Saturday, November 1, 2008

Starving the Political Imagination

While canvassing for Barack Obama this afternoon, I visited the poorest, saddest, most hopeless place I've ever encountered up close in this country. Sure, I've passed urban housing projects ... and kept going. Today, I walked willingly into a pocket of grinding rural poverty. What I learned about my poorest neighbors' lives will keep me awake tonight. As well it should.

I went out with another woman who teaches at my university, and we decided to start with Pine Aire Village, a trailer park on the outskirts of the next town to the west. ("Mobile homes" is not the right term; there's no mobility to speak of in this place, just transiency, eviction, and abandonment.) She'd been out there fifteen years ago when she'd had a nanny who lived there, so she knew the way.

The first thing we noticed were all the largish dogs lunging at their chains. The next thing? My friend said, "Wow, things have really gone downhill since I was here the last time." Most of the trailers are rusted. Virtually all of them are surrounded with that sprawl of junk typical for rural poverty: broken toys, old tires, unidentifiable plastic parts. I remember this from the Indian reservations that dotted the North Dakotan landscape of my childhood. The only difference is that Appalachia has bigger hills and a lot more trees.

We spoke first with a man and his teenaged daughter who were excited about Obama - well, at least the girl was, though she wasn't quite old enough to vote. The girl seemed sweet and sincere and even enthusiastic. Her dad was sure that voting wouldn't change a thing. They took a yard sign anyway. I wondered how long it will last before it's stolen or trashed or just incorporated into the overall junkyard effect.

From them, we learned that the trailer court was teeming with drugs. I didn't ask what kind. Thinking back to what my former hairdresser told me about rural drug use, I'm guessing meth and Oxycontin.

While my friend went back to her car to fetch them their yard sign, I strolled a few steps down the road. A man with blackened teeth (maybe my age, but he was so run down I couldn't tell) approached me and asked who or what I wanted. I explained that I was volunteering for Obama and looking for a particular house number. He told me I wasn't going to find it or anything else down at that end of the court. As he spoke, he moved in front of me, almost blocking my way. That's what clearly tipped his behavior over from "possibly trying to be helpful" to "definitely trying to intimidate." It didn't help that he kept mumbling loudly that he wasn't going to vote, he didn't believe in voting, but no matter what he would never, ever vote for Obama.

My friend came with her car just then and rescued me. Ensconced in our metal cocoon, we drove down to that end of the court anyway. My hostile new friend was right. We didn't immediately find another number on our list - though we did once we rounded the corner, and I'm still wondering what he was trying to deflect or protect or hide.

What we did find: A swastika, spray painted in red on an abandoned trailer. And then another, and another.

My friend is Jewish, but frankly she was still far more worried about vicious dogs. Myself, I was pretty nervous about the combination of nasty dogs and anti-Semitism, but if I'd said that we probably would've felt compelled to give up, and neither of us was ready for that.

The next place we knocked, a young man barely old enough to vote answered the door sleepily. He said he'd just laid down for a nap but then proceeded to ramble on about how he was voting for the sheriff, which meant he couldn't vote for president, though he kind of liked Obama anyway, but hey he had to go to court, so he wouldn't be voting for anyone ... My friend thought he was on something, though it's possible he was just paranoid and confused due to his legal troubles. Then, in a sudden flash of coherence, he warned us to keep our distance from a certain red pickup truck whose owner drank constantly and kept a bunch of mean dogs. This was apparently the pack of dogs we saw upon our arrival.

This young man wasn't sure whether he was actually registered to vote.

Across the street, we spoke with a lovely woman in her early eighties - bright, thoughtful, warm, still perfectly sharp. Her tiny yard was neat. Inside, her home was tended with care. I was almost more touched by this than by the naked despair on every side of her.

She followed the news closely, she said. She despised McCain. But she was just heartbroken that she couldn't vote for Hillary, and so she was planning to sit this election out. We spent twenty minutes discussing with her how the best thing she could do to defeat McCain would be to hold her nose and vote for Obama. In the end, I think she probably will, unless she's feeling poorly on Tuesday or life otherwise intervenes.

Canvassing is like teaching that way. You plant a seed. You never know if it'll sprout. Pine Aire - despite its would-be picturesque name - is pretty arid ground.

From there, things deteriorated. A fifty-something woman with leathered skin and long platinum hair told us that nothing you did mattered, "them politicians" only cared about money anyway. She hated Bush, she hated the war, she worried about jobs. But she wasn't even registered to vote. (I guess we should've asked that first.) While we spoke, three men sat drinking beer in her yard, listening to loud country music. Every time she stated a political opinion - and she had many, and could cite pretty persuasive reasons for them all - she'd immediately collapse into herself. Her shoulders would slump, and she'd repeat her mantra that voting wouldn't change a thing.

This woman - who fought so hard against the ravages of time on her flesh but couldn't even imagine waging a political fight - could have been the poster girl for nearly everyone we spoke with. Time and again, we heard that one person's vote didn't matter. That politicians were all corrupt. That all our jobs were getting sent away overseas and we couldn't stop it. That there was no reason to even register to vote.

This is yet another cruelty of poverty, all the harsher because it locks us into a society where some are desperately poor: People are starved of hope. They are deprived of any sense of agency and efficacy. They are so far beyond disenfranchised that there's not even a word for it.

This is intentional. If all the people I met today did vote, they'd break strongly against McCain and the Bush legacy. Of course, we don't know how many of them would have an issue with Obama's race. (That's a matter for another post.) But they are so deeply discouraged that they can't even begin to imagine a politics that would give a damn about them and their lives.

All photos courtesy of my husband, who visited Pine Aire a few weeks ago while researching the local history of coal mining. Prudently, he stayed in the car and didn't go too far into the trailer court. This is why he didn't see or photograph the swastikas. Believe me, they're real, and I'd be too afraid to take pictures.


hesperia said...

Breaks your heart. Just breaks your heart.

Sugarmag said...

Wow Sungold. The sad thing is that this is just a small sample of a population that lives in despair.

Sungold said...

Yeah. It's painful to think that I got to just walk away from the poverty and discouragement at the end of the afternoon. I'm most troubled by the very young and the very old people who are trapped there, but the truth is, most of the able-bodied adults seem equally stuck, and they all deserve better.