“Beware of the Valley Girls.” It was my friend Lisa describing the staffers directing her one-day trip with the Obama Campaign to the swing state of Wisconsin to get out the vote. She used a term popular in the 1980s—that of a white, stereotypically “airhead” young woman who is mostly interested in her own personal outward impression. “They’re the ones in charge, they’re young, just out of college, and they don’t seem to have a clue about how to relate to the rest of us.” I was due to go to Wisconsin the next day; as a reward for our service, we Chicago volunteers were to receive passes to the official election night party at McCormick Place where we would see and hear the President himself.
As I arrived at my appointed pick-up place and boarded the campaign bus, Lisa’s tongue-in-cheek description seemed to ring more or less true. Although they were not all women and not all white, those in charge were certainly all under the age of thirty and appeared to be recent college grads, possessing faces and figures completely devoid of sags and wrinkles, with nary a grey hair on their heads. They spoke in fast, clipped sentences and expected us to immediately understand what they told us. We volunteers, in contrast, many of whom had taken precious days off from our busy jobs to aid the cause, appeared to be a bunch of grizzled middle-agers, fading hair and pot bellies abounding, mostly aged forty-five and older. We were not satisfied with curt instructions. “You’ll be assigned to a neighborhood and you’ll go to each of the addresses and hang a tag on the doors, ok? Then you’ll mark it off. When you’re done you’ll call the van driver to pick you up. Any questions?” Yeah, we had some. “Where on my sheet do I mark off the addresses?” “What if someone is in the yard but the address is not on the sheet? Do I talk to them and give them information anyway?” “What if more than one person is listed for the same address?” “What if it says ‘Do not knock’ by the address? Do I still hang a tag?” “What are the voter registration rules for Wisconsin, in case anyone asks?” “Should we take snacks with us, or will we have time to eat later?”
My assigned streets had small, tidy houses, with some front yards sporting Obama signs and a few with Romney ones. I hung tags, marked off addresses, spoke to a friendly middle-aged woman getting something from her car, a young mother on her front porch whose address wasn’t on my list and who needed to know where her polling place was, and an elderly man in his driveway at a “Do not knock” address who wanted to talk anyway. “I don’t think all that much of Obama but I think even less of that nut-case Romney,” he declared, saying he had already cast his vote.
As I walked along the sidewalks, a familiar rhythm started coming back to me. This neighborhood, I recalled, was similar to many I had canvassed after I myself had just graduated college, when I worked for a statewide citizen action group. We would drive aging rental cars to towns in Illinois, and, armed with our ever-present clipboards, walk house-to-house, talking animatedly about the important lobbying work that had to be done, and asking for money to finance our organization. Our enthusiasm did not falter on the weekends; on several occasions we crammed ourselves into vehicles and drove to organized protests, including a nuclear disarmament protest in New York City, some fifteen hours away, sleeping on floors and couches of workers in affiliated progressive action groups. I was young, sixty pounds lighter, full of energy and high ideals in what I viewed as the oppressive Reagan era of the time. I ate, lived, and breathed my job. I was—it dawned on me—much like the Valley Girls, our trip coordinators, whom I had previously ridiculed in my mind. If I had been born thirty years later, I would have most assuredly been giving instructions in that office, or rounding up people on the bus as well. Where was my old ID from those years? I had to find it.
At the Obama election night party, Lisa and I stood directly behind a section reserved for those mostly youthful regular staffers. We saw them running in, after the election had been called, that last final day of pounding the streets or working the phones behind them. They hugged each other wildly and lifted each other off the floor, brimming over with contagious, unbridled joy.
Yes, it was thrilling to see the President speak—though the echo was so bad we couldn’t understand much of what he said. It didn’t matter. I would watch his speech on the Internet the next day from the comfort of my living room, my recently-unearthed ID card in hand, with the picture of a much younger, firmer, brighter-eyed me—and with my thirty-year-old signature, looking remarkably unchanged from the one I still have today.