Strange Days

November 12, 2000

Ron and I very much enjoy the ten o’clock dramas such as Law and Order, Third Watch, NYPD Blue. When we can’t watch them as they are broadcast, we tape them for later, which is what we did on Monday the sixth with Third Watch. It was last night before we got around to sitting down with it. As I flashed forward through the “junk matter,” which on that night consisted mainly of political ads and promos for election coverage, I suddenly had a sense that I was looking at the world “before” — before the presidential election, before the called and recalled results, before the questions, before the recount. I was looking at the world while it still made sense.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, of course. My world has not been turned upside down, and very likely little will change dramatically for me no matter what the eventual outcome. But despite my sense of adventure and my willingness to change plans suddenly should an attractive opportunity present itself, I don’t like uncertainty. In other words, though I voted for Al Gore, I’d like somebody declared the winner so we can make decisions and move on with our lives.

I’m a voter, and I vote in almost every election, even local ones, whether I think I can make a difference or not. My earliest memory of voting is of walking with my parents up Camp Street one block to a storefront on Sixth where I got yelled at by an election official for crawling under the curtain of the booth where my mother was. This was probably 1956, and I remember they used paper ballots. My mother took a long time to make her selections, and my father called out to her to hurry on about it, and when she came out of the booth she glared at him. “I have to be sure,” she said before folding her page and shoving it through a slot in a big wooden box.

In 1960 I was thirteen, and John F. Kennedy, Catholic, Irish, member of a huge noisy family such as I longed for, was a very romantic figure to me. He’d gone past my school, standing up in an open convertible, on his way to a political dinner at the Farm Show building, and I was convinced that he’d looked to the right and waved to me alone. What I didn’t understand then was all the concern about how young he was. He was 43, for heaven’s sake, the same as my father.

I voted for the first time in 1968, when I was twenty-one. Lowering the voting age to eighteen had been the official debate league topic my senior year in high school, and the law would change a few years later. In any case, I would have still been too young for Johnson/Goldwater in 1964. Nevertheless, that is the first election in which I was aware of the issues involved, one of them the sending of young American soldiers to fight in an internal struggle in a country we’d never even looked at in tenth grade World History. (Please note also that some of my classmates and I are among the few who can instantly recall the name of Barry Goldwater’s running mate. It was William Miller, and we remember that because our literary magazine advisor was engaged to a man by that name.)

I turned twenty-one in March of 1968, and I remember the summer afternoon when my father took me downtown to register to vote and, in the same trip, apply for my Liquor Control Board identification card. He said I couldn’t have the LCB card until I had registered to vote.

I have voted in every presidential election since then, usually voting Democratic, except in 1980, the Carter/Reagan year, when I voted for the “alternative candidate,” John Anderson, although I can’t remember now why. I vote in most of the off-year local elections, often splitting my ticket. A state representative, Ron Marsico, is a high school classmate whom I respect, and if I lived in his district I’d vote for him even though he’s a Republican. And sometimes I have completely frivolous reasons for choosing a particular candidate. I voted for our incumbent state treasurer Barbara Hafer, a Republican, because she and her staff have been nice to my daughter. (She won, in a “too close to call” nailbiter that wasn’t decided until Thursday).

Lynn was in first grade in 1992 when Bill Clinton ran against George Bush the elder. The day before the election she announced at dinner, “I think George Bush should be the president.” We asked her why. “Well, his wife is very nice. She helps kids learn how to read.” I figured this was as good a reason as anybody else had to vote for anybody. As a ninth grader now she’s somewhat influenced by peers and a desire to be “cool,” so last week she began talking about Ralph Nader. I had to tell her that he didn’t have a wife at all.

As I write, things are still unsettled. Today on CNN I heard all about the “chads,” the name for the bits of paper that become detached from a punch card. The word has been in use since 1947, and is thought to come from a Scandinavian word for gravel. Ron says that in his early days in data processing he heard this debris called “chaff,” which he now thinks was a mishearing of the actual term but which makes sense to those of us influenced by our Pennsylvania farm culture.

And as with any extraordinary event, I look at the people who are called upon to explain and comment nearly endlessly, the poll supervisors and election officials and party leaders who expect to be very busy for only a short time, and wonder what they’d be doing today if they weren’t doing this.