I was living in Philadelphia during the run-up to the 2004 election and working my final few weeks at a nonprofit art gallery. I had been at the same gallery on the morning of 9/11, had watched George W. Bush turn that unifying tragedy into a power grab with the hastily passed Patriot Act and the opening of wars in Afghanistan (somehow still going 19 years later) and Iraq. The Philadelphia I’d begun exploring on foot, bike and transit in early 2001 — like cities everywhere — became an increasingly hostile place as money flowed in for barriers, surveillance and police. Months earlier, I had taken a bus to New York to join the huge march against the Iraq war, but the election was fast approaching. What could one person do in the finite days remaining?
My friend Claire invited me to a MoveOn meeting on voter turnout at St. Peter’s Church on Pine Street. High voter turnout in our heavily Democratic Philadelphia neighborhoods was key to winning Pennsylvania, the organizers explained. I did a bit of volunteering for that effort in the weeks that followed, but calling strangers and knocking on doors made me nervous. Instead, with that seed of an idea about voter turnout in mind, I spent much of that fall making voter-themed street art and postcards, and encouraging other friends to do the same. I don’t know if anyone voted because of our strange stickers and stencils and postcards, but the effort felt a lot more constructive than sitting at home and fretting about all the dire news.
A few days before the election, a band of cyclists from Portland arrived to crash with Claire. Or perhaps they knew her activist/artist roommate Elena, who I’d met through an arts program at Temple University. Their multi-level apartment — a tangle of stairs and bedrooms and awkward rooms split with partitions atop a giant old Spruce Street row house — had been home to a half dozen friends in quick succession around that time. Its rooms were a collective resource passed on from friend to friend when someone moved away or moved in with a lover.
The cyclists had pedaled across the continent wearing superhero capes, sounding the alarm from town to town like Paul Revere. Their enthusiastic reports of opposition to Bush in the midwestern states they’d traveled through, and the generous support they’d received along the way — food, repairs, places to sleep — were heartening. My pre-election anxiety faded when I spent time with these new friends and thought about the extended network of generosity stretching across the country that made their arrival possible.
Election night itself was a blur. My only strong mental image of that night is of a long meander through the city alone. For several blocks, I trailed an open bed truck covered in signs for local candidates endorsed by city Democrats and carrying a loud sound system. A half dozen young Black men rode the truck or ran alongside it. One of them interrupted the music every few seconds to shout get-out-the-vote slogans. They’d clearly been doing this since early in the day — a slow trawling of every street in the city — and were at this point exhausted and silly. Their routine on the mic was breaking down into riffs and in-jokes they’d come up with during their day together. One would steal the mic from another and carnival bark at whoever on the street caught their eye until that person broke step, laughed, or waved them off. “I voted! I voted!“ or “I’m heading over there now!” As the November dark and a sudden chill settled on the city, I wondered if this is what I should have been doing with my friends all day instead of working at the gallery and refreshing news sites on its creaky internet connection. I had voted in the morning, and so when the chill worked its way through my too-light fall jacket, I went home to warm up and listen to the election returns on public radio until I fell asleep.
The next morning was cold with overcast skies and light rain, perfect weather for a crushing defeat. Pennsylvania went to the Democrat, Senator John Kerry, but Bush would be with us for four more years, not mere days as my too-cryptic series of stickers had prophesied. I clutched at stories of irregularities in Ohio, hoping a technical reversal akin to the previous election’s fiasco in Florida might emerge. But it was not to be. Fretting about doom and gloom resumed.
It was time to meet up with the cycling superheroes one last time to see them off on their journey home. I don’t remember how they were getting back to Oregon, surely not cycling all the way back as Winter approached. I just remember feeling terrible on their behalf. Their epic journey did not end with the supervillain being vanquished. Instead of the celebration they surely pictured as they pedaled for weeks, they were 3,000 miles from home in soggy early winter cold with nothing but panniers filled with lycra and costumes.
But in reality, they had a lot more than that. All of us did. We had all the connections we’d made along the way. The election denied us a simple resolution. Four more years of the dark conversation were in front of us. But the work of 2004 led each of us down new paths.
The freelance design work I found through friends made that year and the knowledge I’d collected of an increasingly influential network of political bloggers eventually led me to an unlikely series of jobs witnessing national politics up close. I imagine things turned out all right for the cycling superheroes too.