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Of course, Jimmy was better at this than I was. He was charming with the Stein supporters and even more charming with the all-important Undecideds, especially the ones who wanted to talk. When he was mooned, he would say a polite “Thank you very much for your contribution” before hanging up, and save his laughter for later. With the mean people, I could definitely see a tension—but he could control it better. Again, he’d manage to stay polite—“With all due respect, you’re wrong about that” and “That’s simply not correct” and “If you would read the Stein position paper on that issue, you’d see that what you’ve heard is incorrect.” Even when they got graphic in their insults, he refused to let them see him riled. He would say, “I don’t think there’s any call for that kind of language” before hanging up, so that their offensiveness became the cause to end the call. Only after the call had been disconnected would he unleash a string of his own graphic insults, until he was calm enough to make the next call.

This, I guessed, was politics.

He didn’t say anything about me being in the back of the booth, so I hovered there until Gus popped in and said he was going to hit the streets. I knew Jimmy would be cool about me staying with him, but I also knew that every call he made would mean a call I wasn’t making. I didn’t want to feel that defeated, and I didn’t know how to tell him about it, because clearly it was something that wasn’t bothering him as much. So I decided to act like I’d planned all along to join Gus in his canvassing. I’d still be dealing with strangers, but this time I’d have someone by my side. Someone talkative.

We had an easy assignment—to head to Gus’s church to make sure everyone was registered to vote. We got there right before people arrived for mass.

“Let’s go inside a moment and say hi to Pastor Graciela,” Gus said.

I’d never been inside Gus’s church before. It had been built in one of the buildings that used to house those old-fashioned power generators. All the heavy equipment had been moved out, and the result was an abundance of space. Everything—the section of comfortable chairs in the middle, the long colorful chains that dangled the lights from the ceiling—seemed designed to make you feel like you were part of something larger, without actually being made to feel small.

Over the altar, where a crucifix would preside in a Decent church, there was a beautiful statue of Jesus, peacefully watching over everyone who wandered in, his face showing sympathy, patience, wisdom. Even though it was carved in stone, his eyes shone bright. I was Jewish, but I was still familiar enough with all the old paintings and the old ways to be struck by this.

“You’re seeing?” Gus said. “You expect there to be a cross there, na? But here’s the point-thing: What matters to us, and what mattered to God, is Jesus’s life, not his death. A miracle happened, but the miracle happened because of who Jesus was. The point is to live like him, not to die like him.”

He reached to the thin chain around his neck and pulled the small gold Jesus out from under his shirt. I saw that Jesus was in a pose similar to the one above the altar. “Take a look. That’s love. Compassion. That’s why we care about him. That’s why he was special.”

As he put the necklace back where it had been, as close to his body as anything could be, a woman wearing a purple robe walked over to us. She was no taller than my shoulder and her hair was dotted with gray. I figured she was the pastor. I knew that churches like Gus’s used to call their priests Father, until the Jesus Revolution and the decision that titles like Father and Mother needed to be retired. (“Pastor Michael isn’t my father,” Janna once said to me. “Why would I call him that? There are other ways of showing respect without creating these weird family power roles.”)

Pastor Graciela welcomed me, then gently told Gus that although she of course supported what he was doing, there couldn’t be any campaigning inside the church. Whatever we wanted to say, it had to be outside.

“Absolutely-definitely,” Gus told her. “We just wanted to say hey.”

After a few minutes of talking with Pastor Graciela, we headed outside. People were just starting to arrive for mass—not too many of them, but enough to spark some conversations. Gus was definitely at the center of our invisible stage on the steps, with me half curtained beside him. Mostly I watched. I watched as we got kind nods and small words of affirmation. I watched as other congregants took Gus by the arm and swore to him that they’d be there on election day. This was the kind of swearing I could stand, not the kind I’d been attacked with on the phone. I started to get back some of my faith in people. Here, and later in the week when Gus and I stood outside my synagogue and did pretty much the same thing, and at least a dozen other times when I worked with Stein supporters or met people who respectfully disagreed, I felt the work that the mean people had done on my mind becoming undone. Because that’s the thing about mean people: They make you think that the world will never work, that there are divides that you will fall into if you approach. It takes a whole lot of good people to fill in the breach created by a single mean one. But with Gus leading the charge, I felt the divide disappear.

“It’s our future!” he would sing to anyone who came past. “You’ve got to participate in our future!” His belief in this was so strong that it made his body dance. He would sway in his no-logo jeans and whirl from person to person with the Jesus figure shifting along with his heart. I wondered if this, really, was how he stayed so fit.

Even when the election was over, his buzz of energy remained.

“C’mon, la,” he said to us now. “I’ll meet you by the doors as soon as the school releases us. There’s nothing like a little non-shopping to get your mind back to happyzoom.”

Mira and Keisha said they’d have to meet us at Stein headquarters for the victory party, since they had basketball practice after school. But Mandy, Jimmy, Janna, and I said we were in. Maybe Gus was right—maybe a little non-shopping in the non-shopping mall would get our spirits back to the place where they needed to be.

six

On the way over, we loaded one of Stein’s old speeches from the radio archives and listened.

“If we can be caring individuals, why can’t we be a caring society? If we can build our lives on the foundation of kindness and love, why can’t we build our country on the same foundations? Is this idealistic? By all means, yes! We as a country have always had ideals, and we should live by our ideals. Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. What are these if not expressions of kindness and love, of caring and compassion? There is nothing wrong with idealism. You can’t tell me that we as people are motivated by greed or hatred or jealousy. You cannot tell me that we do not care for one another. Parents care for children. Children care for parents. Brother cares for sister, sister for brother. Not always, but most of the time. What satisfaction does a dentist get from being a dentist? He is paid well, yes. But the satisfaction comes from knowing he makes his patients’ lives easier. What satisfaction does a builder get from being a builder? She makes a structure that will last, yes. But she gets her satisfaction knowing that it will give people shelter, that it will be of some worth to their lives. We all want to make the world a better place. We all want to matter, and we know that what matters is caring. What matters is the difference you make in the lives of the people around you and generations to come. We know this on an individual scale. We must also know this as a nation, and as citizens of the world.”

The non-shopping mall definitely fit into this idea of getting satisfaction from helping others. The first non-shopping mall opened after the wave of Prada Riots that came during the worst part of the Greater Depression, when suddenly enough people realized it was ridiculously wrong to have people wearing thousand-dollar shoes at the same time that a large part of the world was starving. (They weren’t called the Prada Riots because of Prada in particular; it was just a term that the media invented that caught on quickly.) The Kindness Consortium launched the Charity Is the New Shopping campaign, which had lasted ever since. Some people—certainly not all—started giving what was needed instead of buying whatever they wanted. Because it was the cool thing to do. And it was cool because it was the right thing to do. One retail giant—it used to be called a department store—decided to take the C Is the New S thing seriously and opened the first non-shopping mall. It was kind of basic—you still spent your time wandering around, checking things out, trying things on. But then when you got to the register and the prices were scanned in, you made a donation to a worthy cause instead of buying the stuff. (If you really wanted to purchase, you could go home and order a nondisplay version, with a discount if you’d already made a donation.) You could be social while you spent for social justice. I loved it.

There was one thing making me a little nervous about this trip, though: Jimmy’s birthday was coming up in five days, and I still hadn’t gotten him anything. I knew I could (and would) donate to one of his registered charities, but I also wanted to give him something he could hold in his hand. It didn’t have to be expensive, only valuable.

We were jammed against each other in the backseat of Gus’s Eco, Jimmy half sitting on my lap and me half stroking his wrist, playing with his bracelet. We had been going out long enough for our affections to be casual. I no longer looked for meaning in every touch, every gesture. Only the unusual ones.

When Stein’s old speech was done, Janna called out, “Gus, can you load up ‘Lord Enuff 4 Me’? Please please please!”

Jimmy leaned back into me a little harder and I tried not to roll my eyes or laugh. We were so stuck. Perhaps the biggest test a friendship can face is when one of the friends wants to load a truly crap song onto the radio. Because we loved Janna, and because she’d said please please please, there was no choice but to please please please her.

As Janna, Gus, and Mandy yell-sang the chorus (“Baby, you don’t need 2 B / Lording it over me, / ’cause any fool can C / the Lord is Lord Enuff 4 Me”), Jimmy leaned over to me and whispered, “Do you think we can get Stein to ban this music?”

I said we could only hope.

Luckily, we arrived at the non-shopping mall before the next Holy Ghostwriter song (“Baby B My Sunbeam”) started to play.

I thought for one evil second of getting Holy Ghostwriter’s Most Inspired Hits for Jimmy for his birthday. But that would have been too cruel—he would have felt bad deleting it, so it would’ve haunted him every time he went to shuffle.

No—I needed something he would love. I was a little uncomfortable when nothing immediately sprang to mind. For a second I found myself envying Keisha and Mira. Not only could they finish each other’s sentences—they could finish each other’s paragraphs. Even though they lived in two different houses, it was like they had only one wardrobe, mixing and matching so often we had no memory of which clothes were Mira’s and which were Keisha’s. In April, Keisha had arranged for Mira’s favorite author to give her a call for her birthday; their hour-long conversation was the present. And in June, Mira had given Keisha a sweater she’d spent almost a whole year making, having taught herself to knit in order to do it. For my birthday in May, Jimmy had planted me a tree, right outside my bedroom window. (My parents were a little surprised, but they let me keep it.) I wanted to do something just as cool, but the only ideas I had were everybody else’s ideas.

I hoped to find some direction in the mall. The first non-shop we stopped in was a fragrance store, which wasn’t a whole lot of help. They had a scent bar where you could create your own, but I didn’t want him to smell like anything other than his usual mix of shampoo and body heat and spark.

The scent of the season was marshmallow, and Janna spent a good amount of time experimenting with the different kinds before deciding that lightly browned was her favorite. We trailed as she took it to the counter and donated the money she would have spent on it to Habitat for Humanity.

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