I ambled out of the 555 Clark building with little purpose. It was the beginning of that awkward between-class limbo, the cluster of hours where idleness usually trumps productivity, and where anything definitive is rare. Should I force myself to sift through some more reading for my Media Texts class? But the familiar hum of my cell phone ceded the hefty Film Art volume back to the abyss of my canvas bag. It was my friend Christie.
“We should go to Indiana.”
Her words were terse and to the point, devoid of a habitual greeting. I tried to recollect some relevant private joke or anecdote.
“Is that where Kings of Leon are playing?”
No, she quickly informed me. At 6 p.m. that Monday night, a pair of Students for Barack Obama-sponsored cars would transport interested Northwestern students to Indianapolis, Ind. to canvass all-day Tuesday for the Obama campaign. In return for their dedication, volunteers would receive coveted tickets to the Grant Park rally. I lapped up the news in a kind of vague thrill. We had both been door-knocking in Muscateen, Iowa the previous Saturday, but the prospect of doing it on the day of the election, the possibility of aiding and witnessing a pioneering victory, seemed to transcend all doubts.
There is something distinctly “college” about succumbing to these unforeseen spurts of spontaneity. Should we pull an all-nighter and go to Einstein’s when it opens? Yes. Should we take the El to a random neighborhood in the city? Ok. Should we skip class to shape history? Absolutely. Perhaps reminiscent of some fabled cliché your dad might recite at the dinner table, the reasoning is nonetheless authentic: cling to as many of these glimmers of impulsiveness as you can. Take it from someone whose leisurely stroll down Clark Street quickly took a turn for a three-hour road trip— you won’t regret it.
After stuffing my backpack with the necessary commodities— toothbrush, Obama t-shirt, the works— I soon found myself wedged beside seven wide-eyed college students in the back of a white van, hastening toward a Midwestern swing state. It was a far cry from a my predictable classes and typical grilled chicken wrap at the Allison dining hall.
As streetlights fused with exit signs and urban skylines glinted at our windowpanes, the air grew taut with mounting anticipation. There was a certain vibrancy in that van that contradicted all claims to a generation awash in apathy. Because our shared excitement was not fueled by the knowledge that we would be missing a stilted poli sci lecture, but rather, that we were young and present and itching to tangibly create change. We reunited with the second NU van in the lobby of the Omni Hotel in Indianapolis, where some two hundred other Obama supporters were already housed. At 6 a.m. the following morning, any traces of fatigue dissolved in the wake of a churning eagerness.
Today’s youth have often been shoved aside as listless and dispassionate. Unlike our peace-contending, equality-struggling forbears, we have been dubbed the perpetuators of an indifferent era.
“I wish it was the sixties…I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen,” croons the disenchanted Thom Yorke in Radiohead’s “The Bends”, nostalgic for the days of counter-culture subversion and the characteristic hippie tenacity.
But back inside the van, a packet of maps, door-hangers and voter information nestled in the crook of my arm, I couldn’t help but question these Generation X assumptions. There we were— excluding our middle-aged van-driver, Brian— an independent group of youth trekking through Indianapolis neighborhoods, Obama buttons winking in the sun, even the low hum of The Beatles and Marvin Gaye seeping from the car’s speakers.
“I’m so happy we’re doing this,” one of my friends abruptly confessed, eyes gleaming. If this isn’t a renewal of the 1960’s, I’m not sure what is.
We must have knocked on 200 doors. The question was simple: Have you voted yet? Many would yield to a smile. “Oh yes,” some would say, eyeing our Obama shirts with quiet deference, or, “Last Sunday— our whole family went together.” For those who had not voted, we served as an essential link: we informed them of their polling location, reminded them to bring their I.D., and most importantly, arranged for transportation if they lacked the means.
Two fellow canvassers even prevented a potential fire in an on old woman’s home. As they knocked on her door, they noticed large, grey clouds billowing in the entryway. Rushing inside, they discovered that the homeowner— who had not yet voted— had fallen asleep after forgetting to turn off her cooking pot. After helping her clear out the smoke, they coordinated her ride to the polls.
The community we worked in was nearly 100% African American and largely underprivileged. Various houses stood abandoned, faded “vacancy” signs carelessly tacked on door frames or thrust inside rusty mail bins. Yet many homes were occupied. Residents welcomed us onto their porches, grinning at our resolve, pointing reverently at Obama/Biden ’08 signs perched in their yards or plastered on their windows. In a nation tainted by a ghastly past of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other disturbing methods of voter discrimination, the neighborhood seemed to harbor a fresh significance.
We walked on, past power plants and broken glass, tottering gates and curtains pushed back in curiosity. Our knuckles now hardened by routine knocking, we tried to soak up as much of this foreign realm as we could, tried to hold onto the sense of all that lay outside our secluded, artificial bubble of Evanston, of college. As the day eased to a close, I passed by a group of school children playing ball in the street. A little girl, noticing my T-shirt, chirped, “I voted for Obama!” I laughed and told her, so did I.
Piling back into the van, we cradled our Grant Park tickets dotingly, bidding farewell to Indianapolis in a flurry of enthusiasm and cheer. The radio belted out updates at full blast, as we submitted to a combined chorus of “yays” with each acquired state. Pennsylvania. Ohio. Virginia. In some superstitious corner of my brain, I still maintained a sliver of fear in the face of this premature optimism. Of course, within hours we bore witness to Obama’s triumph. It was later that we learned he had also won Indiana.
Can our little group of canvassers claim responsibility for Indiana’s success? Perhaps some. Barack Obama himself proclaimed, “This is your victory”— our victory, the collective achievement of a series of small, united acts all in pursuit of the same end. But there’s a symbolic value too, more telling than the particulars on where to direct praise. A day that fostered so much change further attested to the changes of American youth. A generation once disillusioned now exudes hope. Yes, Thom Yorke, all along we have waited for something to “happen”, and now, at last, it has.