Introduction: Winning the Vote
In the midst of all this, it is easy to forget that this was supposed to be the year of a Presidential election. The primaries that for the first months of the year absorbed our attention have disappeared from our ken as if they had never been. The incumbent President has continued to sit like a fat toad in the White House, spewing his usual venom, while his would-be successor appeared until recently to be silently imprisoned in his basement..
But, unless Trump uses the pandemic and the protests as cover for a coup – a no longer unthinkable possibility – there will be an election in November. And we must give it our attention. Elections and protests are the two sides of a coin. Our right to vote was founded in protests; its continuation has been ensured by protests. And those protests have not always been peaceful, nor have they been without damage to property. Most of the photos that accompany these electoral Short Takes are of demonstrations and marches by, and the often violent arrests of, women campaigning to get the vote – a basic human right afforded us only 100 years ago, already well more than a century after the founding of our nation.
The United States was conceived in protests that began because American colonists were denied the right to vote by their British overlords. The first volley of what became the American Revolution occurred in colonial Massachusetts, when men and women — who were probably called looters and vandals at the time but are now referred to as patriots and Founding Fathers – looted and destroyed British property, crates of tea, by tossing them into Boston Harbor. That initial skirmish led to the revolutionary war, a protest of unmitigated violence.
Nor were the women of 1919 the last to engage in protests in order to secure voting rights. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s had, as one of its goals, obtaining for African-Americans the right to exercise their vote. It was clear to the leaders of those protests – just as it was to the American colonists in the eighteenth century and to the members of the women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth – that only through the vote can we hope to secure life, liberty, and happiness for ourselves or for anyone. That only through protest will we secure and maintain the vote. And that, though many peaceful protests will be met with escalating police violence and obscured by the opportunism of looters and provocateurs, they are a bedrock part of the fabric of democracy. As the pandemic and the police killings show, protests and the right to vote are not enough. But there is nothing without them.
Do let these photos and Short Takes remind you: There is an election in November. Show up for it.
State of the (Dis)Union 2020
who marched, demanded, fought, and suffered state violence for the right
to stand, to be counted when mostly white men raised their voices,
cast their votes like Roman Senators, and ruled the land.
Heads high, backbones straight, these Women of Congress
wore white too bright to be eclipsed by shadows,
too starched to bend or bow, too proud to let the national clown
drown out their disapproval.
The Speaker of the House took her appointed seat.
Before her on the desk, the script of the State of the Union,
the weight of history in those white sheets.
In solidarity with her fellow congresswomen, she, too, wore white –
for justice like an old-fashioned western sheriff,
like the dissenters of more than a century ago
who insisted upon their right to suffrage despite tradition’s ignominy.
As the buffoon resurrected McCarthy ghosts, cold-war rhetoric, worn-out anthems,
boasting of our headlong descent into a century long gone
when men were men and women wore white aprons
and knew their place, she waited for him to end his rant.
And when the reality show was over,
and the buffoon had mangled language and canceled truth,
even as the applause endured,
there was no need to reread the State of the (dis)Union script.
The gaping wound, the rent in the national fabric, was far too deep to miss.
So even as the fool who would be king soaked up the acclaim
of his confederates in crime, having torn to shreds
decency and the rule of law,
offering in their stead his cult of power,
the House Speaker stood, dressed in white like those other women, past and present,
who took their places because it was (and still is) their right to do so.
Before the cameras, she stands in defiance, for the sake of the nation,
speaking even without words. She reminds us that tyranny cannot be tolerated,
she takes the many white sheets of the fool’s tirade
and, for the people, she tears each lie in two.
Roberto is a decent type, a graying granddad who has the guts to raise his grandchild, a wild and headstrong five-year-old whose long hair whipping in the wind has caused him to be mistaken for a girl more than once, perhaps making him even more crazed.
To Roberto’s credit, he gets Beejay out on a daily basis, even though Roberto ends up running after him most of the time, powerless, as his grandchild rams into hedges on a bike or charges across intersections, deaf to his grandfather’s cautionary shouts.
One day, Roberto and I stopped and talked – friendly and neighborly – first about cars, followed by some pleasant commiseration about the world, but from there, we somehow moved on to politics.
“What? You voted for that…that person in the White House?” I said, incredulous, though still trying to appear normal.
“Not voting for Hillary,” he went on…. “Besides, there are too many immigrants nowadays and to make things worse, we’ve got a sanctuary city on our hands. They’ll be flocking here.”
(But, c’mon, your name is Roberto. Not Robert, not Bob, not…you know, Scott or Kevin or Keith. It’s Roberto! What about your roots? Your…)
“I voted for Clinton,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Obama first, of course, and then Clinton.”
“Well, I voted for Obama,” he said.
“You did? Obama one day and Trump another?”
It’s true. Zigzag voting is not unusual. A personal setback, a stroke of bad luck, a hit of unfairness and certain voters go sour. Then with an audacity peculiar to action-driven Americans, they decide their vote should “shake things up.”
“Well, I could never vote for Trump. I think he’s…” and here I hesitated. How to find the right words for Roberto’s sake? Let’s see… should I mention my profound conviction that our present president is incompetent, ignorant, and also a monster motored by his own self-aggrandizement? But Roberto was my neighbor, a nice man, a person I sort of wanted to understand. Plus, he was a committed granddad with a Beejay to show for his efforts.
“I think Trump is… is nuts,” I said as companionably as possible, grossly tamping down my strongest instincts in favor of neighborliness.
“Nuts is good!” Roberto said, his eyes lighting up a bit.
Did I hear right? I gulped. But at that point, Beejay, in bulldozing mode, had yanked hard on my arm, causing me nearly to lose my balance. The game was over and so was the conversation. The Wild One had offered me a way out, ironically guaranteeing that our exchange would remain civil and friendly.
“Well, take care, Roberto,” I said, still reeling from Beejay’s vital life force. I crossed the street and headed for home, haunted by our eye-opening conversation. Months later, I’m still reeling. Nuts is good? The initial dizziness has subsided, but an incipient vertigo has remained.
State of the Union
the lady sporting whiskers,
donkey with two heads,
cotton candy frosting hair
on carny’s tattooed arm.
We’re hooked on big striped big top,
the popcorn and the stink,
riding crop and oil slick
of barker’s red-tailed spiel.
We love to peek at freaky things
behind the velvet drape,
to hold our breath in choked suspense
as net-less bodies fly.
We want to hear the lions growl,
see cars spit out more clowns,
exhale ahs of hot dog damp
when wrists are caught… or not.
We crave our penny’s worth of pound,
our barrel full of Coke,
the cannonball, calliope,
cold tang of something sour.
Now You See Him, Now You Don’t
This is a story from sixteen years ago. My client – we’ll call him Larry – was a state legislator representing a gritty district in an old New England city. Larry was a progressive, a maverick, facing a primary challenge from the city’s Democratic bosses who were tired of his non-cooperation.
A mutual friend, a state labor union official, suggested Larry call me to manage his campaign. I knew he was one of the good guys, so I said I yes.
My salary was $500 a week, a small sum, but I figured he would win the primary. A win always looks good on your resume. Larry had rented a cavernous office with cubicles and a large meeting space. The union furnished tables and chairs for headquarters. I brought office supplies from home. Few volunteers had mobile phones, and my first job was getting phones put in. Cash flow was always a problem in these campaigns, and I had magnanimously said I would wait to be paid until we got the phones.
Larry had a friend, a computer geek who would work from home furnishing voter lists. Larry’s lawyer headed the finance committee; another friend, a writer, would do publicity.
Larry didn’t carry a cell phone. I could reach him only by leaving a message on his apartment’s answering machine. Days went by when I didn’t see or hear from him.
The writer started sending press releases, diatribes against the city’s corruption. None was ever published. I began setting up fund raisers and contacting all the unions for contributions. Calls to the lawyer were never answered.
A union member regularly turned up to make Voter ID calls; a volunteer worked on absentee ballots. An old computer was donated but sat unused.
Picking up lists from the computer guy turned out to be a visit to the home of a hoarder where you had to move a mattress to get through the front door.
When Larry failed to show up at voters’ events on the schedule, he explained, “I said I might go.”
Nevertheless, the campaign received contributions, sold tickets to a successful spaghetti dinner and got union support. I was paid $1000, a check I quickly cashed.
Then I came in one day to see a lock box on the thermostat. The rent had not been paid. I worked that day at my desk wearing my coat, making my phone calls, including to Larry which he never returned. At the end of the day I packed up my car with everything I brought to the headquarters and left.
Larry did win the election, and afterwards I received some of my salary, not all but enough. Our paths never crossed again.
Obituary for the Voting Rights Act of 1965
in my sweaty yoga clothes.
I don’t powder my nose, put on
Revlon’s Russian Red lipstick, or
spray my wrists with Estee Lauder’s
Youth Dew perfume as my mother did.
I drive one mile to Iroquois Middle School
where both my sons endured
the agony of adolescence.
Two young women sell sugar cookies
and cupcakes for the PTA.
My neighbor, Ruthie, registers Republicans.
I walk to the next table
where my son’s former special-ed
teacher is registering Democrats.
How’s Ben doing? she asks.
I tell her he’s married,
works on Gordon Ramsey shows,
has a three-year-old daughter, Maia.
We both sigh with relief.
When I sign the register,
I’m the 200th voter of the day
even though it’s already 6:30 p.m.
I’m writing this poem to tell you
there were 27,000 voters in Dodge City,
Kansas, and only one polling place –
Outside the city limits – more than a mile
from the nearest bus stop.
Poor people, people of color,
Latinx people, denied the right to vote.
Somewhere in this poem is another story.
My son, Ben, thinks voting
is a waste of time.
Our government so corrupt,
we need a revolution.
I drive the mile home
to my split-level house
in Niskayuna, NY.
I could say I’m not
from around here.
It would be true
since I was born
in Poughkeepsie, NY.
But I can’t disclaim my ties.
I’ve lived here 37 years.
I’m scared that 27,000 voters
lost the right to vote in Dodge City
and it’s happening to the poor,
Latinx, people of color,
and immigrants across our country.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
torn from limb to limb
and buried alive.
The Candidate hesitates and covers her mouth. Count to three. Don’t rush the gesture. The pause is perfect. In my peripheral vision I see the camera operator wipe away a tear.
The Candidate regains her composure. She’s rehearsed enough to know not to look at me – standing in the shadows behind the lights. “To those who question my ability to serve, to take the interests of our children and our future to heart, let me say, I have not always been childless.”
The camera pushes in on cue. On the wide polished desk, bronzed baby shoes shine next to three books: the Bible, Profiles in Courage, and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. The spines face the camera, as do the metallic shoelaces. That’s the first tell. No one sits at a desk with their books or child’s shoes facing an audience.
“I had a glowing, growing baby. Samuel. Named after my great-grandfather. A laughing tow-headed boy. That life has never left me. I grieve for him still.”
She remembers to touch the bronze shoes beside the Bible. Good for her.
“I owe it to Samuel to make this country great again. To rebuild her cities and restore her farmland. To put her people to work and help those in their time of need.”
The prompter is going too fast. I glare at the dolt, motioning with a flat palm for him to slow down.
“Not every life gets to live to its fullest. My darling son was taken from me too soon. He never reached his potential. Sadly, I wasn’t able to nurture and guide Samuel to greatness, but I vow to do that for our homeland, with your help and the divine grace of God.”
Pause. Do not move. We practiced this.
She does not move. She keeps her eyes on the lens. I count along. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
“With a mother’s love in my heart, a fighter’s will, and a dreamer’s hope, I promise to bring the prosperity and peace to this land we so treasure. In the name of my dear son Samuel. Good night and may God bless the United States of America.”
Do not move. It’s not over.
The camera goes dark.
And it’s over.
I hurry to her, “You did good. Hit all the marks. Well done.”
“Get me out of here without questions. Tell them I’m emotional, but, you know, not falling apart or anything.”
“The revelation to the country of your departed son has left you raw and we’d appreciate your compassion and understanding.”
“Perfect. Where’s the car?”
“Through the kitchen.”
She nods and is gone. The camera crew packs and the grips roll cable. Another spectacle done.
I gather the desktop items for the next stop. Books. Bible. Bronzed baby shoes: my thrift store find of the year. Whoever wore these – the little sucker’s gonna walk us all the way to the White House.
Judgment Day 2016
and now we all own it, you and me.
The people marched and the people prayed,
but nothing could change that judgment day.
Some children cried and some children died,
while the politicians prayed and lied.
How can they not see, how can we not say
that every day is judgment day?
Guns and crack and smack and coke –
the rich get richer and the poor get broke.
How can they not see, how can we not say
that every day must be judgment day?
Beneath the machinations churning,
our hurting earth is slowly burning.
How can they not see, how can we not say
that every day is judgment day?
Harsh words, like wind, just wreak destruction,
and willful ignorance, corruption.
God help us if we don’t use better
judgment come next judgment day.
There’s yours and mine and theirs and our facts,
but truth is always way more complex,
hidden deep within the noisy fray.
Be truth in action on judgment day.
The Family That Votes Together…
Election Day was a big deal in my family. We went to the polls en masse. Of course my cousins and I couldn’t vote yet, but our mothers never missed it, and they wanted us there with them.
We loved it. The mystery of the draped booths. The slam of the big lever finalizing someone’s choices. The curtain screeching back on metal rods. The official poll watchers bustling about with their clipboards. We couldn’t wait until we were old enough.
It was a neighborly section of Brooklyn – old Brooklyn, not hip, not Millennial, not overpriced. It was everybody-knew-everybody Brooklyn. So when we’d bustle into the polling place with my grandma and her father – my great-grandfather – it was like arriving at a party. And it was expected that either my mother or my aunt would be assisting Grandma and Zadeh in their booths.
Grandma had emigrated from Russia, following her husband who had gone on ahead. She could read a little English but needed help with which lever went with which candidate.
Zadeh was already fragile by then, and his eyesight was failing so he had to have someone in the booth with him. But there was no possibility of his being influenced. They could hear him telling my mother, faintly but forcefully, who he wanted to vote for, and occasionally why. He wasn’t concerned with privacy. He’d been an activist in Russia, and was “asked to leave” the country because he caused so much trouble. This, at a time when leaving was forbidden. He was ancient now but the fire still glowed.
Probably where the family got their ferocity. No way was Grandma going to miss an election. Nor were my mother or my aunt. And when we finally came of age, we made a grand entrance into the polling place, with all the poll watchers and other voters congratulating us and shaking our hands.
But, I once asked my mother, why do the people we vote for, always lose? Adlai Stevenson twice to Eisenhower. George McGovern. Eugene McCarthy. We never got Ralph Nader, for all the times he ran. Or Al Gore (and we should have). We did get Kennedy, but not for long.
She laughed. Doesn’t matter, she said. Once, we couldn’t vote at all. Now we can. So we vote, and we vote for whomever we believe in.
And so even in this crushing new world of gerrymandering, voter suppression, machine rigging, and self-focused politicians, I always do.
It’s in my genes.
My grandmother Ruth,
born of Russian Jews,
drove in the Red Cross motor corps
at the end of the first World War.
In New York, she chauffeured
soldiers on ships wherever they needed to go,
took Spanish flu victims
to where they needed to go.
She wore her pin as proudly
as she did her right to vote, when it came.
She signed herself “Grandma,” in quotes
when she wrote, extolling
her grandchildren for everything:
our our school prizes, concert going, museum visits,
sketches, athleticism, my playing Emily Webb in Our Town.
She practiced yoga every day at home,
was the fastest walker in the City,
when we visited, she played Chopin Preludes
and had us invent dances.
Teaching yoga regularly, at the 92nd Street Y at seventy,
she was always dressed in leotards and a wrap skirt,
even swimming at Jones Beach, out on the island, near us,
where she vamped, hands on her hips, no skirt,
nose in the air. No cares.
Eighty-five, in red Keds, glasses ever lost
atop her head, she came with
my parents and my new husband
on our honeymoon on the Olympic Penninsula,
enjoying her cabin, like one we rented together
on Lake Willoughby when my siblings and I were children
that time she insisted we keep journals,
walk to town every day, play tennis after swimming.
She took Amy and me to Fire Island one summer,
where she took off her top on the beach,
she who had long celebrated female beauty:
praising, in contrast to our Catholic mother,
our own bra-unfettered breasts in our hippie days at home.
Born in 1900, she passed in 2007.
Today, on the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote,
I play note after note on my piano,
finding her again in Beethoven and Chopin.