April 22, 2008
Conversations in Ellwood City, PA
The following is a description of my experience canvassing for Barack Obama last weekend. While I can't say that the sequence of events is exact, the descriptions of the people and places and the words they said to me are.
To be fair to Ellwood, the whole city is not in such a poor condition. I arrive early morning at our staging area, a picturesque home in a quaint, clean, and quiet neighborhood. A few hundred feet down the road at the local park, a city Earth Day festival is unfolding. The house I walk into is owned by a lovely woman, the wife of a local pastor, who has volunteered her home for the weekend and taken time out of her busy day caring for her young children to help the Obama campaign. But a short trip across the bridge to the West reveals a completely different world. It is a world mentioned in the news and in political speeches, but quickly forgotten by city folk. It is a world often passed by on a long drive, but never entered. It is a world where American dreams go to die.
As the early morning chill gives way to the warmth of the sun, the smell of burning trash is in the air. I have a list of Democratic households to visit, and my goal is to get a feel for Obama's support in the area. I set out to meet the people of West Elwood City. The roads are unkempt, many of the houses in disrepair, and the lawns littered with debris. The stickers and signs on the homes reveal a love for Jesus and country that is rivaled only by a love for Pittsburgh Steeler football. My morning optimism quickly fades as a man stops me on the road. He is middle aged and shoddily dressed with gray hair, a thick mustache, and a half smoked cigarette hanging from his mouth. He asks me what I'm doing. "I'm volunteering for the Barack Obama campaign, " I reply. He says condescendingly, "What do you want to work for him for? He's not going to do anything but raise your taxes." I briefly explain Obama's plan to lower taxes for the middle class, to which he simply replies, "I don't believe you." It is clear he has already made up his mind, even without knowing the facts. I move on to the homes on my list.
After knocking on the doors of a few vacant houses, I walk up to a small home with a large "This home is protected by Jesus" sticker on door. I knock. A tall woman with messy hair and a dirty white t-shirt answers the door with a hint of a smile on her face. "Can I help you?" she says. I tell her I am volunteer from the Obama campaign and her semblance of a smile quickly disappears. "I'm a Hillary supporter, " she snaps. "I would never vote for him. I would even for McCain before I'd vote for him." She slams the door in my face. I trudge on, trying not to be discouraged.
A few streets over I approach a dilapidated bungalow that sits below street level. There are no stairs. I hop down to reach the front door and knock. A large, well built man answers the door wearing a bright red union t-shirt. He carries a toddler in his right arm and a large wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. I ask him who he is supporting in the upcoming election. The man tells me that he likes Obama, but that he has to vote with his union, and they have yet to endorse a candidate. I thank him for his time and move on.
After a few hours with little success, I step onto the porch of the left side of small duplex and ring the bell. A young African American man answers. When I tell him I am working for Obama, a large smile inches across his face. He tells me he is undecided but would like to talk. We sit on the porch and talk for about five minutes. He says he is a local pastor, and that he is surprised to see me in his area. While he does not say it outright, he hints at a strong sentiment of racism in his town and I tell him that I've noticed. As we conclude he admits he is leaning toward Obama and gives me a wink. I leave the house with a lifted spirit.
Down the street I creep up to a tattered home where the door is open and country music is blaring. I knock on the side. A hairy, heavy set white man in a dirty wifebeater walks up the hallway. "Hi, I'm a volunteer with the Barack Obam--." He quickly interrupts me by moving his hand in a shooing motion as he barks, "No, no! You get out of here!". As I scuttle away, he shouts from the door, " And tell your friends not to come back neither!"
Dejected, I walk up a long steep hillside to reach the final houses on my list. The summit provides a view over the whole side of town - the worn houses, the crumbling infrastructure, the failing commercial area, and the decrepit factories in the distance - the remnants of a once booming steel town. I come upon the last home on my list. It's no bigger than a trailer, and set a distance from the road. On the front lawn an oil drum filled with trash is burning. Two girls in their early twenties sit on lawn chairs smoking while six or seven children and a small dog chase each other excitedly around the house. One of the girls gets up to greet me and I ask for the name on my list. "She doesn't live here anymore, " replies the young girl. I thank her and ask who she might be supporting. She blows a plume of smoke and smiles as she says, "Oh, I don't really pay attention to that stuff." As I head back down the hill toward my car, a pickup truck passes by with a confederate flag in place of a front license plate.
Back at my staging area, I report my grim numbers to the woman in charge. "I'm not surprised, " she says, "at least we have more information now." I notice a pile of Obama lawn signs that were dropped off while I was out, and I ask here why she has not put one up. She sighs as she tells me that it wouldn't be appropriate due to her husband's position as pastor. I sigh in return, and thank her for being such a gracious host.
My heart is heavy on the PA Turnpike as the tiny town of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania fades in the distance. In my head I hear the words of Obama himself, words that have been replayed time and time again on the news, words about the bitterness in small town America, words that have been turned against him to paint him as "disconnected" and "elitist". But I see now that he is only honest. The bitterness is real, and those who ignore it are disconnected. There is little hope for a better America in the people of West Ellwood City.