Thursday, February 07, 2008

Election Day Memories

I went after class Tuesday and voted. My polling place in in the gym building for Queen of Angels, a parochial school near my home. I always chuckle when I vote, because it's also next door to a bar.

In Chicago, after you vote, you get a little ticket indicating that you voted. Back in the day, when the old hacks and ward heelers held more sway than they do today, you could take the ticket down to certain bars and get a drink with it.

I was reminded of an election day twenty years ago, and how the late Alderman Kathy Osterman became one of my favorite people.

Back in 1987, I was living in Chicago's Edgewater with Chris, a friend and former co-worker. I was working as a waiter at a northside Chicago restaurant. At some point I got some kind of notion of civic duty, and decided to try my hand at being an election judge. I went down to city hall to talk to someone about it and learned that they would pay me extra money to be a judge at a polling place that they had trouble placing people. In addition, they'd pay me an extra $25 if I would be the one who brought the ballots. I was in. I think my total pay was to be $140-- not a small amount of money for a single struggling guy not long out of college back in 1987.

I was given the address of my polling place, an address on North Sheridan Road, among the high-rises along that stretch. I was curious as to why they would have trouble getting judges in that area. While parts of that area were a little rough around the edges, it wasn't particularly dangerous.

I took the bus one day to the address to pick up the ballots. Back then, I didn't own a car, so I had to take three buses to and back from the place on the northwest side of Chicago that I picked the ballots up.

I had to work the night before the election. I ended up closing with Deb, a work friend of mine.

My friendship with Deb was funny. She was a very pretty lesbian whom nature had endowed with some assets that most men became quite agog at. She told me funny stories about walking up to take orders from couples on dates, and the men would become fixated at her "assets." She would, she told me, look down, ask if she'd spilled something there, and walk away as the man's face turned shades of crimson.

The night before Election Day, Deb and I ended up hanging out, tippling and talking until the wee hours. Since I had to be at the designated polling place by 5:30 A.M., I had the notion that it would just be better if I pulled an all-nighter and went there. These are the kinds of decisions people in their twenties make. One would think that I would have learned from my experiences using that strategy with college finals, but sometimes we learn slowly.

I parted with Deb and went home. I had a choice; to sleep 45 minute and go to the polling place or to stay awake and go. Since I feared that I wouldn't wake up in time if I took a nap, I chose to stay up.

The sun was just peeking over Lake Michigan, clutching the metal box with the ballots, I walked over to Sheridan Road, turned north and walked the few blocks up to the address I'd been assigned.

As I walked in, I found that the building was an assisted living facility. I was later to discover that this was why they had so much trouble getting election judges to return; a very high percentage of the people living there needed assistance in voting. While a voter could have anyone they wanted help him or her, it had to be under the supervision of both a Democratic and Republican election judge. It was about to become a very busy-- and long-- day.

The rest of the judges were a motley crew. A cranky old guy, the kindly older Jewish lady, a friendly middle aged African-American guy. I was, at 26, by far the youngest of them. And the only one who spoke any Spanish, learned mostly from working in restaurants and from the woman I was dating at the time, who was Latina.

As the day wore on, I learned a lot, as I went along, about Illinois election law. And I began to regret having not gotten any sleep the night before. Because so many of the people in that building and precinct were elderly or infirm, we were pretty much constantly helping people vote.

I also began to regret not having eaten breakfast. I had assumed that there would be a place nearby that I could get a sandwich and some pop, a typical breakfast for me those days. There was not. As the morning wore on, I began to become more tired, more hungry, more caffeine-deprived and more irritable.

At one point, we had a voter who spoke almost no English. One of the judges jumped up and started speaking to her in what he must have thought was his version of Spanish. I politely waved him off and started helping the lady until another voter who spoke Spanish fluently offered to help. It was going to be, I realized, a long, long day.

A while later, there was a flurry of activity. I turned to see what the commotion was. It turned out that the Alderman had arrived for a visit.

The Alderman, or Alderwoman, to be exact, of that ward was a newly elected flamboyant woman named Kathy Osterman. She was very much the Chicago politician. Gregarious, connected, dishing out favors and help to her constituents, she presided over an area of Chicago that was in a strange period. It was not quite a slum, but not quite fancy. Edgewater was just beginning to come out of a long period of decline and you could see the first glimmers of gentrification.

That day, though, Kathy Osterman became one of my favorite-ever Chicago politicians. As she blustered into the room wearing one of her famous hats, a couple of her flunkies followed her schlepping a gift from the gods for the election judges and others: trays laden with sandwiches and other food, and a tub of soda pop. To my eternal gratitude, among the cans of pop in the tub were cans of Jolt Cola-- remember, "all the sugar, TWICE THE CAFFEINE."

The day ended up being a gruelingly long one. We had trouble with the vote-counting machine and didn't get out of there until nearly 8 PM. It ended up being a 14 1/2 hour day for me. With no sleep.

Later, I thought about how cocky and arrogant I'd been. I hadn't really taken it very seriously going into it. That day, I'd had to make help make decisions as to whether individiuals got to exercise a fundamental right in democracy-- to vote. A woman I'd sneered at as a hack had shown kindness when I'd needed it. She was, I realized later, one of the people who didn't bolt the city for the green pastures of suburbia-- she stayed there to try to make the city work again. When she passed away in 1992 of cancer, it saddened me. She was a remarkable lady.

I'll probably work as an election judge again someday-- it was a fascinating experience, and I'd like to do it again. Next time, though, I'll take it more seriously. And probably get a good night's sleep beforehand.


Tenacious S said...

My memory of living in Chicago around election time was that of ward bosses knowcking on the door to make sure you were going to pull the correct lever. One pull did the trick back then. We voted at St. Eugene's at the corner of Foster and Canfield.

Bubs said...

OK, I have to ask my bride about this. Are you talking about a polling place right by the intersection of Hollywood and Sheridan? because she worked there as a poll watcher during the first Harold Washington election

GETkristiLOVE said...

Ahhhh... Jolt, before there was Red Bull to get you through Election Day.

Valerie said...

good story. you've lived (live) such an interesting life.

Natalie said...

Jolt was the stuff and you needed it. That seemed like a day from heck.

The Idea Of Progress said...

Quenchers, on Fullerton and Western, still gives out free beers for those.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Someday I will have to blog about my judge of election experiences as well. You brought it all back. Very nice, JY.

dmarks said...

"In Chicago, after you vote, you get a little ticket indicating that you voted"

And it being Chicago, it is always nice to have a stack of these in your hand after a long day of voting.