There is a thud coming from behind the bathroom door of the luxury tour bus -- boom, boom, boom -- then, seconds later, a tiny voice. "Hey, I can't get out of here. I'm stuck. Let me out!"
It's Alfre Woodard, movie star and celebrity activist for John Kerry. The Congressional Black Caucus and the Democratic National Committee bus tour through Florida has barely rolled a mile, and already there's a glitch.
Up pops a spokesman for the DNC. He trots down the carpeted aisle to rescue Woodard. Face straining against the marbled gray door, he says, "I . . . can't . . . get . . . it."
Art Collins, a strategist for the Kerry campaign, looking poised in his regal blue pinstripe suit and silver tie, puts a finger to his head and thinks the situation through. "Someone get the driver," he says.
Like the voting booth, a bathroom of about the same size can be hard to negotiate. With driver George Turnipseed's help, Woodard is freed, and she goes on to star at campaign rallies at the University of Florida in Gainesville, at a black church and school in Jacksonville and a dinner party with ministers in Orlando during the tour, which ended in Fort Lauderdale yesterday.
There is urgency in the rallies, desperation even. There were speeches that could be summed up in a few sentences. Get out and vote! Don't let the Florida voter fiasco deter you! Don't be intimidated! Bring your voter registration! Bring a photo ID!
But on the bus, the mood is less urgent. At times, it's tranquil. At others, it's downright hilarious.
Woodard is joined by James McDaniel, who played the square-jawed lieutenant on the cop show "NYPD Blue," and much later, Victoria Rowell, a drop-dead-gorgeous soap opera star from "The Young and the Restless."
The tour is a get-out-the-vote effort by Democrats who know that to win Florida, Kerry needs the 9 out of 10 votes that African Americans usually cast for the party's nominee. Two big red buses are emblazoned with the words "Election Protection," but inside they say the real name should be the "Scene of the Crime" tour, reflecting their belief that the 2000 presidential election was stolen, allowing Geroge W. Bush to defeat Al Gore because tens of thousands of votes weren't counted.
Like everyone else on this tour, Woodard is roughing it a bit. In Tallahassee, she stayed at the Ramada Inn, the same hotel where CBC spokeswoman Candice Tolliver says she walked into her assigned room for the first time Thursday night and found the bed unmade and used towels strewn about the floor.
The next day, Woodard says, "It's better to be here than riding around in my car listening to Usher or somebody."
She's released from the bus bathroom in the nick of time, because she's needed at a hastily formed news conference that CBC members set up in the lobby of the Florida secretary of state's office. The secretary, Glenda Hood, is not there, which is one of the problems.
Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) says that when she told Hood's staff that caucus members would stop by, she was told that Hood would be traveling. What about her deputy? He's on a conference call, Brown says she was told. What about another ranking official? They're all on conference calls, Brown says.
In Brown's district, which covers part of Jacksonville, 27,000 votes were discarded in the 2000 election. She is shaking when she declares this at the news conference.
"We need to educate the voter on how to vote," she says, implying, perhaps unfairly, that the secretary of state has not. She says that when she went to vote in 2002, she was told she could not. "I was in a tight race," she says. Then she takes the obligatory shot at President Bush, the first of many that Friday. "I am scared to death," she says. "I know what four more years of George Bush will do to my people."
The tour bus is rolling along Interstate 10 when Leslie Dixon, wife of Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), hears the comments of Peter Kirsanow, a black conservative who sits on the Commission on Civil Rights. All this talk about voter intimidation, suppression and disenfranchisement is just more hogwash from the Democrats, he says.
"We don't have to make this stuff up," Dixon says. "It's happening. I was born in 1965. I feel like I'm back in the day." She's talking about the days of Jim Crow, when African Americans were brazenly -- and legally -- denied the right to vote. Across the aisle, Woodard is trying to nap. She pulls a blue silk sleep mask over her large brown eyes and curls up on a seat. Her bare, pink-nailed feet stick out from under the silk wrap she's using as a blanket, bathed in a dollop of sunlight that finds its way through a window.
She traveled for the Gore campaign in 2000 with fellow actors Charlie Sheen and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
When she wakes up, Woodard explains why she's politically active.
"I have been involved in the social life of my community since I was 9 years old," she says. "People are just noticing what I'm doing now because I'm a celebrity."
McDaniel is finished beguiling the Democrats and a few staff members with stories about the "NYPD Blue" set. He climbs a short flight of stairs and sits near the upper windshield of the bus.
He can't get a previous stop in Quincy out of his head. "Last night I couldn't shut my brain off," he says. "I tossed and turned. When we were in the Florida panhandle, we were told that towns were spread 25 to 30 miles apart because that's the maximum distance a black man could walk with goods on his back."
That's one reason why, he says, the tour "has given more to me than I've given to it. I'm the one who's learning."
The buses load up and lumber along the interstate toward Jacksonville. It's about 7:30, and the bus is finding its way to Edward Waters College through dark streets.
There are drums in the distance, and when the bus door opens, a purple-clad marching band turns a corner of the school's administration building, complete with flag bearers and drum majors and majorettes. They high-step directly to the bus, a whistle blows three times, horns start blaring and the majorettes begin to get down. Way down. To the ground.
The air is chilly when Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) starts introducing the celebrities. "We have two of America's finest actors here!" She starts with Woodard. "This is a serious sista right here. She was in 'Love & Basketball,' 'Miss Evers' Boys' and 'Star Trek.' Here she is, Alfre Woodard!"
Kerry-Edwards placards held by an audience of about 200 slice the air. They were cheering already, but the star power makes them cheer harder. "We love you, Alfre," a student cries out.
Woodard says the music "was slammin'." And then she takes a shot at the majorettes that only a black woman would dare take, a sort of loving jab.
"You sistas can drop it like it's hot," she says. "I just hope your academics are as good as your booty shakin'."
The audience of mostly students guffaws.
Finally, she breaks into song. "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around," from the polls, she means. Everyone sings along, frosty breath billowing in the night air. Suddenly, she changes the verse. "Ain't gonna let Dick Cheney turn me around."
Victoria Rowell is still in the air during the singing. She had flown from Los Angeles to Sacramento to Detroit and back to L.A. to be on the set. She finally hopped a redeye to Jacksonville from Los Angeles on Friday, arriving the next day.
Rowell is wearing designer clothes and four-inch black pumps. "I will suffer for fashion," she says. "I made a conscious decision to wear heels and pearls and a hat. I not only want to speak the words but dress the part. I want to be the best I can be when I step in front of these people."
After a stop at the Duval County election supervisor's office, the buses start loading for Orlando and Central Florida, but there's one stop Rep. Brown wants to make before steaming out of Jacksonville, her home turf. It is a shopping trip, women only. Within minutes, the bus pulls into the barren parking lot of a mostly boarded-up strip mall. There's one exception, Phil's Discount Ladies Shoes. Brown says she's shopped there for 20 years.
Phil's is a store with catacombs of footwear, from what looks like a mix between the Designer Shoe Warehouse and Payless. It's safe to say that celebrities who've earned millions of dollars would not be likely to shop there. Woodard emerges from the store empty-handed.
Three hours later, Orlando appears on the horizon, the last leg before the trip moves to South Florida. A few miles from the hotel, the second bus, a jalopy in which the staff rides, breaks down in the middle of the street. It is a conservative stronghold, and staff members are forced to walk to the larger bus, belongings in tow. Not a good moment.
But soon everyone has piled on and the bus chugs into gear. It's quiet. Folks are tired. On cue, Woodard's eyes brighten, she has an idea to lift their spirits. "Let's play a game," she says, and so it begins, celebrities, politicians and their staffs shouting the names of cities from around the globe.
It wasn't until the very end that someone mentioned the city that's the ultimate focus of all their efforts: Washington, D.C.