Friday, October 31, 2008

Nothin' Against the Man

I spent the end of the afternoon calling voters in battleground states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia. A disconcertingly large percentage of the numbers were out of service - either connecting to that future-robot woman's "I'm sorry, the number you are calling..." message or ringing for a while then abruptly shifting to shrieking electronic noise. Where did they get these fucking numbers? Are these the numbers from 2004?

Still others went to voice mail. Two giggling roommates reciting each word of their message in alternation before saying "Bye!" in giddy unison. An elderly woman in Ohio reciting hers in a singsongy near rap: "When-you-hear-the-beep, you-know-what-to-do..."

And a few answered. I dialed the number of a 29-year-old male in Ohio and a woman picked up, and cooly asked me who was calling. I explained that I was a volunteer for the Barack Obama Campaign for Change, and that I just wanted to talk about the election for a couple minutes, blah blah blah.

"He's deceased," she said.

"Oh? I'm very, very sorry to hear that. I..."

"He already voted, though. For Obama."


"Yup. But now he's deceased."

"Really? OK. I... I'm sorry for your loss."

"Thank you."



Overwhelmingly, the people I spoke to were planning on voting, or already had voted, for Obama. Every person I spoke to in Ohio, in fact, had voted early for Obama. Dayton, mostly. Some were cheerful telling me this, some were terse and annoyed. But it was Obama, Obama, Obama. Finally, in West Virginia, I heard something different. An older-sounding woman picked up and I asked her for the male name on my list. Who is this? I gave her my spiel from the script.

"He's not here, and you wouldn't want to talk to him, believe me."

"We're happy to talk to anyone."


"OK. Do you know who he supports in the el..."

"Lemme tell you, it's not gonna be that one."

I fucked up a bit with a Pennsylvania McCain supporter. She let me get through most of my spiel: Pennsylvania's gonna be real important in this election, I'd just like to ask a couple of questions if I can. Finally, I asked her who she was supporting.

"John McCain."

She said this in such an emphatic way that there was really nothing else to say. And in fact, there was nothing else to say in the script either, except "thank you" and "goodbye." But there she was on the other end of the line, awaiting words.

"OK, there you go. Well... Have a really great evening and..."

"Thank you."

"And, uh... good luck."

Just before I hung up I heard her on the other end of the line, in a tone of aghast outrage:

"Good luck?!?"

My most remarkable call was with a man in West Virginia, maybe 50 or so. He spoke in a mountain drawl and was a bit animated from the start, which made me afraid things might go bad. But it actually went something like this:

"Now listen, I ain't got nothin' against that man. Obama. Ain't got nothin' against him, ya hear?"

"Yup, that's great."

"I think I'm leaning a little bit to McCain."

I'd been wary, but I was surprised and encouraged by the words "leaning a little bit." I decided to depart recklessly from the script.

"Why is it that you feel that way?"

"Well, listen. I been hearin' this thing of how Barack Obama's gonna spread the wealth. And that is one thing I... That is one thing I cannot stand for. That is the one thing, I do not like that. Ain't got nothin' against the man."

"You know though, John McCain believes in exactly the same system of taxation that Obama was describing. That's the same system McCain believes in."

"Yeah I know, I know, but it's them words, ya know? Them words, spread the wealth."

"You think it's a poor choice of words."

"Yeah! Exactly. It's a poor choice of words. But it don't got nothin' to do with the man in any way! I been listenin' to him and he's intelligent, I like what he says mostly. Listen. I been a lifelong Democrat. But I voted for Bush in 2000 and in 2004. I voted for Bush in 2000 'cause Gore wanted to take my guns away, and ya see, I'm a hunter..."

"You know that Barack Obama specifically does not want to take guns away from hunters..."

"Yeah, I know that. I know that. Now, I did not vote for Kerry 'cause I hated Kerry. Hated the man. But then Bush wasn't so good neither."


"Listen, some of my friends, they called me racist. I ain't no racist. But some of my friends, they called me racist 'cause in the primary, they asked me who I was votin' for, I said Hillary. Now, they accuse me of racism. I tell them, if I'd a voted for him they woulda accused me of sexism."

"That's a very, very good point."

"It don't matter to me what color you are or what gender you are."

"That's great, it's really great to hear that."

"It's just that if he means to take my money that I make and spread it around, I can't take that."

"You know that with Obama as president, you'd get a tax cut if you make less than $200,000 a year, right? And John McCain would be giving his tax cut to rich people. Obama's going to help working people keep more of their money."

"Yeah, I heard about that."

"And health care - he's going to save every family $2,500 on health care by fighting the insurance companies."

"Yeah, that's good."

"If you look at the issues, you can see how much more he can help people. See, the thing about a choice of words is that it's been a long campaign, and lots of things have been said, so sometimes someone uses a poor choice of words. Happens to everybody. But you gotta look past the words sometimes to see what the actual policies are all about. See who cares about the issues that are most important to you and to your loved ones."

"I know whatcha mean. I got nothin' against the man, nothin' against the man. I ain't decided about the whole thing, that's the truth."

"Is there anything else about Obama that you have questions about?"

"This one other thing, ya know, this thing I been hearin' that if Obama is elected it'll be him an' Pelosi an' whatshisname, uh, Henry, uh..."

"Harry Reid."

"Yeah, all of them together, that it ain't good for the country because they get to spread the money around anyway they like. But I dunno..."

"Yeah, I don't think it's like that. I think John McCain kind of feels like he's up against the ropes right now, and every day he tries saying something different, and that's because he doesn't have anything good to say to people about policies and what he would actually do."

"Yeah, I suppose it's like that, yeah. I dunno. I'm thinkin' 'bout it. I dunno what I'm gonna do."

"This has been a really great conversation, and it sounds like you're still thinking about things, and that's great."

"Oh yeah! I'll be thinkin' 'bout it, that's for sure. I won't know what I'm gonna do until I'm right up there in that booth."

"You've got a few days to think about everything, and, you know, obviously, on Tuesday, I hope you make the decision for Obama."

"You know what, I think I'm leaning in that direction."

As I brought the dishes to the sink I heard the shrieking of a woman on the street. The sound was guttural and strangulated, near-human, like the barking of a dog.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

He's Black!

The gnawing fear I have in my gut right now, about the election, is this: At the penultimate moment, National Guard soldiers will be called in to block the polls. They'll be arrayed in well-practiced formations around the perimeters, legs spread slightly, M-16s at the ready across their chests. Commanders will engage tactfully with the puzzled citizenry who'd hoped to exercise their franchise. They'll wave their arms: "No, no, no. Go home everyone. Go home peacefully, please."

"Why? What's going on?"

"No voting today, folks. Go home. Go peacefully."

"What do you mean, no voting?"

"There's no voting. John McCain has won. Go home."

"What do you mean he won?"

"There can be no election, people. There is no voting today. There is no voting for Barack Obama."

"No voting for Barack Obama?"

"He's BLACK. HE'S BLACK, FOLKS. The election is over. There is no voting. There is no voting for a black man. Go home."

Government officials and the Republican high and mighty will be on all the networks, asserting minute variations of the same message: "There can be no election today; one of the candidates is black. How dare anyone think that our nation might actually have gone through with this? Anyone who thought they could vote for Barack Obama is a fool. Of course they can't. He's BLACK. You didn't expect us to actually put our nation in that sort of peril, did you? You'll be glad we intervened. It's over now. Everyone remain calm."

There will be a flurry of outrage, but by the end of the afternoon we'll all grow tired, hungry. Docile. We'll cook dinner and eat it in front of reality TV, placing salty forkfuls in our mouths, masticating unhappily. We might cry a tear or two of shame. Really, what were we thinking? How naive, how stupid. To think we might have, today, voted a black man to the presidency of the United States! Of course they stopped us. Of course. What did we expect?

OK, that's my fear. If it doesn't happen, I think Obama's got a pretty good chance.

Illustration by Louise Asherson

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

We said funny, the rain in Philly on TV's not up here, but a minute later, it was, beating on the roof and windows. And now it's gone.

Friday, October 24, 2008

It was my turn so I asked M., who'd had his turn before. He told me where the meetings were being held.

"Go down the hall as far as you can go, basically. And then turn left."

I strode past islands of cubicles of people I never knew, noting the pictures of their kids and the novelty mugs and wilting flowers on their desks. The backs of their strange necks as they endured their interface with the screen. Finally I arrived at the most distant corner of the building, the ultimate point. The Lincoln Conference Room. N. was in there with K., a corpulent human resources manager with too much foundation on her face. Handshakes and hellos, enforced good cheer. N. had a pallor and an unsteady gaze. He seemed to begin many sentences, but only ended two or three. "You're job is being terminated" was one, simple enough, an easy one.
I hear the chugging of the dishwasher downstairs, the rattle of an errant saucer.

Then it stops. It thinks. It starts again.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Uniquely Manhattan Situation

I rode up Broadway on the M7 with N. from work, who'd enlisted me to help carry his washer and dryer from the master bedroom to the laundry nook of his new apartment, currently under renovation in a luxurious, Art Deco building on 72nd Street, a housing situation so fraught with legal acrimony, expense and painful, thankless labor that he confessed to me he might just give the whole thing up.

"That's a uniquely Manhattan situation right there," I noted, and he nodded vigorously.

Upstairs, his place - a beautiful, spacious two-bedroom with closets everywhere and a terrace out back facing the rear of some venerable old hotel - was dark and litter-strewn, silty with Sheetrock dust, a phenomenal shambles. A folding chair before a folding table bearing a solitary screwdriver. Buckets and piles of vague supplies. A printer, a TV, some other objects of normal living forming a poignant totem pole in the bathtub. A big roll of masking paper wound into a scroll, like a blank Torah on the floor. Holes in the wall awaiting switches and outlets, with multicolored wire-nutted wires erupting from the mysterious realms within their depths. N., conveying pride and queasy disgust in equal measures, tore some paper off the window so I could see the view.

We finagled the washer, then the dryer, into place. He thanked me, shook my hand. I said it's OK. He thanked me again. No problem, I'll see you tomorrow. He thanked me again and helped me with the door. Did I need help finding my way out? No. He thanked me, then thanked me again when I was halfway down the hall.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I've been intrigued by John McCain's recent reactions to questions from his audiences about Barack Obama - in particular the episode where an elderly woman asserted to him that Obama is an Arab. It's "good," of course, that McCain corrected the woman by countering that Obama is "decent, a family man, a citizen" and so on (although he doesn't bother to challenge the premise that there's something wrong with being an Arab, which CNN's Campbell Brown, among others I'm sure, has spoken out about). On the other hand, the pressure on McCain to settle down his increasingly bloodthirsty, vehement audience has been great - he probably had to do something whether he wanted to or not. His decision to so so might have been calculated, even timed somewhat - he used it in the debate last night, to claim that he'd taken steps to elevate the discourse but that Obama's campaign hadn't (a weak and laughable tactic, but what else does he have?). And of course, this might have been among the last glimmers of his fading moral conscience. He has shown it in the past, after all. But what really strikes me is his demeanor before he contradicts the woman. Watch the video again. When she says she "can't trust" Obama, McCain nods impatiently, the way you do when you're hearing something you wish you weren't hearing but you have to indulge for some reason. And after she calls him an Arab there's a dreadful beat before he starts repeating, "No ma'am" and takes the mic from her. Watch his face - ashen, tense, rueful. I imagine that in that moment the wheels were turning furiously in his head: "Do I have to say something? Fuck, I have to say something. Goddammit." And he forces himself - a personification of the expression "bite the bullet" - to produce the words and the body language that in the end form a quite gracious gesture toward Obama, the way these kinds of gestures often come off when they are produced under great duress (again, apologies are owed to the millions upon millions of Arabs who may rightly be insulted). It's to his credit that he did it, but also to his discredit that it was evidently that difficult. It was a complex, powerfully dramatic moment - it could have been McCain saving his reputation, saving himself as a politician, saving himself as a human being. He'd probably like to think he was saving his campaign, but I don't think that's the case.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The All-American Witch Hunt

The increasing venom of crowds at McCain-Palin rallies indicates that a certain segment of the population has taken the innuendo and slanderous accusations of unscrupulous Republican campaign strategists completely literally. In other words, they believe that Obama is a Muslim terrorist. They imagine that through some strange and cruel chain of events, the evil "other" represented by 9/11 hijackers and by Osama bin Laden is now incarnate in the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. Many of these people already hold some form or other of Biblical apocalypse fantasy alive in their imaginations, so it is not hard for them to believe that God is testing, or Satan is tempting, the good people of our country in this election as some necessary step in a process that also includes the breakdown of our civilization (i.e., economy), a war with heathens in the Middle East, the End of Days (global warming?) and the Rapture. Considering this point of view, it's not terribly difficult to understand why some people consider Obama's identity as the Antichrist to be a matter of fact beyond any question whatsoever. So it's even sort of poignant when, for example, a woman tells McCain how terrified she is of Obama because he "is an Arab." She really believes Obama is an Arab and is terrified that the United States will be ruled by an Arab terrorist. It's easy for us - the "reality-based community" - to dismiss a lot of the Republican lies and smears about Obama as laughable and obviously untrue. Of course, that's what they are. But the mistake we're making is to trust that while some are laughing and others are keeping a straight face, everyone is in on the joke. That even if McCain supporters want to believe them or pretend that they're true, they must know they're lies. The chilling fact is that many people believe them wholeheartedly, sincerely. They are terrified to the core of their souls that Barack Obama, an Islamist terrorist, will be elected president. "Kill him!" "Off with his head!" they scream. This election is an all-American witch hunt. That's what we're up against.

Friday, October 10, 2008

An Open Letter to Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia, though an Obama supporter, really likes Sarah Palin and is ridiculing anyone who disagrees.

Camille: You say, "People who can’t see how smart Palin is are trapped in their own narrow parochialism — the tedious, hackneyed forms of their upper-middle-class syntax and vocabulary." Then, in an astounding and head-spinning paragraph, you compare Palin's tortured expression to that of your Italian-American relatives, the "expressiveness of highly talented students in dance, music and the visual arts," and finally, to Shakespeare, "the greatest improviser of them all at a time when there were no grammar rules."

While it may be true that Sarah Palin has discarded the rules of English and is improvising furiously, I've read William Shakespeare, and she, Sarah Palin, is no William Shakespeare.

Camille: You're transparently, painfully, chronically eager to play the contrarian, to fly in the face of "liberal orthodoxies," to knock your fellow intellectuals and academics down a peg. Do you do it to sustain yourself, to define yourself and find a reason to survive? You just do it for fun, in the end, don't you? Admit it.

Here's a quote from Sarah Palin at the vice-presidential debate:

"I'm not one to attribute every man — activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet. But there are real changes going on in our climate. And I don't want to argue about the causes. What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?"

She doesn't want to argue about the causes but wants to "positively affect the impacts"?!

Camille, how dare you undermine the importance of coherent thought and diction 1) as a person of coherent thought and diction, 2) for any reason whatsoever, and 3) in a potential president of the United States!? You have made a career out of your own athletic, virtuosic command of language. It is a hypocritical, cynical and PERVERSE game that you are playing by lending your own linguistic skills in defense of someone who is plainly struggling to form more than one sentence at a time that makes any sense at all. We're trapped in the hackneyed forms of our upper-middle-class syntax, are we? You've got a worse problem altogether. You're so good with words that you can eloquently disparage eloquence. And you can't resist the temptation.

Something also needs to be said about Palin's character, apart from her mind. You praise her "frontier grit and audacity," which suggests that she has some deep-seated, indomitable spirit. I think it's more likely you were seduced, like so many others, by the notion of a lipsticked hot girl shooting a moose. She has - in collaboration with McCain campaign handlers - withdrawn almost completely from media inquiry (not that she was too engaged to begin with). For the sake of argument, let's say the media are biased to the left, that they might set traps for Palin, that Katie Couric is a "viper." This is still the "filter," to coin Palin's term, through which the people in a free society learn about their politicians, their country, the world. For a vice-presidential candidate to respond to journalists' questions so incoherently and opaquely, then to cry "foul," and ultimately to recoil from the media with a month to go before this crucial election is shallow and craven in the highest degree. Barack Obama went on O'Reilly!

Camille, for Christ's sake. This person wants to be vice president of the United States. I know it's cute and fun and cheeky to be as smart as you are and yet to elevate stupidity. (I think you tipped your hand when you wrote, "As a Yale Ph.D., I have a perfect right to my scorn." A self-hating genius! Who knew.) But here's the problem: There is a culture in our country, I'm sure you'll agree, that is wary of intellectuals the way people once were (and in some cases still are) wary of blacks, or of Jews. I'm going to try not to point my snobbish finger at any particular group right now, but I think you'd be hard pressed to deny that a very big part of the George W. Bush phenomenon, and thus a key reason we are in such dire straits today at home and abroad, is that Bush and his ilk managed to demonize book smarts, intellectualism, Ph.D.'s and so on as elite, effete, out of touch, you know, gay. (I wonder if Palin's church has a program for sinners to "journey away" from thought.) You should be careful what you're promoting as you laugh heartily at your TV set. Don't underestimate the hysterical venom that the Bush era has actually managed to inspire in Americans against people like you - like us. Don't we agree that we need a change, at last?

You celebrate Sarah Palin's vitality and underestimate her stupidity at our peril.
As I crossed the no-man's land near the side door between our side of the office and the other I came across a stupefying sight: A man in ordinary business clothes, tending to fresh pages from a copy machine, wearing a ludicrous magic-marker mustache, curled at the tips. Our eyes met for the briefest moment and his expression was solemn and weary, betraying nothing.

You Couldn't Make This Stuff Up

In the office above the fancy restaurant, through the sheer curtain: the silhouette of a printer.

A Coke bottle on the hood of a bright red car.

And down in the tracks of the uptown 1 at 50th Street, several family-size squeeze bottles of Heinz tomato ketchup.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Take (To the Item)

You may think GATT stands for General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. I learned otherwise at my Duane Reade today. I was waiting at the pharmacy counter in the back of the store, a tiny, two-aisle outpost that opened weeks ago just as the big one a couple of blocks down closed, a sign of these lean times, perhaps. The workers-only area behind the counter already had a sign up warning employees: "No cellphones, no food, no drink, no magazines." I imagined this had been mandated by the crotchety old pharmacist in charge, a living New York City type: brusque, gruff, bitter, unfulfilled; and yet charmingly chatty when the mood struck. Beside this sign was another, more fascinating one:

Always remember GATT!!

G - Greet
A - Anticipate
T - Take (to the item)
T - Thank

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Sometimes when you see a George Bush press conference on TV - when they're not really showing any questions and answers, but they just want a bit of coverage to let you know this is what they're talking about - they shoot Bush in profile, and you can see his posture behind the lectern. Watch next time. He keeps one of his feet - his left? - up on the tip of his shoe, as though he were kicking the floor, or in fact as if his foot were broken and he'd been dragging it behind him. I'm tempted to say this points out some deep-seated corruption in his soul, a fundamental lack of character. But it's probably more in the category of things that have, dangerously, endeared him to people. It's winning and childlike, almost girlish - the gesture of an overanimated adolescent who doesn't yet know how to still her hungry limbs. In a sense it belies any notion of him as a tyrant, a torturer, a war criminal. But it emblemizes his particular sociopathy: the wide-eyed boy-king, oblivious; unwise to the world and to the deleterious consequences of his power.

Monday, October 06, 2008

There's a sepulchral quiet at the bar at a minute to one on Sunday afternoon. A nice guy and his dog. A man slumped back in his chair at the bar, watching some terrible baseball documentary. The so-called glory days of Sosa and McGwire. We ask for TVs turned on to our respective games and the flickering glow intensifies the silence. Finally, I ask for some volume.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The carpet had tiny little flowers. The carpet was maroon. And where there was a seam, a seam in the carpet - where there was a seam that once had opened - a seam that once had opened, had opened so that fabric might erupt. Erupt, trip up a drunken player as he circumnavigated. As he circumnavigated the table. There was safety orange tape.

The chalk made a little melody upon the cue stick tip.

A fat man in a little shirt.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

There's an interesting passage in Bob Woodward's new book, "The War Within," as described in Jill Abramson's review in The New York Times:

In "Plan of Attack," the author’s doubts grow. When Bush tells him that "freedom is God’s gift to everybody in the world. . . . I believe we have a duty to free people," Woodward, in a rare interpolation, asks whether such a conviction might seem "dangerously paternalistic." "Those who become free appreciate the zeal" is the president’s retort.

"Those who become free appreciate the zeal?" I read and reread this apparent non-sequitur with some fascination. What could Bush possibly mean? Certainly he's had a history of offering churlish, dismissive responses to reporters, especially when he feels cornered. But there's something especially odd in the specificity of his statement here, given that it does not follow from the question. I felt there was something there to puzzle out, and here's my theory: George Bush does not know what "paternalistic" means. Of course, he's not going to betray his ignorance - he's going to think on his feet and make some half-assed guess as to what it may mean, cross his fingers, and toss out a reply. I think he assumed the root of "paternalistic" was the word "pattern," and that Woodward was therefore accusing him of trying to impose some sort of pattern upon the world. Therefore, he may well be accused of, or applauded for, zeal, in the sense of the zeal of an infant intent on fitting pegs into the appropriately shaped holes.