Wednesday, November 16, 2016

One of the Best Days of My Life

This is a tale of one of the best days of my life.
Last Tuesday morning began with not a cloud in sight. Crisp, maybe heavy sweater weather,  a day to be outside enjoying mid-fall.

I woke early, as is my habit, went to a local bagel place for breakfast and headed to my niece's home where I had stayed overnight. This part of Philly was teeming with the young and white. While I am considerably older than young,  I fit in without notice here.

By mid-morning I had traveled about five miles into a different universe. This area of North Philly had been through hard times, it's inhabitants having been witness to a world far removed from the one I had just left.

My assignment for Election Protection on this day was to cover three polling districts to assure no voting irregularities had occurred. I had studied the video, read through the one page cheat sheet on how to deal with various problems that arose, worried about the dirty tricks that I feared Republican operatives might use to keep the people in this area of town from casting ballots.

I was paired with a young woman, a lawyer who had grown up in China, arriving in the US at age 14.  Over the course of the day, I would learn her story, as well as that of a remarkable group of the most friendly, open people I have ever met.

First, my partner. She came to this country, and settled with her family in Brooklyn, hardly a word of English at her command. She began high school unable to comprehend any lesson her teachers were imparting. "How", I asked, "had she survived academically"?

She told me she copied down everything written on the blackboard. Then each night she would sit and translate, word by word, until she could find meaning in the phrases.
One class proved particularly frustrating, as nothing on her piece of paper could be found in the dictionary. It would be some time before she would realize she was taking a Spanish course.
Four years later she would graduate as salutatorian, attend an Ivy league university, then a well respected law school. Now she was employed at one of Philly's top firms.

Our first stop was at Sixth and Indiana. It was a little after 10 AM and a steady flow of people arrived at this polling place. Two men, in their late 20's or early 30's, were giving out handouts reminding those about to enter the school auditorium of who the best candidates were on the ballot.
What I noticed here, and elsewhere, was how warm and friendly everyone was, not only to each other, but also to these two strangers, this young Asian woman and this old Jewish guy, who were assuredly not from around there.
We took pictures of the two young men who would spend from first light of day to last in this locale. As one of them posed and instead of saying "cheese" mouthed "gangsta", there was a sense of camaraderie between us. The plastic chairs they brought to allow them some rest for weary legs were offered to myself and my partner during our watch.
From our first locale we moved a few blocks, on foot, to our next stop. As we walked the streets of row houses, most neatly maintained but some showing the ravages of time and scarce finances, my partner said some had questioned why she had chosen this neighborhood for her volunteer work. This day would provide her the answer.
Standing guard outside our next destination was a man, seemingly about my age, who told his life's tale without prompting. He was two years my senior, had lived in this part of town one year shy of half a century. He was a father of four, grandfather of twenty two, and great grandfather of two. He spoke of next year being his 50th wedding anniversary, of renewing his vows before an expected crowd of 170. I learned of his large family gathering on Thanksgiving and of his wife baking pies for three days straight. Within minutes I was referring to my new friend as Gramps and had invited myself to this year's Thanksgiving gathering.
After several minutes of  this monologue, my new friend turned away from me to greet a woman who appeared to be slightly younger than us. She was with three girls who I guessed were her children.

He gave her a deep hug and told her that he was sorry. I thought he was apologizing for not noticing her. Within seconds it was clear his words had a far different meaning.
The night before, but a few blocks from where we now stood, this woman's son had been shot and killed, outside her doorstep, in a confrontation with the police. Yet, here she was, in the midst of that tragedy, arriving to vote.
I interceded, with but one question. "Why have you taken the time to come here."
"It is just too important to make sure that Hillary wins."
I thought about how I would have responded to a similar event in my life, and where an election, even a Presidential election, would have fit into the day after such a horrendous tragedy. But I also considered what I could never know: how hard life must be for so many who live here, how violence and loss is more part of the fabric of this neighborhood than I could ever perceive, and that maybe this woman had learned a perspective that was remarkable and far beyond my capacity to grasp.

From here, my partner and I walked to our last stop. My son had gone on line to help me map out the route of the places I would be monitoring and he remarked as to the beauty of the façade of the community center, home to this polling site.
Here, the exterior had been painted in glorious designs and colors, with an overlay that was sculpted and fit perfectly into the motif.
A long folding table sat just outside the entrance. There I struck up conversation with a gentleman, also approximately my age, another local face standing guard.. He was Muslim, his skull cap giving expression to his beliefs. He informed me that he had lost seven of his siblings in the last two years. I did not ask the circumstances and he did not offer explanations.

But I did ask how he had coped with so much loss. "When we arrive here and when we leave, is written and ordained. I am just happy and grateful for the time I had with all of them."
He would soon be called upon to deal with an issue posed. As my partner and I stood there, another man approached.
"I am Legend, and my name is written into this building." With that, he walked me around to the other corner of this community center. There, inscribed, was a thank you to those who had been instrumental in what was most likely the revitalization of this site. And yes, there was Legend's name.

He had been a local sports hero growing up, a multi talented athlete. He had gone to college for one year, a basketball walk-on who did not make the grade. But here he was a half century later, in this same neighborhood, volunteering to coach the game he still loved and telling kids that the only way out was with their brains.
I was just the vessel for these people to express the stories of their lives and their neighborhood. They were more open and forthcoming as a group than any I had ever encountered. Theirs were stories of love, of perseverance, of finding balance and grace in difficult and often tragic circumstances.

There was a calm and joy here, people greeting one another with hugs, smiles and an undeniable sense of community and belonging.
My studying of the information given to me had been unnecessary. There was but one question posed to me during my entire watch. As an issue of proper registration to vote was being discussed, a poll worker ran outside and told the young man to return to the booth. It had all been resolved.

People watching out for each other. People making me and my partner feel welcome and appreciated. People who were in many ways, some of the finest people I have ever had the privilege to meet. It was one of the best days of my life.
Followed shortly thereafter by one of my worst nights. Ever.


Anonymous said...

Emphasizing the positive, that is such a heart-warming story. So comforting and hopeful to know there so many good people in our midst to meet and mingle with along our journey through life.

Anonymous said...

great piece. next time take me along


Anonymous said...

what a great read. thank you


Anonymous said...

This was a marvelous day you had with all your new friends.
Why did it have to end in such a nightmare for all of us? Still in shock.


Robert said...

The best of times, the worst of times. All in a single day.

Anonymous said...

And the worst times for the next 4 years… :-(((
Letters to the editor in our paper keep calling for California to secede with WA and OR and the East Coast also from RI to MD (?).