I’m pretty sure it was a thank-you note that did it. After our last round of canvassing the Saturday before the Pennsylvania primary, I had a melancholy end-of-camp feeling knowing that I might never see some of those amazing campaign ladies (and guys) again, so I sent a thank-you note over to my volunteer coordinator thanking her for the experience and letting her know I’d never felt this empowered to participate before. When she texted to thank me back, she asked for my information so that the Secret Service could screen me for Secretary Clinton’s photo line the next night at City Hall.
It was a surreal feeling to be watching Friends and playing weekend Candy Crush while being checked by the Secret Service. That’s April 2016 was, a quick swirl of the everyday and the profound, one minute shaking hands with a former U. S. President or the President of Planned Parenthood and the next being back to my flower pictures. I’d already pushed myself to the edges of my limited extroversion and was longing to be back to my comforting routine, but there was no way that I could pass up this chance.
When I got the text that I’d been approved, I asked if I was still needed for my volunteer duties, but the coordinator said “No need, just get your picture and have fun.” An email came with instructions for the VIP entrance and I switched around my tutoring schedule so I could go. I was NERVOUS the next day, so until it was time to (way too early) leave for the train I took the edge off by applying to summer jobs and cleaning out the downstairs closet.
Since the last time I took the train, Philly graffiti artists seem to have had an explosion, and I was blown away by the work I saw the whole way down. I vowed to stop being car girl all the time and take the train more, there’s just no excuse to miss that much art. As I crossed in front of City Hall, I remembered playing Scrabble on the steps on a day visit to the Occupy camp. I got to the entrance before some of the local police even knew what to expect, and I felt mortified to refer to myself as a VIP, which doesn’t feel very democratic. The entrance was where Market Street runs into City Hall, so the traffic and the tension of the moment were overstimulating. I practiced my deep breathing and ate a foil-wrapped sandwich for early supper, knowing food wouldn’t be allowed in the event.
Soon I was joined by a fellow early-bird, a nice lesbian of about my age or a little older, whom I recognized as one of Amy’s fellow data-entry volunteers. We bonded over our love of earliness and chatted about our pets and lives. She’d retired early from public service, listing disrespect from male supervisors as one of the reasons. “I can’t wait ‘til it’s thirty years from now,” she said, in terms of gender progress. Next we were joined by a handsome young Iranian man who told us he’d been canvassing around Temple University, to little success. He expressed amazement that he’d seen young people at last week’s Hillary event, since we were by now conditioned not to expect them.
The VIP table was set up and when they found my name, I couldn’t help exclaiming “It’s real!” As the put on my bright green bracelet, I marveled aloud that this was probably the only time I would ever be considered a VIP, and I guess that sounded sad because a tall friendly guy in a “YAAAAAS” shirt said “Aw.”
We were led into a nice quiet room that looked like it might usually be used for jury selection—semi-comfortable chairs, small libraries of paperbacks, a water cooler that would definitely help me with my not-fainting goal.
The handsome college guy settled in to study for his finals and I chithatted with a striking woman in a grey suit who had a gorgeous tree of life tattoo on her leg, echoing the cherry blossoms out on the courtyard. This was not her first time in a VIP section. She’d been a super-volunteer on President Obama’s campaign and she said after she’d met him, meeting Beyoncé and Jay-Z seemed like no big deal. She told me about an all-nighter that she and her fellow volunteers had pulled setting up a rally on Broad Street, a night during which she’d had to decide between an hour of sleep or a shower before the event. It occurs to me now that I should have thanked her for healthcare and marriage equality.
A purple-shirted group of SIEU members for New York City joined us. A shy man with a West Indies accent showed me his Hillary selfies from an event a few nights before on his cracked-screen phone. Everyone was worried about their batteries and I wished I’d brought a charged to lend.
When it came time to line up for the photos, getting there early had no effect at all on our place in line. There were hundreds of people with us by then and I wondered how in the world every person would get a picture, but we were assured curtly by staffers that we all would. I told my early-bird pal it was her job to make sure I didn’t faint, and I assured her I was doing my deep breathing. When Madam Secretary entered the room in her perfect blue jacket, I fully squealed, and was not the only one.
In an odd coincidence, the president of the teachers’ union was a few people ahead of me in line, accompanied by my own former union rep whose inability to see me as a person convinced me that I was the only one who could protect myself from the corrupt and scary schools. It was a harsh but satisfying moment when the union rep looked back as if she couldn’t quite place me and I met her gaze with an unbreakable glare. Who knows if she remembered me, but I’d survived. This year of healing work and this campaign had given me a new sense of what a woman is, of who I can be, of just how much power I really have as long as I have the courage to take it.
When I was ten people away from Hillary, staffers took my bag. When I was three people away, a man in a suit said “Take three steps forward, please.” And then, I was with Hillary, shaking her hand and saying “Thank you so much for all you’ve done” with all my heart and soul and guts. I looked into her eyes and saw the same exhaustion I’d seen in Bill’s a few weeks earlier. How is she doing this? How is she getting through?” “We’re gonna do this together,” she said for probably the thousandth time that day, but it still meant something. She expertly moved me into the picture, I smiled with my face next to hers and it was taken. I thanked her again, picked up my bag, and walked out into the breezy passageway, stunned.
Someone guided me to the volunteer section on the bleachers, and a fellow volunteer gave me his mini American flag. I stuck it in my hair like I’d done with my rainbow flag on the first Equality Day. This has been both my loneliest and my least-lonely year.
A few weeks before, some of my friends had felt intimidated into not posting pro-Hillary statuses (and not for nothing, as I’ve lost or unfriended about 80 acquaintances in the past month) but here was real life again, being so safe and all-kinds-of-integrated and hopeful. The person who introduced the mayor and Secretary Clinton was head of a local GLBT organization and would not have looked out of place in a Tegan and Sara video. This was a different kind of Equality Day. This was a happy and peaceful crowd cheering for equal pay and reproductive rights and, as the City Hall bells coincidently but solemnly chimed, for gun control. Away from the sarcastic remove of the internet, here was a place where it was free to be hopeful and positive and progressive and sincere.
It’s a long time ‘til November and I know there are so many people who stopped listening to me a long time ago, but if I could convince one more person of one more thing, it’s this: You’re needed. You’re wanted. Though loud, bullying voices may convince you that you don’t have a right to participate, you do. As we move toward the general election, thoughtful people will have the chance to stand on the side of good and protect those who need it most. If you’re reading this, you’re probably coming from some place of privilege, and this is a good time to use that privilege to stand up for the people who would be hurt most by a Trump presidency. Plus, it’s really fun.