Door by Door: Canvassing in Pottstown

It’s been a divisive election that’s included tweets sent with vitriol, Spotify ads where Obama calmly tells you “progress is on the ballot, hope is on the ballot” in his soothing voice (please don’t leave me), YouTube ads, Facebook posts, open letters to ____ (insert literally any demographic/candidate here), and general internet shenanigans. Honestly, cyberspace is beginning to feel crowded. Everyone is jostling to be heard and every tweet sent with the hashtag #ImWithHer or #MakeAmericaGreatAgain is swallowed into the great swarm. None of it feels like it makes any difference.

Amidst all of this, with election day looming ever closer, I decided to do something new. Something firmly out of my comfort zone: canvass for Hillary in my hometown of Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Maybe it was an attempt to salvage some of my own sanity; maybe it was an excuse to visit home for the weekend. But I suspect that my true motivation was a desire to do everything I can this election before it’s over. I contributed monetarily, voted absentee in the primary from Italy, and I plan to vote on Tuesday. But sitting at home watching the debates and refreshing fivethirtyeight.com was getting to be unbearable. I wanted to hit the sidewalk and see the election from a different perspective. And after all was said and done, I didn’t want to have any regrets about how I ‘could have/should have done more.’

And here’s how it went.

7:30AM: I wake up. I wonder if it’s really worth it; what difference can one person make anyway? And my bed is so warm, so comfortable…

8:00AM: I roll my sorry, sorry self out of bed and get ready. The sun coming through the window throws the day into a fresh light: if nothing else, at least the election is almost over.

9:00AM: I arrive at the Pottstown Hillary headquarters with my aunt, a free-spirited artist who has agreed to accompany me on this endeavour. A resident of the borough of Pottstown (while I live just outside of Pottstown, across the river, in “Trump Territory”), she canvassed for Obama in 2008. As soon as we get into Hillary headquarters, she says, “This is way more of a production than Obama’s headquarters were.” The building used to house a cat store, but since the Hillary campaign has set up shop, it’s wallpapered in blue posters.

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It’s clearly makeshift, with an assortment of chairs from all walks of life, but it fits. And, oddly, the fact that it used to be a cat store fits in its own way too.

9:10AM: The Saturday morning crowd has arrived and it’s clear that the two youngest people in the room are me and one of the Pottstown campaign managers, Eleanor, who’s wearing a sweatshirt that says “YAS QUEEN” over a picture of Hillary. (It’s amusing to hear her try to explain this to the mostly-50+ crowd.) She explains that she’s from Manhattan, but has lived in Pottstown for the past 6 weeks working for the Hillary campaign. We go around the room and introduce ourselves – I proudly tell everyone this is my first time voting, which gets me an “aww.” Someone is from Maryland and came to Pennsylvania to help because Maryland almost always goes Democrat while Pennsylvania is a bit more up in the air. One lady in her 40s says that this is her first time voting. A few express that they’re crossing party lines to vote for and support Hillary. I remember again why I’m here. Eleanor says to hold onto our convictions in the coming hours, which are sure to be chilly and long.

9:30AM: It’s time to hit the road. We’re given two packets to complete, one of which has a list of 40 houses to hit and the other of which has 20. The packets include maps, polling place information, names, ages, and a script. My aunt and I practice the script in the car, and nerves climb when we realize that we’re going into the area of Pottstown that most people steer clear of if they can help it. Being from a more suburban area, I’ve spent almost no time in Pottstown. To most people, the residents of the borough are dangerous, poverty-stricken drug addicts. Even if this isn’t strictly true – as generalizations never are – there are certain places where crime statistics are higher than others. And we’re being sent right to the heart of it with a clipboard and stickers.

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9:45AM: We get to our street, telling ourselves that before noon on a Saturday is probably the safest time to be out and about, even wearing our political opinions quite literally on our sleeves (in the form of “I’m With Her” stickers). After all, the residents of the borough tend to vote fairly democratic. And today, we’re only knocking on doors of registered Democrats who have voted in a few past elections, but aren’t the most reliable voters. The aim is just to encourage them to make a plan to vote and ensure they know where their location is. We aren’t supposed to – and don’t want to – engage in political conversations or arguments. I expect, at the very least, for a few doors to be shut in my face. After all, who likes when people come to the door these days?

At the first few houses we come to, this isn’t an issue. Most people don’t answer – we’ve been told that if we talk to 10% of the people on our list, we’ll be lucky. Still, with every door comes new nerves bubbling up inside me. I read and re-read the script. “Hi, my name is Helen and I’m knocking on doors today for Hillary Clinton. Hi! I’m Helen! I’m out here knocking on doors for the Democrats! Hi, I’m Helen, I’m a nervous wreck knocking on doors because I’m a bleeding heart!”

As we wait on the porch at our first house, two women walk by. They greet us, which is surprising to me, considering the reputation that this neighborhood has. “I like your shoes!” one of them says, and I thank her. She follows it up with a “Be safe today!” and I promise I will. This interaction was a mixed bag, for sure: she was being friendly, but warning me to stay safe. Does this neighborhood really live up to its reputation, or not?

10:00AM: We get to speak to our first real person! I’m a bit of a stuttering mess but I think I get across the point (I’m here for Hillary Clinton and I’m also a nervous wreck). To my surprise, she doesn’t shut the door in my face. She smiles and says, “Oh my daughter is out canvassing today too!” That relaxes me a lot, and in my excitement I forget to actually, you know, speak. My aunt jumps in with a, “Can we count on your vote this Tuesday?” and the lady assures us that we can. We make sure she knows her polling place and we’re off to the next house, feeling a lot better.

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10:30AM: A man opens the door and says that of course he’s voting for Hillary. We then engage in a good conversation about the importance of voting down the ballot. He’s an extremely well-informed voter who’s excited to get out to the polls on Tuesday (bright and early because, as he tells us, he has trouble waiting in line for long because of his prosthetic leg). The conversation is refreshing after staring down so many closed doors.

11:00AM: We encounter two men standing outside of a house we need to go to. The person we’re looking for is a 25-year-old female, so we ask if they know whether she lives there. They tell us that she’s moved out, and that we “probably don’t want to talk to the new guy.” We take their advice and move on, marking on our sheet that she doesn’t live there anymore.

11:15AM: A lady comes to the door with a dog on a leash and says that of course she’s voting Hillary, and so is her husband. A few houses down, a woman tells us that she’s just moved to the area but that she made sure to figure out where her polling location is. A few people seem a little suspicious at first, probably thinking we’re trying to sell them soaps or Jesus or something. But for the most part, all up and down the street, the people who answer the door are warm and kind.

12:30PM: It’s taken nearly 3 hours to knock on 41 doors. The weather is warming up and the sun is out; activity is starting to pick up on the street. By the time we leave, there are kids playing, dogs barking, people sitting on their porches and talking, drivers honking their horns at people they know as they drive down the street.

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We have another few hours to go and our feet will get tired and our stomachs will grumble, but I feel great. All apprehension about coming to this part of town has faded as I’ve come face to face with individuals. And even if I didn’t see them, I saw their porches – the chairs they sit in on nice summer evenings. The car seats for their kids that sit on the porch. The signs – beware of dog! UPS leave the package on the backdoor! One by one, the people and their things humanize them to me.

So often, especially during this election, we’ve fallen into the mentality that the world is divided. There are boundaries that criss cross every aspect of human life – financial, racial, geographical, age, gender, you name it. This election has only served to deepen the lines of those boundaries. And while this weekend, we weren’t knocking on the doors of registered Republicans, we were knocking on the doors of strangers, people that I wouldn’t have met in my sheltered life growing up outside of Pottstown, in a predominantly middle class school district. I was nervous for so many reasons, but one of them was the fact that people might not take me seriously. What if they sensed I wasn’t from Pottstown? They might laugh me off the street; they might close their doors in my face. In the end, though, they listened to me. They shared with me. They laughed with me.

My aunt put it best – “everyone likes to say that the people who live here are bad people, but really, they’re struggling just like everyone else.” And doesn’t it all come down to that? No matter who you’re voting for, whether you’re voting or not, you’re still a human being. You’re still capable of kindness, of struggle, of right and wrong. While I’ve known this for a long time, it was especially important to remember right now, when the national rhetoric is about building up walls. It was nice, today, to tear down a few of those walls, brick by brick, door by door.

1 Comment

  • Rachel says:

    I didn’t read this before the election– I’ve just encountered it now, two days after the election, when I’m feeling so down, so dejected, and so willing to think the worst of my fellow Americans who voted Trump into office. I know you were knocking on the doors of Democrats (I’m With Her, too), but your point about the need to cross all kinds of boundaries to meet and understand the lives and situations of our fellow citizens is really, really resonating with me today. Thanks for this article (and thanks for canvassing).

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