Wednesday, Nov. 6, 1996
Yesterday we voted in the firehouse. As we were walking there, I thought of a conundrum. It was prompted by the character of my young cousin Jeff (the son of one of the two Bellas–Big Bella and Little Bella, based not on size, but on birth order). Jeff’s politics are undiluted, one might even say fossilized, 1960s radicalism. His is the kind of statist utopianism that scares me, given its unhappy record elsewhere. But he has inherited his uncle Sholem’s temperament, and is in steady possession of the sweetest, tenderest, and most loving heart.
So, as the firehouse came into sight, I put it this way: Suppose Jeff were running for president, and, though you might worry about his ideology, you knew and trusted his goodness. And suppose his opponent were someone whose politics you might feel safer with, but who was unreflecting and callous. Whom would you chose?
My walking companion did not hesitate. “His opponent,” he said–which gave me a little shock. What? You wouldn’t choose Jeff, in whose humanity and incorruptibility you could place all your confidence?
I would always choose Jeff, I think, because he is Jeff; and also because it would be nice to have a president in the family. But our discussion was really about that old chestnut, Men vs. Institutions. A benevolent ruler who rests on a doubtful idea, or a constitution that can withstand and survive abuse by the bad guys? You can’t always count on having Jeff for president. (This year, in fact, he’s not even running.)
Inside the firehouse, the red trucks are at the ready, chrome trim gleaming; the firemen’s boots are waiting nearby. And look, it’s not just in the comics, there really is a fireman’s pole! Behind the trucks, three tables are set up for three local voting districts. The women (they are all women) who preside over those tables are serious and meticulous about their tasks, but otherwise not especially sophisticated. In the small conversational buzz as we stand in line to enter the voting booth, it develops that they have never heard of the League of Women Voters and don’t know what an incumbent is. The voters themselves are intent and worried-looking–not so much about whom to vote for, it seems, but about their canes, their breathing, their lives. It is 11 o’clock in the morning, and everyone here is elderly, fragile, tragedy-laden. Where are the young? Where are the middle-aged? Will they come out later, or will they not come out at all? The old women, crumpled, pale, stare with responsible anxiety at the heavy lever that pulls the curtain shut and assures the secrecy of their ballot–and means that our institutions, whatever we may think of the candidates, are solid. Still, the voting booth–because of that curtain–doesn’t afford total privacy; the curtain comes down only part of the way, and you can see the lower half of the voter’s body. You can see the position and movement of the feet, which can tell you a lot about indecision or certainty, reluctance or spontaneity.
In Pelham Bay, the Bronx, in the 1930s, the neighborhood voting station was located in my father’s prescription room in the rear of the Park View Pharmacy. There were three booths, each a sturdily enclosed, four-sided little sentry box. The night before Election Day, when the booths were all in place, what fun it was to run in and out of those little make-believe houses, a whole pretend village! But on Election Day itself, a sanctity fell over that small place. Men and women stood solemnly awaiting their turn. Each stepped into the box and shut the door: a real door that locked automatically, according to significant democratic principle. And the result, it turned out, was always the same: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president.
The next day, in first grade, Patricia Johnson was in tears. “It isn’t my fault,” she wept. “My parents made me!” She knew herself to be a pariah. She was the only child who had come to school wearing an Alf Landon button.