I arrived five minutes late to headquarters and waited in a short line before signing in and receiving an application. The room held forty or fifty people, mostly black, and was running out of seats quickly. I forced my way through the crowd and into one of the remaining folding metal chairs.
Brendan, an energetic young white man with long black hair, came out and introduced himself and the organization. His speech involved the names of several Hispanic public figures, which he pronounced with politically correct fluency. Having no pen for my application, I asked my neighbor if he was done using his. He was, and reluctantly lent me the pen. This offer made him visibly upset, so I thanked him and avoided further eye contact. The man was saving the two seats that separated him and me and as newcomers arrived they asked my neighbor if these seats were free. He told them no — that these seats were for people in the bathroom. But the people never showed up. He was a liar. I completed my application and returned the liar’s pen.
Brendan explained that we would be “getting out the vote” the following day, and that if anyone from the Tea Party was there to infiltrate their operations, they would find out. That was a joke. After his speech was over he was going to conduct interviews with all of us. I looked around the room at a crowd that was by then pouring out the door and wondered how this was possible.
He started calling out the names — first come, first served. I caught a glimpse of the list and saw that I was in the top half, despite being late. I wondered if our collective tardiness had something to do with our collective lack of stable employment.
The roll call was not going well. The first four or five names were called without response. Wrong list, they thought. They scrambled to find the right one, meanwhile devising alternative methods of interviewing us. First they took people from the back row of seats. Perhaps realizing that this gave preference to those of us who arrived late, they alternated front and back, asking us to scoot down one seat for each person who got up. This capricious game of musical chairs was cut short when they realized there was only one list, so it had to be the right one.
Most people who had signed in had apparently left, although I didn’t see anyone walk out. This meant that the list was going quickly. I was interviewed within minutes. The interview, conducted by Brendan, consisted of him asking me whether I could return the next day at noon.
I arrived to find a mass of people waiting to sign in at headquarters. I started to take in the faces, many of which I hadn’t seen the previous day. One particularly white man arrived wearing boat shoes and a North Face fleece. This made him look well-off. He also brought lunch — a large can of sardines in tomato sauce. This didn’t make him look well-off.
The line was stalled because Stacy, a lightly-tattooed twenty-something woman who was working the desk, couldn’t figure out which of us would be canvassing for what campaign. She left to find Brendan. A redheaded man with a scruffy beard, long ponytail, and a basketball jersey, came to replace her.
“They told me not to do anything with you guys, but I don’t listen to the rules and somehow I’m always right,” he said. But Stacy returned, Brendan abreast, before any further mishaps could transpire. She was upset at him for the disorder, but Brendan kept his cool. Brendan seemed like a guy who keeps his cool.
“IS SHE ON THE CARLUCCI CAMPAIGN?” Stacy inquired about the woman in front of me in line.
Brendan smiled and talked in a calm voice without providing any real answers. Then somebody else came to bring this woman and me into a conference room in the back of a series of cubicles. There were about thirty others already waiting there. I guessed we were on the Carlucci campaign.
After a two-hour bus ride, we arrived at our upstate destination in Rockland County and immediately went to McDonald’s. My fellow electioneers had been pushing for a McDonald’s stop the whole ride up and they got their way.
One of the group members, a well-dressed thirty-something Indian man, had set up his laptop and looked to be conducting some serious business on it. He was eating a parfait. I wondered why he had signed up for this gig. Was he in it for The Cause? Was he a True Believer? Whatever it was, I was fitting in well by comparison and I thanked him silently.
After lunch we were subdivided into groups of five, given maps and flashlights, and told to enter a series of black Chevy Suburbans. My map indicated my solo route, with sixty-something doors to accost three times apiece. These were the doors of “supporters.” I was supposed to check to make sure these people had voted. If they hadn’t, I was supposed to come back until they had. I was also supposed to ask them whom they voted for, which seemed illegal.
The SUV drove us through expensive neighborhoods. My black compatriots joked that after the sun went down they would be arrested.
I was dropped off with two other men, Jason and Marcus, at the entrance of a large condominium complex, not nearly as glamorous as the ones we had passed on the ride over. Marcus was a rotund black man in his late twenties. This was his second day canvassing. Jason, who looked to be in his early thirties, was the only other white man on the campaign. This was his ninth day, so he knew the ropes. He had snagged some crushed peanut packages from McDonald’s and was inhaling their contents, discarding the wrappers along the grass as we walked. He was tall — probably six-four — and I suspected he was no stranger to crystal meth.
I split from the rest and set off on my assigned course. It was the middle of the day and few people were home. The ones who were tended to be very old. They took a long time to respond to my knocks, and I felt bad when they arrived. But they had all voted for my man, Carlucci.
Some people, surprisingly few, became indignant at my inquiries.
“You’re asking me who I voted for?” one woman asked.
“Think of it as an exit poll,” I said. But it wasn’t an exit poll and I wasn’t quite sure why I was asking this question to our “supporters.”
“Oh — okay, yeah — Carlucci.”
Another one in the bag.
A woman remarked that people like me, the Carlucci People, had not stopped bothering her, so she voted for the other guy. I wondered if this was a sound political decision.
It was getting dark, so I took out my flashlight. Deer were coming out of the woodwork. I shined my light at them and their eyes shined back green. Cool.
I wandered through the deer and ran into Jason and Marcus. They claimed to be finished with all three rounds, while I had barely finished my first. I suspected they had forged their data. I decided that my forms were satisfactory in comparison, so I stopped canvassing and stood with the others at the entrance to the complex. We had finished about ninety minutes early, so contacting headquarters for a ride back would have to wait a bit.
Marcus, the quieter of the two, worked as a hawker, handing out copies of AM New York to morning commuters. He had worked the early morning shift before showing up to canvass. The night before the bus didn’t return to headquarters until after 1 a.m. Not a lot of sleep. He was in good spirits, all things considered. My tolerance for work is lower than that. I’m soft.
Jason was a brick layer. He was working on the Freedom Tower but lost his job because of an increased quota for Asian workers, he said. Now he was a student at one of the City University schools, receiving good marks in a major I had never heard of.
Jason was into the stock market and prattled off some blue chip quotes. He claimed to have made $9,000 off a $100 penny stock investment. The stock had gone from a quarter cent per share to a cent and a half per share.
“Wouldn’t that give you six hundred dollars?” I asked.
This got us onto the topic of high-priced Wall Street prostitutes. Jason thought they were a rip-off. He used a service where the girls only cost $125 upfront. “Just fucking” — everything else was extra, but you’d never pay more than $250. The girls were all Chinese or Russian and none of them spoke any English. Apparently they didn’t speak at all, although Jason said they might cry if you gave it to them too hard.
It was late and becoming painfully cold when a car came to pick us up. This wasn’t the car we had arrived in. This time an actual employee of the Carlucci campaign came to pick us up in his Subaru. Where were the Chevys?
“How was it, guys?” he asked.
“Real easy,” Jason said, “the polling place was right in the middle of the complex. We just went there and asked people who they voted for.”
I got scared. This was not the way we were supposed to conduct operations. It also would have been illegal, had Jason even done it in the first place.
“That’s great, guys! Glad you could reach so many people!” Mutual incompetence. Crisis averted.
We drove to the campaign office, where we met up with the larger group. A fat man with a bushy beard took our forms and threw them in a pile to be thrown away.
In the middle of the room were many aluminum containers filled with food. These had been brought by the campaign volunteers. My appetite had still not returned, but the others in my group were becoming ferociously hungry. They had apparently been told that the food was only for union members (were there volunteer unions?) and a small mutiny was building among the group. The day before, Jason told me, they were all kicked out of a Brooklyn Democratic club when some canvassing girls started pocketing the club’s sandwiches.
Our school bus arrived before things could get sticky.
But the bus wasn’t going anywhere. There was a problem. People were missing. My Indian friend, for one, was not on the bus. More people went off to find them. This exacerbated the problem.
After several minutes the remaining passengers started to grow impatient and increasingly verbal. A man two seats in front of me was being very disruptive, raising his voice and using swear words. A young woman whom I took to be his girlfriend kept shouting over him to shut up. She jumped on top of him and started swinging violently. She was hitting flesh and the strikes were loud.
“BLACK ON BLACK! BLACK ON BLACK CRIME!” he screamed.
“Boy, you weak! Can’t back up that mouth,” she said as she pounded his face. He continued to mouth off. Nobody else said anything.
She dismounted him and returned to her seat. Their volatile exchange continued as if nothing had happened. Then she remounted him and continued her torrent. Marcus explained that the night before many people had been fired for being disruptive during the ride back to the city, yelling at Mark and Gary and calling the organization a scam. I wondered how these two had made it back.
“I’m gonna go home and SMOKE MY WEED!” the woman said as the fight ended. “I got a bag of weed with my name on it.”
A group of the stragglers returned and the bus departed. My Indian friend was still nowhere to be found.
The rest of the bus ride was relatively painless, relatively silent. We arrived at headquarters in about an hour and lined up to collect our checks. People in line were debating about where the nearest all-night check cashing place was. I’m more of a bank account kind of guy.
When I arrived at home I checked the election results. It had worked: Carlucci won.