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A Vote for Courtesy

Kamala Harris. Photo by Gage Skidmore
Kamala Harris. Photo by Gage Skidmore

Early in the assembling of the Democratic candidates for President, I remembered Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that we are no longer a society, but rather an “audience.” Who among the Democrats could challenge the Entertainer-in-Chief? I put my hopes on Senator Kamala Harris, who first came to my attention when she questioned Bret Kavanagh with razor-like precision. I could imagine her twisting the polemical knife in debate with the Twitter-man. Her retort to Joe Biden in the first debate showed she was quick, and her comment “I was that little girl” who benefitted from school busing earned attention and sympathy.

I had donated $5 to her campaign, but when the stakes were raised to a minimum of $10 I had to retire to the sidelines. When her campaign asked for volunteers to get signatures to put her on the primary ballot in Indiana, I was happy to offer my help. A few days later I got a call from Maya Rodriquez from the Harris campaign, who came to my house with petition forms. Ms. Rodriguez was a pleasant, professional young woman who gave me instructions. Those who signed the petition to have her name on the primary ballot were not required to vote for her. Signers had to list their name, address and the county they lived in. A separate sheet was required for each county.

I decided to begin at The Red Key, where I was most likely to know people and be known. I got the permission of Jim Settle, the owner-bartender, to ask fellow customers to sign the petition. (Jim carries on a gentler version of the strict Rules established by his founder-father, the legendary Russ Settle.) There were a handful of customers I knew who readily signed, and maybe others who saw them figured it must be OK; I emphasized that signing did not mean voting for the candidate, but only insuring her a place on the primary ballot in Indiana. Two pleasant women admitted they had never heard of Senator Harris, but signed in the spirit of giving her a chance.

After The Red Key, I hung out at the Cornerstone coffeehouse at Moe and Johnny’s, where owner Chuck Mack himself signed the petition and others followed. In the second and third debates, other candidates got more attention and publicity than Senator Harris, but none of the people I approached mentioned the debates, and I didn’t bring them up. I even got some of my pals who work the cash registers at the check-out lines of a local grocery to sign,

I took my petitions with me whenever I went out, and on a Saturday night I carried them to meet a friend at Fat Dan’s delicatessen. I arrived early and saw a table outside with about ten people, a potential coup for my petitions. I smiled and made my pitch, assuring that signatures didn’t mean votes, but offered an opportunity to take a small part in our democracy. Most of those at the table looked at me blankly, but one woman turned toward me with a kind of wince of disdain and said, as if explaining to an alien –
“We’re from Carmel.”
“Oh,” I said.
I wanted to ask “Is that in the United States?”

There were better times ahead. I was asked to speak to a meeting of a book club at the big back table of The Red Key, and after discussing a piece I had written, I closed my remarks with a pitch for putting Kamala on the primary ballot. A perceptive bunch, they all signed.

Maya Rodriguez came by to pick up my petitions, and I was proud to contribute thirty-six signatures. I later learned it takes 500 signatures from each country to qualify for the primary ballot. My well-intentioned efforts were a drop in the bucket, which made it all the more surprising and gratifying when a week or so later I received a handwritten “Thank You note” from Maya Rodriguez, with return address in Senator Harris’ national campaign headquarters in Baltimore.

I tried to remember the last time I received a “Thank You note” from anyone. I have covered a lot of people and events for magazines, local and national, and in the nine years I have been back in Indianapolis I have given dozens of talks to clubs, libraries, schools, universities, and religious groups. Many people told me of their appreciation and thanked me, but to the best of my memory the only “Thank You note” I’ve received was from Maya Rodrigues of the Kamala Harris campaign.

Senator Harris has been outshined in the last two over-populated debates (Please. if you’re a Democrat and want to be President, try to control yourself!) I wish her well in the round-table, free-for-all discussion and the ones to follow, but no matter what promises others may make, I am voting in favor of a quality that I feared was lost in our national politics. I am voting for courtesy. I am voting for it in our in our politics and in our everyday dealings with one another.

I emailed Maya Rodrigues to ask if she was related to Kamala Harris, whose sister is also named Maya. Ms. Rodriguez said no, that was only a coincidence. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Senator Harris hired a young woman who writes Thank You notes to volunteers who collect only a handful of signatures for their cause.

Maybe Senator Harris asks all her organizers to write Thank You notes to anyone who helps. I am voting for that as long as I have the chance. I am voting for courtesy.

Thank you, Maya Rodriguez. Thank you, Kamala Harris. You have elevated this campaign.

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The Art of Hanging Out

My piece “The Art of Hanging Out” was originally published in The New York Times on July 21, 1968. The story is re-published at The Stacks Reader:

Both as a novelist (Run River, 1963) and as a reporter and essayist, Joan Didion is one of the least celebrated and most talented writers of my own generation (“Silent,” B.A.’s circa mid-1950’s). Her first collection of nonfiction writing, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, brings together some of the finest magazine pieces published by anyone in this country in recent years. Now that Truman Capote has pronounced that such work may achieve the nature of “art,” perhaps it is possible for this collection to be recognized as it should be, not as a better or worse example of what some people call “mere journalism,” but as a rich display of some of the best prose written today in this country.

Read the whole story at The Stacks Reader

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Notes on a Native Son

Originally published in GQ Magazine in August 1988, my piece “Notes on a Native Son” is re-printed at The Stacks Reader:

The first thing I saw were the eyes. They were large and looked very wise, older than the face in which they were set. There was a sadness about them. but more than that, a power, a strength that survived whatever the blows were—physical or psychic or probably, both—that caused the dark shadows around them, above and below, giving them the bruised look of a fighter who’d been punched. It might, in fact, have been the face of a fighter, a young black man with a thin mustache and short dark hair who had boxed his way out of the ghetto. He had actually done just that, but with words rather than fists.

Read the whole piece at the Stacks Reader

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield