As Tuesday, November 4, 2008, turned into Wednesday the 5th, some 1.5 million active volunteers for Barack Obama’s campaign went utterly bananas celebrating a staggering victory that, mere months prior, had seemed all but impossible. I, in their midst, contemplated the landslide factor and felt my exuberance tempered by doubt as to whether my contribution had actually mattered.
In the weeks leading up to the election, I found myself at the apogee of engagement in my as-yet rather diminutive existence as a civically minded individual. I started making campaign donations I couldn’t really afford. I acquired a t-shirt with a Lichtenstein-esque depiction of Barack’s face and a silhouette to suit the millennial generation; when I couldn’t carry off my idea to wear it to work every day, I settled, disgustingly, for wearing it to work out every day. I spent approximately three hours joining every relevant Facebook group I could find, and approximately seven Photoshopping my profile picture to make it look like my candidate and I were high-fiving. I even did some real things. I phonebanked, and recruited friends to take it up, too. I went on a day trip to canvass in New Hampshire, beyond the liberalism that reigns supreme in Boston. I may have started to alienate my parents as I attempted to browbeat them out of complacent pessimism about our home state of North Carolina, suddenly up for grabs. And I took a stab at some organizing of my own, orchestrating small-scale canvassing caravans to New Hampshire and taking it upon myself to find alternative engagement opportunities for anyone in need.
On October 28, my Election Night plans fell through.
At that point in my frenzy, this felt like a catastrophe tantamount to having my prom date come down with mono one week before the event and one week after I’d tongue-kissed him for the first time.
The plans had been to watch with Anoop, a friend I’d made on the New Hampshire trip two Saturdays prior. But at a Divali party on the 28th – my first, his three zillionth, presumably – he informed that he’d cancelled his get-together.
“I’m sorry, Dude,” he said, forking a piece of curried chicken.
“That sucks.” My whining was in jest, but not really. Even though we were only up to our second face-to-face encounter, I had already grown to like him, not least because of his egalitarian application of “dude.” Moreover, the prospect of watching the polls close whilst reposing in a friendship sprung from political activism had seemed thrillingly apropos, and I was vexed to be denied that.
“No, listen – I’m going to Ohio instead, with some guys from college,” he said. “To do voter protection and stuff.” By the copious Divali candlelight, he looked generally prophetic and, with his shaved head, specifically Ghandian. “We’re leaving on Sunday. You should come.”
I tried to sulk; I really did. But my gift for multi-tasking only goes so far, and I quickly gave myself over to the all-consuming task of trying to get drunk enough to have a go at Bhangra dancing but not so drunk I’d let my hair catch fire.
Later, while shrugging into his coat, Anoop re-raised the issue.
I found myself reconsidering. He and his friends from Brown (whose names and number were immediately lost in the wine-soaked, Bhangra-shaken abyss of my mind) were apparently all blowing off their respective professional degree programs to make the trip. It would be far less exacting for me to rearrange my woefully few hours as a research assistant, I realized.
Historically, my character has proved to contain a kernel of impulsiveness that should generally not be encouraged. I knew that agreeing to join Anoop and his comrades, though, would embody a different kind of impulsiveness. It would not be the kind that is motivated by, say, alighting on the perfect remedy for a Friday night that would otherwise be spent driving around my hillbilly southern hometown. Rather, it would be the kind that is motivated by the coincidence of alighting on the perfect remedy for the world and of realizing that you should have started yesterday. I listened to Anoop wax recklessly civic about the insignificance of the lectures he would miss vis-à-vis the import of his projected impact. And I knew suddenly that I would go along, as when, while waiting in line for a formidable roller coaster, I have heard the attendant hawking an empty seat in the front car and then felt my hand rising into the air.
I am just as aware as the next guy that madcap political activism is only fun until someone loses an eye, and so I took the responsible next steps. I called my father to fill him in, and to bask in the choked-upness befitting a parent who himself was suspended from college for political protest but has since shaved his beard and acquired a vacation home. I sent exhaustive emails to those in Boston who I guessed might care if I were to be abducted by radical McCain supporters or, more realistically, smothered by a pile of campaign buttons. And come November 2, as dusk settled over New York City, I was in the backseat of a rented Dodge something-or-other, listening as Anoop and his college buddy, Vijay, co-navigated away from the Dollar garage in Times Square, through the post-marathon brouhaha and toward the uncharted – by us – waters otherwise known as Middle America.
Over the next three days, Vijay would be missing classes from New York University’s MBA program. Anoop, for his part, would be skipping out on his second year at Tufts University School of Medicine. The as-yet faceless Abhas, a fourth-year at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, was allegedly unable to get away from New York on Sunday but would join us by plane on Monday evening. And we would be received and put to work by their fourth crony, Sachin, who’d been managing a field office in Cleveland for some six weeks, having taken a leave from his third year at the Yale School of – what else? – Medicine.
Despite Vijay’s inconveniently deviant choice of professional programs, I had clung to my private joke that the movie version of our trip would be entitled “National Lampoon’s Rachel and Several Indian Medical Students.” As we passed out of New Jersey, I shared this morsel with Anoop and Vijay and was rewarded with their laughter. But – alas – when we stopped soon thereafter to avail ourselves of the facilities at a White Castle somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, my working title was voted down in favor of “Rachel and Kumars Go to Ohio.”
As we emerged from the White Castle and crossed the parking lot, we espied a sport utility vehicle boasting a gun rack and a McCain/Palin sticker. We were tickled pink.
Up until then, swaddled in the true-blue citizenries of Boston and New York City, our ardor had rarely led us to anything more constructive than vociferous expressions of agreement at cocktail parties. But we were changing that. No longer would we squander our passion and talents on others of our own political ilk.
While in New Hampshire, Anoop and I had learned that if each of a few thousand volunteers convinced one new person to vote for Obama, we could overturn the margin by which Al Gore had lost the state in 2000. Shoring this up thereabouts, Sachin’s initial trip-triggering email – Subject: “drop everything” – had entreated his friends to join him in the electorally pivotal city of Cleveland. And that night, as we barreled toward the Buckeye State, a fusion of these messages became our motivation. At any given moment, we could be delivering the political proselytizing that would turn the one vote that would turn the one county that would turn the state of Ohio. And you know what they say, we reminded each other telepathically, as Ohio goes… Even telepathically, we didn’t need to finish the sentence. Already the landscape was changing, morphing into the proverbial political target with the taunting red bull’s-eye we’d been dreaming of, and we couldn’t have been happier. We were going to make a difference.
Back on the road, our little steel compartment found a rhythm so steady we might’ve been a stationary unit on I-81, past which the Pennsylvanian townships flashed at a steady velocity of negative 75 miles per hour, and faster when Anoop wanted to pull ahead of a tractor trailer.
We decided to call Sachin for a speakerphone briefing on what we might be doing the next day. By the time his words reached the backseat, they were too garbled for me to make out, but he sounded knowledgeable, and preoccupied, and kind of bossy.
“He’s in rare form,” Vijay said, when we hung up.
Anoop concurred. “I asked him what he does there all day, and he was like, ‘I can’t possibly explain it to you.’”
“That means he’s drinking tequila.”
They laughed and, exhilarated by whatever it was that their friend had imparted, called for the topical “This American Life” podcasts that I had downloaded for the trip. We were silent for most of an hour, listening to a story of erstwhile Hillary Clinton supporters campaigning in Pennsylvania on behalf of John McCain. It was sobering.
As the program ended, Ira Glass’s valediction still ringing in our ears, Anoop’s phone rang.
“It’s Nigel!” He pushed the appropriate button and held the gadget to his ear. “What’s up, Dude? Are you coming out here or what?”
Their friend Nigel (yet another proto- or peri- or post-medical student) had been nearly but not quite convinced to join our group, it seemed. From the sounds of it, Anoop was making no progress, and so I demanded a turn.
“OK, hi, I know we don’t know each other, but why don’t you just get on a plane – you’re in California, right? – and come out here? It’ll be great. You’ll be sorry if you don’t. What if you don’t and Barack loses? Then you’ll really be sorry. Seriously. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” I paused to draw a breath.
But he wouldn’t be swayed. On top of whatever school-related work he had to contend with, he was hell-bent on remaining in California to battle a passage of Proposition 8.
“Nigel.” I tried to reason with him, because he sure sounded fun on the phone, and because there’s no such thing as too many Indian medical students. “Do you really think that your being there is going to make a differe…?” Then I stopped myself, for what assumption – delusional or otherwise – was he operating under that I was not? I passed the phone back to Anoop.
At nearly 3 a.m., we pulled up to the accommodations arranged for us through the volunteer coordination effort, the Shaker Heights home of a family named Warner. Sachin, having just closed up shop for the night, met us in the driveway to hug his friends and issue instructions for the morrow.
“I’ll be in the office at six or so, but you guys should get some rest,” he said. I understood that he had scarcely slept since moving out to Ohio; in light of that, his astronomical energy level felt rather inauspicious. “Can you be in by nine?”
We agreed, tiptoed through the back door – which Sandy Warner, already long asleep, had promised to leave unlocked – and fumbled our way through the darkened, strange house to fall into our designated beds. On the other side of the wall, I could hear Anoop hacking and coughing piteously, remnants of the terrible cold he’d been nursing and that I was hoping against hope to not catch. Then I was asleep.
The next two days were a blur.
Sachin’s operation was run out of a defunct restaurant-cum-Jazz club, formerly known as Gookies, the use of which had been donated to the campaign by the owners. Scarcely a 15-minute drive from where we had slept, it might have been on another planet. The Warner family residence, a gracefully aging brick mini-manse, was set in a quiet neighborhood of underground power lines and deep, verdant lawns. But the short drive to Gookies was accompanied by a scrolling landscape of rapid socioeconomic deterioration. The terminal scene displayed vandalized industrial buildings set in a neighborhood of fallen power lines and deep, shard-strewn parking lots. If I squinted, it almost looked sepia-toned.
The interior of Gookies buzzed with a bevy of volunteers from as near as down the street and as far as Atlanta, some fresh from college and some more than thrice that old. Virtually all were African-American. Between them and my flock of Kumars, I was looking out onto a sea of brown faces, the likes of which I don’t often find in Boston’s Back Bay, around the corner from Tom Brady and across the Public Garden from John Kerry.
Upstairs, Sachin was sequestered in a makeshift command center. He carried two cell phones and was perpetually on one or the other, taking and issuing orders alternately, or sometimes simultaneously. He, I eventually gathered, had effectively been charged with ensuring that a vote was cast by every single registered Obama supporter in half of Cleveland’s Ward 6 and all of Ward 7.
For the better part of November 3, we were sent out to do canvassing of one sort or another. Door-hangers, the glossy rectangles of cardstock featuring our hero’s and his running mate’s likenesses and detailed Election Day information, came in packets of 80 or so, which were in turn paired with lists of target addresses. In some cases, the doorknob at each of the addresses was to be festooned, no knocking or talking necessary. In others, the object was to speak with residents and note their voting status, only leaving a door-hanger when the knock went unanswered.
The houses we visited were varying degrees of dilapidated and often featured boarded-up windows, or sat on lawns littered with life’s cast-offs, or both. Infrequent were the ones without dead-bolted iron security doors. In the hours past noon, many were occupied only by serious-eyed children, who dutifully but unconvincingly intoned the stock latchkey claim that their parents were momentarily engaged.
Late in the afternoon, it started to rain. I was dismayed, for though I’d checked the Cleveland weather and known to pack a raincoat, I’d forgotten to retrieve it from the car before Vijay took off for his next assignment. On the other hand, Anoop had handed me an official campaign poncho before we’d parted ways an hour before, but I had no desire to don it. The aversion wasn’t due only to remnants of my twelve-year-old self’s conviction that ponchos are at the pinnacle of all that is idiotic in the world. I also felt, somehow, that my effort to serve my country would be that much more authentic if wrapped in a little physical discomfort. When I’d last seen him, Vijay had been wearing tapered jeans in what I surmised was the wash du jour and a pair of shoes that vaguely resembled blue leather moccasins, but with more ornamental stitching and less functionality. As I splashed onward, I wondered how his outfit was holding up.
My phone rang. Anoop.
“You should come back soon,” he said. We’d been canvassing together in a neighborhood immediately abutting the Gookies property but had decided to split up in the interest of efficiency. “Are you almost done?”
“Not really.” There were still pages of unvisited addresses left in my packet.
“OK, well…someone just told me that they saw a white woman going around alone. They said I should go find her, because it’s getting dark.”
“I’ll be fine.”
At the next house on my list, the front porch harbored a gaggle of young men. Their raucous group tenor immediately elevated Anoop’s warning to real-life proportions.
“Hey, hey, Sweetheart,” one of them called when I paused at the end of the walkway. “Whatchu doin’? You busy? You wanna get busy?”
I smiled nervously, feigning nonchalance at his words.
“Just wanted to remind everyone to get out to the polls tomorrow,” I said. I tried to ignore what the rain was doing to my shirt’s cling quotient. “Are y’all planning to vote?”
In a disorderly chorus, they assured me that they already had.
“Great, then!” Forced buoyancy. “Make sure you spread the word!”
“Why don’t you come up here? I’d like to spread your word…” The self-appointed spokesman emitted what Gene Wilder once called a yummy sound and licked his lips suggestively. I issued a polite wave and hurried away.
Forty-five minutes later, I was as wet as I’ve ever been by means other than submersion, and my teeth were chattering. Trudging back to Gookies, I re-discovered the plastic poncho, still folded and dry at the bottom of my bag. The wish for physical discomfort had been fulfilled; a little sexual harassment couldn’t have hurt me on the authenticity front, either, I reasoned.
I spent the next several hours trying to make myself useful in indoor-type ways, recruiting poll protectors, facilitating training sessions, arbitrating disputes over the life-sized Obama cutout. In stolen moments, I tried to dry my shirt and socks in the Gookies microwave. I hoped the other volunteers couldn’t tell that I wasn’t wearing anything under my raincoat.
As we dispatched a posse to seek and destroy unlawful voter suppression paraphernalia, the phantom Abhas showed up, toting a rolling valise and looking thoroughly unflustered. Diving right in, he seized scissors and a sheet of stickers and took a seat beside me.
“I’m tired,” he said, carving a strip of circular decals from the rectangular ones.
I opened my mouth to rib him about his exacting flight from New York but was cut off by Anoop asking how the marathon had gone.
“Not too badly,” Abhas said. “Just over three forty-seven.” I shut up.
November 4 dawned sunny and beautiful, and a little chaotic.
Our pre-dawn arrival at Gookies found me not demoted from the mid-level administrative standing I’d achieved the night before, and I took a childlike pride in being assigned the same campaign phone and number. I spent the day running, literally, from task to task: trying to connect my recruited poll protectors with their assigned sites; fielding and inputting turnout data; joining Abhas for a final canvassing sweep through a neighborhood whose gang presence warranted a police escort. In early afternoon, I fetched a cup of coffee for a young volunteer named Ben. He wore dark circles under his eyes and an air of self-satisfaction, both due to his having driven to New Jersey to vote and then straight back to campaign.
During a momentary lull, I tried what I do in other situations of uncertainty, asking myself, what, in this moment, do I truly believe the outcome will be? It sometimes works, in cases of white-knuckle UNC basketball games or when I wonder on my way home whether I have any sauerkraut left. This time, though, I came up with nothing. In light of the Bush-Kerry letdown four years prior, coupled with some of the GOP chicanery I’d seen evidenced in the last two days, I could only fathom that the bad guys would win. In light of my enduring conviction in the power and promise of the people and those who inspire them, coupled with some indoctrination by Hollywood, it seemed fated that the good guys would prevail.
On the drive out, Anoop, Vijay and I had flirted with the issue. Vijay had seemed to be of the “victory is certain, and nigh” school of motivation. In contrast, Anoop and I shared an unwillingness to tempt fate by forecasting anything other than defeat.
Recalling this, I ventured to ask Sachin, who’d just ended a phone call and was moving to his next, how he imagined things would end.
He didn’t stop dialing. “I really have no idea,” he said. “I don’t let myself think about it.”
By 5 p.m. or so, when I swallowed, the feeling in the upper region of my throat had me patting gingerly fingertips to my lymph nodes and wondering darkly how long it takes Scarlet Fever to engender blindness. I knew that by morning, what I was feeling would be a ferocious, full-grown spawn of Anoop’s cold, but it still felt like the most righteous infection of my life. I’d acquired it through textbook means, spending untold hours in an enclosed space with the carrier, before depriving myself of sleep and fluids, eating poorly and, imminently, getting drunk. Moreover, no matter the outcome of the election, it had all been for as noble an end as I could imagine.
“You can probably stop now,” Sachin said, indicating the list of voters I’d been telephoning for a little last-ditch badgering. He started to disassemble his printer and consolidate documents for shredding. There wasn’t much of anything to do but wait. So several Indian medical students and I headed to our hotel room, which we’d rented in preparation for extreme drunkenness of either the celebratory or despondent variety. We drank from a 12-pack of Heineken and argued over which channel to watch.
Lying awake on the night before our trip, rendered insomniac by anticipation, I had visualized us watching the election returns three days hence. Our suspense, I’d imagined, would be like an enormous balloon, growing in size and tension until at last it burst, showering my compatriots and me with either O-shaped confetti and the sweet taste of victory or cold sewage and a quadrennial cleanup job.
Instead, my experience was one in which the balloon had grown moderately inflated but then, around the time that New Hampshire and Pennsylvania were called for Obama, sprang a slow leak. Thereafter, each additional state called only served to stem the proverbial inflow of helium, sometimes enlarging the leaking hole, too. And CNN’s inadvertent announcement that it would be statistically impossible for John McCain to win, made around 9 or so, signified the drained balloon’s pathetic, sighing collapse. As we inhaled a supper of bar food at a nearby watering hole, we heard the official declaration of Obama’s victory, and we screamed and hugged and threw our cheese fries at each other with jubilation. But by then, our celebration felt to me a bit like retrieving the deflated imaginary balloon from the floor, ripping it wide open, and flinging the confetti into the air ourselves. The sweet taste of victory, as evanescent a balloon filler as there ever was, had already slipped under the door and spiraled upward into the cold Midwestern night.
We finished our various fried concoctions and headed for the victory party at a hotel down the block. Sachin, newly liberated, was ready to chitchat about his med school rotations, his college major, his high school swim team; the others seemed primed to go victory streaking. But I was unsettled. Three hundred and sixty-five to 173 votes made for no small margin; moreover, at no point during the returns had it ever seemed close, not really. Had it mattered that we were there?
Had it made a difference that Anoop had fallen behind in hematology, or that Abhas had exceeded a prudent post-marathon activity level, or that Vijay’s blue pseudo-moccasins were ruined in the rain? Would Ben have more efficiently served the world if he’d just stayed in New Jersey instead of driving back to Ohio? He would have sent that much less pollution into the environment and could have used the saved hours to mentor a kid, or at least pet a lonely dog. Several hours before, I’d have relegated the environment, kid and dog, all, to a back burner and dedicated the resources to electing someone who would fix them. Now it seemed that Barack Obama would’ve been just fine without Ben, whereas I was willing to bet that the other three could still use the help.
Philosopher Eubulides of Melitus’ heap paradox presents us with a heap of sand and the premise that with one grain removed, it is still a heap, n’est-ce pas? The work I’d done abruptly seemed, likewise, wholly nonessential to Barack’s heap of electoral votes. My incipient cold lost its righteousness; contracted gratuitously, it was just a stupid cold.
I didn’t have long to brood, though, for then we were at the Sheraton, being propelled into a ballroom fairly bursting with hundreds of Obama volunteers from all over Cleveland and elsewhere in Cuyahoga County, and they were all toasting and crying and cheering. And then I was embracing everyone: tiny, spunky Josie from Chicago, whose photo I’d have picked to accompany my theoretical dictionary definition of “wizened”; enormous Faith from our own Ward 7, whose relative youth, rich baritone, and free talk of wig shopping left me disinclined to attribute her prolific hirsutism to menopause; the total stranger whose elbow I jostled and whom I quickly stopped apologizing to and began hugging and laughing with and posing for pictures beside.
The nature of the electoral college system can create the illusion of a heap larger than the one that truly exists: what is approximately 52 percent of the total votes can (and did, in this case) translate into nearly 68 percent of the votes that we see and hold significant. Furthermore, in re his heap of sand, Eubulides goes on to inquire after what point, as grains are individually removed, the heap becomes a non-heap. In our ballroom of flashing cameras and shouted congratulations, this point was easily discernible. The space was oddly shaped and so packed that our little quintet could only move from place to place in a snaking train formation, Springsteen concert-style. Even then, we kept losing each other. But with just ten or 20 or maybe 30 fewer occupants, it would have felt considerably less crowded. With 50 fewer, it could have passed for a lively Republican fundraiser with exceptional ethnic diversity.
But my recovered self-worth ran deeper than that. In hindsight, I know that if I hadn’t taken my volunteer efforts as far as I could, no one would have. I don’t mean this literally, of course; even I, as a writer of memoir, am not that megalomaniacal. Rather, I mean it figuratively, karmically, invoking what I’ll call “the royal ‘I.’” It’s better expressed in negative terms: if I had chosen not to help, I’d have to assume that anyone else might have done likewise; from there, I’d have to face the very real possibility of no one choosing to help.
The drive back wasn’t pleasant, per se. Anoop slept for a good portion of the trip, leaving me alone with Vijay, Abhas and their shared affinity for misogynistic knock-knock jokes. I was forced to wait way too long to retrieve my snack bag from the trunk. And every time I went rummaging for something in my purse, I got stabbed in the hand by a wayward campaign button. But it was peaceful, and we had the new administration to look forward to, and ourselves to thank for it.