Traveling light

I recently streamed the film Nomadland and it may just be the most perfect movie to view as our pandiversary approaches. Yep, one year – one endless year in lockdown. The movie is adapted from the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by journalist Jessica Burder. Fern, a sixty-something-year-old woman, played by the astonishing Frances McDormand, is a fictional character that does not appear in the book but is based on a composite of many of the real-life vandwellers Burder followed for almost two years. Here’s the basic plot – Fern puts most of her possessions in a storage unit, tricks out a weathered van to live in, and hits the open road of the American West. Her husband Bob has died and the town they lived in has been dissolved after the closing of the local gypsum plant. There is literally nothing left for her as she leaves Empire, Nevada to find seasonal work at an Amazon fulfillment center in Virginia. She’s got a few personal belongings and a good bit of unattended wanderlust as she heads out alone.

Are you all in? Okay, life can’t be all Bridgerton. Stay with me just a while as I connect some existential dots. I’ve always appreciated clever symbolism and Fern’s storage unit was a pandemic Pandora’s box for me. Most of her belongings are mundane – old furniture, some lamps, clothing – but one special box is filled with dishes her father gave her when she graduated from high school. The pattern is Autumn Leaf and we learn later in the film that he had collected the set at yard sales over the years. The only other item she pulls out of the pile of boxes is a denim jacket – her late husband’s – and she hugs it to her chest and smells it – longing for the scent of her lost life.

I had a storage unit for a couple of years after I moved in with my wife. I had owned a three-bedroom house and was downsizing into her condo. You’ll need some backstory here. My dear wife was a minimalist long before Marie Kondo made it fashionable. She values experiences over things. True story – the first time I came to her condo when we started dating, I thought it was the model unit. I’m serious – there was just not much stuff. I’m pretty sure I broke into a cold sweat wondering how this would ever work out if we got together for the long haul. I had some stuff. Quality stuff, but quantity, too.

I pared down when I moved in with her and rented a storage unit for things I would save for when we moved into a bigger place. The transition to minimalism was a rocky one for me in the beginning. I can laugh out loud about it now. Early on my wife said to me, “what you own, owns you.” Back then, I didn’t mind being owned by a lot of pottery. Today, I no longer have a storage unit and when it came time to get rid of it, I only kept a few antique pieces that belonged to my parents. I either gave away or sold the rest. And guess what? I don’t miss any of it. And I’m grateful for a spouse who would never say I told you so. Oh, and we never did move to a bigger place. We decided to live small and travel large. Okay, we may have questioned that decision more than a few times during the past 12 months.

We’ve all had to store a lot in our metaphorical storage units this past year – luxuries like trips and dinner parties and eating inside restaurants – and more precious things like visits with loved ones. I haven’t seen my sister in California in 14 months – since Christmas over a year ago. She works in healthcare and has had half a dozen COVID exposures at work. She is now fully vaccinated, and I am sleeping better at night. We speak on the phone every day and sometimes we get teary when we wonder when we will be able to see each other again. I always miss her but knowing she has been in the epicenter of the pandemic has been excruciating. That’s probably why I have little patience for those whining about frivolous matters like vacations. Not to go all Melania on you, but, no, I really don’t care that you haven’t been able to go to Europe in a year.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’ve been no role model for selflessness during this pandemic. I’ve had more than a few breakdowns over having to make dinner for the 18th time in a week. Those meltdowns have sometimes ended with an entrée of a peanut butter sammie paired with a nice Malbec. One night before bed a few weeks ago, I told my wife that the white dishes she has had for over a dozen years were sucking my soul dry and that I desperately needed some color in my dinner plates. I give her a lot of credit. After listening to my emotional nonsensical monologue, she paused a few seconds before responding and then said tenderly, “I didn’t realize this was so important to you.” I felt heard and sometimes that’s what you need most in the middle of a pandemic. Note: We still haven’t gotten any new plates because I seemed to have gotten over my deep dish anguish.

Some of us put hair color and professional cuts in our pandemic storage units. I haven’t seen my stylist in a year. If you had told me this a year ago, I would have laughed in your face. No restaurants are one thing, but no cut and color? Am I an animal? Well, now that you mention it, my wife now lovingly refers to me as a silver fox. The fox part is obviously quite generous, but the silver is accurate. I’ve gone a bit grey and I don’t hate it at all. 500,000 dead and counting really helps put one’s hair color in perspective. Now, I know I’m lucky that my wife discovered mad skills as a haircutter during lockdown. She’s cut my hair on the front porch, the deck and in the bathroom when the weather turned cold. She really enjoys doing it and it is has become a pandemic ritual that we both find quite settling. I’ll go back to my stylist eventually, but probably not for color. And with the money I’ll save, I too can go to Europe.

Frances McDormand cuts her own hair in Nomadland. I bet she cuts her own hair in her real life, too. She has long been one of my favorite actors and I am always drawn to her authenticity. I saw an interview with her the other day in which she recalled a review of her Oscar winning performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. The critic wrote that “a close-up of Frances McDormand’s face is like visiting a national park.” McDormand loves that description and she loves the story her face tells. And it is a perfect vantage point from which to view the bare natural landscapes we see in Nomadland as Fern moves from park to park following the seasonal work.

While Fern’s journey in the film is a solitary one, she is buoyed by her new community of nomads. They share meals, help each other out and listen to each other’s stories of loss and love. Their grief is tinged with the shared hopefulness of wanderlust. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Fern has a soulful conversation with Bob Wells, the author and YouTuber who is a vandweller guru. She tells him that her father always told her that what is remembered lives. She says wistfully, “I maybe spent too much of my life just remembering Bob.”

I know I’ve been guilty of that – too much remembering. Losing my parents the way I did – only seven months apart from each other when I was still relatively young and the cascade of collateral damage that followed that loss – broken relationships and bad decisions – made me yearn for a happier time. Like Fern, I have been looking back for too long. This pandemic has made me turn my gaze more forward to something beyond my borders. No, this doesn’t mean I’m buying a van and hitting the road, but I’ve spent a lot of pandemic time working on emptying out some of my emotional storage units – the one filled with regret and shame for past decisions, the one filled with expectations of others that will never be met, and the one filled with burdens I no longer want to carry. I want to travel lighter when this lockdown is over. I want more room for discovery.

Near the end of Nomadland, Fern returns to Empire to empty out her storage unit. We see the back of a pickup truck filled with her belongings. “Are you sure you don’t need any of this stuff?” the owner of the facility asks her. Fern has a peaceful look of certainty on her beautifully worn face as she responds, “No. I don’t need any of it. I’m good. I’m not gonna miss a thing.”

Me either.

Kettle call

For as long as I can remember, I have subscribed to a dangling carrot approach to life. I’m always looking forward to the next special thing, whatever it might be – a vacation, a birthday party, a visit to a winery. This never-ending pandemic that we find ourselves in has made me question the sustainability of such an outlook. In short, the carrots these days are in short supply.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that maybe this is a silver lining to my life in lockdown. I’ve had to search for smaller carrots – like the perfect cup of tea on a grey winter afternoon. English Breakfast with a touch of cream. Making tea has become a bit of a meditation for me this past year. It’s a quiet ritual – just me and the kettle. I should say that I’m a lifelong coffee drinker, but in the pandemic, tea has become the thing I look forward to a couple of times during the day and always in the evening. I guess you could say that my tea has become a daily cup of tiny carrots and that’s probably enough of that analogy.

I should have been on to the magic powers of tea long before now. My dear wife and I watch a lot of British television and we’ve noticed that the Brits first response to any dramatic or emotional incident, ranging from the confession of an affair to a grisly murder, is to put the kettle on. This has become a running joke for us, and we often call the phrase out loud when some poor bloke gets knocked off on one of our shows. In British films and television, no grave news can be processed without a cup of tea. We’ve noticed that the standard American response to the same news is to offer a glass of water. I’ll take me cuppa, thank you.

I’ve observed that tea pairs well with a pandemic. There’s something inherently comforting about putting the kettle on and waiting to hear the familiar whistle. And after you drop your tea bag into the cup, the one you pulled out of the cabinet because it’s just right for tea, you must wait a bit. Tea requires more patience than coffee – a helpful quality during these trying times. Tea feels more intentional – more like a journey – coffee feels like a destination. You never really hear anyone say, “I’m going to grab a quick cup of tea.” No, tea is a stroll and coffee is a run. Coffee would text if it could and tea would send a handwritten note.

Okay, you might be worrying that I’ve run out of things to entertain myself with in this pandemic – just because I’m analyzing the personalities of hot beverages. Not true at all. In fact, I’ve found that the art of tea drinking has made me more present to things around me – small things, like the soothing shade of butterscotch that my tea turns when I put the cream in. And I often look out the kitchen window as I wait for the tea bag to steep. I may see a neighbor walking by and wonder how they’re navigating this bizarre time. When I drink my tea in the evening, I’m usually sitting beside my sweet wife and I am as aware of my gratitude for her as I am the warmth of the cup in my hand. Tea is thoughtful.

I must admit that tea feels fancier to me than coffee and I’m here for it. Years ago, a lovely young woman in Stoke-on-Trent introduced me to the splendors of a full English tea. She had me at clotted cream. You see, the Brits have snacks with their afternoon tea – proving once again that they are a more civilized nation. Tea is usually served on a two-tiered tray with both savory and sweet snacks. And, of course, at a proper tea, the tea is made from loose leaf tea and not a tea bag. I’m much too lazy for that and besides, I enjoy the dunking of the bag. In a pandemic we take our pleasures where we find them.

The joy of tea drinking has been one of the rare, pleasant surprises of the pandemic for me. It has provided me with a daily peaceful respite from the anxiety of the past 11 years months. It makes everything around me feel quieter and more centered and I’m happy to have been lured by the kettle’s whistle. The Brits are famous for another bevvy that my dear late father was fond of – the gin and tonic. And I’m so fortunate that I married a woman who can mix a G and T that would make Winston Churchill weep. Bloody hell, summer can’t be that far away. Things are looking up, mates. Cheers!

Blue Christmas

When I was around 11 or so, I was obsessed with The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a TV show about two secret agents – one American, the other Russian – working for a multi-national intelligence agency. My favorite agent was the Russian, Illya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum. He was dashing and mysterious and wore black turtlenecks a lot. I would say that I had a crush on him, but even then I knew I was gay, so, I really wanted to be him – or at least dress like him. I was so obsessed with the show that for Christmas that year I asked for the Illya Kuryakin secret lighter gun. It looked like a cigarette case/lighter from the outside, but it fired caps and inside had a secret radio compartment. I know there had to be other things on my list that year, but I couldn’t name one if my life depended on it. You see, I got what I wanted most of all. And that, in a nutshell, was Election 2020 for me.

Yes, I had a long wish list, including Democrats regaining control of the Senate. I’m still hoping that present arrives late by way of Georgia, and I’m totally cool with that. But here’s the thing – what I wanted the very most was for Donald Trump to not be our president after noon on January 20th, 2021 and I (and 79 million others and counting) got that – even if it does take an army of Secret Service agents to remove him. Paging Illya Kuryakin! Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States and I’m going to just let myself be happy about that for a minute. And I’m proud that I played a teeny tiny part in helping to make that happen.

In August, I started phone banking for Progressive Turnout Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting with voters one-on-one and getting Democrats to the polls. I guesstimate that I spoke with over 3,000 voters – those were actual conversations and doesn’t include the hang-ups and go to hells. Thankfully, I only got a few of the latter and they only came near the end when everyone was suffering from election fatigue – even the people who were happy to hear from me.

I know calling a stranger on the phone and talking to them about voting sounds like a fresh hell to many of you. I get that, but to me, it felt like the most important job I’ve ever had. And I loved it. Most days, I felt like I was making a Ken Burns documentary – interviewing all sorts of people all over several battleground states, but mainly in my home state of North Carolina. Every day I would talk to folks who lived in towns that I never heard of – Supply, Lowgap, Peachland and Chocowinity to name a few. I listened to some southern accents so thick they made my North Carolina born wife sound like she’s from the Bronx.

We followed a script for our calls seeking some basic information – who folks were voting for, how they were voting – i.e. early voting in person or by mail or on Election Day – and their main concern in this election. I captured this information on my iPad, but early into my calls, I started taking notes on a legal pad – writing down things people would share with me. It felt important to me to capture these thoughts and save them – you know, like a special card or note you get in the mail and slip into a drawer because you’re not ready to let go of it just yet.

I was the one who often felt heard in so many of my conversations with people who articulated many of my own concerns – the chaos and disinformation of the past four years and the assault on so many issues I care about – social justice, income inequality, climate change and oh, yeah, democracy. I know some of these voters were a lot like me, but the conversations that left their fingerprints on me were the ones with folks not at all like me – the very young, the very old and the people of color.

One afternoon I called Deasia, a young black woman in New Bern. She was in her car with her mom on the way to early vote for Biden. I knew by the sound of her voice that this had to be her first time voting in a presidential race. She said cheerfully, “I just turned 18. Today is my birthday.” She told me that racial justice was the issue most important to her. I wished her a happy birthday and told her that she would get her present on November 3rd and she laughed politely. She was sweet like that.

The oldest voter I spoke with was 96 and lived in Goldsboro. I asked her what issue was most important to her in this election and she said, “Honey, I’m an old woman. I don’t care about issues. I just want people to get back on their feet and get work and be able to feed their families.” I spoke to many of these wise owls over the past few months and believe me, I hung on every word.

But I think my favorite call was with the young black mother in Sanford I spoke with on the Sunday before Election Day. I asked her if she had voted yet and she said, almost apologetically, “No. I was going to early vote on Saturday, but my water broke on Friday. I’m in the hospital – I had a Halloween baby.” I was shocked that she was speaking with me at all, much less being so nice. I congratulated her on her baby, a girl, and told her that I would let her go. She said, “Oh, that’s okay. I can talk.” She went on to tell me that she would probably be released from the hospital later that day and that she planned to vote on Election Day. I told her that she could certainly vote curbside if she wasn’t up to standing in line – just thinking about that made me wince. She said, “I’ll be okay. I’m determined to vote. This election is so important.” We talked for a good while about family – this was her third child. She told me that education is very important to her – especially getting her older kids back to school safely. As I was thanking her before ending our call, I said, “Oh, I forgot to ask you your daughter’s name.” She replied in the sweetest, most tender voice, “Serenity. Her name Is Serenity.”

There are days that I fancy myself to be a decent writer, but I could never make up a story that good. And yes, sometimes there is crying in phone banking.

In addition to all the voters that gave me hope, I had some emotional support political junkies throughout this election – namely Jeff and Chris. Jeff is my best gay boyfriend and we are frighteningly similar in many ways – good and bad. We are both passionate about politics and on occasion don’t play well with others when they don’t seem to be as engaged or enraged as we think they should be. He is wicked smart politically and is a great student of history. I like to think of him as the Queer Eye version of Doris Kearns Goodwin. Now that’s a podcast just waiting to happen. Maybe next cycle.

Jeff and I, like over 65 million other people, carried our scars and PTSD from 2016 into this election. We both vowed to not give into our poll paranoia (damn you, Nate Silver!) and exude what we called nauseous optimism about Election 2020. Joe Biden was neither of our first choices, but once he became the frontrunner, we were all in for riding with Biden. Sure, we had some weak moments during the long campaign, but we mostly kept them to ourselves through anxious texts. Jeff is also one of the funniest people on the planet, so we laughed ourselves silly through some of the tenser times. One day we were texting about The Lincoln Project and Jeff wrote that he wanted to have Steve Schmidt’s babies. A laugh like that can get a girl over a rough patch.

Chris and I have been friends for so long we can’t remember how long. She lives on top of a mountain outside of Charlottesville and is retired and worked her liberal ass off writing a gazillion postcards for Democratic candidates this cycle. We have been through a lot of elections together – including the 2000 Gore v. Bush nightmare. She, too, has a very keen political mind and puts her money where her blue heart is. She somehow trusted me to help guide her numerous contributions to senatorial candidates throughout this cycle. I must confess, I really enjoyed spending her money. I adore Chris, but she would admit that she was a Nervous Nellie as Election Day drew closer. She would text – “Talk me off the ledge” – and I would. I knew Joe Biden was going to win. I had a certainty about it that belied my cynical nature. And I have all those voters that I spoke with to thank for that. Well, not the ones that told me to fuck off, but you know, even they inspired me in a different way. I just knew that they did not represent the majority in our country. And I was right.

So, it was kind of perfect that Chris was the one who told me that Joe Biden had finally been declared the next president of the United States. I had been babysitting Steve Kornacki and his khakis for days just waiting and watching and learning more about the districts in Pennsylvania than I ever dreamed possible. My dear wife had been so patient with my obsessive viewing that I relented to go for a walk with her the Saturday morning after the election. I felt certain no call would be made until later in the afternoon, but I took my phone with me just in case. We were about 30 minutes into our walk when a text from Chris came through: “I didn’t know I would cry.” I frantically texted her back, “What?” And she said, “They called it.” I screamed, “It’s over!” so loudly that people in their yards started cheering. And then I took my wife in my arms and kissed her like she was that nurse in the famous V-J Day photograph. We practically danced the two blocks to the home of some dear friends who had just pulled into their driveway and had not heard the good news. We shared the biggest virtual hug ever and smiled our faces off. Then my phone rang – it was Jeff, of course. I hadn’t heard him that excited since the Pippin revival. I can only remember that he told me that he loved me and thanked me for everything that I had done. And I have never been happier to hear his voice.

I spent the rest of the day glued to coverage of the joyous global celebrations and I took some quiet time to think about all those voters that I had spoken with since early August. Those everyday Americans who love their country and cherish democracy. They made me believe in the best of humanity again and in some ways, they made me believe in myself again. I wished I could call them one more time to thank them. And it felt a lot like that Christmas morning so long ago when I got what I wanted most of all.

Chasing Democracy

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

That was the text I got from my dear friend Chris last Friday night. She is not one to normally share her digestive issues, so I sent her back a perplexed emoji.

“RBG is dead” was her response. Oh. My. God. The words most of us have prayed we would never hear – well, at least not until Joe Biden was safely sworn into office.

We were so foolish. How did we expect an 87-year-old/pound woman who had cancer 17 times to survive long enough to save us from ourselves? So, I did what a lot of people did last Friday night. I wept. The flat-out ugly cry. And then I cursed God and humanity and rent my garments in an Episcopalian sort of way. And then I felt fear. That kind of fear you feel deep in your gut – cold as steel.

I saw a montage of every civil rights march, vigil and meeting I’ve ever been to race before my eyes. Only the montage was running backwards – like Benjamin Button’s aging – all those things so many of us have fought so long and hard for – women’s rights, gay rights, trans rights, healthcare, all disappearing. I turned on MSNBC – I know I’m a liberal cliché and I can live with that. It was the first time I was praying for FAKE NEWS, but it was real. And then, before RBG’s ferocious tiny body was cold, Mitch McConnell announced he would work to fill her seat as soon as possible. And that’s when I got angry. White hot rage. And that’s pretty much where I have remained and that’s okay – that’s a great place to be 39 days before this election. Rage gets shit done.

I’ve been working for Progressive Project Turnout for the past two months and we just moved into Phase 2 of our operations – ballot chasing. Think of it as storm chasing for political nerds. I don’t have a cool truck or Helen Hunt by my side, but I do have my trusty data that tells me who requested a mail-in ballot but has not yet returned it. Sexy, right? Damn straight.

The truth is that talking to voters is the thing that has saved me since RBG died. I was dreading getting on the phone that first Ruthless Saturday afternoon. I was teary and anxious and wondered if I could maintain my neutrality with a Trumper. My first call was to a woman in rural Pennsylvania. “What do you want?” she barked at me and I could feel tears brewing. I gave my spiel, took a deep breath, and popped the question, “Are you supporting Joe Biden on November 3rd?” She said – and I swear on RBG’s gavel that I am not making this up – “Hell, yes. He’s next to the Lord in my book. I love Joe Biden.” I checked to make sure that I had not called Jill Biden and I thanked the phone bank Gods and felt a smile on my face for the first time since Ruth died. But wait, that’s not all – she went on. “I confess that I kinda liked Trump when he was on that stupid reality show, but when he talked about grabbing women by the hoo-hoo, I knew I could never vote for him. You know, I loved Obama. I wish he could have served forever like the Queen of England.” It was an embarrassment of Democratic riches and it was just what my weary soul needed to hear.

My next call was to a deplorable who told me to go to hell. And that was perfect, too – it got my blood pumping – my deep blue blood. Call after call, one clear theme emerged – voters are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore. And here’s the other thing – a TON of people have already voted. I love those calls! These voters are so cute – like the student that hands in their homework early for extra credit. They are proud to tell me that they have voted, and I give them a shiny virtual participation trophy and my endearing thanks.

These call shifts have gotten more difficult though – probably a combination of my grief from RBG’s death and the anxiety of the election drawing closer. Some days I feel like a sponge – soaking up the angst and fear and hopes and dreams of the voters I am speaking with. I am exhausted when my day is done, but the good news is that these folks are giving me hope with their testimonials to democracy. And their stories. Good God, the stories.

I spoke to a woman in her late 50s who was in the hospital recovering from her 24th surgery related to a horrible car accident that killed her husband many years ago. I apologized for bothering her, but she was all in for talking to me. She has raised five children on her own and told me that because of her pre-existing conditions, if Trump erases the Affordable Care Act, “I might as well shoot myself in the head.” I hope she was kidding. She has already mailed in her ballot.

I wondered how many folks would talk about the Supreme Court vacancy. A 21-year-old college student -a woman – told me the most important issue to her in this election was healthcare – until RBG died – now it was the Supreme Court and protecting the rights of women. As she said, rather eloquently, “Shit just got real.” That’s pretty much what a young trans woman in Philadelphia told me, too. She’s worried about losing her legal marriage status to her partner. That one hit close to home. Damn.

And the conversations around racial justice continue to gut me. I talked to a black man in his early 60s. When I asked him what issue was most important to him in this election, he said somberly, “Some justice. Not equal justice – I know that will never happen. Just some justice.” This was the same day that dry wall got more justice than Breonna Taylor. And there was the older woman in Rockingham, NC who told me she’s never missed a vote in any election. She explained, “Honey, you know folks don’t consider what black women think about anything too much. Other than raising my kids, the most important thing I’ve ever done is vote.” Conversations like this are not soon forgotten.

Everyone has a story. I spoke with an 86-year-old woman who graduated from nursing school in 1956. She’s still working – because she wants to – as a home health supervisor. She talked to me about income inequality and the CNAs that work for her company for $10.25 an hour – while working their other two jobs. She has two grandchildren in college who both contracted COVID-19 and were very sick. “I’m a nurse. This is not a hoax,” she said. She’s voting for Joe Biden – the 13th president she will have voted for. Her mother lived to be 106, so let’s hope she gets to vote to re-elect Kamala Harris in 2032.

Democracy is a word I hear a lot on my calls. Many of the people I speak with talk about our democracy being vandalized by Trump and they are not having it. They are sick and tired of a president who spews division and hate and continues to undermine our institutions. They speak with pride of how great our country is – this is especially moving to hear from folks who were not born here. Like the Latinix woman who told me that she had lived in several other countries. “We have a lot of rights here, but if we don’t fight to keep them, we will lose them. I’m going to be the first one in line when early voting starts.” I bet she will be, too.

And some days it is the simple kindness of strangers that makes me believe that good will prevail over evil on November 3rd. I had a long conversation last night with a 73-year-old man in Durham. He is retired after 55 years of masonry. He told me he has 10 kids – two served in the Marines – and all of them went to college. He preached me a little sermon. “I’m a black man. I’ve seen tyranny. We got too much hate and division in this country. What we got is precious and why do we want to hate and mess it up every day? I believe in love. That man in office is just too much – too much hate. We got to get him out.” Amen, brother. Amen.

And then I thanked him for taking the time to talk to me and share so much and he said in such a genuine way that it might as well have been my own father speaking to me, “I love you so much. And you’re doing a great job.” And in that moment, I thought that ballot chaser was the most noble profession in the world.

39 days, my friends. We can do this. We must. Democracy is counting on us. And so is Ruth.

Early voting in NC begins on October 15th. Click here to find early voting polling sites where you live.

Dialing for Democracy

I’ve had over 700 conversations with voters over the last month while phone banking for Progressive Project Turnout. That’s about 699 more than I thought I would have when my team was pulled out of the field in early August because of COVID-19 and transitioned from door knocking to phone calling. I mean who answers a number they don’t recognize these days? Well, as it turns out, a pandemic is a damn good time to call people. They’re at home and a lot of them are bored silly and talking to a friendly stranger like me is a nice diversion.

Now, not to paint too rosy of a picture, I’ve probably had twice that number of hang-ups, but I expected that. And then there are the Trumpers, but I’ll save that for later. For the most part, I’ve been deeply moved, honored – and often amused – listening to voters’ thoughts about this election. And best of all, I am very hopeful about November 3rd. No, really, I am. Joe Biden might not have been a lot of folks first choice, but today he is a LOT of folks only choice. Whatever gets us there.

Joe Biden. I say his name a hundred times of day – think Rain Man and substitute Joe Biden for Judge Wapner – that’s me. I recite parts of the script in my dreams sometimes. My dear wife can even do an amusing impersonation of me since she’s heard me on duty from my home office. Besides politely thanking the Trump voters for their time (grr), making the script sound fresh each time is the most challenging aspect of the gig. By the end of my shift, I’m exhausted from the sound of my own voice, but I go to bed hopeful that our democracy will prevail.

We follow a brief script – I identify myself and who I am representing and slide into the main question – “Do you plan on voting for Joe Biden on November 3rd?” And that’s when things get interesting. The good – yes – the bad – no – and the ugly – Trumpers who yell at me. There’s a half a second of suspense after the question exits my mouth and hangs there as I wait for the answer. I can almost predict the answer by the sound of someone’s voice, but that’s not foolproof. One of my early calls was to crusty old woman in rural Pennsylvania. I popped the question and there was an awkward pause and she said in a very bold voice, “I…most…certainly… (here it comes, I thought) AM!” She proceeded to tell me that the only monument that Trump’s head should be on is a statue of Larry, Curly and Moe. Lesson learned – you can’t always judge a voter by their address. See 2016.

Our call list is weighted to registered Democrats, but no data is perfect. Almost all the Dems are happy to speak with me – like hearing from an old friend. Here are just a few of my favorite answers to the first question.

  1. I would crawl over broken glass to vote for Joe Biden.
  2. FUCK YEAH! Like my very life depends on it. (I really liked that woman.)
  3. I would vote for a bag of rotten vegetables over Donald Trump.

We then ask if people plan on voting by mail or in person and this has been a disgusting indictment (there will be many more) of Donald Trump’s assault on mail-in voting. People don’t trust the United States Postal System. I spoke to a woman in Warren, MI who told me, “I work for the post office and no way am I mailing my ballot in.” And I talked to a 36-year retiree of the post office in Raleigh who lamented that she can’t trust the mail because of Trump. She said, “I’ve got a mask, a shield and some gloves – I’m voting in person.”

That said – a LOT of people are voting by mail – and many are delivering their ballots in person to a drop-box or their local Board of Elections. But the most encouraging takeaway from this question is that so many people have a plan for voting – they’ve thought it through in advance because they want to protect themselves and their vote. Americans are afraid their vote will not be counted. So much winning.

The last question I ask folks is the one that has evoked answers that have sometimes moved me to tears. What would you say is the primary issue that concerns you the most in the upcoming election? The number one answer by far is getting rid of Donald Trump. Here are just a few of the most memorable responses.

  • Donald Trump is a doofus and a danger to the whole world.
  • You don’t let someone in your house who will hurt you. He’s in our house.
  • Stopping the descent into Fascism.
  • He’s not even human. (Fascinating new birther conspiracy!)

This is where I often find myself in surprisingly deep conversations with some voters as they share their despair for the state of our union and their hopes for the future. A woman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania said, “Oh, now you’re going to make me cry. I pray for the welfare of our nation and the heart of our country. My husband and I are voting by mail and going fishing on election day. We’ll fish and pray all day that we’ll get our country back.” Gulp. Many people tell me that they fear for the future of our democracy if Biden is not elected. One man called the last four years “the vandalism of our democracy.” These people aren’t all yellow dog Democrats like me. Some of them tell me that they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary, but they will vote for Biden. A few even confess that they are Republicans, but they can’t support Trump. It is no small thing to hear a stranger tell you how much they love our country.

We’ve been calling into battleground states except for two days of calling into Kentucky. Wow. I can’t imagine anything lonelier than being a Democrat in Kentucky. Our time calling there was as a longshot that Mitch McConnell might be defeated. Not to be a buzzkill, but we can call that race right now. The Kentucky Dems were so happy to hear from a kindred soul that it was sometimes hard to get them off the phone. It was a little heartbreaking. I felt like I was leaving behind those sweet residents of The Island of Misfit Toys. I promised them that Joe Biden would come back for them.

The other primary concern on most voters’ minds is COVID-19. I spoke with an essential worker in PA who just returned to work after being out for almost four months recovering from COVID. She is what we call a highly motivated voter. People know that this pandemic is far from over and they want to put an adult in charge. I’ve heard touching stories from older people who haven’t seen their grandchildren in six months. I can hear the weariness in their voices. I probably stay on those calls longer than I should.

I learned quickly that each state has its own personality. Maine and New Hampshire don’t suffer fools or unknown callers gladly. I got a lot of, “It’s none of your damn business who I’m voting for.” Yep. Live free or die. Both of those states are looking good for Joe, but Susan Collins’ karma ticket is about to be punched. I imagine she is deeply troubled. On the bright side, she’ll have more time for brewskies with Brett Kavanaugh. What? I LIKE BEER.

And now for the Trumpers. I’ll give them this – they are faithful parrots of their fearful leader. I’ve heard things like Joe Biden is a pedophile and Kamala Harris is a Muslim. That’s when my superpower of lip biting comes in handy. My absolute favorite response/insult from a Trump voter came from a young, white man (surprise!) in rural North Carolina. He said/yelled at me, “I DON’T VOTE FOR DEMOCRATS. CNN IS BULLSHIT. FUCK YOUR FEELINGS.” I desperately wanted to respond, “So, that’s a hard no on Joe?” Honestly, the Trumpers inspire me because they are a visceral reminder of how toxic Trump’s presidency has been for our country.

Sometimes I have a hard time falling asleep after my shift. There are always a few conversations that I replay and can’t quite let go of – like the young black woman in Detroit. When I asked her what her primary concern was in this election she sighed – a heavy sigh much older than her years – as I waited for her answer. She said in a flat emotionless voice, “I’m a black person, so who I vote for doesn’t really matter because nothing ever changes for us. I hope things will get better this time, but we’ll see.” Damn. I doubt I’ll ever let go of that conversation.

I’ve been surprised and deeply touched by the voters who have thanked me for what I am doing. Hearing a “Take care, girl” at the end of a call can really lift your spirits. The truth is that I love my job. Every day feels important – like when I talked a 93-year-old disabled woman through the process of requesting an absentee ballot. Dear Lord, I hope she mails it in early.

The bad news is that I’ll get the pink slip on November 3rd. The good news is that Donald Trump will, too.

Go to VotingMatters.org/NC to update your registration, request a mail-in ballot, or find your voting location.