Children’s toys and water skis begin scraping across concrete well before the sun rises over North Las Vegas. Below the window where I sleep, on a newly minted street lined with four-bedroom, 2,800-square-foot homes with tiled roofs, a family is setting up for a Saturday garage sale. California homeowner associations in similar communities would view a “Garage Sale” sign with the same equanimity as they would a cholera flag. But they’re a fact of life in this middle-class Nevada neighborhood, where only three years ago nothing but sand flats stretched. Even where there are no garage bazaars, “For Sale” signs are everywhere in Vegas — for houses, motorcycles, dogs.
A retired L.A. firefighter named Isaac and I are here to canvass for Barack Obama. On the four-hour ride up, I talked politics, race and sports with Isaac, an African-American. We’re staying in North Vegas with a local activist whose next-door neighbor’s family had abandoned their house in the middle of the night, hours ahead of its bank repossession. The house on the other side is empty, too. As the eastern sky lightens, I notice how many pigeons have gathered on the roof of one of the empty houses. I didn’t think the birds liked the heat.
Forty-three years of half-assed activism has gotten me here. I’ve walked in support of Selma, picketed Fresno orchards, marched for peace, run mimeograph machines, written letters to San Quentin prisoners, heard the speeches, freed Angela and mourned Harvey. But I’ve never followed through by making the long-term commitment to the drudgery of signature-gathering, precinct-walking, phone-banking or consensus-building that makes change lasting. But over time, I’ve come to believe that in my own small way I’ve helped to allow the takeover of Washington by the present coalition of free-market buccaneers, armchair imperialists and religious zealots — whose supporters have been all too eager to do the grunt work of politics.
And so I take my clipboard and trudge forward in the 97-degree heat. Isaac and I are only canvassing Democrats and independents and have to hopscotch large swaths of streets to get from one address to the next — meaning that all those houses in between belong to either Republicans or people who don’t vote. Some streets have tended lawns, but most are separated from the road by swirls of sunbaked dirt or flattops of poured concrete.
One has a diesel rig parked in its driveway.
“Day sleeper,” Isaac cautions, referring to one of our checklist categories, which makes the voter sound more like a vampire than someone with a night job. We approach this one together and notice how the ground becomes carpeted with cigarette butts the closer we get to the front porch. The moment I knock, barking explodes on the other side of the door.
“I’d say NH [Not Home],” Isaac says.
It’s a good call — I stand for a minute, listening for sounds of something stirring besides the dogs before moving on.
One grandmother smiles at me when she opens her door, but her mouth sags when she spots the Obama-campaign ID hanging from my neck.
“We don’t discuss our politics,” she says with a wave and closes the door.
Later, alone, I knock on the door of a newly remodeled ranch home that looks like a miniature version of South Fork on Dallas. Neither J.R. nor Miss Ellie greets me, however; just a towering middle-aged man who looks as though he’d been lying on a couch for 10 years. “Is Ms. _______ home?” I ask, after identifying myself.
The man’s eyes take a moment to focus on me before he grunts something from behind three days of stubble and closes the door.
Most people aren’t home — or aren’t opening their doors, preferring, instead, to let their dogs do the talking. Is it me? I wonder. Even Democrats seem noncommittal, and when I try to put someone on the voter roll, the effort goes nowhere.
“Would you like to register?” I ask a young woman in a tiny box of a house with kabbalistic signs painted on the door, after she tells me her Democrat parents are out.
“I’m 14,” she answers. Isaac sits nearby in his car, shaking his head.
Finally, we get a break at an L-shaped ranch house with a full lawn. I knock on the door and look at the name on my clipboard.
“Are you, uh, Breezy?” I ask the willowy blonde who answers.
“That’s my daughter,” Breezy’s mom answers. “Breezy’s for Obama, and so is my husband. I’m for McCain, so you can see this is a troubled household.”
Breezy’s mom is about 40 and invites us in to give us ice water. She complains that Obama would take away her husband’s concealed-weapons permit.