January 15th, 2008 | Uncategorized

Driving Ms. Nicholas: a story of perseverance at the Iowa caucus

By Gabe Goffman ’10

The caucuses had finally arrived.

And although I had been anticipating this day, I felt more a sense of relief and exhaustion than excitement after spending a draining week in a stranger’s basement working for Barack Obama. I was nervous — not about the outcome, but because I would soon have to drive a large white van filled with seven senior citizens to and from the caucus. (I had already spent a half-hour driving around Des Moines quite lost.)

At 5 p.m. I placed a confirmation call to each of my rides. After explaining to Anne Nichols, 83, that I would be arriving in a large white van, she asked with apprehension if the door was too high and if I could bring a stool to help her climb up to the car. I assured her that I would arrive equipped with a stool. A small kiddie chair would have to suffice. She then requested that I come around the side of her house to her ramp, because it would be easier to leave from there. Finally, she innocently asked if it was cold outside. Having spent the entire week walking door to door, I found this question and its sincerity hilarious. My straight-faced response — “Yes!” — elicited laughter from my fellow volunteers. Ms. Nichols concluded she needed her jacket.

I nervously picked up my first five passengers and then proceeded to her house. Upon arriving, I noticed that all the fliers and reminders I had left on the front door remained untouched.

Then, I walked to her side door. She slowly got up from her armchair and gingerly searched for her jacket. Ms. Nichols was a short but thick black women. Her voice still rang with the twang of her home state, Mississippi.

Although she had trouble walking, Ms. Nicholas was emotionally and cognitively vibrant. She quickly apologized for not being ready. Seeing her slow and tentative movements, I realized she needed some assistance.

She finally located her jacket in her bedroom. I quickly grabbed it and helped her put it on. She put on a ski cap on as she tottered to the door. Meanwhile, I carried her walker and her purse to the top of the ramp. She locked the door and gingerly placed the lanyard carrying her key around her neck. She then slowly began to wheel her walker down the ramp.

The caucus site was in a Drake University classroom, but the road was blocked off. Emboldened by the size of the van I was driving, I parked the car between two campus security cars and in front of a large SUV.

“There’s no parking here. You just parked in the Lt. Governor of New York’s spot,” the police officer told me.

“I am trying to escort seven senior citizens to their caucus,” I replied. “I will move the van afterwards”

“Okay,” he replied. For this hour, caucus-goers were royalty.

I grabbed Ms. Nichols’ walker from the trunk; we agreed that she would leap from car to my arms and then I would let her rest on the walker. As she slowly rolled along the icy walkway, I held her purse.

Two caucuses were held in this building, and many of the precinct-record number of attendees would politely ask if they could help. None was necessary until we reached the staircase leading into the building. Clinton and Obama supporters united briefly to carry her walker and her purse up the stairs as I held her hand and she clutched onto the banister. The scene outside the classroom was pandemonium as there was a line to get into the other caucus and newly registered voters blocked the entrance. Leading the way I slowly tried to part the crowd and led Ms. Nichols to her seat at the top.

Although we secured three of the six precinct delegates for Obama, the results from this caucus were still intensely frustrating. The chair was unfamiliar with the rules and more than 20 people before the final tally.

Ms. Nichols sat patiently throughout, insisting she stand up to be counted.

Soon, a text message had arrived: Obama won. Ms. Nichols said that her son had called from California to ask her if she was going to the caucuses. Now she could call him back and tell him she picked a winner.

Leading Ms. Nichols back to her door, I felt a sense of shared pride and happiness that would not even by surpassed by the thrill of Obama’s historic victory speech later that night.

Ms. Nichols truly embodied the perseverance and determination that comes from hope. She spent three hours and much energy, relying on the kindness of strangers — simply to be counted. It was because she knew this caucus was not a personal expression; rather, it was a unique opportunity to join in a historic and unifying movement.

Obama’s vision for change touched a nerve in Ms. Nichols — and in me.