The polls would close in two hours and here he was, mayoral candidate C. Jack Ellis, banging on doors in the projects.
In what may well have been the final hours of his political life, the former two-term mayor wasn’t going down without a flurry of handshakes and vote-for-me pleas.
Ellis, in an untucked red polo, slate suit pants and black Calvin Klein lace-ups, hoofed through Tindall Heights.
At an apartment on Elizabeth Street, south across Little Richard Penniman Boulevard from the Mercer University campus, Ellis rapped on a door in Building 100.
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It was 5 p.m. Tuesday, and if Ellis, 67, was to upset Robert Reichert, he figured the five dozen or so flat-roofed, boxy rectangles of public housing might be his salvation.
Knock, knock, knock.
A woman with two little boys cracked open her door.
“Have you voted already?” Ellis asked.
“Thank you so much,” the candidate said.
“I actually voted for Reichert,” the woman said.
“That’s OK,” Ellis told her. “That’s fine, as long as you voted.”
“Good luck to you,” the woman said.
“Well God bless you.”
A carload of young people cruised up on Elizabeth.
“Call all your friends now on Facebook and tell them to go vote,” Ellis said. “They have two hours.”
‘I don’t aim to vote’
Every so often, the scavenging paid off. Someone who hadn’t voted and wanted to would happen by and Ellis would call a car to give the person a lift to the polls.
He banged on door after door.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Jack Ellis, how you doing?” he said through one door. “Hope I didn’t wake you up, but then I’m glad I woke you up if you haven’t voted.”
The door edged open.
“Have you voted already?”
“No, I don’t aim to vote,” a man said.
“You don’t vote? God bless you.”
On Nussbaum Avenue, not far from the Mercer soccer field, Ellis squatted in front of a little girl, a second-grader. “Hey, sweetheart, how are you? Give me a hug,” he said. “I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m Jack Ellis.”
A Tindall Heights resident pointed the candidate toward a woman named Louise Enos’ apartment in Building 14, a guacamole-green, six-dwelling unit. A red Ellis campaign sign was propped by her front door atop an air conditioner.
“Hey, there’s a smart person right here,” Ellis said, tapping four times, then three more before Enos answered.
“Miss Louise,” Ellis said through the door, “I just want to shake your hand and maybe give you a hug and a kiss.”
When Enos, 70, opened up, Ellis gave her a smooch.
“Call all your sons and daughters,” he said, “tell them to go vote.”
‘I’m a convicted felon’
The candidate’s reception was something of a homecoming.
His folks had lived on nearby Alabama Street.
He wasn’t like a lot of political candidates in those parts.
People knew who he was.
He was a solicitor who didn’t get doors slammed in his face.
He was celebrity, sage and motivational speaker.
A man in Building 14 who works at Krystal told Ellis, “I can’t vote, I’m a convicted felon.”
“I understand,” Ellis said, “you’ll get it together.”
It was remarkable how many people knew him, or at least knew people who do.
Striding up Henrietta Street, five or so blocks southwest of downtown, he happened upon a woman who’d been living there nine years. Decaying houses had, back when he was in office, been bulldozed. New ones replaced them.
The woman, Tabitha Daniels, called her place “the house that Jack built.”
“And we’re trying to get you back in office,” Daniels said.
Ellis recruited her to drive one of her neighbors, a 60-year-old woman, to vote. Ellis told the 60-year-old all she needed was her driver’s license “and a willing heart.”
Not far away, a man watched the frenzy of politicking and the stir it kicked up as the 6 o’clock hour closed in. The man said he’d voted for Ellis’ opponent.
Out of Ellis’ earshot, the fellow said he preferred Reichert’s morals. The fellow said this while a man beside him rolled what looked and smelled like a marijuana cigarette.
A Toyota Corolla with an electric guitar and a Bible in the rear-window ledge eased up. “We did early voting,” someone inside said to Ellis. “Everything’s gonna be all right. Win again.”
The candidate’s impromptu exchanges with strangers whose votes he requested were rare transactions, ones in which the strangers themselves could play the role of politician.
“Did you vote?”
There was no way to know if they were telling the truth.
As he walked past the Life of Jesus Apostolic Christian Center on Nussbaum, Ellis figured some surely were not.
But what could he do?
“You can’t stick a thermometer in their mouth ... and see if they’re lying or not,” he said.
It was dinnertime in Tindall Heights.
Men, women and children lounged on stoops. Ribs and pork chops grilled. Smoke fogged the yard between apartment buildings at Curd Street.
An old man with a 40-ounce Icehouse at his feet -- a drink he said wasn’t his -- said he either couldn’t vote or wouldn’t vote or wasn’t sure if he could.
“I can’t win this race without your vote,” Ellis told him. “Don’t let me lose by one vote.”
More than once, Ellis offered to stay with children while their parents went to the polls.
After Ellis ambled by Building 23, a young man cussed and said, “I can’t even vote.”
Another guy, 23, informed Ellis that he’d been charged with aggravated assault after a fistfight.
“Go to college, go to trade school,” Ellis said. “Make something out of your life.”
Up the way at Building 25, Sally Talton, 74, told the candidate, “If I didn’t vote, my mama and my daddy would be turning over in their graves.”
Later, before knocking on a final stretch of doors, Ellis said his last-ditch tries to drum up support felt almost sacred.
“Very humbling,” he said.
He was there, he said, for two reasons -- to connect with folks and for “sheer politics.”
“I can get more people to vote in two buildings here than I can in 10 miles in other parts of the city,” Ellis said. “You have to do what you have to do.”
Hymns echoed from a service up the street at Greater Rising Star Full Gospel Tabernacle.
A girl, a third-grader, in the middle of her math homework trotted over, workbook in hand, to get her picture taken with Ellis.
Meanwhile, his campaign crew was trying to hustle one last voter to the polls.
The clock was ticking.
They had to hurry.
Then an ice cream truck rolled up.
Half a dozen or so children scrambled toward it. Some were crying.
They didn’t have any money. The polls could wait.
In the end, Ellis would fall about 10,000 votes short.
But all was not lost.
Not there in Tindall Heights on Election Day 2013.
C. Jack Ellis bought them ice cream.
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.