Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I Voted!

I woke up at 5:30, showered, got dressed and walked down to the First Baptist Church on the corner. It rained overnight. Cars crashed through puddles as drivers searched for parking on the narrow street. A man fell in step beside me. He was a sixty-ish Latino wearing a heavy black overcoat that was too warm for the 60-degree weather. I remembered him from the February primaries when he stood in line behind me at this same church.

It was 6:20 when we rounded the corner and walked up the front steps of our polling place. There were about fifteen people in line, a motley crew of blacks, Hispanics and whites. Silver-haired grandmothers nursed steaming cups of coffee. Young black women pulled hoods and caps over their heads, trying to shield their straightened tresses from the spitting sky. The man, who introduced himself as Ron, suggested loudly that voters be provided with doughnuts for waking up so early. In fact, when he used to live in Sylmar, his polling place served sausage and eggs for a dollar contribution. I knew it was going to be a long wait. He proceeded to tell unfunny jokes for the next half hour. I laughed weakly. Even as I rummaged in my purse, leafed through my voter's guide and sent text messages to ignore him, he kept punctuating his monologue with one-liners about alcoholic skeletons and pet gnats. Every time someone raised a Starbucks cup to her lips, Ron smacked his own and said, "The least they could do is give us coffee."

Thirty minutes later, an additional fifty or sixty people had congregated along the south wall of the church. It started raining in earnest, and the line — three folks deep — snaked up the patio as voters huddled beneath the awning to stay dry. Ron continued to play stand-up comic to anyone who would pay attention. At this point, I was still the only one. Although I was sleepy and excited, nervous and desperately in need of a bathroom, I listened to him. He talked about the bakery where he used to work, and the business his son planned to open. He talked about past elections, and asked if I were Protestant or Episcopalian. He told me — and everyone in hearing distance — that he was voting for Barack Obama for president. He didn't talk about Obama's foreign or domestic policies, his Ivy League education or his unflappable leadership in times of crisis. Instead, he gestured to the growing crowd of single fathers and UPS drivers and special education teachers and starving artists and said simply, "He brings people together."

The doors opened at 7:00, and Ron and I went our own ways — he to the registration desk and I to the church's tiny restroom in the basement. When I returned to the main floor, the line was moving reverently along, as if people were acknowledging that they were still in a house of worship. A familiar gray-haired man in a heavy overcoat waved me over. "I saved your place," Ron said, pleased with his achievement. Pointing to a box of glazed doughnuts on the table, he said, "Think they'll let me have one? All they can say is no."

My hands trembled as I juggled my water bottle, umbrella, camera and Coach bag. I had packed extra tee-shirts in my purse for any voter caught wearing Obama gear and accused of electioneering. After removing my ballot from the InkaVote machine and asking a worker to take a picture of me posing with my ticket, I glanced around the room. The elderly gentleman was nowhere in sight. I wondered if Ron had managed to snag a sweet roll for the trip home. I searched for him as I walked down the steps of the church. By now, the line of voters overflowed the patio and streamed up to the stop sign on the corner. Strangers smiled at each other or gave the thumbs-up sign to early risers who proudly displayed their "I Voted" stickers. The sun was coming out. A sense of hope replaced the ball of nervousness that roiled in my stomach earlier that morning. Like Ron said, Obama brings people together. Maybe I'll see the garrulous grandfather around the neighborhood and buy him a cup of coffee.