Four years ago, I drove myself crazy with my hate of Sarah Palin and John McCain. I had a physical reaction to every poster, t-shirt or bumper sticker I saw. Sometimes, I worried about myself, about what I might do. One evening, without any premeditation, without thinking at all, I pulled over at the side of a home in my neighborhood, jumped out of the car, and yanked their “McCain/Palin” sign right off their front lawn. My daughter was with me.
I was yelling into my cell phone a lot, yelling about Palin and the latest sound bite that set my teeth on edge. It was when I made copies of the Anne Kilkenny letter with the intention of putting them under the windshield wipers of women’s cars at my gym that I realized I needed to do something else.
I volunteered at the big Obama rally on the Parkway with Springsteen. I’ve done plenty of volunteer work, but never for a candidate. I felt better. I walked up to people and asked them if they were registered. Most of the time they were, and so I polled people from the questions given to me. Almost every conversation turned into more than those rote questions. People were ready and wanting to talk. I knew the whole experience was skewed. I was talking to like-minded people. I didn’t need to preach; they were already converted. We were all there for the same reasons.
I admit that my volunteering is uber selfish—it is very much about me—I get to feel good about myself; I get to feel like I’m standing behind my position in a larger way than by just voting on election day. Almost every other volunteer I talked to the day of the rally had the same things to say: They had never volunteered before; they felt better as soon as they showed up. I was so swept up in things that day that I signed up for more hours at phone banks.
My desire for a Democratic president is not as strong as my aversion toward a Republican, and I know that is an emotional reaction. I know, logically, that my volunteering, or not, will not affect how things go on November 6th, but so many virtuous, feel-good emotions overtake me that I can pretend it will.
I must also admit that I don’t go around debating with people, or proselytizing Obama’s policies. I don’t think fast enough on my feet; I’m intimidated by that kind of conversation. But I can get on the phone and read a script with passion, and I can walk up to people and ask them if they’re registered. I can wear a “Collingswood for Obama” pin on my bag. I can remind my students to register to vote. So, those are the things I do.
This election, I volunteered at a phone bank. I’m a little less fired up than I was four years ago, but now not only do I volunteer to feel better, I volunteer to abate guilt and superstition about what would happen if I were to NOT volunteer. I was told to go to Reed’s Coffee at 38th and Lancaster. Once there, I could see from outside the place that it was not serving as a volunteer center. A man about a half block down started yelling to me that the location had been moved. I went to where he was and followed him into an unmarked, dark building, blinking as I entered—a little worried for my safety, but still game. We were in a sparse art gallery. Two college-age women sat on a sofa at a low coffee table, and two retirement-age people sat at a small table in the space’s only shaft of natural light.
Much discussion ensued as to whether or not we were allowed to use our own cell phones, whether we had to stick exactly to the script, how to divide the pages and pages of listings that needed to be called. I could see there was tension between one of the younger volunteers and one of the older. The older one called someone higher up the volunteer food chain for clearer instructions.
When I finally got my directive I thought I had lucked out. I was given the list of people who had previously checked off something somewhere saying they were interested in volunteering.
Three hours later, at least 90 percent of the numbers I dialed hadn’t picked up. Five or six people hung up on me once I said, “Hi. I’m calling from the Obama campaign.” Two people asked me to call back later. I had one confirmed volunteer. I felt better.
I’ve signed up to help out again on Monday, November 5th. I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing, but I really look forward to being out in the city doing that work the day before Election Day. I hope to coerce my daughters, both old enough to vote for president for the first time this year, into coming with me. It’s something I can do.