Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Monday, April 24, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 20

Dear Folks,

Well, we did it. Another New Orleans milestone has been passed. We had an election. Yay!!!

Okay, so let’s recap: we’ve now had Mardi Gras, we have our mail delivered ALMOST every day (some of it) and we (occasionally) have our garbage collected.

So everything’s back to normal, right?

Well, not exactly. But the election was another big step. And I hope (and pray) that it’ll be seen as such by the rest of the world, which ranges from Jesse Jackson to Wall Street to the powers that be up on Capitol Hill. New Orleans still has a long way to go, but having an orderly, efficient, much diminished but still well-patronized election should go some distance towards silencing at least one segment of the nay-sayers. I’m referring to those who see the city as too riven by racism and disenfranchisement to survive. Well, we CAN survive, and we’re doing it. We can be civil and responsible and democratic and play by the rules. And we did. It was a long day, for those like Bill and me who were working the polls, but I can’t overstate how moving and gratifying and exciting it was to be there.

We started out by waking up at 3:30 AM worrying we were going to screw things up (pre-exam jitters, in other words). Actually, getting up at 3:30 AM wasn’t a bad idea, since we had to be at our assigned polling places by 5:30 AM. As I may have mentioned, Bill was at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church on 3rd Street, a pretty devastated area that’s coming back, but very very slowly. I was at the fire station on Magazine Street where Bill and I will normally vote...i.e. the Garden District polling place, although given the city’s on-going destruction, four other precincts were also voting there temporarily. A good deal of the day’s confusion, in fact, resulted from people not knowing which table to go to to sign in, and which machines to use to cast their votes. But things went remarkably smoothly. We were understaffed, and most of us had only the haziest idea of what we were doing, but we learned as we went along and by the end of the day, damn if we weren’t pretty good at it! Yours truly was signing ‘em in, writing down their names on the log sheets, turning on the machines, explaining the procedure, and even cracking jokes and playing sing-along games with the kids who were waiting around outside while their parents voted. It was a happy, moving, empowering experience for everyone, and the attitude quotient was effectively nil.

And what a cross-section of humanity! The precinct whose voting machine I was manning is located across Magazine in the Irish Channel, which means today it’s a mixture of old time Irish retirees and black families, with a smattering of young white professionals. We had a man (his name was O’Rourke) with the most luxuriant nose hair I’ve ever seen on a human being (when you’re sitting watching people in line you have time to notice such things) hugging and weeping with joy to see his neighbor, a woman who also had the map of the Old Sod on her face. They compared notes on their losses and reassured one another that they were indeed home for good. We had black families coming in with some of the most beautiful children I’ve ever seen: pastel-dressed cuties with eyes like warm ink, brimming with shy mischief. And some people really got dressed up in their Sunday best. There was a gentleman in a white linen suit complete with white bucks and a Panama hat. There were women in Prada sandals and silk dresses, and women in tennis shoes and sweats, and a gorgeous young thing, her milk-white skin decorated with some of the most exquisite tattoos I’ve ever seen (I got the name of the parlor she uses...I still want to get some ink).

There was a guy, jet black and built like a line-backer, who’d been a waiter at Commander’s (still closed) and who came by after finishing his shift in the French Quarter. There was a couple who came in (around 5 PM) so inebriated you could smell their breath across the room: he’s an old-time Garden District resident while she’s a recent emigree from France, and they met and fell in love while toughing out the storm here. There was a man, so frail he shook like a leaf in a high wind, who revealed he’d just gotten out of the hospital the day before. When one of the workers held him up while he voted, he announced this would be his last election, since he’d probably be dead soon. The worker, God bless him, told him he’d have to stay alive for another month to vote in the run-off.

And there were neighbors and friends, and greetings shouted across the room, and recipes exchanged during lulls in the action (along with restaurant like crab cheesecake, there’s this place in Metairie that makes it with a pecan crust...savory, not too much Tabasco...) and towards the end of the day someone’s wife brought in a couple of trays of lasagna and it started to feel like a party. We were dog tired (the polls closed at 8 PM, and we’d been there non-stop) but we were also jazzed and proud of ourselves and even more proud of our fellow citizens.

And yes, we were also avid to see how our precincts had voted! Fortunately, one of the rules (I don’t know if this was new or not) requires that each machine’s tally by posted in the window of the polling place for all to see. Suddenly, out of the darkness, a swarm of campaign workers and reporters gathered like moths, and we joined them, and read how our neighbors had chosen. It wasn’t a scientific sample, since we’d only had five precincts to observe, but we’d been observing them all pretty closely all and now we wanted to see what they’d done.

So how did they vote?

Well, the Garden District went to Forman, as did much of Uptown, but as you all probably know by now, he finished third: still enough to be a king-maker, but not a king. Nagin did better than expected, and you know, I’m actually pleased as all hell about that. I voted for Forman, but I think I may vote for Nagin in the run-off. We’ll see. Nagin took the precinct I was working for handily, but Landrieu did well too, and he may very well end up being our next mayor. He can certainly draw the cross-over vote. And as I said in the previous blog, at least all three men seem to be very VERY smart. So I feel cautiously optimistic that whoever’s running this city a month from now, at least won’t be a neophyte, or an extremist, or a fool.

Actually the fringe people, even among the major candidates, did surprisingly poorly (including Virginia Boulet and the Rev. Tom Watson), leading me to think voters here are far less concerned with pie-in-the-sky than with practicalities. Peggy Wilson, our local Klan pin-up, got even LESS votes than our other favorite “character”, Kimberley Williamson Butler. Rob Couhig finished fourth, and while I’m personally glad he’s out of the picture (I thought some of his positions were dangerous), I think his good showing was also based on his focusing on pragmatic details. And I think that’s a good sign right now. New Orleans may be the city that care forgot, but New Orleanians these days are very, VERY serious. They don’t want cheap rhetoric, and they’re looking at things very closely. They’re watching the whole process, and they’re as alert as anything to make sure the butcher’s thumb never comes anywhere NEAR the scales.

So what happens next? Now there’s a run-off in four weeks, between Nagin and Landrieu, and also between several lesser candidates (including our own City Council member) who failed to receive an initial mandate. Bill and I will be working the polls again, and I’ll have to remember to bring something nice for us to eat at the end of the day, maybe some crab cheesecake. I told the people I was working with that I felt like I’d been in the trenches with them, and it’s true: we were tired, we’d been bored, we’d been frazzled, but we’d also done something momentous. At least let’s hope so. Elections are only as good as the behavior of those we elect, but as some of us have learned to our sorrow, they can be more important than anyone can conceive of at the time.

Now there’s Jazz Fest and a party for us to give, and I’ll let you know how all of THAT goes! Meanwhile, all I can say is get involved. Work the polls in your community. Vote. Maybe even run for office. It matters. Lemme tell you. Hurricanes aren’t the only things that can hurt you.

And when bad stuff happens, it matters who’s minding the store.




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