Of Coffee and Donuts and Half-Eaten Hoagies

On Election Day, I always have a soft spot in my heart for the volunteers working the polls. Every polling station has some variation of the same thing: a half dozen retirees, sitting on folding chairs, stationed at folding tables, a box of a dozen donuts on one side, a slowly cooling polystyrene cup of coffee on the other. They look over the rims of their glasses at you. They squint in the dull fluorescent, sometimes gently flickering, light.

Whatcha last name, hon?

Before you got there, they’ll have been discussing some sort of neighborhood gossip, but they’ll stop when you approach, because, well, they don’t know you after all. They know each other, though. They’ve done this before. Maybe two years ago. But you’re new to the area, and you feel a little bit like an outsider anyway. And being inside a school makes the experience even a little more foreign to you.

A lady looks you up in a huge book of alphabetized names. You recognize your name before she sees it, even upside-down, but you don’t want to stop her or point to it. Let her find it. She know what she’s doing. There’s enough for her to keep track of without you poking your finger into her things.

Show your ID. Sign your name.

Didja get him? Didja get his name?

Yep. Number 68.

You nod helpfully, as if the number has some significance to you. And someone leads you to the voting booth. You might as well be stepping into the confessional. No one but you and God need know what you’re doing.

At the risk of sounding grandiose, these people are like guardians of the ballot box. Anyone can do it, and they may treat it like the’re tending the cash box at a garage sale, but it’s a very serious thing they’re doing. They are literally guiding you through that sacred experience of voting, keeping the wheels of modern democracy turning. Someone is trusting them to do this, so you can surely trust them. Today they are above reproach. They’re not priests, but they definitely have keys to the church.

Of course there was the ’08 election, when my partner waited in line, listening to some poll workers lamenting the state of American culture with all the wretched gay people on TV these days. But these people seem all right.

Mainly they just want to do their civic duty, contribute something, have a smoke outside, even if it isn’t allowed on school grounds. You get a little jealous of them. You wonder if you’ll ever work a polling place when you get old and retire. It would be a lark, after all, to get up a little early, get out of the house, go some place you don’t normally go, do something you don’t normally do.

Just thinking about the sameness, the equality, of voting excites you. You’re just as good as the guy in the booth next to yours. We’re all in the same boat. Some of us are rowing the wrong way, but … well, we can’t toss ’em overboard, can we?

(Can we?)

I mean, who knows where it’s going to end up by the time the polls close. It’s a little dizzying, just thinking about the possibility. Anything could happen. And you’ll have played a part. Your vote is buying you the right to complain the next morning if it doesn’t go your way. Because you did what you could. Can’t blame you if it doesn’t go right. And anyone who didn’t vote — they can just shut up.

While you’re safely ensconced behind the curtain, considering the more personal implications of voting, one of the volunteers decides it’s time for a lunch run, and they bring the experience right back to earth.

Hey, do you want a hoagie? Uh-huh. Toasted? OK.

You click your votes into existence and send them out into the world, hoping for the best.


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the untallied hours

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