I walked up and down flat and hilly streets near my home yesterday, canvassing for an at-large city council candidate. I thoroughly enjoyed this, especially stopping to talk with people. Here and there, I managed to convince a few individuals to vote for her, a local church minister who, like me, cares deeply about the city where she and I both live and work.
At one house, I struck up a conversation with a retired, widowed social worker. She identified herself as a complete supporter and I duly noted down her wish to have a sign for the candidate placed in front of her house. Her squinting right eye behind glasses and yellow-white hair conveyed for me the sense that she had seen a lot in life. Her strong, clear voice kept my attention on everything she said– that and our mutual concerns and interests from training and working in the same field. I learned some history about social services in my newly-adopted hometown, things President L. B. Johnson had said concerning Civil Rights, and a lot of this woman’s personal background. Her father had also been a social worker and was involved with a settlement house somehow. (Already, details elude me here.)
I was tangibly reminded how I am part of an ever-shifting, but persisting historical movement of similarly concerned people. This sagely yet lively woman shared names of other engaged citizens with whom she had been closely networked one way or another, such as through church or past work. She had known this city council candidate’s family well–“before she was born,” she declared, her voice going up a few notes. Her right hand shot upward for emphasis. She smiled for what seemed like the thousandth time. This candidate is now a minister at the church she has attended for decades, the widow stated happily. This brand-new friend (to be) of mine– for I really could not help but like and respect her– had sat on the local school committee for about ten years or so. She has three grand children, “my only grandchildren,” she said, “But I have to fly down South to see them.”
Meeting an elder colleague who had been in local electoral politics felt invigorating and affirming. My mind raced along to make all the connections she was describing, work-wise, family-wise, community-wise. Intermittently, I felt like I was back in graduate school, listening to a seasoned professor excitedly share some anecdotes before returning to her lecture notes.
I had to pull myself away from our conversation, there being so many more doors to knock on and people to kindly persuade. While I walked away, this woman declared for about the third time, “I think you’d be great on our ward’s Democratic committee! We’ve only got six members and there’s supposed to be thirty-five. We need to get you on there.”
I said I’d seriously think about it and we agreed to keep in touch.
This is what being part of a neighborhood feels like, I find myself thinking as I write this.
A short while later, I struck up a conversation with a ginger bearded, mustached man who was probably in his early thirties. Bluntly, he stated right away that he doesn’t vote, but has concerns about the environment, such as “getting recycling right.” I explained how my candidate J.F. is concerned as well about this issue, the environment overall, and is open to ideas around streamlining and improving local recycling, in addition to having some possible solutions for it. The guy softened and engaged further, expressing a wish that small businesses could be given tax breaks somehow to make it easier to start up here, particularly for his friends who are into micro-brewing.
“Yes, S. [neighboring city] shouldn’t have all the microbreweries around like it seems to,” I remarked. I agreed with him whole-heartedly about the diversity of products and individuals small businesses can bring to a city, not to mention such places of commerce being far more interesting and personable than corporate, big box stores.
He expressed an openness to consider actually voting next month and most likely for J.F.
My third and final conversation of substance was with a man walking his dog, a white, curly-haired creature with deep brown eyes. In between puffs on his cigarette, this forty-something man spoke animatedly from a long, thin face with bright blue eyes. “Don’t get me started….This street here is set far in from [C. and R. Streets, the downtown’s two main thoroughfares]. They do a lot over by C. and R., but the road here hasn’t been repaired in years…There needs to be a stop sign down at that corner…I don’t think they’re thinking about the congestion we’ll have from all the big condo. developments going up on R….There’s a lot that needs to be done.” The man rattled off a few ideas.
The dialogue eased along into sharing about our personal backgrounds. I remarked on his last name Cushing being rare and how he looked a lot like the late British film actor Peter Cushing. “The resemblance is uncanny actually, with your eyes and long face like Peter’s. I’m sure you’re related.”
He knew of this thespian and explained that he probably is some distant cousin of his. “There’s the Cushing’s in Ireland and then there was the English side.”
“Peter was clearly on your English side,” I added.
I asked if he was descended from Justice Cushing, one of the very first judge’s to sit on the U.S. Supreme court.
“Yes, Caleb Cushing. I’m descended from him.” He explained how, but I’ve already forgotten. “My family goes a pretty long ways back here.”
I encouraged this Mr. Cushing to contact J.F. and tell her all of his concerns. I stressed how she is open to hearing from residents. Handing him a slip of paper with our own Ward 3 councilor’s name on it, I stated how the official– our own neighborhood representative– really needs to hear from him, given all his valid concerns and ideas for solutions. He expressed interest in calling the council member and agreed to find out more about J.F. and her platform before possibly voting for her. I thanked the man for all his time and walked on ahead while he moseyed along with his slow-moving white dog.
Sweating from the warm day and brisk walking, my heart pumping with enthusiasm to connect with my neighbors and spread the good word about a local office candidate, I engaged in our representative democracy on the ground, literally. This felt like being truly American, at the grassroots level, the base of it all: house by house, street by street. I was breathing, thinking, walking, speaking– living– democracy. Democracy is me, my friends, my neighbors. Democracy is us.