Sunday, February 3, 2008

why I *heart* NY

I absolutely love my neighborhood come election time. Just walking down the street you encounter this overwhelming outpouring of civic feeling. I live on a golden meridian of liberal politics, at the confluence of three distinct political cultures: the privileged-but-bossily-liberal-Jewish tradition on the Upper West Side, the community-activist-get-out-the-vote-rank-and-file tradition in Harlem, and the kind-of-naive-but-earnest-and-brainy tradition on the Columbia campus in Morningside Heights.

Today I walked out of my house and every corner on Broadway had Obama canvassers on it, handing out buttons and leaflets and engaging people in conversation. People stopped with their strollers and their dogs on leashes and talked for a few minutes each with the Obama-pluggers: I heard people discussing their healthcare plans and their worries about global warming on Broadway. (This happens a fair bit -- I have enjoyed getting into spirited discussions with canvassers about who they think could best beat the Republicans for a couple of years now.)

A tiny girl walking with her parents and sister was holding a sign she had scrawled and yelling "Red, White, and Blue, We Need You, to Vote For Obama! Every Vote Counts!" in this amazing little singsong voice. A dad and his son in an Obama t-shirt that hung down to his knees saw my button and stopped me just to say "Hey! An Obama supporter!" A white-haired old lady pushing her metal-frame shopping basket had a magic-markered nametag pinned to her shirt that said "Women for Obama."

Since I got my button just today, I'm getting these little "Obama!" nods and looks everywhere in New York, though, not just in my neighborhood: a guy with dreads in Penn Station, an old lady on the subway on the East Side. Since today, the first day I've been consciously noticing such things, I have seen one (1) Hillary sticker -- it was pinned to a coat near mine on the rack in the coat check at the Met.

I came home and tried to find out who was doing the canvassing that was so visible in my neighborhood today -- it was a group that organized through (yep, modeled on a social networking site!! I just joined!).

I'm also on the mailing list for my neighborhood's Democratic "club," what's left of the NY Democratic machine -- every neighborhood is under the jurisdiction of a party club that holds events and sends out a newsletter and coordinates volunteer opportunities. The Obama canvassing effort appears to have nothing to do with this local-level instantiation of the Democratic party establishment. In fact, the 50-something Upper West Siders who send out the club newsletter are some of the only people I've run across who are really, ardently FOR Hillary Clinton. You don't see people out on the street getting all *jazzed up* with partisan feeling and solidarity over Clinton.

[Confidential to the Republicans who are hoping that that will translate into any liberals staying home if she does win the nomination, or who would take heart in her "weakness in her home state" if she only gets half of NY's delegates but then wins -- THIS IS NOT THAT. It would be hard to find another neighborhood in the country where people identify as DEMOCRATS as strongly as we do. I can guarantee you that every single person I've seen canvassing for Obama or wearing a button will be at the polls voting for the Democratic nominee in November; many of them will be knocking themselves out just as hard no matter who the candidate is. This is a PRIMARY, and it was so refreshing today to see people who actually understand what that means and who take our responsibility as Democrats, to press hard for the Democrat we would actually most like to see as President, seriously.]

I am full of wild, frightened optimism tonight; optimism so cautious that as soon as I voice it to myself or to my friend M., who's sitting next to me on the couch, it instantly turns into its opposite: abject terror of this thing going the wrong way, again, and the possibility (which would seem unthinkable but somehow isn't?!!), of things getting MUCH, MUCH WORSE if it does.

But! I can't wait for Tuesday. My neighborhood's at its very best on election day; it's like a distinctly New York-flavored dream of America. The neighborhood is actually very economically mixed; I vote on a poor residential street at a school in an old building with mostly Spanish-speaking kids. Schoolkids from the richer schools are usually out on the medians yelling at people to "Go and Vote! Every Vote Counts!" with hand-lettered signs. Folks from those Democratic clubs have tables the regulation distance from the polling places and are chatting up other activisty-types. The little old ladies who actually work the polls are sweet as pie but practically blind and they need help finding my name (which is on the books twice, spelled once correctly and once incorrectly - no I'm not going to take advantage of this; I actually discouraged someone from committing voter fraud earlier this week!), and the younger poll workers are using their high-school Spanish to explain the whole process to some of the people on line. The kids who go to the school are in the cafeteria with their moms and teachers selling baked goods -- cookies decorated red, white, and blue. You line up to vote by address; you literally vote with everyone who lives on your block and the next, at the machine dedicated to that purpose. Perhaps best of all, there's no dithering about what some computer has decided to do with your vote -- you flip those little switches (vote for the candidate of your choice on the Democratic party line or, better yet, on the Working Families Party line!), pull that big lever, and there's such a big THUNK that you KNOW your ass has voted.

My new Obama button says "BELIEVE." I want to believe the button, but I'm f*cking scared -- I believed last time, and the time before that. I'm, like, an emotional wreck from the intensity of belief and pessimism oscillating wildly in my head about this election. But my neighborhood, especially on election day, could almost convince me to believe.

Just a warning about what will probably be the next post -- I get choked up every time I go to vote. When I step into that booth and the HISTORY hits me, I am going to lose it. Stay tuned!

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