by Mermer Blakeslee
Photographs © 2012 by Margot McLean
In 2008 Margot McLean and I canvassed for Obama in Ohio, the tugboat state capable of pulling the big ship across. We ended up in Toledo, a place where we both felt very much at home. In 2012 we went back. A lot of it was the same: the disarming friendliness, the weary political swing-state savvy, and, on the other side of the bridge in East Toledo, the sometimes daunting poverty. Rotten steps, rotten floor boards on the porches, a hefty smell of cigarettes as soon as the door opened, a lot of kids, a lot of daytime TV, a lot of pit bulls. More Halloween plastic per square foot than a Walmart display. And on each block, abandoned houses. We walked into one — its front door thrown wide open — with large, gracious rooms and exquisite, turn-of-the-century woodwork; on the floor, sheetrock debris, cat shit, a sign saying Short Sale: $15,000. We stood in front of another house — some of its windows boarded-up, some of them broken — ready to mark Vacant on our canvassing sheet, but then someone opened the door. Once, we walked into a drug deal. One tip-off: the guy was super-nice.
But a lot had changed in four years. The 2012 election was not as flamboyantly historical as the one before. It was its grown-up version, and in politics it’s hard to grow up. The Obama headquarters had maybe a third of the volunteers that it had in the last campaign — an older group, drifting in before and after work. There was little of the electric intensity we remembered, but a grounded, dig-deep determination. And Toledo itself was in a lot better shape, mostly because of the auto bailout. Jeep. This time there was occasional traffic in downtown and a few more of its historical buildings being used; our old headquarters was now a shop called Swanks.
It was the Tuesday before the election, and we went to a local pub called Manhattan’s (of course). The bartender was a star kid who had returned to his beleaguered hometown after getting a masters because he agreed that Toledoans are really, really nice. It was open jam night, and we thought of going back to our inn, but after the music started, we drew closer to the stage, then closer still, to Jeff Williams, a natural-born leader on the guitar, and Duval on the bass, a mountain of a man with only eyes and fingers moving.
Jeff brought up one of his students, a teenage wunderkind, helped him deal with stage fright while his mom, dad, and brother sat at a front table, videoing. A big-bellied man in an old knit cap, stained clothes and suspenders got up to sing, his voice deep, liquid, rich, whatever the music wanted. We called him Mr. Ireland. It was just the beginning. The place grew crowded; the music went everywhere, from Johnny Cash to the blackest blues. I imagined Jeff as the perfect presidential candidate, with his rare mix of virtuosity and unpretentious good will. In such a vulnerable city, art was thriving, and for all the right reasons. I told Ireland I was amazed by his voice. He said, “Did I get it half-right? Amen.”
But in the morning, we had to get to work. We were four years older, tired and anxious. Every Rasmussen and Gallup poll, every newscast, every dissection of that first debate made us crazy. We saw and heard way too much Mitt. You can’t even pee in Ohio without hearing a political ad. I checked Nate Silver over and over to calm us, started calling him my cigarette. And then there was Sandy. It had just hit New Jersey, Staten Island, Lower Manhattan. Margot’s cats were at her apartment in Tribeca with her friend we couldn’t reach. She hadn’t needed to evacuate the night before, but the adjacent block did. In the Catskills, my husband called from a neighbor’s house. Not to worry when I couldn’t get in touch, he said, we had no power, internet, or phone. But Sandy hasn’t even gone north yet, I said.
We tried reaching everyone we knew: Are you alright?
Margot and I knocked on our first door together, too trepid at the outset to divide and conquer. Thankfully, no one was home. We marked our sheet. One down, onto the next. Not sure of the system yet — the theory that planning when to vote made people actually vote — we moved down the street and down our lists. Finally, a door opened, and I immediately said, “I’m sorry. I woke you up.” The man nodded. “I work third shift,” he said and shut the door. But at the next place, the man wanted to talk — five, maybe six kids behind him, running around playing in a house with no furniture, the older boy, about 4, scrambling to the front to tell us about his Halloween costume. The man had bad teeth and a lot of information, a combo that would eventually stop surprising us. Of course he was going to vote. Or what would become of all these kids, he said, their education? He knew how Obama had reformed the Pell grants, saving both the government and students lots of money. And he knew what Romney had said about college loans: “Ask your parents.” That was huge. After talking to him, we were into it — Margot up one side of the street, the even numbers, while I hit the odds — determined to get through our list.
It turns out, a lot of men work third shift. A few women too. We woke them up. We made the pit bulls bark, which woke up the babies. And pregnant women. I interrupted a young couple having sex on the living room couch. One man opened the door and sighed, “This is the fourth time today.” But then he smiled and said, “Don’t worry.” We wondered how these people could be so nice after being disturbed so many times. The woman on Sunday morning changing a baby, the other kids all around, her hair a wreck. My most spoken words were, “I’m so sorry,” and with two or three exceptions people had the grace to assure me it was all right. Most of them even thanked us. Even a man who supported Romney was polite, even the woman who said, “I don’t speak about politics with strangers.” Strangely enough, I agreed with her.
There are levels of intrusion when it comes to privacy. First, the chain link fences: jiggle the gate in case there’s a dog. Usually it’s passable, but it’s important to read the signs. “Do you believe in life after death? Trespass here and you’ll find out.” “We shoot trespassers once, survivors twice.” Or my favorite: “Dog food is expensive.” (I marked Inaccessible.) Then there’s the door: How loud do you knock? How long do you stand waiting? What about the enclosed porch separating you from the actual bell? Some porches were the dumping ground for all things kids, some looked like an older woman’s living room (with a glider, remember those?), some served as the smoking room, some were entirely trashed. But no way can you be heard if you’re knocking on the outer door. Do you mark Not home or shamelessly barge in? One time, a young teen skateboarding with friends out in the street saw my reluctance and yelled over, “Go right through the porch.” When he saw me still hesitating, he marched through himself (his friends following). “Mrs. P., a woman’s here to speak to you. For Obama.” Often the name Obama gave us a pass.
We could never guess who would answer the door: black, white, young, old, student, educated, union worker, drug dealer. Sometimes, of course, we made a few correct judgements when the brush stroke was big enough — young kids here, this family is poor — but over and over we were wrong. I saw on one porch a sign reading, “Fear the country that fears your gun,” with some Harley stickers around it, a motorcycle helmet on the porch floor, a pick-up out front. I was so hoping his wife would answer the door. But no, it was him: a stocky, white man in his 40s with a crew-cut, the very man who every day you hear in the press does not like Obama. Nervously, I spit out volunteer, expecting the door to slam, but he says, “Oh hi. We’re covered. My wife already voted and I’m voting tomorrow. But thanks.”
Thanks? And so goes the tension between being open and being savvy. When you have the audacity to barge into people’s lives, seeing exactly how much trash they’ve not cleaned up on their porch, how many cigarette butts they’ve jammed into the ashtray, you have to use some judgment, learned from years of experience, and you better clue in to your intuition too. Do I smell a rat here? You don’t want to open the door on that kind of drug deal. But our preconceptions were continually getting blown away. We started to wonder if in Ohio, you can’t box any person in.
We met a lot of white, working class men supporting Obama. And they didn’t like the fact that Mitt tried to put one over on them, especially about the auto industry, their auto industry, Jeep. It was bad enough that Romney kept repeating on the stump that Jeep was sending jobs over to China, but when he didn’t pull the commercial after Chrysler came forward and called it a lie, that got some men really pissed. “I’ve worked there 33 years,” one guy said. “And you don’t fuck with my [sports] teams either.”
It was often in the poorer neighborhoods that Romney was mentioned. An elderly woman stood on her crumbling cement steps and said, “That Mitt, he changes his mind more than I change my underwear.” One woman invited me into her kitchen to meet her mother in a wheelchair (a no-no, but I couldn’t refuse). After I confessed that my mom often read a candidate by his face, she said, “I do, too, honey. Romney, he don’t know a thing about us. You can see it in his eyes, they don’t connect.”
The poverty weighed on us. Poverty is a word so tired of not being heard, let’s say poor-ness — our national, collective blight, and blight spreads. You can’t escape it, the resulting wilt, the fatigue that leaks into the soul; it is airborne. And it manifests itself in trash, literal trash, the disinclination to clean up, to pick things up. A kind of psychological counterpart to the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency over time toward entropy and dissolution, slipping from order toward more and more undifferentiation. Unless energy is applied — there’s the rub. It’s hard enough to schedule a weekend to make some order out of the mess in the basement, but what if there is no basement, or no left-over energy? What we saw each day was the physical form of depression. As James Hillman would say, the houses themselves are depressed.
But as we stepped through the trash and knocked on the poorest doors, I noticed something else. So did Margot. It is almost embarrassing in its simplicity to say but we started to expect it, even count on it: poor people have time, they’re less in a hurry and to a volunteer walking through a strange neighborhood, that translates into small, but significant kindnesses, interactions capable of being more, well, human.
Our list took us to a trailer park in a lot on the backside of a defunct factory. No accessories, no lawns, not much paint, only asphalt. Very old trailers, some obviously abandoned, some we couldn’t tell. We found the door: #D. Male. Age 85. No steps or handrail, but a plywood ramp, broken through on one side. The main window was replaced with cardboard, but the door had a tiny window I could see into. A man in a wheel chair, turned away from me, deeply slumped. Only an unmade bed beside him. I didn’t knock.
The next was #F. The steps were minimal but solid. Dark towels covered the windows so you couldn’t see in. A metal door, some descendant of Metallica blasting through. I knocked, then knocked louder, thought I heard the music stop. Encouraged, I waited a long time, then finally left.
As Margot circled the car around the back of the lot, a young man was walking toward us. Skull cap, low-riding pants. I put down the window as he approached. “Were you just knocking on my door?” he asked. I knew from the list he was 28 years old. He smiled. His teeth were rotten, but (once again) he was well-spoken, a news junkie. Wanted to volunteer. We wrote down his contact info. He had to arrange it with his girlfriend — if she could care for his 6-year old boy. “I could get, you know, the younger people, they’re often not so responsive. I know.” He paused. “I been there.” And he smiled again. Later, we asked Kristen, our leader back at the headquarters, if a volunteer could have rotten teeth. He’s very well-informed, I quickly added. Oh yes, she said knowingly, oh yes.
It was the poverty that made me aware of my own racism, the vague, subconscious but enduring association between the words black and poor. Here was another prejudice getting sanded down, for it seemed on balance, the poorest house usually meant white (and often, sadly, retarded). But in East Toledo, that old-fashioned word integration seemed to apply to every category — not just the biggies of gender, race, economic class, but even aesthetic, cultural, and political distinctions. People did not seem to be held in suspension by the same partisan oppositions discussed endlessly in the press: government vs. the individual, aid vs. hard work and achievement. The auto bail-out meant work; a student loan is taken in the hope of finding a good job — it seems so obvious when you’re walking down Summit Street.
All this mixed-up-edness renewed our idea of America, what we envision to be framed within that name. Elections, as crazy as they invariably become, are a way of reflecting on this image for a country, for its people and leaders. But it was our participation in Ohio, and in East Toledo in particular, that focused this image for us. After eight days, it felt right that Ohio had become the state. Clinton addressed the same question of why Ohio? when he spoke at a community college in nearby Perrysburg. To paraphrase him: Ohio is — with its manufacturing, its growing diversity, its young people, its colleges — a microcosm of what America looks like, a picture of where America was, where it is now, and where it is going.
Clinton also asked, “Who wants to live in a country where a disabled child — a blessing from God, but they need a lot of money to support them, a whole lot more money than two hard-working middle class parents can make — who wants to live in a country where that child, that family stops getting the help it needs so I can have another tax cut?” I instantly remembered waiting in our car behind a school bus while a dad was wheeling home his severely disabled son and his little daughter ran up to my window to talk to us — vintage Ohio. “That’s my brother,” she said proudly, “and my dad. I have two dads.” “You’re very lucky,” I said, and she nodded hard.
I thought too of open jam night every Tuesday. No cover — except on election night, you have to have voted. And Mr. Ireland’s deep voice: Did we get it half-right? Amen.
Mermer Blakeslee is the author of three novels. In Dark Water was selected by Barnes and Noble for its Discover Great New Writers series. “Leenie,” an excerpt from her latest novel, When You Live by a River, won the Narrative Prize. Blakeslee was awarded three fiction fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her roots are in poetry, and two of her poems were finalists in Narrative’s first and second annual poetry contests. Blakeslee’s non-fiction book, In the Yikes! Zone, has been recently reissued as A Conversation with Fear.