A chance encounter with Joe Biden on the launch of his campaign in Concord, NH animates my friendship with a 92-year old undecided voter.
My friend asked me to drive her mother back to New Hampshire after a visit to Boston for Mother’s Day this year. Rita is 92, recently widowed, and as they say about women of a certain edge from the Greatest Generation, a bit of a pistol.
Rita grew up in Lowell, MA and raised five kids there in a big house—with summers on the nearby Atlantic shore and quite a bit of golf. She knew people and knew things. I had surmised as much because I know her daughter, who was also knowing in a way that possibly began as nature but was surely polished by nurture.
“Whatever you do, don’t talk politics with her,” Kathleen advised before the trip. To be honest, when people say that to me, I hear: “Be sure to talk politics.” Which I eased into as we headed north on US 93 in my MINI Cooper, a bit more sports car than Rita was accustomed to.
We touched on some current events, including her understanding about how Trump’s wall with Mexico would keep the drugs out of the country. It’s hard to fact check a Fox fan in real-time while driving, so I just listened.
Recently, she continued, a friend had asked her if she wanted to stop by a pot shop near the cemetery where her mother is buried. She agreed as she’d planned to replant the flowers at her husband’s grave soon. Instead, they visited the new medical marijuana dispensary in her ‘hood. Rookie mistake.
Rita had once been briefly involved in politics herself, she went on, when a childhood friend ran in a Republican congressional primary. After graduating from Radcliffe in three years (“wicked smart” as they say in these parts), her friend returned to Lowell, moving quickly from school board to city council. When the seat opened, this young woman in a hurry hurried toward it. As did ten men.
Rita jumped in, knocking on doors and visiting businesses and factories across the district. “I told them her positions on the issues,” Rita recalled, “and they all nodded and said that she ‘sounded like someone they could vote for.’” But when the returns came in, her candidate had received less than 1% of the vote. “They lied to me, Mike.”
Given our now breezy rapport, we were quickly into New Hampshire and near her home. “I was promised coffee,” she chided me. I hadn’t forgotten, I’d just wanted to find someplace easy fo my nonagenarian friend to navigate. So I found a five-stars cafe on Yelp nearby and headed there.
It was called The Works and it turned out to be in the Concord town center. How crowded could Concord be on a Tuesday morning I thought. But the block was bustling. While I was reconsidering, a parking space opened directly in front of the cafe and I grabbed it. As I was helping Rita out of her bucket seat, a woman about her age slowed to advise, “You know, Joe Biden is in that coffee shop.”
It was like a starting gun had gone off. Before I could grab her arm, Rita was moving with dispatch toward the door. Cane on. While I’d already gathered Rita was not really, likely a fit with Joe’s base, I also sensed that Rita had been leaning into opportunities like this her whole life, before leaning in was a call to arms. She wasn’t going to miss this one.
Earlier that morning I’d heard on the news that Joe was starting his official campaign in New Hampshire, but I didn’t expect to be this close to the action. But “The Works” cafe seemed to be an ideal venue for the front-runner to get his schmooze on.
We found a clutch of national media interviewing him at the back of the store against a backdrop of star-struck baristas. I spotted an empty booth at the front of the room and guided Rita toward it. Knowing Joe would have to pass by as he left, I suggested that Rita sit in the sightline of the door. I sat across from her and motioned for her to she scoot down and leave some room.
“Are you setting a trap?”, a voice behind me asked. It’s true. I was. And two photographers, one from Reuters and another from The New York Times asked if they could position themselves nearby. Like a duck blind.
When I left Rita to get us coffee and muffins, I had the chance to watch Joe working the locals, the media, and the store staff. While retail politics is a chore, charisma is a gift. Joe has it. And he shares it. As he made his way from one table of beaming-faced retirees to the next, I thought this might work.
When he’d shaken nearly every outstretched hand in the place, Joe finally did turn toward the door to leave. And as he spun our way, Rita caught his eye, gesturing toward him with her cane and saying in a loud voice, “I’ve got a bad leg, Joe.” Catnip.
Here comes Joe, his pearly whites aglow and his arms outstretched to offer one of those quintessential double-handed politician handshakes. Then he’s is in our booth. And he and Rita are talking.
“What’s your name?”, Joe asked. “Rita”, she said.
“How old a woman are you, Rita?”, he continued.
“I’m 92, Joe,” Rita offered proudly.
“I’m going to need to see some ID,” he advised with a smile.
I’d taken my stream of pictures on the sly, with my iPhone resting on the table. I wanted to capture the polished vibe of a guy from Scranton who knows how to make politics personal once voter at a time. Behind me a whir of serious cameras marked the pursuit of one more iconic shot in this decades-long run for POTUS.
Joe: “Is this young man your son?”
Rita: “This is my friend, Mike.”
Joe: “Nice to meet you, Mike.”
Mike: “Good luck, Joe.”
Joe: “Thank you.”
We shook hands. I got the 1000 watt smile point-blank. And then whoosh, he was gone.
When his entourage had all departed, another elderly woman, who had been forced to share Joe with her table of friends, made a beeline to Rita to ask about her more intimate encounter with the prospective nominee.
“I wasn’t going to vote for him before,” she gushed to Rita. “Now, I am.”
Rita just smiled. Her vote would remain a secret.