The second time Obama Fever flared, I was going on three months in Wilmington, North Carolina, struggling to find a foothold in my new setting and not at all fitting in.
I’d felt a sort of unbridled optimism during Obama’s 2008 campaign, from “Yes We Can” as a slogan to the bestselling Audacity of Hope. The winds of change were blowing across the country, and so was I, in a very used convertible I’d purchased during a climbing trip through the South. There was optimism in the air, and it rushed in through open skies across Oklahoma, Kansas, and back to Colorado.
Four years later, in 2012, I was feeling less empowered, more alienated, and unanchored to anything that felt like home. I’d moved to Wilmington for graduate school, but meaningful interactions with my much younger peers were slow to develop. I needed to get involved in something bigger, participate somehow. I needed to get outside my head.
Most of all, I needed to run somewhere besides a treadmill—or an indoor track. I discovered a large park near my new neighborhood, more of a municipal recreation field with a baseball diamond I could run around. And I discovered the beauty of Sundays in the South: if you’re not a church-goer, you have the sidewalks, the crosswalks, the brown blades of winter grass all to yourself.
After treading cautiously across uneven patches of sidewalk and past broke-down bleachers, my feet hit grass and soil. As I passed the baseball dugout, I saw a couple bystanders. Two men sat on the bleachers and peered out at the ball field. They didn’t talk much, just gazed into the distance. Then one of them took a phone call, and the other took a drag of a cigarette. I rounded the bleachers for another lap, and nodded hello. The men nodded back, then resumed smoking, texting, passing the time. They liked the Sunday morning stillness too, I thought to myself.
By Lap Four, I noticed them looking in my direction.
When I passed by the dugout, the texter put down his phone. “How many times you gonna go ‘round?” he asked.
I chuckled, and slowed to a conversational pace. “I don’t know,” I said, with a shrug. “How many should I do?”
He cocked his head. “Eight! Yeah. You should do eight.”
“Hmm, that’s about four more,” I said. “Sounds good,” I agreed. “I’ll do eight.” I gave him a wave, and picked up my pace—I had a coach now. Always good to be held accountable.
By Lap Seven, there was a commotion near the bleachers. My new coach was shouting into his phone, his language becoming increasingly colorful. His friend was totally unfazed, just kept on smoking his cigarette. I took a wider berth around the bleachers, sensing I needed to give the scene some space.
When I passed the vicinity of home plate, he jerked the phone down.
“Fo’ mo’!” he yelled at the back of my baseball hat. “You got FO’ MO’”!
I laughed, then shook my head. “Aww, come on!” I called over my shoulder. “This is number eight! You lost count.”
Phone back to his ear, he resumed his tirade. His free hand flew overhead—thumb tucked tight, fingers touching the clouds. I ran four more laps.
On the way home, I passed the Catholic Church. People were milling about in their Sunday best, and I stepped off the sidewalk to give them a little more room. One of the women nodded hello, then took in my purple face, my leggings, my irreverent Rock Star Energy Drink baseball hat. I considered telling her I went to the early, early service, and that’s why I was out running rather than walking out of church just around noon on a Sunday. But she seemed happy I was there, somehow, purple face and all.
I thought of the men on the bleachers, and how they’d spent their Sunday morning. How all our relatively disparate lives had intersected in some meaningful way.
The woman on the sidewalk seemed uplifted after the church service and for some reason, seeing me run down the street made her smile; I, in turn, felt uplifted after my encounter at the field, and I sensed my jogging around home plate gave the guy swearing into the phone a reason to come up for air and reconnect with a neutral world.
Suddenly, I felt hopeful—about what, I wasn’t sure, but it was definitely optimism, distinct from the last of the runner’s high still coursing through my veins.
* * *
Driving to the store, I noticed an oversized Mitt Romney banner draped over the side of a building, with the slogan “‘Hope’ is not a Strategy.”
The word “Hope” was italicized and in quotes, as though hope were something to be mocked and isolated for dramatic effect. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that Romney had missed the mark.
Having moved from the mountains of Colorado, where 97 percent of the population shared my liberal politics, for better or worse, the election season in Wilmington, North Carolina, was fascinating. I’d complained to a Colorado friend that my car was egged during a Wilmington Halloween, and he just laughed: “Yeah, well, the Republican Headquarters in downtown Aspen got egged—again,” he said. Mulling over Romney’s condescending marquee, I realized that my North Carolina vote would matter way more than my Colorado vote ever had.
In 2008, Obama’s most hopeful of campaigns, my mom flew across the country to join the election street team, and she canvassed her way back to California. She teamed up with various Democratic volunteers and knocked on doors across multiple states, for about eight weeks.
This second time around, I was feeling compelled to help the Obama effort. For some reason, parading around with an early voting I Voted sticker wasn’t going to cut it.
I responded to an email from MoveOn.org and signed up to help during the final days of voting season. Monday morning, I showed up at the Democratic Headquarters, fortuitously located by Folk’s Café, Wilmington’s long-time home of organic coffee. They were fueling today’s efforts.
Jason, the campaign coordinator, came out to greet me. “Thank you so much for coming out!” he said, shaking my hand. “We need all the help we can get. Do you want to make some phone calls, or would you like to knock on some doors?”
I wanted to knock on some doors.
I was curious who’d be behind them, and the conversations we might have. I quickly learned that volunteers only knock on like-minded doors, those that open to already registered Democrats. No need for persuasive rhetoric or rebuttal—just get those voters off their doorsteps and into the voting booth.
Around houses nearest the headquarters, most people weren’t home. Some had already voted, while others were late for work: “Gobama! Thanks for stopping by!” As addresses shifted, so did neighborhoods. I worked my way to a different side of town.
On the south side of town, Shirley Miller was sitting on her front steps. She seemed pleased to see me, like she’d been waiting for a diversion to walk by.
“Hello,” I said, with a smile. “I’m out today to remind people to vote. Have you voted?”
“Yes, I already did,” she said, with a forceful nod.
“Great! Thanks for—”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, cutting me off mid-sentence. “I voted for Romney.”
I silenced my feelings about that statement and said, “Well, it’s good that you voted. That’s what counts.”
“That’s right, I voted for Romney,” she repeated, “because Obama wouldn’t let me kiss his SEX-Y lips.”
A downbeat of silence, and she burst into laughter. I laughed too, at myself as much as the punchline—she had me.
“Ooh, I got you good!” she said, pointing her finger at me. Her laugh turned to cackle. “Come on now, girl,” she said, collecting herself. “I vote for o-BAMA! Romney is the devil. That man the devil! Michelle and the kids, such a loving family. Girls is so well-behaved, and smart…and Obama and Michelle, they love each other. Michelle won’t let no one touch her man, that’s right. ‘Gimme some a’ that, Michelle,’ I say to the TV. Oh, well.”
Shirley looks in her mid-fifties. She’s got a bad eye that turns toward the sky, with a thin membrane stretched over the eyeball. Her other eye works fine, she tells me. And while she’d been drinking that morning—she told me that too—her words were sharp and clear.
“My son come home from school when he was little, cryin’. This little white girl he used to play with come to class one day and start yellin’ at him at recess, sayin’ things like ‘Ku Klux Klan, n— n—, you’re dumb.’” She paused. “And my little boy asked me, ‘Mama, why she start sayin’ those things to me?’ So I tell him, I say, ‘Baby, it’s not her fault. It’s her parents’ fault. They ignorant. Now she’s gonna be ignorant too.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Shirley cocked her head. “Hey, where you from, Miss Jamie?”
Colorado, I told her, with a smile. This was something I knew about. Around 8,000 feet.
“Woo-wee!” said Shirley. “Shoa’ is different here for you, huh?”
I nodded. “Yes, it really is,” I replied. “There’s too much oxygen down here, Shirley,” I added. “I can’t think straight!”
She cackled again, then leaned in. “Well I like your energy, baby,” she said, patting my hand. “You got a nice sense of humor.”
Shirley walked me next door to my next address. There was an old woman rocking on the porch, and she must’ve heard why I was there. She smiled at me, and her eyes sparkled—with mirth, optimism, maybe just general good will. There was something hopeful about her expression, and about this day.
“I like your beautiful flowers,” I said, gesturing toward matching planters of fake pink and yellow roses, a few faded blossoms clinging to the weathered stems.
“They’re fake,” she replied. “But I really like ‘em. My former husband gave them to me. He’s gone now.”
I nodded, listening.
“They used to be full of flowers,” she said, “but someone keeps messin’ with ‘em.” A frown spread across her dark complexion, and her eyes narrowed with recollections of a different kind. She settled herself back into the porch swing and sighed.
“Where you from, baby?” she asked, coming back to the moment. “Colorado?? Ooo, big change for you, huh? You like it down this way?”
I smiled and once again said, Yes, big change. I’m still getting used to it.
Then I asked about her life.
Althea Foster was 83 years old. Her husband had passed away and now she lived by herself in their house on the corner. Shirley “keeps an eye on me,” said Althea, of her next-door neighbor, who calls herself Althea’s guardian.
“I lived in Brooklyn for many years,” Althea said, with a shudder. “Too cold! Too many damn people.”
“The sunshine feels nice today,” she said. “It’s a good day to sit outside.”
“Have you voted yet, Miss Althea?” I ask.
“No, baby, I cain’t get to the polls. I haven’t voted in years.”
I was only canvassing for the day, and other volunteers were standing by to give rides to the polls. But I had to make this happen. Without pause, without reviewing logistics or verifying protocol, I told Althea I would give her a ride. Suddenly, helping cast her vote had become the most important thing in the world.
I pictured how that would feel. I envisioned the people who’d help her into the voting booth and show her how computerized ballots work, then escort her downstairs. Where I’d be waiting to take her back to her porch swing. I imagined the whole scene and how wonderful everyone would feel. Every vote counts, but Althea’s vote would count infinitely more.
Shirley hobbled up the porch and joined Althea in the porch swing. “Althea don’ go anywhere without me,” she declared. “But tomorrow morning at 11 could work, I’spose. Yes, it could work.”
“I can go earlier, too!” said Althea.
“Well I’m busy in the morning,” Shirley replied. “I got to put my brace on, then wait for my check. How ‘bout today?” asks Shirley. “Can she vote today?”
Unfortunately, early voting had ended. We all felt disappointed about that: it was a beautiful, hopeful day, a good day to cast a vote. It was a good day to be a hero.
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Althea, patting her hair. “I can’t find my pocketbook, anyway. And I really need my headscarf.”
I promised them I’d come back tomorrow, 11 a.m. sharp, and we’ll drive to Mount Olive Church, just four blocks away. And Althea will finally cast her vote for our country’s first black president.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Althea!” I said, with great enthusiasm. “Are you excited?”
Her eyes were thick with emotion. “Yes. Yes, baby, I am,” said Althea. “I’m very excited.”
* * *
Election Day dawned cold and windy, and by mid-morning, it had started to rain. At 10:45 a.m., I pulled up to Althea’s house. She sat right where I left her, gently rocking in her porch swing. Althea nodded a silent hello, but nothing more. No sparkle today, no curiosity about this smiling white Westerner walking up her steps. There was no trace of yesterday’s optimism on today’s porch. Althea looked frightened and visibly fatigued.
“Good morning, Althea!” I called. “You ready for the big day?” I’d already phoned the people at Mount Olive to let them know Althea was coming, and they were thrilled. Everyone was standing by to make things as easy as possible for her. Short of a red carpet, Althea would be Election Day’s leading lady. She’d vote right at the curb, they told me. She wouldn’t even have to get out of the car!
I shared the good news with Althea—how everyone’s there to help her, how fast and easy it’ll be to vote for Obama. “We’re all set, Miss Althea!” I told her, with a big smile. “Shall we go vote?”
“Where’s Shirley?” asked Althea—her first words of the day, I realized. While I’d been tripping over myself with optimism, Althea had settled into silent worry. My enthusiasm was no match for the gray clouds and the bitter cold wind, things she was much more accustomed to.
Althea leaned forward on the swing and looked around the street, her feet shuffling nervously. There was no sign of Shirley.
“We can wait for her, Miss Althea. No problem at all,” I said quietly. “I’m a little early actually.”
“Oh, I don’ know, baby,” she murmured, clutching her cardigan to her chest. She rocked back and forth, staring at now silent feet. “I’m not feeling too well today.”
Yesterday’s excitement was today’s exhaustion. The hopeful mood was gone. Althea looked over at the steps, then sighed. “I just don’ think I’m feelin’ up to it today,” she said.
“You sure?” I asked. I was trying to find the right tone, a blend of patience and persuasion that I hoped would set her in motion. It’ll be quick, Althea! I wanted to say. It’ll be great. You’ll be so happy you voted!
Avoiding eye contact, Althea shook her head.
Suddenly, I felt ashamed. I was over-invested in this, I realized. In my head, I’d already written the ending of the story: how I drove an 83-year-old black woman named Althea to the polls, how I helped her into the car—how she felt after casting her vote for the first black president of our lifetime.
I wanted to take a picture and send it to my mom so she’d know I was doing OK, and doing good things, and she didn’t have to worry about me in this strange new city that didn’t feel like home.
Helping Althea felt so hopeful, it felt like hope itself—I had good intentions. That mattered. But Althea mattered more. The forecast happy ending had changed with the wind, and I needed to adjust my course.
I sat a minute or two and looked out at the street, giving Althea time to gather her thoughts. When I brought my gaze back to the porch, Althea was patting her hair: she still hadn’t found her headscarf.
“I cain’t go anywhere lookin’ like this, baby,” she said. “Think I better stay on home.” Her face had clouded over. “Oh, I don’t know,” she continued, in a shaky voice. “I need some aspirin maybe, I’m not feeling well today. I just—I’m sorry.”
I reached for Althea’s hand and patted it, as Shirley had patted mine. “It’s OK, Miss Althea. It’s no problem at all. It’s a nasty day out, isn’t it?” I said. “I think I’ll go home too.”
She turned to me with a sad smile. “Can I get you anything?” I added.
“I’m all right, baby,” she replied. “I thank you for your patience. You’ve been very kind.”
I leaned down and gave her a hug. “It was wonderful to meet you, Miss Althea.”
“You take care, baby,” she said.
On my way to the car, Shirley came motoring down the sidewalk in an electric wheelchair. She nodded at me, nothing more, and made her way onto Althea’s porch. No loud hello; no jokes or cackles. Obama’s sexy lips were yesterday’s news. It was raining today, and the world was cold.
I fiddled with the car stereo a minute or two, not yet ready to leave the scene. Part of me was still hoping Shirley might change Althea’s mind.
I heard a screen door slam. When I looked up, the porch was deserted.
* * *
I run around my park on other days, too. Thursday, Monday, Saturday morning, but no further sightings of my cell-phone coach and his cigarette sidekick. There’s a group of elderly black men who sit on the porch across from the baseball field, but they don’t seem to notice me. They’re slouched in mismatched lawn chairs, chatting and heckling, and keep unofficial watch over their side of the field. I call them the Tailgaters.
I catch snippets of conversation every now and then, the occasional “Lawd have Mercy,” when someone feels particularly opinionated. They call to cars moving down the street or whistle at women, but it’s always someone they know, who gives it right back.
One chilly Thursday morning, it’s just me and the field—no life on the bleachers, no dogs in sight. I’m working on a longer run but not really feeling it, so I turn my music louder, hoping to kick myself into higher gear.
Suddenly, a sound breaks through a familiar song, some strange, muffled lyric I’ve never heard before. It’s not the wind, and there’s no one behind me. Puzzled, I turn the volume down and check the outside world.
At the house on the corner, one of Tailgaters is on his feet and waving like mad. When he sees me see him, he cups a hand around his mouth.
“Fo’ MO’!” he hollers. Then his free hand flies overhead—thumb tucked tight, fingers touching the clouds. “You got Fo’ Mo’!”