I thought he came in peace -- perhaps to pop in with an olive branch, or an office-warming gift to welcome us to Langhorne, PA. His long mustache pointed down towards his chest to emphasize the words Michael Moore is a Big Fat Idiot, screaming off his T-shirt. We were in the middle of setting up our Democratic Party campaign office for election 2004.
"You see that office over on the other side of the hall?" he asked. "I don't ever want to see you anywhere near it!" he said with his finger up my nose. I always try to be a uniter and not a divider, so "Nice to meet you" was all I could think of in reply.
"What did you say?" he asked, apparently bewildered at my attempt to be cordial. I repeated myself. "Fuckyou!" he answered before storming off. Bucks County, PA... so close to the city of brotherly love, so far from Eden.
At last -- I had arrived on the front lines, to work in a swing state. Everybody knew that it was here that the battle for the heart and soul of America would be the bloodiest. But wait a minute, this was the so-called battleground? Truth be told, in those final weeks of working the presidential campaign stint, Pennsylvania often seemed like a cakewalk. Bring it on! I had seen worse - much, much worse.
Now, despite what you may have read in the gossip columns, door-to-door and street-level fundraising is rarely as fabulous as portrayed in the movies. And while my experience didn't involve sucking up to rich people, or crafting slick, disingenuous campaign literature, or claiming to toe the party line -- when that wasn't the case -- it did sometimes involve having the door slammed in my face. I also got used to hearing a lot of advice, often unsolicited. This ranged from "go to hell with your damn flip-flopper" to the oh-so original "go get a real job." Of course, there were also those friendly Jewish grandmothers who gave me cookies and tea, young liberals who thanked me for what I was doing, and (to give credit where credit is due) those crazy, right-wingers and fat Lexus-driving-Republicans who through their actions gave me the energy to keep on knocking.
But more than that, it was that special mix of sarcasm, witty charm, self-deprecation, and goofiness that only a political canvass office can inspire and produce, which helped me to hang-in there for five months. Some highlights from New York:
By some stroke of bad luck a team of us were knocking on doors in Englewood, NJ, on a Friday evening in close proximity to an orthodox Synagogue. The Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday nights, at which point most orthodox Jews turn off their lights, disavow technology or the handling of money, and walk to Temple if it is close by. So, by 6:30 p.m. the evening was pretty much nixed.
That night I was training a young, nervous Jewish kid from Queens -- the spiting image of a young Woody Allen. At one of the final houses visited, he was told by a very stern, older gentleman -- just as the sun fell below the horizon -- to quit working for the Democratic Party, vote for President George W. Bush, and get his butt home in time for the Sabbath.
In its former incarnation, our campaign office in Chinatown was an old-style sweatshop, complete with an overseer’s office and a dirty linoleum floor. As we’d ascend the dank stairwell up towards our office, we often passed by the tenants from the floor above running down the stairs with black trash bags full of the knock-off Louis Vitton handbags that sell for $20 on Canal Street. Many of the icons from the sweatshop days remain in place, including an old leaky toilet.
Since basic office repair didn’t seem to be in the budget, our best solution for this plumbing problem was to put a blue bucket under the leak, and empty it out every now and again. To spice up office humor a bit, one colleague and I began to tell new staff that the blue bucket was a repository for number two. "Yeah, perhaps you didn’t get the memo. Since the toilet doesn’t work we use the blue bucket and toss the doo-doo out the fourth floor window into the alley behind the building." Look out below!!!
One of my daily responsibilities in the New York City office was to organize the logistics of sending 50 or so marauding campaigners out to terrorize the streets of New York and environs. In order to break all of these campaigners into manageable groups, we sent groups of between four and six into different neighborhoods, by subway or by minivan, under the supervision of a Field Manager. As to be expected, we had some crazies in the bunch.
Eric never stopped talking. He’d dash politics with reviews of his film career and add-in his latest romantic misadventures, but the unifying theme was his inability to breathe in-between stories. Riley, appropriately named, seemed normal enough until you got him going. More than one nice Democratic Party donor must have been caught off-guard by his wild eyed rants against George W Bush and the neo-conservative Nazis AFTER they had given him the check that was supposed to guarantee his hasty departure from their doorstep.
Tiffany was a bit of a latecomer. She stumbled upon our office after tiring of her stint in academia … and she was all set to train us on what she’d learned as a voluntary patient in a plethora of mental health studies at NYU.
We even had an office legend, whose name was often mentioned in hushed tones. Poor Fred, who, as it was first told, jumped out of a minivan on the West Side Highway before it approached the George Washington Bridge, never to be seen or heard from again. The "Fred story" got retold so many times, and acquired so many new dramatic touches, that it quickly lost any resemblance to the original event. The truth: Fred had an attack of diarrhea. He made a dash towards the last bathroom on the island of Manhattan, but didn’t quite make it, and was too ashamed to ever come back and pick up his last paycheck.
One humorous perk of my job was to subject my friends (the old-timers, Field Managers, and fellow Office Directors,) to the whims of the infamous "crazy crew." It wasn't so much the individuals who were all that impressive, in as much as the madness that followed when they were all thrown together as a team. So, when crews were assembled and names were called out for team-duty, and the terrible truth of their predicament dawned on my friends, I always loved watching the look of panic that came over their eyes. One friend swore he’d get even with me for putting him with Riley. But I got such a chuckle out of it, and figured that it must build character, much the way that surviving an illness or a near-death-experience does.
My friend Dave, one of the Field Managers, claimed to suffer from a migraine after one extremely crazy crew I had sent him to lead. And between Eric’s stories, Tiffany’s assessment of our well being, and Riley’s conspiracy theories -- who could blame Dave? He didn’t show up for work the next day, and I guess he never was quite the same after that...
In the early days of the campaign, there was little that distinguished us from your average neighborhood door-to-door knife salesman, Jehovah’s Witness, or panhandler. It seemed that the Democratic Party was too busy with other things than to send us ID badges or T-shirts, so it became rather routine to talk to people through the peephole about the dangers of the George W Bush agenda, or to patiently explain our lack of official identification to some woman clutching an alligator skin purse close to her body on a busy sidewalk. It really did a number on office morale. One of our Field Managers said it best: "I feel like a war-torn refuge, I haven’t seen money in weeks!"
But one fine day, the sky lit up and a few big boxes of freshly made Democratic Party shirts arrived at our office. Hallelujah -- we were legit! Our motley band of canvassers pawed at the boxes like starving peasants who had happened upon airdropped food aid from the United Nations.
"Yes, my children, one at a time, one at a time, you will all get your Democratic Party T-shirt," the office directors purred as we examined the boxes and tried to devise a plan of distribution. But just as we figured out a viable system, the sky darkened, and we received a call from above. Halt all operations. The T-shirts were rejected. They must not be distributed, they were made in Pakistan, most likely by 12-year-old boys and girls.
"Why hast thou forsaken me oh Democratic Party!?!" we called out in vain, but alas our pleas fell upon deaf ears. And besides, it was not exactly the Democratic Party’s doing. This blooper was the sole responsibility of Grassroots Campaigns Inc., the for-profit company contracted by the Democratic Party to run this whole nationwide "grassroots" operation. Just as Nike, long ago, outsourced it’s manufacturing operations to Third World countries like Pakistan, apparently, so did the DNC.
Jill does not exist. Nor does Noah, Matt, or Lily. They are fictitious names for hiring managers --synonymous with certain ads -- placed in The New York Times, the Village Voice, and on Craig's List. The ad, typically ran as "Want to Beat Bush? Earn money working on the campaign. Call Jill at...," or some variation on the theme. Just a trick-of-the-trade I suppose.
Anyway, sometimes I may have been known to get a little bored covering the phones, and perhaps under my watch... Jill was out on maternity leave, Noah sometimes had the flu, and poor Matt, well, he had meningitis. As for Lily, we hadn't seen old Lily for so long, it was assumed she had changed parties.
New Yorkers are great though; somebody out there is always one-upping you. One guy faxed his resume to Jill upon "her request," and he was waiting for her to call him. Noah had, remarkably, called one applicant unsolicited upon hearing about the man's many qualifications… this guy skipped the whole cumbersome interview process, and showed up for our staff meeting. And in-between medication and his three daily blood transfusions, Matt hired one extremely talented woman to be our supervisor (according to her.) Another guy got his cue directly from Donald Trump, so when he called me he just said "You’re Fired!" before hanging up. Oh, to be so lucky...
Any organization staffed primarily by young people lends itself rather easily to juvenile fads, and Safety Week felt like one of them. Somewhere in the Midwest, a car full of canvassers got in an automobile accident, so the rest of us were to pay the consequences.
For the most part Safety Week went off without a hitch, everybody wore their seat belts, and we even had discussions with staff about not going into creepy people’s houses. Rule of thumb -- if they answer the door naked, they are probably not the type of person who will discuss politics before hunting down their checkbooks.
One of our more militant Field Managers even prepared a speech about how to stay well hydrated out there in the summer afternoons and evenings. "This is a war people, and I don't want anybody going down from heatstroke on my watch! So everybody pack a bottle of water and don't come back tonight without $300 for John Kerry!" The other office directors and I even started to joke about how boring Safety Week was and how we wanted to introduce "Sex Week" or "Survivor Week" to liven things up a bit.
Be careful what you wish for though. One Friday a canvasser in Queens witnessed a shooting 20-yards away. He was questioned by the police and subsequently released because there were other witnesses at the scene. Ever the trooper - he proceeded down the block, and kept knocking on doors for the cause. "Hope is on the way!" He recounted the events to us in a nonchalant sort of way, and it took us a while to realize that he was telling the truth. When my boss told me that we would have to keep the whole incident quiet, I couldn’t hold it in -- it erupted out of me like a bat out of hell and I yelled out across the office:
"Well, it looks like Safety Week really went out with a bang!..."
As did the election, of course.
When that red tide swept over us, and I struggled with my own private battleground state of denial, I often consoled myself thinking that at least we would always have New York. After all, along with Jill, Noah, Matt, and Lily, it looks like we still reside with the sanest crew of crazies around.
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