My professional and non-professional life converged with a lot of thought on semi-rural suburban Pennsylvania these past two weeks.
I get paid to spend a lot of time thinking about and putting myself in the shoes of fictional TV or film characters and contemplating their context and surroundings and what that would look like.
As a set decorator it is my job to think about the minute details of what that physical setting would look like: what kind of artwork would be hanging on the wall? They don’t seem like people who would frame their artwork. Are these the kind of throw pillows that make sense for the character? Do these curtains tell you more about the character’s background or are they a confusing message to the rest of the story? They definitely seem like people who would have a purely functional non-decorative standing torch lamp.
Lately I have been working on a set for a fictional working class woman in small-town Pennsylvania. We were decorating her place of work (a neglected and a bit depressed small town beauty salon) and her home the week of the election.
This mental travel to Pennsylvania for work also aligned with our whole country’s focus on important, battleground, “tipping-point”, swing-state Pennsylvania. The same place I felt was so important to our recent election that I also spent the weekend prior canvassing for get out the vote in Bucks County, PA.
Besides the gratifying experience of being an active citizen in support of our democracy and supporting a candidate I believed in, I was also really enjoying the experience walking up to so many real homes and observing all the details of how people put their personalities into the place they lived.
Instinctively my eyes tuned to the decorative details of people’s homes (being a keen observer of someone’s interaction with their living space is a key component to set decorating a set to look real, believable, and authentic). I noticed that regardless of what candidate’s signs people had in their yards, most everyone in this neighborhood had fall-themed wreaths hung on their front door.
A great majority of homes had cute, well-thought out halloween decorations like pumpkin shaped outdoor lights and many had fall-cheer related items decorating their lawn like a country crafty looking scarecrow. There was evidence of how exasperating it must be to be an important voter in an important county: handwritten signs explaining why they did not want anyone knocking on their door with any sort of political message. One sign said “Seriously unless you are selling thin mints, leave us alone.”
It was a bit eerie that the attention I paid to how these important voters in Pennsylvania decorated their front lawn while canvassing was then also professionally relevant, the same week as the election, to decorating our fictional character’s front lawn also set in Pennsylvania.
Often times instead of building a set from scratch on a soundstage, we will just redecorate a real person’s home for the set. The home our production found to stand in for this character’s home in Pennsylvania was in suburban New York close to the border of New Jersey on the west side of the Hudson River.
Two days after election day I found myself in the suburban upstate New York strip-malls buying the same sort of decorations I observed in Bucks County, PA to transform the front lawn of the home we were using in New York into one that would be a believe-able working class/lower-middle class home in Pennsylvania.
I'm at a Christmas Tree store in a strip-mall and it occurs to me this store (one where you can buy stuffed turkeys that say “no tweeting while we eat” and has 12 different styles of fall-cheer wreaths) is like the homeland of that fabled demographic of college educated white women who handed the election to Trump. I bet the women who lived in the houses where we knocked doors to Get Out the Vote in Bucks County, PA bought their decorations somewhere like here.
I start feeling wary of each other shopper I pass. I'm so self-conscious of myself and apparent non-whiteness. I'm wondering if each person who passes me is thinking "Damn immigrants. Go back to your country" and the sort of xenophobic hateful rejoinders no person born in America should ever have to worry about hearing.
But here I am worrying about it and I don't like the new paranoia that is part of my stream of consciousness now.
In the checkout line the white lady in front of me is sizing me up and down and taking a good look at my overflowing shopping cart. I'm wondering what she's thinking and I brace myself for one of the ignorant and rude encounters I read so many of my fellow people of color have had to endure since this election cycle started and especially ramped up after election day.
She then asks me if I have a 20% off coupon and if I want to use hers. I'm startled at how benign this is and I politely tell her it is ok, this is all for work. And she makes a little joke and I am overcompensatingly kind to her because I feel guilty for being so suspicious.
I remember that 96% of all personal experiences I've had with Americans is with people who are decent, kind, simple, friendly, and warm. I want to believe the best in people as a dear friend used to always tell me.
I don't like being suspicious of everyone around me and always on guard. I want to revert to my previous baseline of greeting each human encounter (ok most not all) with open curiosity and a search for something common to share a smile or laugh about.
Then I get to the car to load all my stuff in and I pass a car two spots over covered in Trump/Pence stickers and it looks like a monument of hate staring back at me. I'm reminded there are so many concrete, real, and now proven reasons to really temper my optimistic baseline and hold on to that wariness. I try to negotiate this internally as I drive back to the home we are decorating.
Usually when a set decorating crew invades a home to begin the chaotic process of redecorating a space, the homeowners flee or hole-up in a room far away so our interaction with the homeowners is quite limited.
These homeowners, however, were unusually friendly, thoughtful, sweet, and present. The woman of the home put our work snacks (“crafty” in film parlance) into bowls just to make it more presentable and welcoming. We usually just eat the crackers and chips out of the bag. It was the coziest, warmest, reception from the homeowner while working inside a home I’ve had in awhile.
Who were these kind and good people? Well I was inside their home so I could use some clues to reverse engineer a little understanding of who they were. There is a picture of Jesus hanging prominently in the front hall with a handwritten bible verse taped to it. So maybe their kind generosity comes from their religious beliefs. They have made some bold choices with painting many different walls of their small home different colors. A cheerful streak? A creative streak? All the decorations and furniture look a little bit dated so they aren’t too focused on keeping up with the Jonses or they couldn’t afford to maybe.
I then realize this nice woman asking me if I want to move some of her backyard decorations to the front yard or feature her potted mums with a welcome sign in the front is also in that demographic: white suburban probably college educated woman. Did she vote for Trump and hate too?
Standing in the kitchen I notice the wall calendar hanging up with a “I Voted” sticker in the box for November 8. Well at least they did vote and did not sit this election out. Ok good so I can respect them as a citizens who value their duty to the republic. But then who did they support? The box on November 9 has the number nine circled and written next to it, it says “Our Good God rules the world.”
That could either be a triumphant phrase to celebrate the victory of the candidate they voted for or a word of solace as they mourned the loss of the candidate they supported. I search other parts of the month of November on their calendar to try and ascertain. On November 4 they went to a Mexican restaurant, so they couldn’t think Mexicans are rapists that we need to build a wall for right? Well, taco bowls.
This sort of panicked reckoning if I am in safe surroundings or not everytime I encounter an unfamiliar white college-educated suburban woman is exhausting.
I want to believe that these nice, God-fearing people would be allies who would be against presidential candidates who stir up hate directed at less powerful members of society. I want to believe that not all white people are ignorant to how vulnerable and unaccepted many people of color like myself feel post-election day. I just want to enjoy the company of someone who would plate crackers and chips for strangers just from the kindness of her heart and not have to worry about anything else.
But the way the votes panned out on election day reminds me my days of wishful thinking are over.