Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election Day USA

Voters in Rockaway, NY     (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The young woman walked up to the closed, dark community center and burst into tears. “Where can I vote?” she said to an older woman standing in the virtually empty parking lot. “This is my first time.”

And so began a conversation among strangers that led to my being asked to drive the young woman to an elementary school across town where the voting districts that usually set up in the community center had been moved in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s swath of destruction across New Jersey. When she came out of the elementary school, the young woman, a high school senior juggling a job at a fast food restaurant and unsure what she wants to do in life, burst into a big smile. “I feel empowered,” she said of her vote.

Hours later, a forlorn figure came striding across the dark parking lot to two people standing by a car. “Where can I vote?” said the well-dressed woman toting a large bag. “I just got off the bus from work.” I dropped her off in front of the school in a far corner of Teaneck, NJ with ten minutes to spare before the polls closed.

Earlier in the day, I gave a ride to two older men speaking Russian and a woman with a Caribbean accent. The neighborhood around the community center is a sometimes uneasy mixture of middle class African-Americans, conservative Orthodox Jews and liberal Manhattan transplants. The most divisive selection on the ballot was perhaps the local school board race, certainly right up there with the contest for president of the US.  

Residents of this suburban neighborhood anxiously coped with the frustrations of leaving a home without electricity—or which had only recently gotten it back after a week without power—to find their polling place closed by the storm. They coped by cooperating with strangers offering directions or a ride to an unfamiliar part of town.

Some who stopped by looking to vote came back from the polls and joined the tiny band of volunteers. “This is the best thing I could do today,” said a tall, distinguished-looking hospital administrator. A former youth league basketball coach, he connected with many of the confused voters by recalling coaching their kids.

The woman with a Caribbean accent returned in her husband’s pickup truck with a magic marker. She was upset that when she had walked over to vote, a sign directed voters to go to Hawthorne Elementary School. “I’m not going to drive to Hawthorne, NJ!” she said angrily. She hand-wrote under the name of the school: “Teaneck.”

And then she settled in to spend the rest of the day helping reassure voters anxious about gasoline supplies that they didn’t have to drive to a polling place in a distant town in the next county. Hour after hour, she greeted confused drivers and walkers, handing out copies of Google map directions and organizing car pools to the school. “I’m a state supervisor,” she said, referring to her job as a medical supervisor at a state retirement home for military veterans. “I feel this is what I should be doing today.”

Meanwhile, my partner alternated greeting lost voters and calling election and municipal officials on her cell phone for assistance. She pressed the municipal manager to provide copies of map directions and an emergency light for the parking lot when evening approached. A DPW worker stopped by, assessed the situation and said he’d see what could be done. Two National Guard trucks arrived and their crews unloaded boxes of emergency shelter beds. “That’s for the next storm,” someone said, referring to the Nor’easter predicted to whip in off the ocean on top of the hurricane damage.

Shortly before sunset, the municipal manager strode out of the building and announced that the lights had been restored. Then the municipal workers and the National Guard drove off.

The parking lot grew dark and lonely, even with the newly restored lights. A woman who had stopped by earlier in the day drove in and parked. “I’m back to help,” she said. As they waited for voters to swing in and abruptly stop, stunned to see the community center closed, the latest volunteer and my partner suddenly started whooping. They discovered they had both been at the same New York City public school years ago, as a teacher and student in another class.    

A car drove in. The driver was a college student still wearing his cooking uniform from a culinary institute up the Hudson River. “Hurry up,” my partner said, giving directions to the school. “You can still make it to vote.” 


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