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Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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Like my brownhouse:
Tuesday, November 4 2008

setting: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, New York

Today's election was the culmination of years of anticipation. I've been addicted to polls and snarky left-leaning commentary ever since Bush was placed in office back in 2000. It was time for a fucking change. In terms of political participation, though, I've been essentially apathetic. I occasionally donate money (the last political cause I donated to was the movement to vote no on California's gay-bashing Proposition 8; they got fifty of my dollars). But that's about it.
Meanwhile Gretchen, who has the stomach for such things, has been calling and talking to voters in swing states. Today she had arranged with a friend-of-a-friend for us to serve as poll watchers down in South Philadelphia (in a blighted, overwhelmingly African American neighborhood). Our job would be to help (and perhaps entertain) voters standing in line to ensure that they stay in line and vote.
So we hit the road, stopping on the way at the Hurley Town Hall to cast our vote. There was absolutely no line when we arrived a little after 9am, and it all went without a hitch aside from Gretchen being told to remove her Obama '08 button. After coming out of the booth, Gretchen said she'd teared up a little voting for Barack [Hussein] Obama. (She never said anything about tearing up back when she used to vote for Nader — and she'd actually been considering voting for him this time too!)
We continued down to Philadelphia, occasionally being sprinkled with light rain along the way. Aside from this, the weather was unusually mild.
Our target neighborhood was indeed blighted, looking worse than anything you're likely to see in, say, Guatemala. Guatemalans are more resourceful than Americans and would never let urban buildings rot away into the landscape (industrious people would come along and mine it for materials and eventually use the barren real estate as a garden). But, for various uniquely American reasons related to property ownership, the only people willing to use abandoned real estate in American cities are drug addicts. In this South Philly neighborhood, I saw a few houses with holes torn in their walls and discarded packaging spilling out like entrails.
After a few phone calls, we were directed to the Francis Myers Recreation Center at the corner of 58th Street and Kingsessing. It wasn't difficult to find our people there: they were the white folks sitting at a table eating Subway sandwiches. We'd arrived in the long lull that stretches from 9 AM to 5 PM, and there wasn't much that needed doing. There was still some lukewarm coffee to offer (eventually I gave it to a group of ten year olds who really seemed to love it) as well as posters, Democratic voter guides, and (most in demand of all) stickers. There weren't any buttons or teeshirts, although earlier there had been donuts. My main job was to accost voters and ask them if they needed to know how to operate the touch-screen voting machines (much higher tech than the old-school lever voting machines back in Hurley). Most didn't want to admit to needing help, but they usually paid close attention if I launched into explaining it anyway. Many of these people were voting for the first time, and a good number looked so young that I'd assumed they were actually someone's kid. There was not a single McCain voter in this group; I'd be very surprised if there was a single fingerprint on any of the Republican parts of the touch screen. The thing everyone wanted to know was how to vote a straight Democratic Party ticket. This is how things work in the inner city. South Philly is less politically diverse than the most rural county of Wyoming.
For a time, Gretchen went off with one of the Democratic operatives to phone bank and urge people to the polls. She later reported that, at least in this neighborhood, it had been a much more encouraging experience than calling random people in swing states. Of course, we actually were in a swing state, but not in a swingy part of it.
Soon after Gretchen left, an older man from the neighborhood who had been acting as a volunteer suddenly let out a scream and doubled over in his chair. At first I thought I'd come in late to a joke or story he'd been telling, but then it became clear he was acting abnormally. He slumped sideways and looked like he was about to fall to the ground. We rushed over and someone guided him down, keeping him from hitting his head. For a few minutes, he lay on his back twitching. He was having a grand mal epileptic seizure, the first I'd ever witnessed. After awhile he gradually came around, first kicking and thrashing and, when he'd recovered his verbal facilities, shouting, "I didn't do anything!" He also tried to get to his feet, and it was all people could do to keep him from running off into the street. The police only took a couple minutes to arrive, followed shortly thereafter by an ambulance. Someone who knew the gentleman said it had been years since he'd had a seizure. Evidently the day was so momentous it triggered some long-dormant part of his brain.
At some point Gretchen and I were hanging out by the door of the rec center, and we got to talking to a middle-aged woman who said she was the precinct captain for this polling place. It wasn't long before she was complaining about the Obama campaign, how they'd shown up and taken over, issuing decrees and ignoring the locals. "This is my polling place," she said at one point, "not theirs." It was clear from context that she really did mean "mine" and not "our." Gretchen later remarked to me that this rant was yet more evidence of people's innate desire to interpret interactions with strangers in terms of "us versus them."
At 5pm we hopped in our car and headed back north. It wasn't that we were trying to skip out on the evening rush, but we wanted to be in Manhattan when the first election results started coming in.

On the road, we managed to find a sequence of public radio stations as well as a lefty Pacifica affiliate broadcasting directly from the center of all things Obama in Grant Park, Chicago. This last one had such a strong signal that we were able to hear it all the way through the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River. (Perhaps there is a passive FM repeater in that tunnel.)
We parked in Greenwich Village not far from Penny and David's place (where we'd be spending the night) and went immediately to one of Gretchen's favorite restaurants, a vegan place named Sacred Chow. Though our waitress was little better than incompetent, the food was absolutely delicious. Meanwhile the others in the dining room were checking their iPhones and Blackberries for election results. The last thing I'd heard from the Pacifica affiliate as I was getting out of the car had been something forebodingly-dismissive about exit polls in Virginia, so my stomach was a little on edge. When Gretchen asked a stranger if there was any news, he said "It doesn't look good in Virginia." My stomach, now digesting a tofu sandwich and twelve ounces of Sierra Nevada, felt funny again.
We decided to go directly to an election night watch party at Adam and Linda's place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. (Linda is Nancy's sister and Nancy is married to Ray, a friend Gretchen has known from Brooklyn for over ten years.) On the way to the subway, we ducked into a bar where MSNBC had called Pennsylvania for Obama (a huge relief), though CNN was being more cautious. This made the subway ride to Brooklyn a lot less stressful.
Adam and Linda live in a converted industrial building behind an iron fence and gate. The front of the building has been snazzed up with a glass elevator set in a sculptural facade suggesting very rough stone in a Walt Disney sort of way. After signing in with the front desk, we walked down the hall past bronze-colored doors (they had been painted with metallic paint) to the one we were seeking. From the sounds in the hallway, Adam and Linda weren't the only ones watching the election returns.
So there we were, watching the returns with Ray, Nancy, Adam, Linda, and Linda's friend, neighbor, and former College Club employee Jill on a huge HDTV. There wasn't much news other than that CNN had finally called Pennsylvania for Obama. Polls had closed in most of the states in the South, but few had been called (South Carolina had gone to McCain, but Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina were still up in the air). Eventually we grew tired of watching the coverage and Adam surfed to find a more partisan news channel, but he stopped on Pootie Tang, a great movie but one that would hardly be commanding many eyeballs on this auspicious night. Suddenly we heard a roar through the wall, so Adam switched back to CNN and we found Ohio had been called for Obama. I knew at that point that Obama had already won, and I was delighted. We all whooped and hollered and took pictures of each other. After we'd settled down, the girls headed out to get more alcohol. The folks on CNN with their fancy touch screen maps tried to keep things interesting by creating a hypothetical path to victory for McCain, but the entire Upper Midwest and everything north and east of Virginia had gone blue, so the only way for McCain to win at this point would have been for him to win one of the states on the west coast. As I said, I knew this thing had already been decided.
The girls returned with beers, including a forty of Old English (which seemed an appropriate, if vaguely racist, way to celebrate the election of the first black president). The election coverage had grown dull again, so we switched to the Comedy Central coverage hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (not, I must say, one of their stronger performances). After too much of that, we heard another roar through the wall and also up from the street, so again we switched back to CNN to find that the west coast had fallen for Obama and CNN was projecting him the winner of the presidency. This was what we'd come to New York to participate in. Gretchen wanted to head out into the street and wade in the spontaneous celebrations that must be erupting. So Gretchen and I made haste for the subway, leaving the others with their ginormous flat screen teevee.
Out on Dean Street, Gretchen whooped and hollered every time she saw anyone, and more often than not that whooped and hollered in agreement. We met one couple walking towards us, and on hearing Gretchen, the woman half ran up and gave her a spontaneous bear hug, whipping them both around in a violent human galaxy of joy. Both her male friend and I looked on in amazement.
In our subway car (on the Red line), Gretchen asked the others around us, "Really? You're not celebrating?" A few people chuckled and a woman in the bench across from us struck up a conversation, the sort of thing that never normally happens in the New York subway system.
Our ultimate goal was to meet Penny and David in Harlem, but we stopped first in Times Square to see what the jumbotron-watching crowds were making of this historic evening. Once off the subway, we encountered more spontaneously-whooping strangers in the station and spilling out onto the street, where people stood in crowds watching the audio-free images on the massive screens overhead. Cars were honking their horns and people were whooping. It was good, and the spirit was right, but the crowd was still a little shy. I heard someone say "Yes we can!" and I turned to Gretchen and said, "Si se puede." Evidently the woman near me spoke fluent Spanish because she agreed, "Si se puede!"
We continued our subway ride north to 125th Street in Harlem (also known as Martin Luther King Blvd.), and this time as we were getting off the train, Gretchen asked an African American woman, "What's it like up there." "It's crazy!" she said. By now the spontaneous celebrations had a frantic urgency to them, with crowds of friends (most of them white) running full tilt past us whooping and yelling. On the surface, crowds were moving joyously past each other, exchanging high fives and occasional hugs. There was a feeling of incredible transcendence of the individual, a merging into a single sociological swarm-organism. We all have code in our genome to bring out this feeling, but in today's relatively-safe and comfortable world, mostly we only get to exercise it during sporting matches. (It also comes out at the decisive ends of wars, but the last time such a thing happened in North America was two generations ago, back in 1945.) While often such transcendence if a force for evil (thuggish nationalism or lynchings), it was hard to see a downside in what was happening on the streets of Harlem tonight.
Gretchen was in radio contact with Penny and David, who were over a mile to the east on 125th Street near the Apollo Theater. They said that crowds there were so enormous that it was impossible to get a good view of Harlem's one jumbotron. So we hurried as quickly as we could towards them, passing many celebrants along the way. A good third of the people on the street were white, most of them people who'd had the same idea we'd had. But locals outside residential areas and project developments were all black, and they clapped and whooped as we passed. I've never in my life seen so many people displaying so little fear and anger in my life.
Eventually Gretchen caught sight of Penny and we forged a four person contingent.
Though by this point I was completely sober, I was so caught up in the excitement that it was as if I was drunk, with memories being laid down as snapshots. People were dancing on top of phone booths and waving huge American flags. Others were dancing and chanting either "O-BAM-A!" or "Yes we can!" Traffic on 125th Street had slowed to a crawl because of all the craziness, revealing what had to have been the biggest logistical mistake of some MTA bureaucrat's career. Evidently subway cars are occasionally shipped from place to place on surface streets on flatbed trucks, and here were two of them moving at a snail's pace down 125th Street. Had McCain won, they probably would have been on fire, but because Obama had won, people climbed up to their roofs, an ideal platform for continued celebration. Gretchen and I joined them briefly, but cops soon appeared and were shooing us away.
It was clear that police presence had been beefed up in Harlem tonight, but aside from having to deliver mild admonishments to over-the-top celebrants, their task wasn't an especially difficult one. Not only was there no anger in this crowd, but there was also an unprecedented respect for authority and institutions. The system had actually worked for once in our lives, and now we were actually going to have a black president. The future had somehow arrived.
As for the feelings of the cops themselves, for most of them this was probably an unhappy night. McCain had had few constituencies in the city, but one of them had been its police force. Indeed, Staten Island, the borough with the highest density of police residences, was the one place in the city where McCain beat Obama. Take it from me; it's no fun having to be sober on the night your presidential candidate goes down to humiliating defeat.
At some point David directed us into a bar called Showman's Bar, which was packed with celebrants, most of them wearing Obama buttons or teeshirts. A jazz band in the back was performing a variety of tunes, sometimes with lyrical shout outs to the evening's biggest hero, Barack Obama.
After a cab ride back down to Greenwich Village, we resumed following the election results both on teevee and via the web. While we were still ecstatic about Obama's win, there were things to be non-plused about, such as the passage of the gay-marriage-revoking Proposition 8 in California and what looked like the defeat of Al Franken by Norm Coleman in Minnesota. For her part, Gretchen was ecstatic about the passage of Proposition 2 in California, which will grant a few basic comforts to animals with the misfortune to find themselves living out their brief lives on factory farms.

Philadelphia skyline.

Intersection near the polling place in Philadelphia. The rowhouses here are nice, if a little run down.

Da hood, yo.

Me working the door.

A group of Republicans (on the right) showed up a little before we left just to make sure no hanky-panky was happening. They were cordial and our folks were cordial as well. I could tell, by the way, that these guys were Republicans when I first caught sight of them over a block away. Talk about fish being out of water! One of them was actually wearing a flag pin. The bitchy precinct captain, the one who had complained about Obama's people, had initially thought they were Obama people, an indication of how alien she finds Obama people to be.

Adam (left) and Ray at the results-watching party at Adam and Linda's place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

Ohio falls to Obama. I knew it was over when this happened.

Nancy (left) and her sister Linda getting crazy after Ohio falls. Actually, only Linda is getting crazy, and not all that crazy either.

To keep things interesting, the CNN personalities with their touchscreen map tried to map out a hypothetical path to victory for McCain after Obama took Ohio. As you can see, it came up short of the necessary 270 without giving McCain one of the states on the West Coast.

Some of these might not actually be "celebrants" in Times Square.

Celebrants in Harlem.

It's our flag again!

Inside Showman's Bar tonight (on 125th Street in Harlem).

The bar in Showman's Bar.

Video from Times Square. "Now we have a hero!" "Hero as opposed to a zero." At 338 Electoral Votes.

Video from Harlem. "Ding dong the witch is dead!"

Video from Harlem. Police shoo us off the subway cars on 125th Street.

Video from Harlem. Yes we can!

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