Monday, November 13, 2000

The Day I Became an Old "Man"

It's an astounding mandate and the people have clearly spoken. In a country where a dead guy can get elected senator and where fickle out-of-towners can calculatingly select the stepping stone state they're gonna represent in Congress, Y2K voters have sent an explicit message. And I got to bear witness to the ringing clarion call from the front lines.

Of course the overriding issue this year was the ever widening gap between the haves and the have nots. I was given an underscoring reminder of this a couple of weeks ago when I attended a seminar at the St. Paul Hotel. As I entered the posh lobby I headed straight for the men's room where I literally saw something I had never seen before. Inside each one of the urinals was a substantial pile of ice. I thought perhaps a party had ended and they had extra ice they needed to get rid of. But when I returned to the men's room around noon I saw a gentleman refreshing the ice piles in the urinals (how do I go about getting that gig?). Not everyone can afford to stay in a place so fancy that along with its wonderful truffles it is able to afford to keep their urinals so cool and fresh.

Meanwhile there are others out there struggling to make a difference in their community. Waking up at four in the blessed a.m. on Election Day with a solid three hours of sleep I braced myself against my kitchen counter shivering as I impatiently waited for the automatic drip coffee machine to drip its last drop. With thoughts of the saving Social Security and Medicare drug payment debates swirling in my head I began whipping up a batch of scrambled eggs to go along with my onion bagel. I knew it was going to be my last meal of the day and I could just sense that something big was about to happen. I tried analyzing the chances of it being a successful day- and those chances seemed about as remote as the Vikings losing a game on an implausible ping pong pinball bumper pass. The best I could do was minimize the stress- it was going to be present no matter what I did. Like a good baseball umpire or basketball referee I knew the best job I could do was to remain as unnoticeable as possible.

I opened the door into the dark and the brisk nip of the changing air stung my nostrils. I meandered out to my newly hubcapped car and headed off to a destination somewhat unknown. It wasn't so much a sense of civic duty that called my name, rather it was a self challenge- a test to see just what these bones are still capable of doing. Greeted in the ungodly early morning black stillness by a group most of who probably cast their first Presidential vote for Herbert Hoover, I tried my best to fake an air of authority. I knew not what I was doing but these people didn't need, or didn't want to know that. I'm willing to wager that I was the only one in the group who had watched with a wide goofy grin Madonna's Friday appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. Looking a little older than the last time I'd seen her (I heard being a mother can do that) she did a wonderfully heartfelt beginner's acoustic version of "Don't Tell Me" from her brilliant new CD. It was poetic in a nonlyrical sort of way.

As my peers and I began setting up the polling place, the uneasiness in my stomach was a constant companion, my unrelenting pal. As the clock struck seven I opened the doors to a horde of anxious looking voters. The stream of people was steady until well past ten, and picked up again once the noon hour began.

I spent much of the day registering new voters so I got to be the fortunate one to turn away those without the proper identifying documentation or those in the wrong precinct. I found a belligerent few who found it difficult to abide with the decisions of an official official. They didn't believe I wasn't making up stuff on the fly but actually attempting to follow the state's complex election laws. One young woman was particularly incredulous that I wouldn't allow her to vote without properly proving she lived in the precinct. Her desire to vote was admirable but I was not going to commit a felony and allow her to commit one too. Later in the evening she returned with a current utility bill along with an old driver's license and I registered her. She walked away from my table defiantly as if she had somehow gotten the best of me. Actually I was glad that she was able to vote.

Sitting in an old church basement with a group of concerned citizens, one almost feels the obligation to be social. Perhaps this was what I had feared most- having to actually converse with people. But I was at my absolute irrelevant best. From out of nowhere the old self came out of the shadows like the groundhog and the ever leaky confidence was bolstered if only for a short while. Those struggling to fill out their voter registration cards got to hear the gentle chiding classic- "This isn't a quiz you know." Boy I got a lot of mileage out of that one. The perplexed look on the face of one young gentleman who had come in slightly frazzled and who sat staring into space trying to figure out what school district he lived in elicited from me the ultra funny (at least he thought so)- "Would you like to use a lifeline?" I was dipping into my "A" material big time.

My somewhat forgotten and disappearing demeanor reminded me of a friend who once said she enjoyed talking to me because she learned something every time she did. It remains perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me (well in the top two anyway) although it has since proven to be a false impression. (Enjoy? Talk? Learn?) Maybe it truly is the dawning of a new era in America, an era where even the scarred can be quite adept at the art of small talk. I guess you automatically get good at it when that's all you have been able to do for the past year.

At eight o'clock I dragged in the flag and shut the doors. We scrambled to tally the votes, reconcile the number of signatures on the roster with the ballot receipts and the number of ballots issued. Several of my peers looked more than a little worn out and weary, like battered graduates of the Electoral College. I myself found it difficult to do simple arithmetic. I was able to add up this however- I had actually enjoyed myself. I enjoyed witnessing and participating in the process. It was reassuring to see so many people cared, so many people who thought it all mattered. The loyal crew and I stumbled out into the ice and snow congratulating each other that we had survived an eventful day. We had crossed party lines, age differences and had bonded in a common goal.

As we parted ways they headed towards their homes and their normal lives. Forever changed, I was tempted to get in my car and drive a long ways away. There was an urge to trade in my Honda in exchange for a big Caddie. I wanted to head to a similar place where I can at last cozily fit in- to the land where I can be around such a fine group of peers all the time, a place that on this particular night made all the difference in the world- sunny retiring Florida. With a knick knack paddy wack I may have finally found the role I was born to play- the old cranky geezer.

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