Saturday, November 08, 2008

How I helped Obama win in eight states

In August this year, as I moved from Minnesota to Massachusetts, I drove through eight states. Amazingly – and I realized this just recently – Obama won all these states. So here goes a quasi-satirical, fictional piece that follows my journey: the places I mention here are places and people I actually met. But I’ve twisted the actual narrative to have some fun.


I moved from Minnesota to Massachusetts in August this year. I drove for three days and through eight states to get to my destination: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and finally Massachusetts. Look carefully at that list. Do you notice something? Yes, they are all states in which Obama won; and they include some of his more memorable victories: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

I am here to take credit for his successes. I hope the Obama campaign takes notice. After all, I traveled and spread Obama’s word in Midwestern prairie towns; I climbed lonely silos and shouted, so his message of change and hope could reach every barn and every farmhouse. And when I crossed the Mississippi – that most important American territorial and cultural marker – and entered Wisconsin, I set sail large paper boats with a “Yes, we can!” emblazoned on them, so the message would travel down the river, all the way to St.Louis, in the bellwether state of Missouri, where the race still remains tied.

And that night - the first of my journey - I ate a hearty meal at King of Falafel, a restaurant in downtown Madison. I encouraged the Egyptian owner to vote for Change. When he complained that life was tough and business was slow because of a fierce Lebanese competitor whose restaurant was right across, I said to him:

“There is no Egyptian America or Lebanese America – there is only the United States of America.”


The next morning I was in Illinois, a state already well converted. As I drove through the notorious south side of Chicago – a place Obama had made home and where he’d done his community organizing work – I thought I saw a young and skinny Obama walking the streets, knocking on doors, helping frame and sign petitions, helping people pick up their lives as the steel factories closed.

I saw him slip on the sidewalk, fall, and twist his ankle; his papers, containing hundreds of signatures flew and scattered all over the street. But he collected them with the same patience and poise with which he ran his Presidential campaign. Later, I saw him addressing a group of just twenty people – yes just twenty people, not 200,000. Big audiences certainly do not develop in a day. I saw him stumble and stutter and lose his sentences - unfortunately there wasn't a teleprompter to channel his eloquence.


Twenty five miles south of Chicago is the town of Gary, in the state of Indiana. This predominantly black town would probably vote for Obama – unlike the state which was a toss-up – but I thought I had to do my part nevertheless. Every town counted; every person counted. White folks in Minnesota had advised me to avoid Gary; I was told to “gas up and avoid everything south of Chicago downtown; these are bad parts.” In America, as many of you well know, “bad” parts of town in the public discourse are generally an indirect reference to “Black” or “Hispanic” parts of town.

I made my way through Gary’s deserted main street, full of strangely empty buildings. I stuck a hundred Obama fliers on the walls, alongside tattered messages that said: “Gary: Celebrating one hundred years; Steel Strong!” But the heavy industry halcyon days were in the past. Now there wasn't much going on.

At a crowded gas station at the end of the street, I found the owners – an Indian-American man and his son – conducting transactions behind a bullet-proof glass partition. I said to them:

“Change is coming; it will break these barriers of suspicion and distrust that we have erected.”

I repeated this to a middle-aged black lady who arrived in posh red SUV. She was in a foul mood, and had begun cursing the two ragged men lounging outside the store. The men, she claimed angrily, were eyeing her car.

“Get a proper job!” she told them. Those behind me in the line grinned wryly.

A little farther east in Indiana is the town of South Bend. Here too, the downtown buildings were empty; the economy seemed to have stagnated. And as with other cities in the US, the demographic in and near downtown was mostly black. This contrasted sharply with the brilliantly landscaped campus of Notre Dame University a few miles away, where the rich sent their offspring. I wandered around the well maintained boulevards trying to find students who could energize the campaign in South Bend.

I came across a group of students and professors at a small hangout called Lula’s Café. Cosy and comfortable, the café’s interior was a world very different from downtown. The walls were full of murals; students discussed in groups. Some played drums; others played the flute: the atmosphere was very much like it is in organic cafes and stores. This was a community conveniently absorbed in its own world, its own bubble, seemingly impervious to the situation just a few miles away. Most of them were already Obama supporters, but I had something to say to them:

“We can't have a Hippie America and a New Age America and a Yuppie America and a Ghetto America. We can't have a rich college-going America and a poor high-school dropout America. We must have only the United States of America!”


Onward from Indiana to Ohio, yet another critical state. I drove and drove until I came to the town of Toledo. I was exhausted and slept long that night in one of the highway-side hotels. But next morning I was up early. I set myself up in the breakfast room, with other hotel guests – senior citizens, families with many children– shaking a packet of Quaker’s oatmeal, toasting English muffins, slicing boiled eggs, and having weak coffee.

I didn't have to do much. The television was on; Obama was addressing a large rally, reading eloquently from the teleprompter, his eyes moving left and right, following the prompts.

“Vote for him!” I said passionately. My audience in the breakfast room looked at me in the uncertain manner of undecided voters, but my passion must have roused something deep in them.

And I can claim safely now that that same passion came to fore in Ohio when Obama carried it last week.


I could go on and on: describe my stop at Cleveland, Ohio; my stops in the small towns of Pennsylvania, yet another battleground state; and finally the easy home stretch through Upstate New York and western Massachusetts, through quaint towns that were ready to vote for Obama anyway, and where yards proliferated with Obama signs. But that wouldn’t be interesting.

It shall suffice to say that I did my bit; that during this journey – from the plains of the Midwest to the hills of western Massachusetts, covering nearly 1200 miles, and experiencing, if only for a little bit, the stark social realities that face the country today – it shall suffice to say that on this journey, I planted a seed on all my stops along the way: an Obama seed that grew and prospered on Election Day.


Pallavi said...

:).I am glad you took this "yes we can" journey and I happy to note that you had a big role in Obama's victory..

Hari said...

I was about to write about this journey in the usual travelogue way. But maybe that would not have been so exciting. And suddenly this opportunity presented itself: Obama won all eight of the states. So I figured I might as well indulge in some silliness.

Sana H. said...

Hari- this is an inspired bit of madness here... I like it! :)

Ritesh said...

Great stuff! :)

Chandrahas said...

Hi Hari - Well done! I believe the Congress Party will be calling you shortly asking if you're game for an all-expenses paid trip all the way from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and then from Itanagar to Porbandar this winter, just before we go to polls.

T. Edward Harper said...

Good job, Hari. I enjoyed having you in our writing group and I'm glad you're a fellow supporter of Obama. :-)

Krishnan said...

Hi Hari, me too glad that Obama won the race. I loved the way you wrote it - not as a straight travelogue but like sort of quasi-fiction. We in India are wondering if Obama will be a true friend of India - most Republican administrations have been far more pro-India than Democratic ones. In fact Dubya almost never rubbed India the wrong way.

KRT said...

Very nice. Reminds me of some of Dilip's writing at dcubed. More travelogues we demand!

Alok said...

Good Stuff!

I am a bit disppointed that you stopped with Ohio. I was looking forward to the remaining three states for some more fun.

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