The Common Good

Thrilled at Last to Be Thrilled to Vote

At 6:30 a.m., my 7-year-old daughter wakes me. "Mommy! Is it time to vote?"

Last night we decided to vote early, as a family. Polls in this neighborhood open at 7. Our house, oddly located on a section of high ground, actually overlooks the polling place, but to get there, we have a 10 minute walk around the corner, out and through cyclone fencing, down the hill, and across the dilapidated Happy Hollow cement playground. We make it in seven.

I have voted here for 20 years-all times of day, on-years and off-years. I always vote. It has never taken me more than five minutes. There have never been more than two people ahead of me in line.

I am totally unprepared for the spontaneous rush of tears to my eyes when I look over as we walk down that hill, before we reach the playground, and glimpse the line of voters extending far down the block. Past the basketball court and the laundromat to the body shop. People in sweats and jeans, health care worker uniforms, forest green workpants and boots, black sweats and hoodies. I am still crying as we take our place in it, my son, my partner, my daughter, me. We are quickly swallowed in the line as more people line up behind us. We are all planting our feet somewhere in this stream of history.

The guy ahead of me, 32, in a green and grey striped hoodie and jeans, turns to me, then away, tears in his eyes. "I just keep doing that." Then he smiles. Thea and I grin back, me through my own tears.

An early bus trundles by with 20 kids on their way to school, and every child is at the window, every hand extended, cheering wildly for Barack Obama.

I cast my first vote 28 years ago, and I have voted in every election since. I've never felt anything like this charge, this sense of celebration. I wish every one of the conservatives in my white, Southern family could be standing here in my 90 percent African-American ward.

They have bought into the hype. They are worried about these "new" voters and where they come from. If they were here, would they, despite their trepidation, be touched by the engagement -- the simple, raw power of people excited and participating in a voting process that usually feels, at best, irrelevant? I hear all the Republican outcry about the swell in new voters and their fear of those voters. This morning embodies my rejoinder: "But isn't it powerful that people feel there is something they want to come out and actually vote for?"

I want my children to remember voting this way-with lines, and waiting, and almost everyone showing up.

Voting in my neighborhood -- a disenfranchised, struggling, low-wage neighborhood pocked with row abandoned houses -- has always felt a bit like a joke. Today, I suddenly feel the power of being in a nation that 400 years ago, in an era of monarchies and with no historical precedent, decided on a different system of government. A nation that chose to let (some of) the people decide.

Today, here, the people are out, pouring from the surrounding blocks. No matter that our flawed founding fathers never imagined black people or women joining the ranks of the enfranchised. They took the vision as far as they could. And today, that vision, carried forward, feels amazing. I have pangs of sadness for all my friends in white suburbs where it will seem like other years, with the same old enfranchised, middle-class people showing up.

Or maybe there will be no place in the United States like that today.

The man in front of me says: "Yeah, I think it's mostly the history I think about, the historical significance." I nod and open the newspaper to the editorial page, where cartoonist Tony Auth shows a guy going into a voting booth, curtains closed-and then the curtains open, and out springs Superman, the hero the voter has become. (The voter is white and male, of course, a legacy of American race and gender relationships. He needs to stand for "everyone,"-and right now, the "everyone" costume is white and male. Otherwise he would become "someone.")

We all feel that Superman sense of euphoria and power, even my children, who are now sporting Obama buttons a poll observer (who stands out in his preppy dress, Lands End jacket, and pale skin) has handed them.

Their "go team!" enthusiasm sobers me, though it's to be expected in the city that went through World Series fever last week (how'bout those Phillies!!). I want my children to make thoughtful choices about candidates. For the most part, those choices never fall along party lines. Politics is not a bowl game. It is not good guys and bad guys. It is a sea of compromises.

I am political in the broad sense, but I vote like I go grocery shopping or put gas in the car. I don't consider voting the primary way we bring change to our world or our community. I believe we have to be the change we wish for by living differently, choosing our jobs and commitments carefully. I have never worked on a political campaign, and I didn't in this election.

I see neighbors-Supreme and Jean (they always vote: he has small-scale, neighborhood political ambitions), Mr. Jesse from our garden, a day laborer who makes his way cleaning yards, Harriet, from my old street with the disabled toddler grandson that she dotes on. Sure enough, she has a picture for me. The man in front of me talks about his son, now in college in upstate Pennsylvania. He tells me how he checked in with his son in September, to see if he had his ballot, and how his son called back when he mailed it in a month ago.

I am thinking of Ms. Wilhemina, who stood in church last Sunday, swathed in purple, grabbed the mike, drew herself to her full height, and intoned in a calm and stately voice: "Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Barack could run. Barack ran so our children could fly."

I am so thrilled to at last be thrilled to vote!

The line is picking up now. Someone has started a boom box, playing old Motown and disco stuff from my era, the 70s. "You can ring my bell" hovers over the grey morning, the trash-strewn street, the empty basketball court. Poll workers are monitoring the lines, trying to get folks into their proper wards and precincts. There is no confusion. No one is looking at their watch or restless.

We pass through the door to the polling site and are processed quickly. My son goes in with his father, Thea goes with me. The royal blue curtain, extending to just above my knee, drops at my back and we stand at last in that special superman booth, alone with all of history's possibilities ahead of us.

I let her push the button that lights up the Obama light. I barely catch her hand as it moves toward the green VOTE button, threatening to end my vote prematurely. "Wait! We aren't done!" I carefully make my selections, answer the four referendums. Then I look down at her expectant face and nod.

We both touch the green button and push it in together. The superman curtain lurches open with a rasp.

Then we hold hands and head out into the rest of the morning -- the ordinary work that is the life in which we really bring change.

Dee Dee Risher is a writer and former editor of The Other Side magazine. She has lived in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood for 20 years.

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