For the past four weeks, I've been approaching people in Middletown and asking them to sign a petition to support a referendum question to appoint acting Police Chief Pat McMahon as permanent chief.
It's been a civics lesson.
I've learned a lot about how people feel about politics in town. And I've learned a lot about people.
I've learned how exhausting it is to explain, over and over again, what the petition is about. But I've been surprised how many people are eager to sign once they've heard the explanation. In five weeks, we've collected 1,500 signatures (600 to go before September 8).
And most people are willing to listen. However, this weekend there seemed to be more than the usual share of people who were reluctant to stop.
In general, my unscientific, and purely anecdotal conclusions, after spending many hours standing outside the local grocery store and soliciting signatures are these:
Men, 30-50 are the most likely to rush by, put a hand up and shout something like, "I'm in a hurry," or "I'm too busy," or "I'm not interested."
Women 25-35 are second most likely to do the same.
I wonder what the hurry might be on a hot Sunday afternoon. I got a legitimate answer from one young mom who held up her shopping bag.
"Popsicles," she said.
About half the people who shop at Stop and Shop are not from Middletown. Maybe five percent of those who claim they live elsewhere actually live in town but don't want to stop. How do I know this? The man who answered my "Do you live in Middletown?" question with a "no," was challenged by his five-year old son who said: "What do you mean we don't live in Middletown? Yes, we do."
And the woman who also answered "no" was followed out of the store by another woman who said: "She lives here. I know her."
Men in their 50s are most likely to have their antenna bent way out of shape by conservative talk radio. These are followed by women of the same age.
"We've got to get rid of politicians like you," one man said as he walked briskly away.
"Illegals are ruining this country," said a woman as she signed the petition. "They're trying to take it over."
"They already have," I assured her. "We're a nation of immigrants, and as far as I can see we don't have many Native American leaders."
She crossed her name off the petition.
Women over 50, of which there are many at the supermarket on a weekend, are polite and receptive. African American men and women of all ages have been uniformally polite, receptive and eager to sign.
In general, I've come away with the notion that we, as a people, have hobbled ourselves with cynicism. We think there's nothing "we" can do about "they" who are in power. But there are still a few of us who know we can make a difference.
"I tell people you can't bitch unless you vote," one woman signee said after seeing a disgruntled fellow resident walk away muttering "it won't make a difference."
If it's going to get better, we've all got to believe that what we do can make a difference.