January 15th, 2008 | Uncategorized

In canvassing exchange, a plea: Just ‘don’t let me get you down’

By Justin Kosslyn 

The first thing I noticed was poop on the floor. Dog poop. “I’m very sorry — they don’t usually do this!” Howard apologized, and promptly offered me a beer. Gripping my clipboard a little too tightly, I politely declined.

Minutes earlier, Howard had been halfway down his driveway, heading out for the garbage dump in a black pickup trunk. I had approached his house on behalf of Obama For America, and had begun to turn away when I saw the car pulling out. But Howard had stopped, put the car in reverse, pulled back into the driveway and opened the door for me. So here I was in his wood-paneled house on the top of a snowy hill, with framed daggers on the walls and dog poop on the floor. Well, it was what I had come for.

“So,” I began a little self-consciously, “I know that you’re being bombarded this weekend, and I guess I’m part of that. I’m with Obama For America, and I hope you don’t mind if I ask you the question I’m sure you’ve gotten a dozen times already: Have you given much thought to who you’ll be voting for on Tuesday?”

“How about a soda?” Howard replied. “No? You sure? Well, let’s go to the dining room to talk.” He led the way, limping slightly. We sat down in high-backed wooden chairs, and Howard’s face was covered by mottled evening light. It looked eroded: deep creases ran down the sides of his forehead and eyes, and his hair was graying and balding. “Where are you from?” He asked gently.

“Boston.”

“Ah, I was down there just last week. I go there often.” Silence hung over the table. What to say next?

“Do you come to Boston on work?” I asked, mentally wincing. What a dumb question.

“No…” Howard began slowly. “I’m a disabled vet, and I go there for treatment. You know, many of my buddies don’t even get any treatment. Nothing. It’s a damn shame. So it isn’t quite business that brings me to Boston.” He smiled sadly. Behind him, on the mantle, I noticed a framed portrait of a clean-cheeked figure in army fatigues, a billowing American flag behind them.

My curiosity got the better of me. “Is that your son, in the portrait?” I asked, rather abruptly.

“That? No, that’s my daughter. You know…” Howard paused again, and continued tonelessly, “after 9/11, she got all fired up and wanted to serve. She was a combat medic. She’s gotten a medical discharge now and is back in Indiana. She’s not the same. My wife and I don’t know what to do. You asked who I support; I used to be a Republican. Now I’m one of those people who ‘flipped’ as they say. I like Richardson the best of all of them, but he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. So I’ll take the best chance to get away from the Washington system. You said you’re for Obama; he seems like a decent guy.

I was suddenly and acutely aware of our aloneness in the house and the absurdity of the situation. Who was I, that someone like Howard should be so generous to me and so candid? What does one say after another has bared a little piece of their soul? Anything would have rung hollow in my ears, so I pleadingly asked the question I needed an answer to: “What gives you hope?”

“Hope? Hope. Hope?” Howard began inauspiciously. “It’s hard to say. I don’t trust anything I hear anymore. You may notice that the house is a little cold. We keep it at 62 now because our heating bill has tripled. Here — take a look!” He strode over the counter and showed me a bill for $700. “That’s an installment on a car or a vacation! I probably won’t be able to afford to live in this house for much longer. Hope? I wish I could trust these guys to actually do something. That’s what’s missing.”

It was time to go — Howard needed to get to the dump before it closed. He offered me some clementines on the way out, and I accepted them. He made sure that I took enough for the rest of my canvassing group. As we parted ways, the only thing I could think to say was, “Good luck, Sir, however you vote on Tuesday. And thank you.”

And his only reply was, “Obama seems like a good guy. And don’t take me too seriously — I’m just a grumpy man. Don’t let me get you down.”