If you’re not Episcopalian, Anglican, Advent Christian, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Mormon, Unitarian, Roman Catholic or one of the many Baptist varietals—or if you’re a Jew who likes to jog, you pretty much have the streets of downtown Wilmington to yourself on a Sunday morning. I usually run over to the nearby city park/rec center, which consists of some fenced-in baseball fields and an expanse of ill-kept grassy ground around the perimeter. It’s the soft ground I’m looking for and most often, I have the field to myself.
There are three and a half pages of Church listings in the Wilmington Area phone book, followed by listings for Cigar and Cigarette Lighters; so if you’re not in church, and you’re not jogging, you’re probably smoking on a Sunday morning. Two Sundays ago, I run to the park, and the usually deserted baseball field has a couple of observers. There are two black men sitting side-by-side in the bleachers, right next to the dugout. They peer out at the ball field, not talking much, occasionally taking a phone call or a drag of a cigarette. I nod hello and continue my laps around the field, and we all go about our business without much interest in the others’.
Around Lap 4, the men start to chat and look around the field, and I notice that they start to take an interest in my run around the bleachers. I’m just about to round first base when the man closest to the dugout yells: “How many times you gon’ go ‘round?”
I chuckle, and smile to myself. And then I decide to ask his opinion. “I don’t know,” I counter. “How many do you think I should do?”
He cocks his head, thinks a moment, and shouts: “Eight! I think you shuh’ do eight.”
“Hmm. That’s about four more,” I tell him. “I can do that.” I continue my jog with an end point in mind. I now have a coach—better yet, an audience; and I now feel highly accountable for my progress.
As I head into Lap 7, I notice a commotion coming from the bleachers. Dugout Man is yelling straight-ahead, cussing and madly gesticulating into the air. It takes me a second to realize he’s yelling into the phone, not at his friend, who sits calmly by, unfazed by the smack-talking, and continues to stare out towards the pitcher’s mound. Dugout Man’s words grow louder and fouler, and his energy flies off him like a boxer’s beads of angry sweat.
I take a wider berth around the bleachers to give the scene some space, but I can still hear the fuss. As I near the back of home plate, he’s feverishly conjugating the word “fuck.” He sees me pass by and he jerks the phone down, cranes his head around and yells: “Fo’ mo’! You got FO’ MO’”!
I chortle, and then shake my head; I’m thoroughly enjoying the progression of antics. Without a second thought, or even a “hold on a minute” to the person on the other end of the phone, he’s interrupted his tirade to let me know he’s on top of today’s workout. No cheating!
“Oh, man, come on,” I call out over my shoulder: “I already did eight. You lost count!” He waves me off and without missing a beat, he puts the phone back up to his ear and resumes his string of F-bombs. His tucks his thumb and throws the back of his free hand over his shoulder, four fingers pointing defiantly into the air.
On my way back, I pass a group of people on South 5th Avenue just getting out of Catholic Church. They’re milling about on the sidewalk and I step off the walkway and into the street, to give them time and space to congregate. Inevitably, they turn to watch me as I run by. One woman nods hello, taking in my purple face, my shorts, my irreverent Rock Star Energy Drink baseball hat, and she lets her gaze linger a bit. There’s a trace of a smile on her face.
I think of telling her I went to the early, early service; that’s why I’m out running, instead of just out of church, on a Sunday morning. Instead, I think of the men on the bleachers and how our disparate lives intersected, in such a positive way; I realize the interaction has left me feeling hopeful—about what, I can’t exactly say, it’s just a general feeling of increased well-being and inspiration for the day, and separate from the runner’s high that’s still coursing through my veins.
* * *
After my run I go to the store and on the drive home, at the corner of Dawson and Oleander, I see an oversized Romney sign draped over an entire building. “’Hope’ is not a Strategy” it reads, the word hope italicized and in quotes, as though hope is something to be mocked, and isolated for dramatic effect. It occurs to me that, in addition to using the word “not” and thereby putting a negative twist on a positive call to action – a basic law of attraction no-no – Romney has utterly missed the mark.
Because someone once taught me that sometimes, hope is the only strategy.
* * *
An old boyfriend had a roommate named John, who soon became my favorite member of their household. John and I were fast friends, enjoying the same stupid movies, laughing at ourselves and generally sharing a similar light-hearted outlook on life. John was loud, theatrical and his laughter rang throughout the apartment, up the walls and out into the street, disturbing the neighbors at all hours of day and night.
Before I knew him, John had tried to commit suicide, more than once. The first two-times were half-hearted, he told me. “I was too depressed to really figure out how to do it, like how to actually make it happen. That’s what people don’t understand,” he said. “The real risk isn’t when people are totally depressed; it’s when they feel capable enough to figure it out, you know? When they can muster up the energy to devise a plan–that’s when they actually go through with it.”
The third time, he had a plan. In telling me his story, he didn’t tell me what that plan was but he told me what happened to change his mind, and he told me something I’ve never forgotten. “People commit suicide because they don’t have hope,” said John. He watched my face and then paused, letting it sink in. “That’s it. It’s that simple. They don’t think things will ever get better—and it’s not always that they think they’ll get worse; their biggest fear, truly, is that things will never change. They’ve lost all hope. That’s why people do it.”
He was on the brink of his first successful attempt at killing himself, he continued, when the phone rang. “All day, I’d been waiting for a sign, for something to happen, for some way to know that this wasn’t the final answer. And the phone rang. It was my sister. She invited me over for dinner, with the husband and the kids. Yeah, she was like, ‘What are you doin’? Want to join us for dinner? The kids are asking about you and I haven’t seen you in awhile. Come over.’”
It wasn’t a gushy phone call, it wasn’t a plea for sanity or an impassioned intervention; it was just a natural human gesture: sister to brother, niece and nephew to uncle, one person reaching out to another, at exactly the right time. “I thanked her for calling,” said John. “I told her no, I hadn’t eaten. And then I went over for dinner.”
We both sat there in silence; I didn’t know what to say, and he smiled, ever so slightly, perhaps feeling the unbearable lightness of being unburdened, at last. “I can’t even tell you what that was about. It just gave me hope, for some reason. I realized I mattered to someone.” He laughed his maniacal laughter, jolting us both out of our separate reveries. I put that wisdom in a box, to be opened only in case of emergency: sometimes “hope” is the only strategy.
* * *
Hope permeates our lives, from religion, to relationships to the recent political season. Recently, I moved from a place where 97% of the population thinks – and looks – like me; when I complained to a Colorado friend that my car got egged on Halloween, he told me the Republican Headquarters back home got egged—again. And so, my vote in North Carolina seems to matter more—this election, it feels heavier; it feels like it actually carries more civic weight than it did in Aspen, Colorado.
Last election, my mom flew across the country and canvassed her way back to California. She teamed up with various Democratic volunteers and knocked on doors—for about eight weeks. It felt like the country was more hopeful last election; personally, I felt more hopeful last election.
This time around, I feel compelled to make more of an effort. For some reason, voting early and parading around with my “I Voted” sticker and then hoping for the best doesn’t feel like enough. I respond to an email from Moveon.org, and I agree to volunteer to help out during the final days of voting season.
Monday morning, I show up at the Democratic Headquarters, strategically located on 9th street next to the organic coffee at Folk’s Café. They have urns of coffee to fuel the volunteers and Jason, the campaign coordinator said, “Thanks so much for coming out! We need all the help we can get. Do you want to make some phone calls, or would you like to knock on some doors?”
I definitely want to knock on some doors. I’m curious who’s behind them, and what kind of conversations we might have. Turns out, they only send you to like-minded doorways, so there was no call for persuasive rhetoric, rebuttal or even political peer-pressure to vote; most everyone isn’t home, and those that are have already voted, are late to work and quickly thank me for stopping by. Gobama!
I park at Castle and 3rd and walked down towards Greenfield Street, stopping at random house numbers owned or rented by registered Democrats. I cross the railroad tracks, wait for the traffic to subside and turn left on Meares Street, looking for my first side-street address. Rosa Miller is already out on her sidewalk, waiting for some diversion to walk by. She seems happy to see me.
I ask Rosa if she’s voted.
“Yes, I already did,” she replies.
“Great!” I say. “Thanks for getting—“
“Yes Ma’am. I voted for Romney,” Rosa declares, cutting me off mid-sentence.
There was a time when I maintained I didn’t care who you voted for as long as you exercised your right to vote—but I admit, my stance has changed in the last four years. However, upon hearing Rosa’s vote for Romney, I silence my true feelings and hear myself say, half-heartedly: “Well, OK, as long as you voted! That’s what counts.”
“That’s right. I voted for Romney,” she repeats, “because Obama wouldn’t let me kiss his SEX-Y lips.”
There’s a moment of silence, and then she bursts into laughter. I laugh too, in relief, and at myself, for my surprise and what must have been the totally bewildered look on my face.
“I got you good!” she says, pointing her finger at me. “Come on girl. I vote for
o-BAMA! Romney is the devil. That man the devil. Michelle, and the kids, they’re such a loving family. Them kids is so well-behaved, and smart, and Obama and Michelle, they love each other. Michelle won’t let no one touch her man, that’s right. Gimme some a’ that. Oh well.”
Rosa has a cane, and one bad eye turned up toward the sky, a thin membrane covering the space where sight used to be. Her other eye is fine and though she’s smells like she’s been drinking this morning, her words and clear and deep. “My son come home from school when he was little, cryin’. This little white girl he used to play with come to class one day and start yellin’ at him at recess, sayin’ things like “Ku Klux Klan, nigger nigger, you’re dumb,” and my little boy, he ast me, ‘Mama, why she start sayin’ those things to me?’ And I tell him, I say, “Baby, it’s not her fault. It’s her parents fault. They ignorant and now, she gone be ignorant, too.” She pauses. “Hey, where you from, Miss Jamie?”
I tell her I’m from the mountains of Colorado, elevation 8,000 feet.
“Woo-wee!” says Rosa. “Shoa is differen’ here for you, huh?”
I nod, and say, “Yes, it really is. There’s too much oxygen down here, Rosa; I can’t think straight!”
She chuckles and shakes her head, patting my hand. “Well I like yo’energy. You got a nice sense of humor. Alright baby, thanks fo’ comin’ by.”
She walks me next door in search of the next person on my list, a Nellie Foster. There is an old woman sitting on the front porch and I realize she’s already seen me, and has heard most of our conversation. She smiles at me, her eyes sparkling, mirthful, optimistic about something today. I introduce myself and she nods, and shakes my hand.
“I like your beautiful flowers,” I say, gesturing toward matching planters of fake yellow and pink roses, a few faded blossoms clinging to the weathered stems.
“They’re fake,” replies Nellie, stating the obvious. “But I really like ‘em. My former husband gave ‘em to me. He’s gone now. They used to be a full a’ flowers, but someone keeps messin’ wit’ ‘em.” A frown narrows her sparkling eyes and she sits down, settling herself in the porch swing, and sighs. “Where you from, Baby? Colorado? Ooo, big change for you, huh? You like it down hea’?”
Nellie Foster is 83 years old. Her former husband has passed away and now, she lives alone on the edge of Meares Street. Rosa lives next door and keeps an eye on her, calls herself Nellie’s guardian. Nellie lived in Brooklyn for many years, which she didn’t like: “Too cold! And too many damn people.” She likes it here well-enough and the sunshine feels nice today. It’s a good day to sit outside. I ask Nellie if she’s voted and she said, “No, baby, I cain’t get to the polls, I haven’t voted in years.”
I’ve only committed to canvassing today and they have people on-call to help drive people to the polls tomorrow, but now, I want to be the one who makes it happen.
I tell Nellie I’ll give her a ride. Suddenly, capturing Nellie’s vote seems like the most important thing in the world. I think of how she’ll feel; I think of how the people who help her with the voting booth and show her how the computerized ballot works and escort her back downstairs will feel; every vote counts, and I feel certain that Nellie’s vote will count more than ever.
Rosa has joined us on the porch. She tells me that Nellie doesn’t go anywhere without her, but tomorrow morning around 11 could work, yes. Nellie says she can go earlier, but Rosa tells us she’s busy in the morning. She needs to get her brace on, and then wait for her check. She can’t leave the house to help Nellie before 11. “How ‘bout today?” asks Rosa. “Can she go today? “
Early voting has ended and we all feel a little disappointed; it’s a beautiful, hopeful day, a good day to go for a drive, cast a vote; be a hero.
‘Oh, that’s OK, I can’t find my pocketbook, anyway,” says Nellie, patting her hair, telling me she really needs to find her headscarf. I tell them I’ll come back tomorrow, 11 a.m. and I’ll drive them to Mount Olive Church, just four blocks away. And Nellie will finally be able to vote for President Obama.
I shake both their hands, again, thank them for their efforts and I say to Nellie, “I’ll see you tomorrow. Are you excited?’
She looks at me, eyes thick with emotion and says “Yes. Yes, baby, I am. I’m very excited.”
* * *
Election Day is cold and windy and mid-morning, it starts to rain. I pull up to Nellie’s house around 10:45 and she’s on the front porch, gently rocking in the swing. She nods hello, visibly fatigued, no trace of yesterday’s optimism on today’s porch.
“Good morning Nellie! Are you ready to vote??” I try a light-hearted approach, smiling and doing a little we’re-gonna-go-vote dance. I’d already called the people at Mount Olive to let them know Nellie was coming, so they could help make it as easy as possible for her. I could bring her right up to the curb; she didn’t even have to get out of the car.
I share this good news. I tell her we’re all set.
“Where’s Rosa?” asks Nellie, a worried look on her face. She shuffles side to side, left foot, right foot, and looks around for Rosa.
“We can wait for Rosa, no problem,” I say. “I’m a little early.”
“Oh, I dunno, Baby. I’m not feelin’ too well today.” Nellie clutches her cardigan and wraps it tightly around her chest. The hopeful mood is gone. Yesterday’s excitement is today’s exhaustion, and Nellie doesn’t want to leave her porch. She rocks back and forth, shakes her head and looks down at the steps. “I just don’ think I’m feelin’ up to it.”
“Are you sure?” I am trying to find the right tone, a blend of patience and persuasion, hoping to convince her to head to the polls – it’ll be quick! – and it’ll feel so good; she’ll be so happy she voted.
In a flash of self-awareness, I realize I’m over-invested in this outcome. I mentally step outside myself and start to observe what’s really happening here.
Helping Nellie leave her porch, and cast her vote, feels like hope. And that’s why I’m here: I want to tell the story of how I drove an 83 year-old woman named Nellie to the polls; I want to share how good it felt to help her into the car, to see her face after she voted, to hear how she felt after voting for the first time in years. I want to hear how my action made a difference. I want to take a picture and I want to send it to my mom, to let her know I’m doing alright and I’m doing good things, and she doesn’t have to worry about me in this random new place where I’m trying to feel at home.
I want a happy ending because it will make me feel good and while I’m still convinced that casting her vote will make Nellie feel good, too–right now, Nellie doesn’t feel well. I wait another moment or two and look out at the street, giving her time to gather her thoughts and see if she might feel up to it, after all.
I bring my gaze back to the porch and see Nellie patting her hair. She hasn’t found her headscarf. “I cain’t go anywhere lookin’ like this, Baby. I’m sorry. Oh, I don’t know. I think I need some aspirin. I’m not feelin’ well today. Well, I just think I’ll stay on home today. I’m sorry. I just – I’m sorry.”
I’ve regained my presence of mind and I reach out for her hand. I assure her it’s OK, it’s not a problem; I tell her it’s a nasty day and I think I’ll go home, too! I smile. I ask if I can get her anything.
“I’m alright, Baby. I thank you for your patience. You’ve been very kind.” I lean in and give her a hug. I tell her it was wonderful to meet her. “You take care, Baby,” says Nellie.
As I walk to my car I see Rosa, in an electric wheelchair, motoring down the sidewalk. She nods at me, but doesn’t say hello. Obama’s sexy lips are yesterday’s news; today, it’s raining, and the view from her front porch is a cold one. I start the car and she waves; I sit there a few more seconds, hoping she’s somehow changed Miss Nellie’s mind. I hear the shutter door slam shut. The porch is now deserted.
And then I drive away.
* * *
I run around the park on other days, as well. I haven’t seen the bench-warmers since that certain Sunday, but no matter what the day, or time, there’s a group of older men just across the street from the third base, sitting on someone’s front stoop in lawn chairs, with various refreshments scattered around and “Mmhmm’s” and Lawd Have Mercy’s” murmured up and down the sidewalk. It’s the world’s longest tailgate party to nowhere. They good-naturedly whistle at cars and ladies and while they’ve noticed me go by, they don’t seem to pay me much notice.
Thursday morning, I am all alone at the park. Halfway through my run and hoping for some sort of distraction, I reverse my direction: sometimes the slightest change in routine can save a waning workout. I am tired today. I turn up my music and try to quicken my pace. A new sound breaks into my favorite song, a strange, muffled lyric I’ve never heard before. Puzzled, I turn down the volume to investigate, and I realize the new sound is coming from across the street. One of the elderly tailgaters is on his feet, yelling, his hands cupped around his mouth: “You got three mo’!”