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Author Archives: Nicholas Croston

That Goddamned List

That Goddamned List

The worst, weirdest, stupidest phone call I ever made was in 2006, when I was a rising star in the world of arts marketing. I called a subscriber to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to sell a season ticket package. A little kid answered the phone, and I asked him to put his father on. Which the kid, of course, dutifully did. As I began my routine, the father interrupted me: “I have NOT had sex with my wife for MONTHS, and I FINALLY get her in bed, and you JUST FUCKED IT ALL UP FOR ME!!!…” Oh, he started screaming at me at the top of his lungs after that, but I missed everything he said because I was already in the act of placing the phone back onto the base. It was the only time I ever hung up on one of my customers. What I REALLY wanted to do was interrupt him in turn with a short speech about how ugly his wife was – after all, what was the kid doing running around at THAT time if he was interested in his wife? But my supervisor could have been listening, so I ignored the impulse.

I left the Symphony a short time after that to make a go with the Illinois PIRGs. They were a resoundingly shitty organization to work for, had lied outright about their work in order to recruit me, and my once-promising media career was over. To tell the truth, I was a little relieved; working my way up the corporate ladder for the company contracting me would have meant spending more time on the phone. I could rest easy knowing my life wasn’t dependant on calling people and asking for their credit card numbers anymore.

Here I am now, years later, going back into political activism after a long period of inactivity. And just my luck! What does my line of campaign work involve now? Calling people! No one likes bugging people in their private homes, and no one likes being bugged in their private homes, either. Not many people realize this about telemarketers, but they don’t like talking to you. If you’ve answered the phone, they already want you dead. But old experience gets volunteer employers to take note, so in the early days of my new politically active era, I was on the fucking phone yet again. Three phone banking sessions and I started telling people in the campaign that I was absolutely, positively done making calls. I don’t want my candidate to lose votes because my tongue got too loose.

While outright abuse has been thankfully minimal, there’s one little truth about phone banking that needs to be addressed: This “list.” Let’s get a few things clear about the list. The first thing you need to know about the list is that you heard about it through the grapevine, and we all know how things heard through grapevines work. That’s a fancy way of saying ideas about it may not be accurate, and the list is one of those things in which that’s true. The list you want to be taken off of is no more real than the grapevine you heard about it from. What that means is that from the telemarketer’s point of view, there’s nothing to pull your name from, and so you’re just some random name that popped off a screen somewhere. Names come up and the people making those annoying phone calls don’t have a choice. People in call centers have no control whatsoever over who they call. If a name is in there, it’s in there, and no amount of screaming, bitching, or death threats is going to change that. And frankly, if you’re too nasty or threatening, you deserve the harassment.

While I’m on the subject, I need to cover the no-call list that everyone says they’re on as well since I’ve been verbally abused over it. I don’t know what this no-call list is or who’s on it. I don’t know where to go to sign my name to it. What I DO know is that between all the phone work I’ve been forced to do, I’ve never actually seen a no-call list. I think that, unlike the caller list, the no-call list might actually exist, though. When I was doing work for WNED and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it got talked about an awful lot, even by my supervisors. And the supervisors talked about it in legal technicalities. So even if the no-call list exists – which, again, is something I can reasonably doubt – there are a few factors in play which the people who kick and scream about it don’t take into account. First of all, the no-call list doesn’t apply to everywhere that tries to grab money through phone sales and phone donations. Arts and government organizations are exempt from it. And if a big corporation has outsourced its phone sales jobs to places overseas, the no-call list doesn’t apply to them, either. Frankly, the types of callers the no-call list bans are in a very, Very, VERY specific line of making phone sales, and the good folks behind it apparently aren’t into random inspections. If a place needs to disturb you at home, they can get around your precious no-call list by changing their callers’ official job titles. Why wouldn’t they? Uncle Sam isn’t breathing down their necks.

So this is what it comes down to: You’re assaulting someone who is probably poised to blow their top over a list they don’t know anything about. No, you don’t want to be bugged about some damn ideology at home, but from the employee’s point of view, you’re an asshole who can’t be polite for the two seconds it takes to say, “No.” And I should take the time to point out that there are some telemarketing services that provide employees with the customers’ information.

Since my political work is strictly on a volunteer level, though, I’m not worried about getting threats from people I call. After all, I told them I wasn’t going to bug people at home about politics anymore and that they’ll have to find something new for me to do. There’s one more thing I should remind people about volunteer work, though: If a volunteer calls, there’s nothing that can stop them from blowing up.

 

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The Allure of London

The Allure of London

“Only those elements time cannot wear were created before me, and beyond time I stand.”

-The Divine Comedy

No matter where you are, there are some things which just remain constant between cities. After two and a half hours of sitting on a Northern Rail train, I happened to spot one of those constants: An abandoned building, covered up from top to bottom in graffiti. It was at that moment that I knew I had reached my destination: London. Upon the train’s entry into the city, I performed that routine as the eager puppy hanging its head out the window. Before much longer, we reached the docking point at King’s Cross Station where I jumped from the train, navigated the labyrithine station, and stepped into the city proper.

In that moment, the London I had created in my imagination disappeared. 37 years of piecing together a place built of books, TV shows, movies, songs, nursery rhymes, and video games crumbled and vanished. Erected in its place was a tangible and physical place which lived, breathed, and moved about with its own distinct identity and vibe. The thing about places you’ve never been is that we build illusions of them. Yes, we know they’re THERE. We can do all the reading and research on them that we like. We can look at the road layout on a map, know the history, and follow it on Facebook and Twitter. But all of that knowledge is still coming with mental photographs – if someone asks you something particular, you sound foolish to those in the know because you actually DON’T know. Now, though, the city of London – a place which had held my imagination in a tight vice grip for almost my entire life – had a face that I could attach to it. London was finally real.

My first order of business was to get to my friends’ apartment near Hyde Park and let them know I was there. Along the way, of course, I lapped everything up like I had been in the desert without water for 10 years. I got on the Underground and took it to Hyde Park, making the frequent wry observation along the way. I knew about the Tube, but for the first time, I was able to take note of the rather flashy ways people who rode it were apt to dress. After getting off the subway and leaving my bag with the porter at my friends’ place, I took a walk around Hyde Park, where I continued to spot little details a travel guide never tells readers: The population of the general area was mainly people of Middle Eastern descent, so colorful thobes and hijabs added flair to a sunny walk in the park. I noticed the incredible diversity in Hyde Park’s avian populace. I also noticed that, despite there being 11 professional football teams in London – including six in the Premier League – the big athletic hero in this part of the city was Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah. My friend later informed me that this part of London was nicknamed Little Lebanon.

London has that typical British city layout – trying to walk to the next street over via a side street doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll reach the next street over. Between that, its 2000-year history, and the sheer size of the place, there’s always something new to explore and discover. William Shakespeare and Francis Drake lived a century away from each other, but in what other city could you walk along the waterfront and encounter Drake’s ship and Shakespeare’s theater by walking for 10 minutes? And then visit a modern glass and steel skyscraper? My friends told me they like to hop on one of the city’s famous double decker busses and ride it just to sightsee, advice which I took them up on.

That may be a perfect summation of London. Having spent five years of my life in an alpha-class world city – Chicago – which I still consider my true hometown, I thought I had some idea of what a place of such stature would be like. London, though, was more different than I could have ever imagined. Whereas Chicago is a dynamic city that is constantly moving forward and pressing itself to live up to its title as a major world city, London is self-confident. It exists on its own plateau, stoic and smiling, knowing that its place in the world and its status are secure. Why should London be worried about staying up to anyone? Reminders of the city’s 2000 years on this planet are everywhere. The Tower of London was built over a period of hundreds of years. Buckingham Palace was sanctioned in 1703 and remodeled and rebuilt constantly for a century and a half longer than Chicago was ever a thought. Westminster Abbey’s foundation was laid in 1245. London been through the black plague, a civil war, a massive fire, and an aerial bombardment. Yet, here it remains.

This is a city that has been seemingly everything at some point. It was the command center of the largest empire in history; home to both monarchs and prime ministers; inspiration for stories that were both factual and fictional. It has led ideological and cultural revolutions and yet tried to suppress similar revolutions in other places. It revels in its history as it moves forward; celebrates its myths as it looks for greater truths; is mindful of tradition but accepting of progress; expensive but offering a bounty of outstanding free things to do; overwhelms visitors while making them feel relaxed and welcomed. I didn’t get to explore anywhere close to as much as I would have liked during my visit, but I did spend one wonderfully serene afternoon in a coffee shop, online, watching the suits and the eccentrics alike weave around each other without a care in the world. It was a scene and a sense that was never possible in my birth city.

London is a place I’ve held dear in my imagination since my age was in single digits. Now, after being able to visit… That hasn’t changed. Not one tiny iota.

 

A Certain Point of View

A Certain Point of View

There are fewer cities on the planet more steeped in history than York. During my visit to York, I got to do a number of things I never even thought of doing. I walked along the top of ancient Roman fortifications built at York’s founding in 71. (And yes, those are the only two numbers representing the year York was founded.) I climbed to the top of an ancient castle tower. I walked down a real, well-preserved medieval street with curvy, lopsided buildings, a gutter in the center of the street, and roofs which were only about two feet apart across the street. I drank a brew of pure dark chocolate.

There was a ton of things to be learned in York, but much of my learning experience ended up coming in an unexpected way. I spent a lot of my time there chatting with a very friendly and intelligent young woman from Austria. We talked a lot about America and the perceptions of America against what America and Americans were like. We talked about history from the American point of view and the Austrian point of view. I was surprised at some of the things that had made the news in her country (Colin Kaepernick taking a knee for the national anthem made the news there), disappointed at some of the other things that happened (Austria has Holocaust deniers), and bemused at the American pop culture seen in Austria (she said she wanted to visit Seattle because her favorite show was Grey’s Anatomy). At one point, the subject of battle recreations came up. Battle recreations are something unique to the United States. She told me that the USA was the only country she ever heard of that did something like that. Now, I’ve seen several battle recreations in my life ranging in eras from the French and Indian War to the Civil War.

I vouched for them based on the fact that so much of the history forced down our throats in the States is colorless. Yes, we read about these battles, but the American Revolution is something our schoolbooks cover in ten pages. They don’t cover the real battles from the ground. Recreations can give us the full battle experience, adding sight and sound to events that get covered in one sentence. A sentence or two in a history book from a terrible public school simply says it happened. A reenactment can make you appreciate it.

My newfound friend from Austria had some different ideas. Austria was a major player in the most devastating war the world has ever been through; in fact, it was the country the man responsible for the war was born and raised in. One of the things she mentioned to me was visiting various concentration camps – including Auschwitz – and getting to see firsthand the sorts of carnage a war could wreak. She talked about seeing places where humans went to die, some of which still have visible, touchable damage from the war. It gave me pause for thought.

When Americans talk about war, we do it with a sense of reckless abandon. At best, we’re given the fact that a war occurred. Most of the time, though, everything comes along with a unique Amerocentric worldview. We think of the American Revolution as a glorious struggle for liberty from oppressors; and that the War of 1812 was something that established the United States as a great military force to be reckoned with; and that we saved the world in both World Wars. So this country has a very cavalier attitude toward wars. We believe they’re things that happen, and that we’re the ultimate good guy when they do happen. And in true Hollywood fashion, the good guys always win. Thus, we have no real fear of wars or any sense of our place in a much larger world. We don’t like hearing about how our country’s founders were complete dicks. Or that we started the War of 1812 ourselves and that it was so unimportant that European countries don’t bother to teach it in their school texts. (Europe was busy trying to ward off Napoleon at the time.) Or that our role in World War I wasn’t all that big, or that World War II only went our way because Stalin was fighting for the Allies.

More to the point, she told me individual stories about regular people that we don’t hear in the United States. Her grandfather bolted before he was conscripted and forced to fight for the Nazis. The Jewish community in her hometown, which had once been a real community, was now down to a single Jew who is pretty high up in years and won’t be around much longer. World War II isn’t simply something that happened in the past in Austria. It cast a shadow which still looms over the country to this day, and there are still people who lived through it, resentful of the result. It’s pretty easy for us in the United States to think of ourselves as the big country that can handle anything, but that’s because we haven’t really handled a whole lot. We went back to our ordinary, everyday lives at the conclusion of World War II. Austria has to endure the ghosts of that war sitting over it.

Honestly, 9-11 was a pretty telling day for the way we would react in the face of an actual war. I’m in Great Britain. The popular “Keep Calm and Carry On” meme was something that popped out of Great Britain during World War II. Despite the battle of Britain raging in the skies above and the Royal British Air Force being outnumbered by the Luftwaffe 2-1, the British people did their best to go about their daily lives as if everything was normal and okay. They slept in subway tunnels for safety. The United States suffered a terrible terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. 15 years later, there were legions of people still using that attack as a reason to vote for Donald Trump.

Commercialism Meets The Beatles

Commercialism Meets The Beatles

Mathew Street in Liverpool is hallowed ground if you’re a music fan. It’s the home of The Cavern Club, where a certain little band known as The Beatles played almost 300 shows in a couple of years as a local house band. Being a bit of a music-head, I fully intended to make a personal visit during my time in Liverpool. I’m currently living in a city – Seattle – which has almost as powerful a musical legacy as Liverpool. And hell, The Beatles and Seattle’s main band, Nirvana, aren’t quite as far from each other as their sounds might make them seem. Both bands came out of angry working class circumstances and were formed as primal screams from near-hopeless lives. Both were led by socially conscious, tragic frontmen who were killed by gunshots long before their times. Both were voices of distraught generations and highly influential but given credit for more than they actually did.

Naturally, I thought I knew something about being from one of the world’s great musical cities. But that didn’t prepare me for what I saw as I turned around the corner on Stanley and took my first glance of Mathew Street. The street announced its presence right off the bat with a large banner hanging between buildings which proudly announced its legacy as the place that John, Paul, George, and Ringo… – well, actually it was Pete Best at that time – got their start. Mathew Street is walker-only and short, but I took in the sights as I walked on through it. There was a Beatles bar called Rubber Soul, which is something I was able to figure out because it had a large neon sign fit for Las Vegas which screamed “RUBBER SOUL: A BEATLES BAR.” There was an overpriced Beatles museum, which was one of about three in Liverpool. (I didn’t go in.) One of the city’s shopping malls had been built over the original stage, but The Cavern was still sitting there, intact, underground, brick pillars and acoustics. It still had performers at all hours of the day, except now you could buy T-shirts.

The sporadic placements of the merchandise stores was no surprise, but what WAS disappointing was the merchandise itself. Everything there was run-of-the-mill junk which can be found at any pop culture retailer in the United States. I think I got to three different shops before I found a T-shirt which was unique to The Beatles during their Liverpool years. You can’t blame a city for trying to play up its musical heritage when its musical heritage is the most important band in music history. I’m just having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that the band which is allowing this is the same band that sang “Revolution.”

One of the things Seattle is known for is its very prominent music scene. Ray Charles got his career started when he suggested moving to the city furthest away from his native Florida, which happened to be Seattle. Jimi Hendrix is native to Seattle. Heart came out of Seattle. And, of course, the city birthed the grunge movement and a long list of influential bands that made careers out of it: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and those are just the big ones. They don’t even begin to cover everything. To honor the contributions of Seattle to music, there’s the Museum of Pop Culture. At least, it honors them somewhat. The museum has prominent displays dedicated to Hendrix and Nirvana’s frontman, Kurt Cobain. But an actual visit to the place reveals more of a dedication to that: Popular culture, which Seattle’s music scene figures into. There’s not a whole lot of standalone memorabilia for Mudhoney. Any Seattle display about pop culture will almost definitely feature Nirvana, but it will also mention Frasier, Grey’s Anatomy, Cameron Crowe, Joel McHale, and Sleepless in Seattle as well.

I was recently dating a woman who had taken the trouble to make make the 100-mile drive to Aberdeen, where Cobain was born and raised. Aberdeen has an entry sign bearing the phrase “come as you are” to welcome visitors. “Come as You Are” is one of Nirvana’s signature tunes, but the small lumber town is otherwise pretty bereft of mementos to Kurt Cobain or Krist Novoselic. She said she had gone there in search of the Cobain house, but nobody knew where it was. The best information she came up with was that it had been sold.

This was not the case in Liverpool. I should write an addendum about the fact that I’m not sure how much overall popular culture in Great Britain involves Liverpool. I didn’t make a 7000-mile journey to sit on my ass watching television, and any Liverpool-related pop culture has had limited exposure in the States. (Mostly they’re references to The Beatles. Also, Adonis Creed’s opponent in the latest Rocky movie was a fan of Everton Football Club.) Liverpool had entire small sections of the city dressed up to honor its greatest native band. Now, I’m not arguing that the city of Liverpool has every right to do this. Hell, with the sorts of ups and downs the local scousers have faced, it would be stupid to NOT take advantage of Beatlemaniac tourism. But when you see something like this, well, I can’t help but think much of the ambience gets removed. It gets a lot harder to create a visual of Paul McCartney navigating the ruined streets of post-World War II Liverpool on the way to see a show himself.

When I look at a site where something significant happened, I like to have a feel of mystery and authenticity. I want to run my fingers along the same bricks and smell the same smells as the people there for the event experienced. I want to picture myself in a moment decades or even centuries ago, trying to get a sense of my character and the way I might have felt living in that same moment. I want to figure out if I would have understood the magnitude of what was going on had I been there to see it.

That being said, The Cavern Club itself still has some of that authenticity to it, even though it’s now a crowded tourist venue rather than a seedy club for outcasts. But I think the most emotional I got during my visit to Liverpool was in the Museum of Liverpool, which had half of its top floor dedicated to John Lennon and Yoko Ono. There was one of those little walls where the museum let visitors leave self-written messages on post-its. After a five-minute deliberation, I did the only thing I could have done there: I wrote my mother’s name, birth year, and death year on a post-it, barely avoiding a choke-up as I left it to hang under a large photograph of John Lennon.

“Let me take you there…”

America and the World

America and the World

If you’ve ever traveled internationally, you may wonder about the moment when it hits you that you’re not in Kansas anymore. That moment will be different from traveler to traveler, but I do know when mine started to really occur: When I stepped aboard my IcelandAir flight at Seatac Airport. Suddenly, there were two prices on everything, and neither one was the American dollar sign. They were Icelandic dollars and Euros. The food selection was largely Icelandic, and the entertainment included informative documentaries about Iceland.

Being in another country makes you keenly aware of something: John Travolta’s character from Pulp Fiction was right when he exclaimed that it was the little differences that stand out the most. Looking through selections at book stores, for instance, I was struck to be holding the British versions of a lot of books I’ve been seeing in the States. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in this country. The covers themselves are a lot more animated, as opposed to the statuesque or photographic covers we see at home.

A bunch of other small differences stood out too: Frosted Flakes were simply called Frosteds, because the name of the cereal was usurped by a whole different cereal which was also called Frosted Flakes. The sales taxes are included on the written prices. Street names are written on the sides of buildings, not on signs, and not always reliably. There are other things which just don’t change between countries, either: There are bad morning shows, and fast food places seem to be constant. One of the more bemusing surprises I happened upon in Glasgow was turning the corner on Jamaica Street and Argyle Street and running into a Tim Horton’s, of all things. McDonald’s and Starbucks were both everywhere. I can’t describe how often I found myself doing something that would have been considered straight out American-in-America. One morning, I had to walk three blocks to the nearest ATM.

But one of the things I was obsessed with doing was finding a diner that served American-style food and eating there. I had one particular place in mind, but it was out of my range, so I randomly looked around for another one and stumbled into a joint on Hope Street. First thing, I have to commend the place on its selection of American microbrews. It had a few, including Samuel Adams and Brooklyn. It didn’t take much deliberating on my part to settle on the Brooklyn Lager and order a burger with three onion rings and some barbecue sauce. When the bartender took my order, he asked me if there was anything else I might want with the burger. I didn’t, but I couldn’t help but notice how out of American character that was. In America, after all, no one asks if you want fries with your bar burger; they’re automatically presumed upon, and you never have to pay extra for them. Also, the place clearly thought chicken wings were a New York City dish.

As I ate on the overly salty burger, I was accosted by a younger Scotsman who was wondering about my beer. Since my hard midwestern accent gives me away, he quickly figured out that I was an American, and I ended up giving him a quick lesson on American microbrews. The Scottish accent was sometimes difficult for me to understand, and more than a few times, I had to politely ask someone I was talking to to repeat themselves.

That was enough to make me wonder: What are people placing their impressions of America on? Were they coming from general ideas heard through the word of god, were hey coming from movies and television, or were they coming from actual American experience? Some of the things I saw looked like they were out of Hollywood. You would think these people believed all the old west stereotypes about big hats and six-shooters and drinks at the saloon.

The statement that place made, though, was a pretty powerful one: The United States has a huge influence on the world. It may not necessarily be by politics, but it has the imaginations of many people in the regular everyday populace. I saw clothes with New York written on them. I think I saw more American sports logos than logos from any other country. I had a nice, long discussion about American sports merchandise with the owner of an American sports memorabilia store. He likened peoples’ purchases to the sectarian sports loyalties in Glasgow – the rivalry between Celtic FC and Rangers FC is one of the most brutal on the planet because it has its roots in Unionist/Republican sectarian violence – and explained that Celtic fans bought Green Bay Packers gear while Rangers supporters favored the New England Patriots. I made notes of people I saw running around in New York Yankees, New York Giants, and Atlanta Braves stuff as well. I didn’t see nearly as many folks in Rangers gear, although I did see Celtic merchandise.

It was another thing that helped the message about how we’re all connected sink in. As I looked around and soaked up the unique scenery and unfamiliar everyday quirks of the United Kingdom, my mind couldn’t help but drift back to my native country and my awakening of how many people there don’t realize that.  One of my more alarming travel memories before now was just up in Victoria, where a couple of fellow travelers from the States told me they were amazed at how many people there never manage to make it outside of their home state. And those who, if they do, only get as far as Disney World, or perhaps Las Vegas if they’re feeling particularly exotic. I think it was Mark Twain who once quipped that travel was the best cure for ignorance. I’ve long lamented that international travel needs to be easier, and I speak that from the experience of having to wait and fight for 37 years for my first taste of the Old World. Now I know the truth of that more so than ever.

The Ambassador

The Ambassador

Well, here was a slate of weather which barely made it feel like I left home. Thick bushel of clouds, gray, nice amount of rain… Yeah, it didn’t look like anything unfamiliar, I thought. I was on an IcelandAir flight, and after nearly two hours of the cabin pressure wreaking havoc on my sinus cavity (my body picked the WORST possible time to catch a cold) and the accompaniment of the Supreme Clientele record from rapper Ghostface Killah, my plane was almost finished with its descent. The clouds were finally broken, and a web of tangled street formations and village-style cottages appeared on the ground below.

Glasgow.

I’m not sure what happened in the next few minutes, but just as my plane touched down, the captain had to pull us back into the air, and we spent the next ten minutes flying a circle around the largest city in Scotland for a second approach. Upon its success, I exhaled the most audible sigh of relief of my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to get away from any transit fast enough. After running through the labyrinth that was Glasgow Airport through customs and getting my passport stamped, I was out. After my 37 years of life dreaming of this very moment, I finally took my first breath of air in the Old World.

It was probably then that something started to really click. Now, whenever I travel, I like to stay in hostels because I love talking to the foreigners. I love learning where they’re from, what brought them to the United States, what they think of the United States, and the little differences between the United States and where they’re from. I always liked to consider myself an ambassador of sorts for my home country because I could have extended conversations with visitors, and I wanted them to feel welcome. One of my more pleasant hostel stays involved watching an MLB playoff game with a young man from Australia who happened to be into American football. Ultimately, though, I was still an American on American soil, so that made my presentation rather limited. After all, real America was literally right outside the door, and any visitors’ opinions were going to be based on their thoughts about what happened to them outside.

Now that I’m sitting here in the Old World, that safety net has been removed. I’m the oddball in the United Kingdom, walking around with the funny accent and strange, messy words. I don’t have some sort of big, official title but that doesn’t make the truth of the matter any less obvious: For the next two weeks, I’m going to be a representative of my country. Most people in other countries will never meet a politician from the US. They might catch me walking around on their streets and have a short conversation with me, though, so it’s imperative that I be on my best behavior and show them the best of the world across the pond. The importance of being a proper gentleman took a long time to sink in with me. My father did everything he could to hammer it into my head, but I’m sure he kept getting frustrated to see me pushing back. (Dad, you can blame the pushback on that sorry excuse of a social code pressed on me by everything else in Buffalo’s environment.) It didn’t really sink in until I moved back to Buffalo and saw myself starting to blend in with everything I hated. It sank in a little more during the uncivilized 2016 Presidential election. Now, as the only American for miles,I can’t afford to screw this up.

The irony is that while I’ve frequently had a contentious relationship with the United States, I’m actually up to bearing this burden. After all, I don’t want the general populace in any countries I travel to to think one person represents me. The United States is not the people running it. It’s not the pundits who are on television screaming themselves into frothing rages. It’s not the backwoods militia bozos talking big about how they’re going to overthrow the government. I’m not sure there any one thing which CAN define the United States, but I don’t want someone to pick up a bad impression of us through what might be the only encounter with an American they ever have.

Dispatches from the Sarah Smith Campaign

Dispatches from the Sarah Smith Campaign

My desire to stay informed in the goings-on of the world today is currently at odds with my desire to retain my sanity. The presidency has been a train wreck; you know it’s god-fucking-awful, but there’s no looking away. And to think, we seemed to be set on a good course. Gay marriage was now legal, medical care was easier to get than ever, and we were left with the economy in better shape than it was when Dubya left the White House. Things had shifted in a positive direction, so while I have some deep roots in political activism and social justice, I found myself slacking off a little.

We all know what happened next.

Upon these rather unfortunate circumstances, I felt a deep stirring which I hadn’t felt in some time. It was time to get back into political activism and get everyone foaming at the mouth once again. Unfortunately, I had no clue how to do that or where to start. In Chicago, I didn’t need to approach anyone. In fact, political activism wasn’t a thought in my head until I just happened to be approached by a grassroots group in May of 2006. They called themselves World Can’t Wait, and their stated goal was to create enough opposition to George W. Bush to drum up support for his impeachment. Although they originally came to me looking for a signature, they straight invited me to join the group when I gave them the Lackawanna Six story. But me and my relationship to and eventual split with World Can’t Wait is a whole other piece. The bottom line is that, for a longtime activist, I had no clue where to go to get back into politics. Yes, there were the usual outlets, but I have a radical streak and wanted nothing to do with the big parties, political machina, and their dirty money. But I’m a grassroots boy and I was on the hunt for something real.

Back in my native state, a recent electoral victory has sent shockwaves across the country. Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had won the right to represent New York’s 14th District. She was young and inexperienced, but she wasn’t there to grease the machine, and she wasn’t a child of privilege. She was in tune with her community and had worked real jobs to make ends meet. As I watched her victory, I wondered why my own home district – Washington State’s 2nd – didn’t have a candidate like her. I’ll continue to wonder that until I decide to run for public office myself. But in the meantime, the 9th District DID have someone very much like Ocasio-Cortez. She went by the name Sarah Smith, and after some research, I decided I had found my entryway.

After making my way down to the campaign office on Airport Way and introducing myself, I learned that I had walk into a bit of unfortunate timing. Yes, in the back of my mind, I knew the primaries were less than a month down the road, but the list of candidates in Snohomish County was filled with losers and snoozers, and I could never seem to bring myself to care about them. Unfortunately for me, there were only a few things left to do: Canvas, phone bank, and text. Calling back on my old skills as a fundraiser for WNED Buffalo, I picked phone banking.

I’m not exactly proud of how that turned out. I ended up running through three phone banking sessions and one can of (ugh!) Pabst Blue Ribbon before the election came and went. The thing about having done work where you cold call people and ask them for money is that the mentality of such a job never quite gets out of you. When you pick up the phone, you feel the pressure to sell, sell, sell. Your job is running on that premise. And if someone screams at you or swears at you or hangs up, you feel the anger rushing through your capillaries like a jolt of electricity. Phone banking for a political cause is different in that you aren’t there because someone is offering a paycheck. You’re there because you’ve decided you believe in a cause and want to get the word out. Getting hung up on isn’t something that should have bothered me, but even though my phone fundraising days are long in the past, my impending eruption was very real.

Actually, in my first session, there were so few calls that got through that I just straight gave up and went to the International District to place posters. My second session was by far my most successful. A lot of calls got through, and I got to recite the shpiel a lot. Sometimes, I was even allowed to finish. I gave the phone bank that day a good two and a half hours before deciding I didn’t have the willpower take more verbal abuse FOR AMERICA! I started getting so pissed off that I finally had to walk into the office kitchen and grab that corn-syrup-and-cold-urine concoction known as Pabst Blue Ribbon in order to calm my nerves a little bit, but that ended up backfiring when my famously vicious temper started to flare up. I managed to call it quits before any words got out and affected Sarah’s vote. The third session lasted a good 45 minutes before one of the campaign managers told me to just take a rest. I had spent most of the day doctoring posters and taking pictures, so it wasn’t a waste, but when I start to get angry with people over the phone, you KNOW it. I was surprised that I was able to ask for credit card numbers for as long as I did, but when Sarah herself told me she spent nine years doing phone work herself, I tried to troop it out. If she could do this shit for nine years, I could offer my best for an afternoon.

Since I had come in just a few weeks before the primary, phone banking was all I got to do, but I gave it what I had. On August 7, I was right there at the election party for Sarah in Columbia City. I took a few pictures, but I was there mostly because I had invested a lot in my time working Sarah’s campaign, even though my time was brief. I was curious to know how she was doing. When I got to the restaurant where the party was taking place, Sarah greeted me with news: We were surviving. Okay. Surviving didn’t sound particularly promising. Watching the constant news reports on The Young Turks, I kept barely avoiding anxiety attacks. I would look over at Sarah periodically, listening to her, and studying her movements, looking for some sign of reassurance. Hindsight being 20/20, that probably wasn’t the thing to do. She was the one who threw all of her time and resources – her lifeblood – into her campaign. She was the one who was running, and she was feeling everything probably more than the rest of us put together.

Worried, I tried to find new ways to distract and amuse myself. I drank. I ate. I tried to watch the soccer match between Real Madrid and Roma, but it had already ended. I made conversation with a fiery campaigner. Results? Results? Anyone for some results? The Young Turks were already calling the Smith-on-Smith Crime election for Sarah’s opponent, Adam, but ballots would be dropped over the next few days, meaning results wouldn’t be definitive for some time yet. It was around this time that I left – the journey from Columbia City back to Edmonds wasn’t exactly short, and I had work the next day. I Before I left, I was sure to tell Sarah that I was still going to be in it, come what may. I also mentioned the idea of maybe doing something for District 2, since I, you know, live there. What Sarah said when I mentioned that was a show of her character: She offered to advise me should I ever try.