My Summer of ´72
We went all out for McGovern in ’72. My sister worked on the primary campaign and was almost elected delegate to the National Convention, which we watched on television with as much enthusiasm as the humidity in her one-room apartment would allow. Barbara was using an old stand-by to overcome the disappointment of her own electoral defeat and supply her with the energy necessary to see her dream through its exhaustive network coverage: she was eating a lot of fried foods and carbohydrates. A bag of Wise potato chips, she would later claim, had been her only refuge on the awful day of Tom Eagleton’s despair.
I knew nothing of the politics at hand except that George McGovern was better-looking than his opponents. I assumed that he was a nice man. Certainly, I had decided that I was a Democrat. I come from a long line of Democrats, because I come from a long line of poor people. But mainly I was there for the pizza.
Barbara was young and single, and I was younger and on vacation. It was her own little social project: take a child from the oil refineries of New Jersey and bring her to the steel mills of Pittsburgh. My heart elevated out there in the hills. My perspective grew as wide as the deep rivers with long names: Allegheny and Monongahela.
There was still a good amount of the ’60s left in 1972, so we listened to Simon and Garfunkel on the stereo, and Barbara’s friend Bev — who spent her post-college days actively not seeking employment with a righteous, carefree attitude — would drop in singing “Do figures of authority just shoot you down? Buy a big bright green pleasure machine.” and eat pizza with us. It was glorious to be participating in the real world, ascended from the routine flatlands, 400 miles away from my mother (who disapproved of soda, which in Pittsburgh was called “pop”) at a time when the world was changing.
We kept the television on all the time. Everything was exciting. Even the commercials were exciting. The Carnegie-Mellon Bank had started a new advertising campaign: “We’re the best at what we do,” and to express this concept they had sent cameramen around the city to capture other tradesmen who were unexcelled at their professions. Our favorite such celebrity was the Mineo’s Pizza man. Barbara had always known, and had proved to me, that Mineo’s made the best pizza in Pittsburgh. And now everyone would know because there was the Mineo’s Pizza man, coming into view with bright music — right after a close-up of George McGovern’s confident jaw and nervous eyes — twirling his circle of dough and smiling as only an Italian man can smile.
One night Barbara sat down on the floor with three yards of flowered cotton fabric and cut out a pattern and dug out the sewing machine and made me a dress. Right there on the floor. And Mrs. McGovern looked out from her seat on the convention floor and smiled as I tried it on. It fit perfectly.
But most of the time we wore ratty jeans and T-shirts that we did not bother to tuck in, T-shirts that bore such slogans as “Bagel Land – the roll with a hole.” Good grooming was not essential to witnessing the Democratic triumph. Barbara tried to frost her hair, and the streaks came out slightly orange instead of blond, so we added bandannas to our daily costume. Instead of worrying about her orange hair, Barbara suggested that we embark upon the long-neglected task of dusting her overflowing bookshelves, which led to the then unavoidable task of dusting the entire apartment. By the time we were finished, her streaks had turned a faintly greenish blond.
Days passed, and we never considered that Mr. Nixon might be watching us. Bev was sitting on the floor eating French fries from a paper plate. The ketchup had a plate to itself. The television set was straining from constant use, and the picture had gone from black-and-white to a tired, confused set of grays. Tom Eagleton looked upset. He must have looked worse in color. The doorbell rang, and none of us had any idea of who it could possibly be. Barbara set loose the chain and opened the door to reveal a lady, an Indian woman. She was beautiful. She was more impeccably groomed than Mrs. McGovern. She looked as if some ancient emperor had picked her out to sit at his best table, without smiling, with that beauty mark on her cheek and that drape of satin over her shoulder, with that piece of gold in her hair.
She stood there in the doorway like a figure on a Grecian urn, and we were too shocked to ask her in. Then her lips parted. She smiled. She asked us if we would like to buy any products from Avon. If Bev’s mouth had not been full of French fries, I am sure that she would have said — in a righteous, carefree attitude — “Holy crap, Barbara, it’s a damn Indian Avon Lady.”
Tom Eagleton was groping for words. I saw Barbara’s hand unconsciously move to her hair, as if she wished the bandanna were still covering it. I looked down at myself and realized for the first time that I probably should start wearing a bra. Bev gave up on the situation and feigned a responsibility for removing the ketchup plate from the floor, while Barbara dismissed the exotic vision by explaining to her that we really didn’t use much make-up. I thought about how I had just started using Clearasil. Make-up was out of my realm. It would be like adding insult to injury.
The door was shut, and the Avon Lady was gone. None of us knew what to say for a while. We turned back to the television set and learned that the dream had died. Nothing could be without blemish. When it got dark, we ordered a pizza. We talked about how good it was while we ate it. I showed Bev my new dress. And the next day, Barbara was still young and single and I was still younger and on vacation, but we decided to give the television set a rest.