On Thursday night in Pittsburgh, I participated in, and won, The Moth's GrandSLAM storytelling event held at a beautiful theater in the city. I was invited to participate after having won a local StorySLAM last year, and this wild, bizarre story about my canvassing adventures for Barack Obama in '08 sort of brought down the house.I had never pretended to be a woman until the Presidential election of 2008.
I hope you enjoy the written version. If The Moth posts the audio, I'll certainly update this. And if you've never heard of The Moth before, please explore their stories and podcast. You'll thank me for it.
I was living in Wilmington, North Carolina, Barack Obama had just secured the Democratic nomination and, inspired by his rhetorical offerings, I had committed myself to work for his election.
But when I visited the local campaign office, ready to volunteer – looking for non-threatening jobs such as passing out flyers or lawn signs – a green-eyed co-ed said that what they needed most was voter registration. Door-to-door canvasing. In other words, strangers who were willing to bother others strangers at their homes, uninvited.
For a natural introvert, it sounded horrendous.
But I was committed. So several days later, at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, I joined a wide-eyed, enthusiastic canvassing group, registration forms in hand and a sprawling list of addresses to hit. But I only made it to the first three doors. See, at the first house, a middle-aged man with a scraggly beard came to the door holding a can of Coors Light in one hand and a mousetrap in the other, seemingly unwilling or incapable of speaking. At the second house, I heard nothing but dogs barking and a baby crying. And at the third, a guy in his twenties answered the door virtually naked, holding nothing but a potted plant before his manhood, barely awake.
Good God, I muttered, turning around and throwing up my hands as if silently petitioning the gods of democracy. This was no job for someone such as myself.
But I was still committed, and thought, Maybe I can do this impersonally, use my writing talents to help elect Obama. I considered op-eds & blog posts, but knew that to have any impact, I needed to connect with people in real time. But how to do so anonymously? I thought. So I researched the online abyss of anonymous chat rooms and found that Yahoo! Messenger was a popular application.
I downloaded the program, created a fake persona — coffeedrinker123 — and saw that of the thousands of rooms where people were congregating by topic, only one category was organized by location: adult romance.
Wanting to hit swing-state voters, I shrugged, warily clicked on Ohio and marveled at the dozens of avatars suddenly scrolling before me, pulsing with life, most of which seemed to be male.
I clicked on a random name – JonnyKnoxville987 – and a chat window appeared, where I decided to give my pick-up line a try: "Are you registered to vote?"
Jonny responded, "M or F?" (Male or Female)
"Male," I typed, thinking nothing of the answer.
He responded, "Fuck off," before disappearing.
This sort of interaction repeated, over and over, until finally, when presented with the same question by Jeremy_With_a_ Big_Johnson, M or F, I decided to reply "F".
He responded, "Have sex with me and I'll do anything you want." And suddenly, I realized what I could do. I realized what I needed to do: seduce horny, hetero men online into voting for Obama.
Now this presented a problem: I had never before pretended to be a woman, nor was I equipped to do so. But this was a progressive duty, I told myself. A political imperative. And so I created a new profile, a voluptuous brunette called Adventurous_Jen_in_Limbo.
When I re-entered the same Ohio room, windows popped up immediately, clogging my screen: "Hey baby!" - "What's up, sexy?" - "Wanna do the limbo with me?"
I picked a pink font, tried to create the literary facade of a bubbly woman who had stumbled into a romance chat room seeking political conversation, and began my replies, conversations which, disturbingly, the men I lured usually turned erotic and explicit. They were also conversations which, perhaps even more disturbingly, I was almost always able to steer such that I concluded them by typing the following: "On November 6, if you send me a picture of you voting for Obama, then yes, I will definitely have sex with you."
After a month of this, I had built a healthy harem of newly-registered, likely voters who would woo me every time I logged on, seeking confirmation or flirtation.
Except for one: a man from Akron named Trent. When I first engaged him with my standard line, "Are you registered to vote?" he'd responded by asking me a question: "If you were to die today, would you be content with the life you’ve lived?"
"Is that a threat?" I typed.
"No more so than your question."
"Answer mine and I'll answer yours. LOL"
"Fine. I'm registered and voting for McCain," he typed.
I inserted a sad face emoticon and typed, "Okay, If I died today, I'd regret many things."
"Name one," he demanded.
I thought and typed, "Spending too much time living a digital, impersonal existence.”
Trent must have added me to his contact list, because whenever I would log on, there'd be something waiting for me, always something ethereal or mysterious: the image of a draining sink that looked like a human eye; video of an infant that seemed to actually be singing; a single question: “Why do we laugh?”
As the election approached, I began logging on just to see what Trent had left me, wading through all the flirtations to find something otherworldly he'd left, becoming more myself than Jen each time.
Finally, on November 6, I logged on to find dozens of pictures of men voting for Obama, images of their final, electronic ballots accompanied by expectant messages.
I also found a message from Trent. He'd decided to send me his profile picture. When I opened it, the face of an elderly woman stared back at me, with a single line typed beneath:
“Nothing is ever as it seems.”