I don’t remember my mom explicitly telling me not to talk to strangers. Of course, it was understood that I wasn’t to take candy from, or get in a car with someone I didn’t know, but ever since childhood I’ve enjoyed the art of conversation, with close friends, and with those that I just met. Yet when I looked at the itinerary of this past weekend’s activities, I began to get a bit nervous, as my two main social events revolved around communicating with strangers. One was for personal gain. The other was bigger than myself. One was a complete bust. The other was a minor victory.
Let’s begin with the victory. Throughout the past year I, like most other Americans, have been going through waves in regard to the looming presidential election. There are days where the desire to inform myself is insatiable, as I read periodicals and watch broadcasts dissecting the minute details of each candidate. Yet everyone experiences election fatigue at one point, and over the past few months it seems all but impossible not to get worn out with the coverage, and discouraged at the lunatic fundamentalists whose outdated views crop up on the front page of Yahoo.
Just when one such bout of exasperation hit me, I received an email from my friend Angelina. For the past four months, she has been working at Obama Campaign Headquarters in Nevada, devoting 14-hours a day to ensure this man gets elected on November 4th. “If everyone horrified at the prospect of a Vice President Palin, picks up the phone and talks to voters, it's done,” she said. Her enthusiasm and practicality jolted me. I have always been one of those people bitching at dinner, lamenting the prospect of dwindling rights, and doing nothing about it. At the end of her email, she attached several ways to get involved, and I knew the time had come for me to do something.
(A new ad popping up around the City.)
Fortunately, my friend Abby had the same thing in mind, and invited me to a Phone Banking Party in Brooklyn this past weekend, organized by MoveOn.org. The idea of the party both exhilarated and terrified me. It seemed simple enough: arrive at an apartment in Brooklyn, get a prompt and a list of 42 numbers, and set forth to calling each of the them—which were for MoveOn members, Democrats—in an effort to get people mobilized in the swing states.
(Abby and I, fellow gimps, rest up before starting our calling spree.)
What I didn’t anticipate was how awkward I would be. I thought I was capable of following the prompt:
“Hi, is this______? Hi, this is_______ and I’m a volunteer…
We’re heading into the final days of the election, and we’ve been able to sign up more than 75,000 swing state MoveOn members to volunteer for Obama. Have you been involved yet? [Ask some follow up questions.] We have events on Sunday at 2pm, Monday at 6pm, and Saturday at 10am. Can you attend any of those? ”
And so on. When I was practicing on my own before I made the first call, it seemed like a script destined for success. Of course, I didn’t know what it would be like when there was someone answering back on the other end of the line.
I made it through eight phone numbers before I finally got someone to pick up on the other end. Before I knew it, I was tumbling through the prompt, stuttering when trying to pronounce Barack Obama (nothing like confidence to enlist a supporter), and plowing through each line like the election was thirty seconds away and I had to enlist them NOW. My communication skills were suddenly stunted when speaking to strangers.
The group scattered around the apartment was putting me to shame. Some managed to keep people on the phone for ten minutes at a time, sharing stories about fears regarding McCain, and guffawing like they were downing beers at the local pub. I could barely get people to pick up, let alone converse with me. “We just sat down to dinner,” they would say on the other end, as I looked over at the clock, which informed me it wasn’t even 4PM in Ohio. I was finally able to get someone to agree to go to an event by the time I got to my fourteenth call. The success excited me so much that I neglected to tell her any of the relevant information, like where to go and what to do, before I thanked her and hung up the phone. You can imagine my embarrassment when I had to call her back.
(Abby wasn't always successful.)
The afternoon continued, and I got one more person to agree to enlist, bringing my total to two—the average for most of the other callers at the party. Two people? I thought. It seemed so paltry. But I reminded myself how many other MoveOn calling parties were happening at the very same time, bringing the total of enlisted members into the thousands; I suddenly felt excited about being involved in something so much bigger than myself.
(Nick joins Abby to listen in on a particularly lively caller.)
If only I had had the chance to follow my script the night before. True to the theme of proactive friends who want me to engage with strangers, my roommate Nick coerced me into going to an event called Qwik Dates (yes, that is how it is spelled) at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Chelsea. The idea sounded horrifying to me: three-minute dates with a series of men in their 20s and 30s, ending with a mingling period for the entire room. I agreed to go as a late birthday present to Nick, but I won’t pretend I wasn’t excited by the idea of it being an train wreck, as it would give me excellent stories to write about.
The problem was, it wasn’t anything. After wrangling my friend Amos into the group, the three of us walked through the frigid autumn air to the building residing on west 13th street. When we arrived, there were packs of teenagers mingling in the lobby, apparently waiting for the “Youth Dance” to begin. A group of men at the front desk let us know that we need to go to the top floor, room 410. My expectations for an entertaining disaster were plummeting by the second.
When we reached the top floor, a narrow hallway containing a row of lockers, we found there were three other people there, and only ten minutes until the event was to begin; a bathroom pow-wow was essential.
“We aren’t staying,” I said, as we huddled around the sinks.
“Yeah, I mean how many more people are going to show up,” Nick asked.
“Even if it’s a lot, ‘a lot’ in relation to the three guys already here, is like two more people,” Amos informed us. We nodded in agreement, and made our way out of the bathroom.
Now all we needed was an exit strategy that wouldn’t be too awkward. Just as we were looking for a stairwell, as to avoid the long wait for the elevator, a man came out and started collecting money from the three other people waiting by the door.
“I really need a water fountain,” I said.
With a quick glance over to me, as he pocketed the recently collected money, the host said, “We have some refreshments in here. Water, juice, soda.”
I wanted all three. Shit. New excuse, Matt.
“I actually need a cigarette, does anyone else want one before we go in,” I asked, regardless of the fact that I despise smoking.
“Smokey, smokey,” Nick responded, as we bolted down the stairwell, shaking our heads at the utter disappointment of the whole event.
As we made our way back outside, as single and bored as ever, I was disheartened I hadn’t been able to use the prompt I’d created earlier in the evening to give me a guideline for my prospective dates. Since no one heard it, I figured I’d share it now:
“Hey, I’m Matt. Wanna touch my hernia? Actually, at this point it’s debatable, my roommate thinks it might be an undescended third testicle. Either way, you could have healing powers. I’d like you to try. I’m actually not even sure how I got it; I’m a photographer, not any heavy lifting. Although it can be stressful at times. Just today I was attacked by this father in the park because I was taking pictures of his daughter. She was hugging this big red dog; I was just doing my job. Other than the hernia, things are okay. I mean I’ve been sick for the past 18-months, although it’s not contagious. But my doctor says my symptoms are relatable to those of a chemo patient. I’ve learned to deal with it pretty well, except when I get stuff like the flu on top of it, which is what I was dealing with last week. You know, puking my guts out. Come to think of it, that might have been how my hernia got worse. Well, two hernias actually. Puking isn’t great for the abdominal wall. What’s your name?”
Maybe I could have enlisted two dates with that prompt? Or maybe I should have just started with that prompt instead of the "script" when I was calling MoveOn members. Drat. Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda talked to more strangers.
(Not so much.)