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Swetha Regunathan : City of Otherly Love

October 27, 2008

Swetha Regunathan

Tucked somewhere between New Jersey and California is a town renowned for its love. Its founders were the original peaceniks, and its native dishes are the cheesesteak, mass produced cream cheese, and that mysterious second cousin to the sub sandwich – the hoagie. When we first arrived at the Democratic Party headquarters in Northeast Philly, our organizer debriefed us on the demographics of the neighborhood we’d be canvassing in. “They love the Eagles, they love the Phillies, they love tomato pie!” All things considered, it’s a big town, a liberal town, where one at once hears the peal of liberty and the squawk of an Eagles fan.

It was, therefore, a little more than shocking when I met with the following at one of my stops on the canvassing trail: “There’s no way in hell I’m votin’ for Osama Bin Laden.” We’d been told to speak with people as much as we could, or at least, for as long as they’d let us. So I tried.

“That’s not his name, sir!” I said with a patronizing smile, as the gentleman backed away from his door.

“Oh – isn’t it?!” he retorted. I ate wood.

I’d also encountered a family who had just moved into their home. Their young kids – one girl and one boy – grew excited with the sudden arrival of guests (my partner and myself) and ran around the room while asking us questions. I helped their mother complete a voter registration form for herself and her husband while he installed a new dishwasher. “Honey, which party do you want to register for?” she called out to him.

“Republican,” he snapped. “And you are too.” She nodded, proceeded with the form, and quietly asked for some of our literature as we walked out.

Despite these and other sour episodes on our trail, I won’t forget the one Joe who broke free of the six-pack. “I don’t normally vote Democrat, but I hate Sarah Palin. I hate her winking. I hate that she tries to flirt with me, as a man. How dare she insult my intelligence!”

Of course, there was a fair share of those who were undecided, who took a genuine interest in hearing our thoughts on the candidates. I couldn’t help but feel like an engine of change, a real messenger. There was an intimacy among us, a warm glow to the whole affair, as though our doorside chats might ignite a discussion at the dinner table that evening, or a few lines around the water cooler on Monday.

It’s hard to say who the first canvassers were. The apostles – despite less sassy buttons and some bulkier literature – may have been. Admittedly, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a missionary myself, hoping to sway undecided voters and convert those on the other side. Was this fair, I wondered? After all, what right did I – a twentysomething from Brooklyn who had neither a family to support nor a clue about this neighborhood’s economic struggles – have to knock on these doors, intrude on these people’s weekends? Not to mention I’d also been mistaken for a Jehovah’s Witness.

Though I conflated canvassing with proselytizing, I realized we weren’t pushing an agenda. We weren’t prophesying better times ahead. We were simply the blind leading the blind, with the faith that the views of the side we were on were consistent with our own, and the hope that our pithy conversations with the people of this neighborhood would encourage them to talk to their own family members, neighbors, coworkers, and friends about the issues of concern to them. After all, it was in the city of sisterly love that I was encouraged by an 83 year-old woman and registered Democrat. “My husband is in the hospital, dear,” she explained calmly, with a broad smile. “But you go get ‘em.”

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