her dog. She was very happy to hear about early voting, and in fact needed a ride to the polls. “That McCain, he’s not gonna do anything for the elderly.” We put her name and number down for a ride. One small victory.
After talking to a group of men in a transitional housing complex, and a brief encounter with a woman who could have stepped straight out of a Dorthea Lange Depression-era photo, my son said, “Does Obama’s Heath Plan include dental coverage?” This was apparently his first face-to-face encounter with toothless people. Poor, white people who may be about the same age as his mother, who were missing a few teeth. After a long morning of canvassing in a particularly bleak neighborhood, I turned to my son and suggested that if he was still having any thoughts about not going to college, he might want to rethink that plan.
I know my son was stunned by some of the apathy we ran up against. But aside from the hope that we were helping the efforts of the campaign in some small way, I hope he took away a bit more from the trip. I guess he probably has a better understanding about the whole lot of people out there living in poverty. I'm hoping that flossing will take on a newfound importance. And mostly I hope that he’ll realize what a luxury it is to have books in the house. To have a house, even with no books. But books, and a computer. A backyard with a few trees. Free time. Good food. Parents who nag you to organize your schoolwork and go to your math study group. All luxuries. And I’m thankful that I have the luxury to fret over a Presidential election.