Monday, October 31, 2016

My Brief Foray into Politics


This post does not concern, nor reveal, my political views.  As I stated in my very first albertnet post, politics is a topic I avoid.  Why?  First of all, I don’t have enough readers to risk alienating half of them.  Second, politics is boring.  I firmly believe that most political dialogue between non-professionals is pointless.  Either you disagree with the other person and will never come to agreement, or the two of you already agree, in which case the dialogue is just reiterating each other’s opinions (or splitting hairs, which doesn’t generally change anybody’s vote).  I’ve personally never met an undecided voter.  I acknowledge they exist but this amazes me.

This post tells the story of my brief foray into politics, a couple decades ago, as a Precinct Captain during a Presidential election.  This was when I was a student.  My college career happened to span two such elections, with a different party winning each time.  I reckon I can safely tell my story without you figuring out which side I support(ed).

(I thought this would be a recycled “from the archives” essay, but discovered that most of my original version emphasized the wrong things.  The fun, human details that stand out in memory were largely missing from the original essay.  So I’m recycling some stuff here, but dredging up the more interesting details from memory.  Here’s a teaser:  a girl was involved.) 

My brief foray into politics

It all started with a knock at the door from some guy handing out political paraphernalia.  He represented the candidate I supported, so—being bored, idealistic, and bereft of the “refusal skills” they tried to teach us in junior high health class—I coughed up my name and phone number as a potential volunteer.  A week later, the phone awakened me from a late slumber.  The caller was a girl and asked for me by name.  I’d only moved to town a couple months before and didn’t know a lot of people, so this seemed too good to be true.  Her name was Charlie.  If you don’t think that’s a sexy name for a college girl, maybe that’s only because you haven’t heard her voice.  If she’s not running a political campaign today, she might be making a great living as a deejay or voice actor.  She “reminded” me (actually, I’d been ignorant) about the big rally the next day.

I decided to go.  Not because I’m a natural-born volunteer, which I am not, and not because I was a politically wild-eyed college kid, and not because I was looking for something that would “look good on my résumé” (having the good sense even then to leave out this kind of thing).  After two decades of reflection, I’m able to admit that my main motivation for attending was to meet Charlie and see if she was as attractive in person as she’d sounded on the phone.

The student pavilion was absolutely mobbed.  After much trumpeting, ballyhooing, and a few introductory speeches, a big boss asked each volunteer to state his or her name, organization, and reason for attending.  This threatened to take forever; the first few students gave long tirades about their beliefs, etc.  Fortunately, a lot of others (perhaps sensing the growing danger of death-by-blather) gave very brief intros like, “My name is Joe Blow and I’m hung over” or “Her name is Jane Doe and she’s shy.”

When it came to my turn I said, “I’m Dana Albert and I’m here because I disagree with almost everything [Candidate X] stands for.”  This was met with cheering and laughing and I was on the verge of thinking I had a talent for politics until somebody said, “Wait—almost everything?”  I feared I might be pilloried but there was just more laughing.  Everybody seemed pretty punch-drunk, which may well be normal at such gatherings.

Then we got down to the strategy for Election Day.  Each precinct would have a Precinct Captain who would lead a team of “walkers” to blanket the region, knocking on doors to hand out paraphernalia and remind people to vote.  Every door in every precinct would be hit three times.  This sounded like a whole lot of work and I considered slipping out and running for my life.  Once you’ve demonstrated a willingness to do volunteer slave labor, I reasoned, you’re marked for life.

On the other hand, I theorized that being a Precinct Captain instead of just a foot soldier might involve some interesting work and a lot less walking.  Who knows, maybe I was a bit punch-drunk myself, because I bit the bullet and volunteered for Captain.  Just like that, my apartment became the headquarters for Precinct 34-11.

The Precinct Captains gathered at one end of the pavilion to head up the walker recruiting process.  The volunteer pool was surprisingly small, to my dismay.  What’s worse, the other Captains actually knew how to recruit:  “Yo, free beers for anyone in my precinct!” and  “Coffee and doughnuts over here!” Being broke, I wasn’t about to pony anything up, so I scanned the room for anybody who looked like he could be cajoled, via mere words, into joining my team.  My eyes happened to settle on a singularly attractive young woman, and I was so stunned when she returned my gaze that I just froze, cowering inwardly.  Only the fear of being rude kept me from instantly averting my eyes.  I probably looked like a scared little puppy dog who’s made a mess on the rug that his master is soon to discover.  But to my surprise, the girl didn’t scorn me; in fact, she walked over.  And astonishingly, she turned out to be Charlie herself!

Actually, this only seemed astonishing at the time, and if you happened to read my original account you’d have thought I was a master of dramatic irony (i.e., the literary technique where the reader figures things out that the hapless narrator does not).  But actually, I was just clueless.  Only now, in retrospect, do I realize that Charlie came over not because I was looking at her, but because I’d stood up and stated my name a few minutes before, so she knew who I was; i.e., she realized I was the hapless last-minute recruit she’d telephoned the previous day, who had now recklessly named himself a Precinct Captain despite lacking the knowledge and volunteer base to cover a precinct.  My puppy-dog look had only increased her pity.  Surely this is why she—a higher-up party operative—agreed to be one of my walkers, for at least part of my shift.

Unfortunately, it would take a lot more than one volunteer to blanket my precinct three times over.  I wasn’t the only understaffed Captain; one of the big bosses announced, “It looks like we're really short on volunteers, so the best thing you can do is call up your friends and get them to help you.”  I thought about raising my hand and saying, “What if I don’t have any friends?”  This would have been taken as a joke, and yet the reality was, the friendships I had made were still too new and shaky to withstand this kind of burden.

And so, later that afternoon, I went around to all the apartments in my complex with my signs and posters to beg for support.  Only one neighbor agreed to help, and he wouldn’t commit to a specific time, which made him as good as worthless.  Going into Election Day, I had to kiss goodbye my dream of assembling a crack team of precinct-walking superstars, ruling over them with friendly yet absolute authority, earning their respect as a fearless leader, and then kicking back all day and watching the votes roll in.  But things weren’t all bad; after all, I was Precinct Captain over one of the most beautiful girls on campus.

I had to get up at 5:00 a.m. on Election Day.  The first task of our crew was hanging last-minute campaign signs all over town.  It was hard to see the point of this; perhaps the idea was to put on a show of great effort in order to guilt lazy voters into actually making it to the polls.  Then it was time for the first door-to-door shift.  Charlie had her real job to do until 3:30 p.m., but I was able to coax the party bosses into assigning me a couple of professional walkers who had come all the way from Washington, DC.  Despite 34-11 being a notoriously large precinct, every door was knocked on by 11 a.m. and I did only 45 minutes of walking myself.

I spent the early afternoon calling in the poll results and handling a few other clerical matters.  I was dreading the second walking shift because I had no volunteers and would have to do the whole precinct myself.  But check this out:  the neighbor I’d recruited not only showed up, but brought his brother!  The three of us covered the second wave in good time, so that when Charlie showed up at 3:30 I was already back at HQ and probably looked like I knew what I was doing.

I had to walk a lot during the final shift, by which time people seemed pretty sick of seeing us.  Going door-to-door was actually kind of fun; seeing college kids at home is kind of like seeing animals in the wild.  A lot of them seemed to be napping, and it wasn’t uncommon for pot smoke to billow out as the door opened.  I knocked on one door, heard a lot of shrieking and scuffling, and eventually it opened a crack and a girl giggled, “None of us are dressed!”  At another place the tenant, who’d been sprawling on a couch half asleep, roused himself to start arguing with me.  I explained that I didn’t have time to discuss the election, at which point his girlfriend took up the job.  They were really going at it as I left.

At 8:15 I headed over to the mandatory meeting of all the Precinct Captains.  I guess if our candidate had triumphed this would have been a big party, and there was certainly enough alcohol laid in for that purpose.  But our guy lost.  The state of the headquarters (somebody’s house) reflected the wreckage of the campaign:  all kinds of flyers and other paraphernalia, now completely useless, littered the floor; posters were beginning to curl and slide down the walls; charts of the periodic precinct checks displayed the carnage numerically.  I imagined being one of the bosses recording these numbers, the cause being slowly tortured to death before their very eyes. 

I went into the living room, where everybody was gathered around watching our candidate’s concession speech.  I don’t think advance polling was much of a thing back then, so this loss hadn’t been predicted.  Still, I was surprised at how nobody seemed braced for this eventuality.  It was like somebody had died … everyone was so depressed.

Maybe nobody wanted to be the first to leave, because we all hung around for a good while, some people drinking pretty heavily.  Maybe all the guys were waiting for a chance to hit on Charlie, which to be honest was the main reason I myself stuck around.  It did seem a bit crass to be pursuing such a selfish personal ambition under the circumstances, but then, defying my hormones to pursue extended mourning wouldn’t change anything anyway.  Life goes on, right? 

I nursed a single beer for so long it became warm in my hand, and I must have zoned out for a good while.  When I did my next casual scan of the room to see what Charlie was up to, I was startled to discover two things.  One, almost everybody seemed to have vanished, as though they’d been quietly dismissed or spontaneously bailed en masse.  Two, Charlie was totally making out with some guy!

Dammit!  This disappointment oddly mirrored that of the election itself.  In both cases, I hadn’t really had my hopes up but was nonetheless shocked to see them so suddenly dashed.  And who was the lucky guy?  I didn’t recognize him as one of the leaders, and he wasn’t particularly good looking or even well-dressed.  What was his secret?  Confidence, probably.  Yeah, even with (or especially with) his face mashed into Charlie’s, he exuded charisma.  Well, good for him.  Hell, he’d probably been working on Charlie for the whole damn election … who was I to think I could swoop in at the end, coordinate some pointless door-to-door campaign activity on Election Day, and sweep this gorgeous and important young woman off her feet?

Adding insult to injury, I now had to figure how to make a graceful exit.  Sneaking away seemed cowardly and antisocial.  But I couldn’t just tap Charlie on the shoulder to bid her farewell.  What would I say?  “Excuse me, sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to say goodbye and thanks for … everything.”  And what would I say to the guy?  Offer him my congratulations?  It was all just so awkward. 

But then all the empty beer cans and bottles littering the place gave me an idea.  I was seated at a table and kind of slumped over it for a spell.  Then I let out a little groan and slowly pitched myself out of my chair, slipping down off the table and sprawling out on the floor.  To complete the illusion of being passed out drunk, I let my beer bottle slip from my hand and roll a short way across the floor.  I remained as still as possible, eyes slitted.

Charlie’s new boyfriend chuckled and said, “Looks like somebody’s overdone it.”  He and Charlie walked over and helped me to my feet.  I staggered and slurred as they walked me—my arms around their shoulders—to the door.  “You gonna be okay, buddy?” the guy asked, showing off to Charlie as the cool big brother figure.  Well played, sir! 

I did my best impression of a drunk foolishly assuring them I was fine, and tottered away into the night.  As the door closed behind me, I even started singing in an off-key, maudlin way.  As I contemplated Charlie and her guy resuming their make-out session—and escalating it, now that they had their privacy—I continued singing, all the way down the block, until some guy yelled to shut up.  Forgetting for the moment that I wasn’t actually drunk, I shouted back some mild, halfhearted obscenities.  Then I headed home, exhausted and dejected.

Did I learn anything from my brief foray into politics?  Not really … just something I’d already guessed, which is that no political effort, however humble or lofty, small or large, grassroots or massively funded, will ever exclude personal ambition of one sort or another.  There’s nothing wrong with this, of course.  Somebody’s got to do that work, and I can’t begrudge those folks their well-earned rewards.

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