My late father was a large, loud, jolly man who could charm any stranger, bloviate on any topic, fill any room with his vast personality. When I was a kid, I found him … embarrassing.
That may be why I’ve long preferred the solitude of a book to the terror of walking into a room full of strangers or, worse, conversing with them. Sure, I’ve taught myself to do these things, but never with much relish, let alone mustard.
So, when my fearless, politically engaged wife announced that I would be knocking on doors with her during the 2018 midterm elections, I tried to demur. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Good thing, too. I learned more about America, and myself, than I could have in a year of reading books.
Our first assignment was a heavily Black neighborhood. The streets looked worn and menacing, though not the people. They wanted to talk. And talk. They were dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, hopeful that the election would change all that and, if it didn’t, determined to fight on.
A number of them were sick or caring for ailing relatives. Even those with jobs had lousy health insurance, or none, and couldn’t afford to take time off to deal with an illness. They weren’t sure they would get to the polls.
The next day we were in a slightly leafier, mostly Hispanic precinct. We were armed with a script in Spanish, but most of our prospects spoke English. The ones who dared.
Behind too many doors we could hear kids playing and adults talking. But, when we knocked? Silence. The doors stayed closed. Clearly, these people were afraid of something — immigration agents, probably. But, we were working from a list of legal, registered voters. What, we wondered, had this country become?
We spent our final day in a prosperous high-rise enclave. Nearly everyone we met was friendly, including folks who supported the other party and even the condo board president who threw us out of his building. He’d discovered that I, with unexpected charm, had talked our way past lobby security. Still, he thanked us for our efforts.
We should have thanked him, and all those we met. If I gained anything from my brush with electoral foot-soldiering, it was a realization that Americans are irrepressibly nice, especially when confronting each other in person. We are better people — kinder, less divided, more open-minded — than we appear to be on social media or cable TV.
So, when the 2020 campaign dawned, I couldn’t wait to knock on doors again. Alas, the pandemic put an end to that idea. The Donald Trump campaign, with its disdain for masking and other coronavirus precautions, has reportedly fielded 1 million door-knockers. Joe Biden has said he wants his forces to behave more responsibly, so Democratic foot soldiers are few, local and working mostly for down-ballot candidates. I fear that may be a mistake.
The obvious alternative, phone-banking, is problematic these days: robo-marketing has soared during the pandemic, so people rarely answer calls from unfamiliar numbers. My wife has joined a brigade of volunteers who write postcards reminding people to vote. Because of my execrable penmanship, I am not allowed to help.
So, I walk the quiet streets, gazing wistfully at all the doors. Oh, I also write small checks to worthy candidates and sit in on Zoom rallies. But, it’s not quite the same.
Nice thing about getting out the vote is that, done right, it’s face-to-face. When somebody is looking you in the eye, you feel an urge to smile, listen, seek common ground. It’s like a first date. Or a Thanksgiving dinner, only with people you don’t know well enough to dislike.
That is why, next election year, don’t be surprised to find me knocking on your door. I know we’ll have a good chat, now that I’ve conquered my youthful reluctance to engage with humanity. I may even show up without my wife.
Even then, I won’t really be alone. There will be a large, loud, jolly man behind me.
Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and advisory board member. Follow him on Twitter @DonaldMMorrison.