Letters from Ohio

Election '04
Editor's Note: Author Stephen Elliott is traveling across Ohio to conduct voter registration readings along with a group of writers including Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Anthony Swofford, Vendela Vida, Julie Orringer, and Jim Shepard. The aim of their trip is to register college students to vote and create a list of students that would like to receive a reminder phone call from one of their favorite authors on election day. This is Elliott's – rather funny – journal of his trip.

Operation Ohio Day 5

I woke up early this morning, just after six, I'm getting back to my old ways. Ryan and I are driving to Columbus in a few hours, then a flight to Chicago, where I'll hookup with Chrissy Bell, and then to Iowa, Wisconsin, and all the rest. I'm an early riser, I think I always have been, so I'm jamming with my headphones on, playing the Scissor Sisters, Laura, over and over again. It's almost impossible to turn off a song with the line, This will be the last time I ever do your hair.

Ryan, Julie, and I are the only ones left, but Julie's parents live here, and Ryan is Julie's husband. A big part of me wants to stay in this state. It's so green and the weather is nice. I went to my first strip club in Cleveland, when I was eighteen, four years before I became a stripper myself, and fourteen years before Julie Salamon would refer to me as a "small man with a cloud of curly hair" in the New York Times. But the truth is I'm much taller than people think, 5'9", depending on the wind. As tall as Howard Dean, and he was almost the Democratic nominee. Otherwise I think Salamon did a reasonable job of explaining what Operation Ohio felt like, which was both manic and depressive, but maybe not as good a job off explaining what Operation Ohio is really about.

Greer, and Josh, left yesterday and Ryan, Julie, Ames, and I went to the ghetto looking to register a few more voters. We went to King Kennedy Estates, and when we told people where we were going they said, "Don't go there." But the residents were happy to see us. We got a couple of funny looks, but when we asked if they were registered to vote, and most of them were, or at least they said they were, they often said things like, "Thanks for doing this." A voter registration packet is the key to peace and protection in the ghetto.

Which is kind of what I'm talking about, in explaining what Operation Ohio really is. Nothing really feels better than registering voters, and even though I thought there would be more people, and we would register more, by the third day I was high as a kite, even as Josh threatened to ruin the whole thing, splashing around in the Orringer's fish tank, trying to grasp their exotic fishes in his frantic palm, I felt just great. And by the fifth day there just wasn't any other explanation for why I felt so damn good. It wasn't like I was eating better or exercising. The opposite really, I was secretly raiding the Orringer's Halloween stash of Hershey's and Reese's, drinking every night, two to three cups of coffee in the morning. And it might have been the good company. After all, it's a pretty self selecting group, people that are willing to travel to a swing state on their own dime to register a handful of voters. But I really think it was the act itself. Also, our guy won the debate.

Operation Ohio Day 4

Somewhere in this big house Andrew Sean Greer is sleeping. Josh is still in the room we shared, the fish tank unplugged, a pillow tucked below his ear and another between his legs. He says he does it for his spine. When I left the room the fish was stuck to the glass, its mouth open as wide as its body, its fins shifting slowly in the empty current.

We stayed up late last night, eating Japanese food and watching the debate. Ryan Harty, one of the great short story writers of our time, was worried about Kerry. I told him it was good he was worried. Because if our expectations were low then everyone's expectations were low and you win when you exceed expectations. And really, shouldn't we have high expectations of the sitting president? That shit about "I may never have heard of East Timor but I'll ask Dick Cheney, or Condi Rice" is not going to fly after you've already been president for four years. I was arguing with Julie's stepmom and she was like, "It takes time (to win wars, to improve the economy, to fix healthcare)" and I was like, "It takes four years, if it took more than four years you wouldn't be asked to run for re-election." But Julie's stepmom is awesome. Yesterday, before our reading, she showed me how to properly iron a shirt. "Do the back of the collar first, then the shoulders. The wonderful thing," she said. "Is that if you miss a spot you can always go back."

Kerry won the debate and if he gets to the White House, a cabinet level position should be created for Jon Stewart, Department of Telling The Truth in a Funny Way. And if Kerry is president I will no longer have to worry about my little brother being drafted. Because even though Bush says their won't be a draft, he's lied about a lot of things, and when he changes his mind it's always because of some event beyond his control and I think there will be more events "beyond his control" in the next four years. Like Iraq dissolving into chaos. It's not enough to have your href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A60725-2004Sep29? language=printer">campaign write speeches for the prime minister.

But before the debate, we were out doing our part at our final Ohio reading. Ann Packer and Andrew Greer flew in for the afternoon event at Cleveland State and Robert Olmstead drove north from Wesleyan and read a story about war and the killing fields and the death that is war because war is not a good thing at all and you really have to try to avoid going to war and by the end of his story you knew that with certainty.

I've never been to war or owned a house but I've never bankrupt a company either. I think if I had the privileges of George Bush when I was a teenager and we were at war, I would have chickened out too. I'm no braver than the president. We have that in common. The biggest difference between the two of us is that I don't think I'm qualified to be president.

It was a small crowd at CSU, only about thirty people, but it was a commuter school and most people were still at work. We had planned an evening reading as well, but had to cancel when we found out the debates would be broadcast at the same time. And like Anthony Swofford said, if we can get one vote it was worth it. Though I'm not sure that's true. My goal is to get 2,000 more youth voters to the polls in swing states, and to do that I'll need to build a phone list of 5,000 students. How hard could it be?

Before the reading I was on a radio show, the local NPR affiliate. I was told they had a policy of fair time, which meant that if I was partisan they would have to invite some Republican on the air for equal time. To me that policy is the equivalent of inviting someone on the show to lie every time someone on the show tells the truth. If I was partisan and funny, they'd have to invite a serious fascist, maybe Dick Cheney. Or if I was really really really in favor of peace, they'd invite Zell Miller.

I was with Jonathan Ames and we walked back through Cleveland toward the cafe where the rest of the writers were drinking coffee and expressing outrage. And after the reading, which was a very good reading, we went to the pizza restaurant across the street for a drink.

There was a small glass bar, built on to the restaurant the way someone might attach a deck to their first house. They sold cheap beer and single serving plastic bottles of whiskey. And that's where we celebrated our final reading. Then we took Ann Packer to the airport. Then we bought Japanese food and warm beer which we left in Julie's parent's freezer. Then we watched the debate. Then we turned on Fox News where they had invited two conservatives and two non-partisan reporters for a panel. We cursed Fox News. Then the Daily Show then sleep, sleep, sleep....

Operation Ohio Day 3

It's morning in Ohio as I write this. It's morning lots of places but for me there is nowhere else. Ohio is a spaceship, an island, the conquering state of this great nation. I'm in the house of Julie Orringer's parents. Julie and Ryan are asleep upstairs as are Josh Bearman and Jonathan Ames. It's a big house with a curiously small coffee maker and lots of bedrooms and in the room Josh and I stayed in there was a fish tank. Josh couldn't sleep with the tank on so he unplugged it. He pointed a long, bony finger at me before turning out the lights. If the fish dies he made me promise not to tell.

Yesterday's reading was great. Ryan Harty, Jonathan Ames, and Dan Chaon joined us as Anthony Swofford, Rick Moody, and Dave Eggers peeled from the state. Swofford is already going through Ohio detox and wrote me a frantic letter, if we just get one more vote it was worth it, he wrote. 150 kids showed up to see us at Oberlin College, a small school an hour outside of Cleveland. Ames read a story called "I Shit My Pants In The South Of France," which was probably the funniest story I've ever heard. Note to all writers, never follow Jonathan Ames, make him read last. We signed up a hundred students to receive phone calls on election day. After the reading the students followed us to the bar and I told stories about working as a stripper in my year after college and selling tickets to live sex shows in Amsterdam. I told everyone that I was sober all through college and as a result I have no memories of school because for me nothing happened.

Most of the students hanging out at the bar with us were writing majors. Oberlin gets a lot of visiting writers and the kids were free and easy with who they liked and didn't. "So and so (a very famous poet) came to our workshop and didn't like my poetry, but I don't think his poetry is very good either." Students are the harshest critics. I thumbwrestled with this one kid, a senior. He kept cheating but accusing me of cheating. Truth is, I'm one of the greatest thumb wrestlers the world has ever known.

Hanging out with young people keeps you young. Or at least older people believe that and I believe it too. And like the young Oberlin students I felt alive and like I could change the world, which is what youth is. Around midnight Josh and I ordered Grasshoppers, which are these chocolate liquor things covered in whip cream and syrup and served in martini glasses. We intertwined our arms before taking our first sip. People thought we were gay and we had to explain the principle of bromance to them. Bromance, which is neither gay nor not gay, but rather a profound affection displayed between two men.

Yesterday was Vendela and Shepard's last night. I see Vendela a lot in San Francisco but this was my first time meeting Jim Shepard, who is one of my literary idols. I told him so at the end of the night, throwing caution to the wind, and we hugged and then he got himself a room at the Oberlin Inn. Today we add Andrew Sean Greer, Robert Olmstead, and Ann Packer for a daytime reading at Cleveland State University. We're getting coverage from the local PBS and NPR. And here's something exciting. Last night, in my half drunken state, lying in bed in the Cleveland suburbs, I came up with the idea for the Operation Ohio Street Team. I've started emailing flyers to students that have signed up for a phone call from Operation Ohio and they're putting up flyers in their schools to let more people know about us. So you see, among other things, beyond my mad thumbwrestling abilities, I am a deft Viral Marketeer.

If you'd like to hang a flyer in your school in Wisconsin, Florida, or Ohio, you can download one here. Also, soon we're going to add a fax number so people under 25 can sign up to receive a phone call from an author without a university email account by faxing a copy of their drivers license and relevant information. Also, so many authors are signing up that I'm considering adding another state. I'm kind of leaning Iowa. Hmmmm...

Operation Ohio Day 2

It would be a lie to say I wasn't disappointed by the first day's turnout, but lies are what get people elected and I'm not above telling them. Three hundred people came out to hear Dave Eggers, Anthony Swofford, Rick Moody, Vendela Vida, Julie Orringer, Jim Shepard, and myself. We each read for eight to ten minutes. Here is the good news:

The good news is that the reading went well. People were funny. Swofford read an amazing essay about his first time voting that he had written specifically for the event. Eggers read a piece from the perspective of a man explaining to his eleven year old daughter how he and his wife had saved the world and how every time they did something great, like end hunger or genocide, his wife would get horny and want to have sex. Jim Shepard read a story written from the perspective of John Ashcroft.

The good news is we signed up a hundred students to receive reminder phone calls on election day. A reporter from the New York Times is traveling with us and when her story comes out on Saturday a lot more people will register to receive phone calls by visiting the website. And the list is all that matters. In truth, the registration readings are just a publicity stunt to raise awareness for the list. Because the list, which is a list of students in Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio, who have requested phone calls from authors on election day reminding them to vote, the list is what matters. And in terms of getting the word out about the list the events have already been a smashing success.

James Harding was there, a friend of mine from the campaign bus. He said he's been door knocking for the last few days around Ohio. He says there's a lot more undecided voters than people think. James is British, so if things get really bad he can leave. The rest of us have to make do with what we have.

Here's the bad news. I stopped in a composition class during the day. There were twenty-five students. One of them was a girl with a deep tan and a rope necklace so tight around her neck I couldn't imagine how she could breathe. I asked the class who their favorite author was. My guess was that their favorite author was probably on the list of authors making phone calls. One student said "Kerouac," so I amended it to living author. Another student said he preferred movies. A third student said John Grisham. At which point I changed the subject.

But here's some more good news. After the reading we all went out for dinner at the Blue Danube and the hamburgers were only $2.75, which is why I love Ohio. I said that Operation Ohio would pick up the tab. There were more than ten of us in the group including Robert Olmstead and Ryan Harty who are reading in the coming days and when the bill came it was just under a hundred dollars. But that's not the good news. The good news is the reporter from the New York Times picked up the check. She said she would expense it. And I remember AP reporter Nedra Pickler's famous advice to me in the Iowa firehouse back in December at a John Kerry rally when John Kerry was getting beat badly by Howard Dean and there was a table lined with various cold meats and mayonaise salads. She said, "Don't eat from that table. You'll compromise yourself." And I said, "I don't mind being compromised. This whole election is about compromise. I'm a compromise-ahololic." I loaded up my white plate and John Kerry went on to win Iowa. And did I let the New York Times buy our dinner last night? You bet your sweet ass I did.


Operation Ohio day 1, Monday

I'm on a plane to Ohio, birthplace of Thomas Edison, where I've organized a series of voter registration readings with other authors. We're going to register students to vote and create a list of students that would like to receive a reminder phone call from one of their favorite authors on election day. We're hoping to collect 5,000 names and phone numbers of students in Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin and figuring the readings in Ohio will generate enough press to get people from other schools signing up for reminder calls over the internet.

Some students are like: "But I already know I'm going to vote. I don't want to waste someone's time." To which I respond: "We don't mind."

Getting out on the campaign is not new for me. I spent the past year writing a book about this election and I've grown used to traveling, especially in swing states. I've been through Ohio with John Kerry and George Bush many times. I turned the book in August 1 and the plan was to get off the campaign trail after that but I never really thought I would. Anybody that's spent any heavy time on the trail during a presidential election knows that it's as addictive as the worst kind of drug and the only way to kick is to go cold turkey and the only way to go cold turkey is to ride it out straight through to the first Wednesday in November at which point I plan to check myself into a monastery in Asia and go through three months of heavy detox – with no sex, no booze, and no politics.

But not yet. Right now there's a war going on. People are dying over a mistake. The government is lying to us, destroying our environment, and giving away our social security to people rich beyond my imagining. Also, I don't have health insurance. George Bush is bad on the issues. And fortunately, a lot of other people have the same sentiment.

I'm happy and excited now. Today I land in Columbus for our first reading at Ohio State University. The authors I'm reading with are some of my favorite writers. Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Anthony Swofford, Vendela Vida, Julie Orringer, and Jim Shepard. And even though I forgot to set my alarm and woke at 6 am in a panic, the weather was nice this morning. It's my favorite time of the year, the fall, not too hot not too cold. Plus, I feel like we're doing our small part to save all of mankind, which is cool.

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