Back when I knew him, John used to hop trains to anywhere, or squat and hitch his way across the country. My other friends were college kids from good families and suburban high schools, and we considered ourselves edgy when we celebrated Clinton’s 1992 election by ordering pizza and distributing it to the homeless near campus. John was the homeless. He had been on his own since he left home at 15. His rejection of society was no schoolboy’s rebellion but something earnest. While the rest of us were learning about Nietzsche and Hobbes, John was learning how to barter. How to get by. He once showed up to meet me with a flashlight strapped across his head.
‘Are you going spelunking?’ I asked.
He smiled, and his eyes lit up. ‘No. Dumpster diving!’
Last I heard, John was picking blueberries in Maine. So when I rolled into town—broke and unwashed from driving around the country, my yuppies-gone-beatnik experience—I had to give John a call. ‘Did you hear I was running for office?’ he asked.
He’s Green—in political affiliation and experience—campaigning for a House seat. He shares a tasteful home with his zoologist girlfriend, and on the night I come to visit they are playing host to a campaign meeting: 10 or so activists scattered around the living room eating artichoke dip and hummus.
‘Didn’t I meet you at the PETA rally?’ I hear someone ask somebody else.
‘No, I think it was police brutality,’ she replies.
Most of the activists are young and scruffy—beards and beaded necklaces—but one woman could be my grandmother, and at the front of the room, a well-scrubbed twentysomething in a blue button-down calls the meeting to order.
‘We’re gathered tonight to help put the first Green independent into office in Maine.’ That’s tonight’s speaker, a veteran of third-party campaigns who is teaching us how to ‘do doors’—slang for a candidate going house-to-house to meet voters. No one has done my door before—I’ve never gotten more than flyers and phone solicitations—but according to tonight’s speaker, Doing Doors is the most effective way to communicate with your constituents. Your eyes lock with theirs, your hand in their hand—a concept so old it’s almost new. Okay, so maybe you interrupt dinner on accident, maybe a few doors slam in your face, but it’s better than papering their house, any house, with more circulars than Domino’s. People like the idea of a candidate on their doorstep. Especially a candidate like John, who can listen with his eyes, who can smile with real warmth, who can communicate some canned campaign slogan with sincerity.
‘What is a campaign slogan?’ tonight’s speaker asks the room. ‘A campaign slogan is one sentence, repeated a zillion different ways, that defines who you are and who your opponent isn’t.’
Example: Compassionate Conservatism.
Example: The Real Thing.
John’s slogan is ‘New Ideas, Real Solutions.’ We like it because the first part suggests John’s youthfulness and intellectual vigor. But lest we fear he’s some pie-in-the-sky lefty, the second part assures us he has ‘Real Solutions.’
There are 10,000 homes in John’s neighborhood. That means 40 to 50 houses a night, every day, for as long as he can take it. He’ll need a navigator too, someone to write down phone numbers and useful information like the name of someone’s doggy. John asks for volunteers and starts scheduling when they’ll work. The room is eager to help until he gets to Friday nights.
‘That’s okay,’ he says, smiling. ‘I understand if you’re too busy to change the world.’
* * *
Earlier that day John and I go to a cold Maine beach and talk for hours, raking seaweed with our hands and plopping wet sand on our bare feet. He is positive about the campaign these days, because his district has a good record of voting Green. The Republican candidate is almost negligible—in fact, John’s considering asking him to drop out—and the Democratic incumbent, a gay man, recently lost favor with his homosexual constituency for kowtowing to the Catholic Church.
I ask John what platform he’s running on.
‘We’re for single-payer health care, like Canada. We’re for a living wage. We’re for standardized day care. I think anybody, regardless of their wealth or age, who wants a college education should receive one.’
But I can’t think of anything to say to that. I’m too busy wondering what the hell single-payer health care is and whether or not it’s embarrassing that I don’t know what it is.
John tells a story about how the local government paid Wal-Mart one million dollars to start a business in the area, a privilege other companies have to pay for.
‘It’s like if I came to you and said, ‘You owe me a dollar.’ And then you said, ‘Well, how about if you give ME three dollars instead?’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay.’’
These things get John talking fast, so that he is swirling the seaweed with his hands, throwing the wet sand into the water. He talks about the corrupted system. He talks about Justice and taxpayers’ dollars. I don’t know much about taxpayers’ dollars, except that every April 15 I’m on the phone with my dad.
‘I never realized you were so political,’ I tell John.
‘Oh yeah, I’ve always been. When I was a kid I wrote two letters to Jimmy Carter. I worshipped Jimmy Carter.’
I ask him what the letters said.
‘I think the first was like, ‘Oh man, you’re awesome.’ That was when he first got elected. The second was after he lost to Reagan. I was like, ‘That sucks. You’re awesome.’’ But Jimmy Carter, like all presidents, eventually disappointed him. ‘I found out he had okayed war without consent of Congress,’ he says with a sigh. ‘I don’t put much stock in politicians, I’ll tell you that much.’
‘I guess most people our age don’t,’ I say. ‘I’ve never even written to a politician.’ I’ve only written to River Phoenix and once, when I was drunk, I wrote to Jell-O. The truth is, I don’t know much about our government at all—how it’s run or who’s running it. I want you to know that I didn’t mean it to be like this, the way people never mean to get fat. I just stopped paying attention: a simple act, repeated a zillion different ways. It’s nothing to be proud of—although like a lot of things I’m not proud of, I can turn it into a joke. Here, let me try: I can name all the members of the Backstreet Boys but I can’t name the members of the Cabinet. That’s not a joke, but it’s funny. Kind of.
‘That’s why the Green Party is important,’ he says. ‘Everyone complains that Republicans and Democrats are the same. Now they have a choice, something to get excited about.’
‘But don’t some people think voting for a Green Party candidate is a waste of their vote?’
‘Do you think you’re going to win this election?’
He wriggles his toes underneath wet sand. ‘Don’t I have to?’
* * *
The next afternoon, I visit John at his house.
‘How are you?’ I ask, slipping off my shoes at the door as requested.
‘Fine. Well, really disappointed actually.’
Here is why: A political group sent out questionnaires to all House candidates a few weeks ago.
‘I’d moved,’ John says. ‘I never got it.’
So he went to the office, asked them to bend the rules and give him an extension. ‘But it got buried on my desk.’ He gestures hopelessly to a stack of papers. I wonder, just for a moment, if he is going to cry. ‘I found it today, and went to the office, but the guy said it was too late.’
He’d lost the possibility of an endorsement. ‘They’ll think I’m a flake,’ he says. ‘They’ll think I’m disorganized.’
I look for the bright side. ‘Maybe this is the kind of heartache you need—early on—to make sure it never happens again.’
‘I just don’t want them thinking I’m an asshole.’
John’s campaign manager arrives. He carries a copy of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
‘I want you to take a look at this,’ he tells John, who turns the book over in his hands.
‘Oh yeah. I’ve heard of that.’
John’s campaign manager has wild, unblinking eyes and a habit of checking his watch. The kind of person who looks late but never is. He rushed over to the house as soon as he heard about the latest snafu. It’s a beginner’s mistake, but the kind their campaign can’t afford. ‘If you fuck up, I want you to tell me first. If you feel like saying something, to anyone, I want you to tell me first. Before you send an email. Before you show up at someone’s office. Even if, at the time, you think it’s the greatest idea, you tell me.’
‘All right,’ John says. ‘Did you get me that electric shock collar?’
‘It’s not like that,’ he replies. ‘But if anyone’s going to get mad, I want them to get mad at me. If they’re going to yell, I want them to yell at me.’
John seems to appreciate this. ‘So you’ll tell the other guys about this fuck-up?’
‘And you’ll take the blame.’
‘And if they say I didn’t turn in the questionnaire on time—’
‘They’re a Democratic rubber stamp. They sent the questionnaire to the wrong address. They wouldn’t tell you the deadline—’
‘Just—in the future—email me first.’
I left Portland that afternoon, but John got in touch with me a few weeks later with good news. ‘I had no idea that protesting the Shrine circus with the kids from the co-op or putting a PETA video about animal cruelty into rotation at cable access would carry weight with a Republican,’ he wrote. But as it turned out, John’s Republican opponent is passionate about the protection of elephants. And upon dropping out of the race he decided to endorse John: after all, he had the best record on the issue.
* * *
On November 5 John won the election with 67 percent of the vote, making him the first Green to hold a Maine office.