By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
When the authorities find it useful to tell the truth, it’s because they can’t find any better lie. — Jean-Paul Sartre
Jay Fox (credit: Ashley Sears)
After watching the circus come and go in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, I can’t help but dwell upon the reason why I both got into and constantly try to escape the world of politics. It’s a Gong Show, a stage for ostensibly intelligent people to yell outrageous things, typically at a person, though, more often than not, at a spurious identity constructed by either the media or the opposing party. It’s a world of manipulation, where flip-flopper and pragmatic, insider and experienced, pedant and intellectual, divisive and iron-willed, Keynesian and Marxist, robber baron and job creator, can be applied to the exact same individual without any sense of contradiction. True, some of these pairs are not even remotely synonymous (Keynes was no fan of Marx), but to some people they are. Furthermore, this reveals how contentious and belligerent politics can make two seemingly normal people who would probably get along just fine if they had been having a disagreement about who was going to represent the American League in the 2012 World Series (my vote, of course, goes to Detroit).
However, whether I like it or not, politics has played a pretty important part in my life. At one point, I even worked in politics, as a canvasser for the pro-union Working Families Party. Canvassing, as anyone who has done it for more than a few days will know, is not really a job—it’s more a lifestyle. Though there are exceptions, most canvassers work from roughly two until ten, five days a week, make a modest income, and run into a constant stream of scenarios that sound as though they are out of a dream.
Imagine walking through a strange neighborhood in a strange suburb of New York. It’s dark. You have nothing with you except the clothes on your back, a clipboard, and a pouch of stale rolling tobacco. Every person you encounter could vehemently disagree with you, yell at you, slam the door in your face; they could turn on the sprinkler system; they could pull a gun on you; they could nod along with you as though they agree with everything that you say, but then interrupt you at some point to inform you that, actually, the biggest problem with the country is not X, but that it’s being run by a small cadre of nefarious aliens who live in the center of the Earth and who are not too dissimilar, in appearance at least, to ALF. (Okay, so the last person I described was actually a woman that my girlfriend and I once met on the street in the West Village, but she probably would have given the same spiel to anyone who came to knock on her door.) There are great people, too, although they can be just as weird. Some will invite you in for tea and cigarettes; some will invite you in for beer and porn. You realize very quickly that every person is different, and you come to both fear and enjoy this. You even come to realize that there actually is a very small minority of people who believe that there is nothing wrong with coming to the door without clothes on. This is how days are made.
The Brooklyn Tavern
That being said, going out with canvassers after a long day of encounters with the generous, the mean, the strange and the naked leads to some interesting stories. During the time I worked at the Working Families Party, our local watering hole was the Brooklyn Tavern (33 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn). It’s the type of place you walk past a thousand times without seriously noticing, one lacking in any sense of ostentation or serious décor, with the exception of a few beer signs in the window. It’s not a dive, but it has cheap drinks; it’s not a sports bar, but the televisions are usually on ESPN. This generic façade hides its single greatest attribute, one that is not even found in the tavern itself—it’s the space behind the bar. With the exception of one place in Williamsburg and one in the Cass Corridor area of Detroit, the BT is home to my favorite bar backyard.
I ended up becoming incredibly close with a group of people who were on a special mission to lay the groundwork for a campaign out in Suffolk County (the most eastern part of Long Island). Initially there were only five of us from Brooklyn going out there every day by car. With the exception of myself, everyone was somewhat new to the city—one from West Virginia (the driver), one from Pennsylvania, one from Mississippi, one from Bulgaria. We didn’t know each other very well at first, but we quickly started hanging out after work since our respective friends were either asleep or too tired to come out by the time we got back to Brooklyn. Even other canvassers were usually already home by the time we got to the bar. While most people view happy hour as a time to relax among professionals, our experience was different; it was more a time to try to avoid the career alcoholics who were already smashed by the time we ordered our first beer.
Needless to say, political discussions around these drunkards were far from fruitful, as they were usually more batshit crazy than any of the people we had met during our shifts. Consequently, we spent the majority of our time in the backyard. And so we would pass most of our time out there, smoking, drinking the one beer we had purchased at the bar that kept magically refilling itself as though we had some kind of secondary source hidden away in our backpacks, and taking on subjects from philosophy and politics to more practical things, like why it’s a very bad idea to buy vodka on the Bulgarian black market (you can evidently make vodka from anything, and I do mean anything).
When the campaign finally ended with a decisive victory for our candidate, the group began to disintegrate. West Virginia and Mississippi went back to their respective states after a few weeks. Bulgaria went on to graduate school in Florida. I still see Pennsylvania every so often to reminisce, as well as another two or three people with whom I used to work, but the BT has become a part of my past.
Whenever I think of election season, I don’t like to think on the national level. It’s depressing. We have created a rigid system that perpetuates a failing status quo (we have a free market that controls the only means of getting our bureaucratic state apparatuses to work—lobbying!), and every four years we get a few people to get up on a stage to tell us that, if they get to be President, they will do things that they don’t have the power to do without congressional approval. And they do it with a straight face.
I prefer to think on the local level. In fact, I prefer to think on the most local level imaginable: Of the people who actually believe in what they are doing, not because of the power or money a victory will grant them. They believe because they think they are doing what’s right. And for this cause, regardless of what it may be, they will be spit on, mocked, yelled at; they will clock in early, and they will clock out late; they will walk around in the cold, the heat, the dark, the rain and sleet and snow. I think of how I used to be one of those people, spending my nights in the back of the BT, and I can’t help but feel a little ashamed of the cynicism I now help perpetuate.