For my sins, I once elected to take part in an election campaign. Okay, I didn’t so much “elect to take part” as work for one. They were paying $400 for four days work and there was a concert I wanted to attend but it was the end of the month so… You know, I can feel you judging me all the way through the computer. And I say to you: 😛
In any case, it wasn’t the easiest money I ever made. In supermarket parlance, I was in “direct marketing” – in good ol’ plainspeak, I was handing out flyers. From seven in the goddamn morning (did you know the sun comes out by then? Like, it’s light outside and everything!) to seven in the evening, I wandered the streets of Manhattan and harassed passers-by. Every now and again, some guy in a boring suit would stop and decide to have a political debate with me. There I was, clutching a sheaf of flyers, bored out of my mind, desperate to pee, freezing cold because winter was coming early that year and some moron wanted to discuss the state of the world with me.
Here’s a tip for all you nice people out there: next time somebody shoves a flyer in your face, just take it and go. They really don’t care whether you throw it in the next dustbin or take it home and frame it and they really don’t want to talk to you. They’re cold and hungry and dispirited and they just want the misery to end. And if it’s some guy at a supermarket, then take everything I said above and multiply it by five because this is what he does E_V_E_R_Y_D_A_Y. That’s how fun this job is.
So anyway, there I am, trying to drum up support for some woman running for local office (and I’m so darn enthusiastic about the whole process that not only do I not remember her name now but I don’t even know whether she won or not. At the end of the four days, all the campaign workers were invited to some ballroom somewhere to await the results – I gave them my best grin, grabbed my cash and ran) and the only thing that’s getting me through the day is the thought of that lovely, lovely Madison Square Garden ticket.
And eventually I find myself standing on a corner of Grammercy Park. Business is so good that I have plenty of time to stand there, sipping my nth cup of coffee, staring vacuously at a bunch of models dressed in extremely weather-inappropriate clothes getting their pictures taken. I wonder if they vote. I find I do not care. By this time, all I want is for the sheaf in my arms to vanish. The candidate’s shiny, piano teeth bared in an unrelenting grin of good cheer and bonhomie depresses me.
Suddenly, somebody taps me on the shoulder. I turn around… and there in front of me is a Vision.
She could have been any age between sixty and ninety. I’d have described her face as one akin to a wrinkled raisin, if raisins were ruddy cheeked and pale, and she’s dressed in a lovely emerald green beret with a single rose pinned to the darker velvet band that encircles it. She has on a coat that’s the exact same color as her hat and while I can’t see what she’s wearing underneath it, it’s something that goes with black tights and green mary janes. Altogether, she stands approximately six inches taller than my waist.
I think I fell in love, a little. I smile at her; it’s impossible not to. “Hello.”
“Hello,” she replies, and her voice is just as soft and crystal-chimey as I imagined it to be. “Aren’t you going to give me one of those?” She points to the sheaf in my hand.
“Oh, of course,” I say, all smiles. It’s not often that people ask me for these things. Usually, I have to chase them down. What a nice lady this is.
She studies the flyer gravely and then shakes her head. “Oh dear.”
“Is something wrong?” I ask.
“I could never vote for her, dear,” Little Old Lady (LOL) tells me sadly.
“Oh,” I say.
She nods and then leans in a little. “She kills babies, you know.”
We’re now wrapped in a little world of silence. “Huh?” I ask.
“She kills babies,” LOL repeats.
I look around us. My fledgling suspicion that she might be an escapee from the nearest asylum is put to rest when I see that everybody else in the neighborhood seems to know her by sight at least. I’m attracting more attention just standing next to her than I have succeeded in gaining all morning by myself. Not that it translates into more fliers taken out of my cold, eager hands: I offer one to a friend of LOL’s who looks at me as if I’d just offered her an STD on a plate. I stare glumly at the grinning baby killer (alleged) on the poster and figure that’s about right.
Eventually, LOL wanders away and then reappears with a flier of her own which explains her previous extraordinary comment – she’s pro-life. The little rosebud on her lapel isn’t an accessory, it’s a political statement. Duh. Of course.
By the time my shift ended, I’d found out that she was “born on this island” and had never moved away; she was not married, lived in a ladies home of some sort right where I was distributing fliers, hated Hillary Clinton with a passion and a host of other things besides, none of which I asked about but found deeply interesting nevertheless. After all, I’d never met anybody before who’d first asked me where I’d be if my mother had aborted me (nonexistent?) and then invited me to a protest against a “baby killing factory nearby” (translation: Planned Parenthood).
Something about the entire situation stuck with me. It’s been years since this incident took place but I find myself revisiting it again and again. The hope is that it’ll eventually grow into a story because she deserves one. Or maybe I deserve one for sticking with the conversation through the pictures of aborted fetuses and computer printouts of babykiller stories.
Most of us are brought up to think of older people as being somehow more wise and gentle that it’s often a shock to meet someone who’s getting on in years. Oh, a lot of them are genuinely nice people – but they’re genuinely nice people in the general sense of it, not because of their age. Unpleasant people tend to remain unpleasant as they age, I’m afraid.
I had a professor once who told us this hilarious story of a town meeting. I can’t recall what they were discussing but towards the end of the discussion, an extremely elderly lady got to her feet and painfully hobbled her way to the front. Everybody sat patiently for her to exercise her right as a citizen – a right she was so determined to exercise that she’d made it all the way to this meeting with nothing more than her walker to help her.
Finally, she made it to the microphone which towered above her head. She took a moment to adjust it, caught her breath and turned to the smiling company. Taking a deep breath, she let it all out:
“It’s the homosexuals!” she croaked. “Drive them out! They’re all going to hell! I’m telling you, the day the homosexuals are gone, everything will be alright.”
And then, she made her way back, equally slowly and silently, to her seat through the now sepulchral group.
It’s one of my favorite stories because of the way G. told it. You could feel the shock she must have felt when this nice old lady who could have been someone’s idea of the perfect grandma stood up and said those things. But that’s how people are – they’re never all one way or the other. Maybe she really was someone’s nice ol’ grandma… who felt all gay people should die and go to hell.
Another of G’s stories was about the day someone in her family died. They were all sitting around the kitchen table, she and her family, and her aunt said to her, “You know, we all die the way we live.”
Kindness, says G, suddenly seemed like the best virtue of all. “When I die,” she said, “I’d like them to say I was a kind person.”
It’s an underrated virtue but the older I get, the more I understand what G was getting at. I’d like someone to say that about me as well. I don’t know if anyone will, but I figure I’ll start small and early. Like right about now.