Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Yes We Did.

It was at 11:07, give or take a minute, when I was blindsided by what flirted with becoming a full-blown crying jag. CNN had called the election, as we knew it would at 11PM and the west coast poll closures enabled the networks to say what we already new. I never saw the strength of my emotional response coming.

Sure, fatigue played a factor: working the polls from 6:30 until they sealed the machines on 4 hours sleep will do that.

But there I was: friends en route to the street to celebrate, me on my way home to rest up for a week that just. won't. quit -- but only after drinking another beer, watching Obama's speech, writing this post. Alone with my thoughts, leaking the occasional tear.

Today was Cliff and Renee, Kevin and Chazz, and Bill and Emily, people who will never read this; 10-15, 10-1 and Crafton; 10-17, 11-2, 11-4 -- Hell, even C and his Mom, the erstwhile and bitter McCain operatives who perked up at 5, out of nowhere, to deliver an impetuous and inept last gasp voter suppression effort to spice up the end of the day, after sitting quietly by for most of the day.

Poll-watching was a lot of things, but very little of what I expected. In the predominantly black neighborhoods to which I was assigned, I saw less dramatic affirmations than I expected. What I did see, however, was a dogged determination to overcome the petty obstacles, logistic and human, facing new voters, undereducated voters, forgotten voters, a will to vote, to speak to the world and be heard.

Kevin and Chazz are my neighbors, it turns out, who I had the good fortune to bump into when, on my way between poll assignments, at my own voting location in the Tenth Ward. The location lacked a McCain operative, and lacked an Obama observer, forgotten in a funeral home, having failed to turn up on either camp's priority list, small, inconsequential, a lost cause and a given, respectively.

But as I stood behind the machine contemplating my vote, wondering whether, observer credential hung around my neck, I could get away with sneaking a photo of my checkmark beside the name Obama, Kevin and Chazz, clad in ghetto chic, were being gently urged toward provisional ballots by the Judge of Elections.

I forgot about my photo, made some noise, held up my credential above the machine, and said "Just hold that thought and give me a sec." If training had given me nothing else, it had imbued me with a visceral aversion to the very phrase, "provisional ballot." Here were two would-be voters, I understood, who were being pleasantly invited to render themselves irrelevant by well-intentioned but parochial bureaucrats.

I finalized my vote, and immediately offered the two gentleman a ride to wherever they needed to go, wherever they were registered. They accepted and it wasn't until we hit the street that I learned that they last had lived in Crafton, well past the West End Bridge. Taking them to their polling station would take me nearly an hour off plan, and there remained the chance that they would not be permitted to vote there, as well, voter registration being, as it is, an imperfect process.

From Lawrenceville to Sixteenth Street, making my apologies, I never got off the phone, in short order receiving an update from a fellow volunteer in Butler County, addressing a non-volunteer friend's observed problems at the West Penn Hospital's polling location, and contacting my own people to update them on my status, all while driving erratically amidst brilliant Indian Summer sunshine.

And then the phone was silent, and so was I, these two young men implacable, wary, as, I'm sure, was I to them. Then: faltering discussion of how best to reach our destination, of my role as a poll observer, of their recent move to Lawrenceville. We negotiated the new direct ramp from Route 28 to Ohio River Boulevard and the West End Bridge, me again on the phone.

Across the river on Carson St., the conversation turned to politics, to Obama, to our respective convictions and hopes. Kevin, in the passenger seat, did most of the talking. He didn't talk about race. Or history. Or the democratic party as such. He talked about affirmations versus denigrations, promises over impetuousness, the failures of the last eight years.

Words seem so small; I can't convey what I mean.

While Kevin and Chazz voted, I worked the phone, tidying loose ends. Then, I drove my new friends home, and headed to my new precinct, where I had been reassigned when I called headquarters to indicate that two lawyers was one too many at my original location, given the modesty of the rolls, the proficiency of the poll workers, and the absence, in the 10-15, of a Republican presence.

In the 10-2 I found new friends, whose names, alas, mostly didn't stick. In the ensuing afternoon and evening, I and the other Obama observers helped dozens of voters find their polling locations, driving more than a few here or there. We called in our share of numbers to headquarters, and problems. We learned how unprecendedented turnout was, and negotated drunks, the stubborn, and the fatally cynical, the silent protest of a man whose placard was so incomprehensible as to defy classification as "electioneering." Meanwhile, two McCain monitors mostly kept to themselves, mourning, I imagine, the inevitably of tonight's result, resenting the lack of debilitating strictures placed on poor, uneducated voters with the temerity not to be convinced by McCain's paper thin solutions (and outrageous and criminal robocalls designed to minimize the vote), their efforts vacillating with little warning between lackluster and occasionally concerted.

Meanwhile, I and the other Obama observers worked the tables to identify and direct the electorate's lost souls, got to know the neutral observers lurking helpfully outside the door, brought coffee to the pollsters, won some battles, lost a few. We watched our phone batteries fade, shared stories heard here or there, basked in the sun, and in the mostly understated but palpable reverence surrounding poor, black voters cast their never-more-relevant ballots for this country's first black president. And all was suffused with the mechanics of the job, and the imperative to do everything possible to ensure that every desirous and legitimate vote was cast, for whatever party.

I had anticipated outsized drama, weeping voters, triumphal displays, but what I saw was sanguinity, perhaps crossbred with well-founded skepticism and more than a little genuine doubt.

In one short day, the stories are too numerous to recount, and I hesitate to dwell on the particular conflicts and resolutions, the petty, inevitably human interludes that revealed the exhaustion and the tension; on D, worrying her nails as she recounted to me her lost son and hinted at her deep fear that this wouldn't go as it should, while we waited for the machines to shut down and the final data to emerge, the results of which were as predictable as the larger context was uknown.

In his accpetance speech, which I watrched in bed, this computer yawning before me, Obama paid tribute "[t]o the best campaign ever assembled in politics," and I shivered with a new round of quiet tears. My role in this has been small bordering on trivial: I've given quite a bit of money, as it is my privilege to be able to do this year, and I have done what I can to bring other money to the table, and people. I have tapped my network more shamelessly than I ever have done before, with gratifying results. I have learned election law, and mostly stood around while the time-worn process lumbers through its familiar choreography, emboldened with my new training, humbled by its essential irrelevance.

I have listened to a pollworker at the 10-18 recall the round-the-block lines for Jesse Jackson in the 1984 primary, and heard precinct after precinct report higher turnout numbers than anyone can remember. I have seen the frustrated and the earnest and the disturbed seek to exercise their franchise, and I have seen the frustrated and the earnest and the disturbed seek to disenfranchise those of whose legal votes they do not approve. I have learned why one charms the people one is thrown at, who do not need you, instead of ignoring them; and I have been reminded that the friendly fare far better than the aloof.

And then fourteen hours were gone, feet aching, eyes pink and raw, and it was hugs, and promises to return, and I will. Whether I volunteer or not, I will visit my girls at the 10-2, who welcomed me and all other comers, who ran a fair and open election in a forgotten part of this city and of the world, and who, I hope, are dancing in the streets right now somewhere among friends who never thought this would happen: that the smartest, most charismatic, most dynamic and promising politician to emerger in a generation or more has been chosen over the man who promised only what has already proven ineffectual.

And he is black. The ground shifts under our feat. Gloriously.

I will remember my conversation with my brother, the elementary school teacher with a passel of black second and third graders in his charge, with whom I discussed what a black president would mean to the black children who will grow up, hopefully for eight critical years.

And I will remember this: Chazz cast his first presidential vote for Obama, and he and his big brother Kevin are my new friends on the block, demographically diametrical, but politically of one shared persuasion, bound by an Indian Summer drive, and our common hope for much better days.

And I will not dwell on the fundamental inadequacy of this post to convey all that I am thinking, my eyes raw from that initial, surprising squall of tears, and those that followed intermittently all the way home and through the acceptance speech.

I will simply say: I have never been more proud to be an American, never more proud to serve in my trivial way, never more hopeful.

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