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Commentary: In Exile

I routinely form irrationally concrete opinions about things that I barely understand. I’m opposed to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban trans fats even though I don’t know what a trans fat is. I support the fact that the city throws its decommissioned subway cars into the harbor, allegedly transforming them into biological reefs, even though I can’t remotely picture what moves into them. (Whatever freaks of nature live down there, I’m not sure we ought to be encouraging their growth.) I also don’t know what good salt on the rim of a margarita does, since they always give you a straw to bypass the rim with, yet I always say yes to salt anyway. I say yes to salt because it’s free and I’m being offered some.

This ignorance is part of the reason why, when I started writing this column a few years ago, I set an informal rule for myself that I’d leave politics out of it. Aside from having no idea what I’m talking about, I assumed Washingtonians get enough of that drivel without me exporting it from up here.

Plus, living in New York, it’s easy to lose all comprehension of how things are outside the city. Wildfires here, stem-cell-research bans there — even a gay-marriage ruling right next door barely registers if it’s not splashed across Page One of the Daily News. (It wasn’t.) So these past couple of weeks, I’ve been making phone calls for, the liberal political-action committee, and getting back in touch with America.

”Let’s do a huddle, everyone!” calls out our leader, Greg, an extremely affable guy sporting a can-do attitude and a yellow baseball cap advertising a Midwestern college team I’ve never heard of. Everyone gathers in a semicircle in the corner of the Brooklyn townhouse we’re working out of. For the past hour, we’ve been calling Staten Island, trying to recruit people to become ”phone volunteers” who will call Democratic voters when Election Day nears to remind them to get to the polls.

”Okay guys, for this next hour, we’re going to be calling Arizona. Let’s remember they’re three hours behind us. People are just getting up, it’s Saturday morning, they’re in a good mood — you’ll really have their ears.”

This would be a welcome change from Staten Island, where keeping anyone on the phone for more than 10 seconds feels like a victory.

”How’d you get my number?” demands Fran Drescher, who lives at every home I’ve called for the past hour. ”I don’t have time for this!”

I trade in my Staten Island phone list of Ritas, Lisas, Tonys and Joeys for my Arizona call sheet of Peggys, Nancys, Randys and Stanleys, and head back to my phone.

Over the next hour, I learn two things about Arizonans: They’re older, and they don’t screen their calls. Perhaps their phones are still of the affixed-to-a-wall variety with no caller I.D.

I also learn that they have concerns that are almost entirely foreign to me. My life is lived in a liberal bubble. My friends and I make judgments, issue denouncements and shout our opinions, with little actual experience to back them up. But during an hour of calling the Sun Belt, I spoke to people who weren’t concerned about the war because they felt some sense of lofty Lefty righteousness, they were concerned because their grandkid was over there. And they were bothered by the way our economic safety net is being dismantled, because they had actually lost their pension when the company they’d worked for their whole lives was bought by a bigger company with a 401k plan.

One old Korean War veteran told me he was organizing a war protest by arraying nearly 6,000 combat boots on his local town common — one pair for every soldier killed in Iraq. Another elderly man said that this year he wasn’t going to vote for the first time in his life because he felt like things were just too messed up and that no politician could bring the country back in line. And I was also told by an 80-year-old woman that she’d be voting Democratic for the first time in her life. She wasn’t happy about it, and she certainly didn’t want to volunteer for some crazy MoveOn liberals, but she said she was abandoning the Republican Party on principle.

In New York, I don’t know anyone who’s abandoning the Republicans because I don’t know any Republicans. I don’t know anyone who’s so demoralized that they won’t vote because we’re somewhat isolated from the despair that the country is feeling. And I certainly don’t know anyone who’ll be represented by a pair of empty combat boots in a war protest — the war couldn’t feel much farther away than it does from downtown Manhattan.

As I’ve been listening to NPR on my clock radio each morning between snoozes, I’ve been thinking that I’d like to report on the 2008 election when it rolls around. Going out into the country and reporting on the campaigns, talking to voters — that seems really appealing to me. Perhaps in a year or so I’ll start looking into freelance opportunities. Until then, connecting via telephone from a townhouse in Brooklyn is the closest I’ll get.

Will Doig writes from his self-imposed exile in New York City. He can be reached at