Hippie Squared: Tales From the Precinct – Blasted Assumptions


A blogumn by Jeff Rogers

The screen door clatters under my knock. I stand at the side door under a drapery of morning glories and read the walk sheet: 74 Female.

The white woman with silver hair who appears out of the dimness in her flower-print blouse with built-in scarf, her smile bright and eyes lively, seems a good ten years younger than her listed age.

As I hand her the flyer for my candidate I launch into my rap: “Hi, I’m volunteering today for—“

One glance at the flyer and she breaks in, “Oh yes. He’s quite a nice-looking man, isn’t he?”

I stop and smile. “I guess so,” I say. I too am white, but she has still surprised me. Yes, she’s a registered Democract; yes this is Culver City, a Westside mostly liberal precinct. But my candidate for LA County Supervisor, known affectionately to supporters as MRT, is African-American, and in person quite charismatic, but let’s face it, he’s also somewhat short and portly.

She hands me back the flyer. “Don’t worry, I’ll vote for him.” She raises her eyebrows and gives me a sly smile. “Just based on his looks.”

I’ve decided, to my own surprise, that I love precinct walking.

Yesterday in Inglewood I talked to Vera, 83 and African-American. She too looked a decade younger than the age on her walk sheet. Precinct walking has made me optimistic about aging. Vera assured me immiately that MRT had her vote, but I also saw her eying my “Labor for Obama” button.

“How are you feeling about the Presidential contest?” I asked.

“Cautiously optimistic,” she said and I nodded. “There are still a lot of people out there who are going to say one thing and when they get in the voting booth do something different.” She held a gentle smile and spoke softly throughout our conversation.

“The Bradley effect,” I said. Neither of us actually said the words “black,” “white” or “racism,” but we picked our words carefully and held each other’s gaze close.

“I grew up in the south,” she said. Born in 1925. “And I know it’s still out there.” I continued to nod and felt my eyes moisten. All that she’s lived through and all the change that she’s seen; and yet the persistence of what remains stubborn and unchanged. In a sense, it all comes to a head next week.

“It still affects me, too,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t know it at the time. It’s only later I think, ‘that was weird,’ and then I realize.” We talked a little while longer. She offered me water and thanked me for my work, and we wished each other luck.

In the normal round of my life in Los Angeles I likely never would have met these women, much less talked to them beyond a nod and a smile on the off chance we shared a grocery line. Who knows what unchecked assumptions we might have made about each other. The conversations you enter into precinct walking are not self-selected; they blast unconcious assumptions and offer human surprises that might otherwise forever elude you.

On my normal route I never would have driven down these women’s streets unless improvising a jagged shortcut around a traffic jam. At best I would have flown past on a main drag bracketing the neigborhood. But now I’ve walked their sidewalks in the sun. I’ve seen the old bungalows and the new McMansions. I’ve met the dogs and admired the flowers and saw the browning grass and the native plantings. I’ve seen the chipped paint on windowsills and the fresh new adobe and yesterday saw the imprint of address letters on the wall by a door where they’d been pulled off a foreclosure.

With just a week left until the election it’s not too late, by the sort of random sampling precinct-walking offers, to become intimately familiar with a few small patches of this huge city and gain the odd special insight into a few precise souls among the millions of people we share it with.