Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What Did You Come For?

Tales from the ground, looking up at an election.

First, the media was long-ago comprised of educated and trained journalists informing the public in a manner that both enlighted and protected, not against opposite points of view, but against the overuse or abuse of government power. The media is now comprised of vapid, attention-deprived gossips with no interest in enlightenment or protection of the public, except as it relates to their own interests. They've become utterly useless in the public's preparation for an election.

Next, the election process is flawed, cumbersome, a bit tedious. Most candidates are either overly coiffed and look like they smell of cheap aftershave and Folgers or they are frumpy and rumpled and look like they smell like their last sandwich and Chai tea. Their qualifications are 'too entrenched', 'not entrenched but greasy-looking' or 'will get run-over by a mack truck on the first day in office'. They represent a system that appears to be intrinsically ignorant of the needy people, steered by the greedy people, and working only for the seedy people. Not what the forefathers had in mind, exactly.

Given all this, it may seem pointless to vote. Apathy may appeal, almost as a form of protest. In any case, one voice above the din of rampant malfeasence cannot be heard. This is how we talk ourselves into it, isn't it? I certainly have my doubts at 4 a.m. on election morning when I'm dragging myself to a polling place to set up for a long day as an election judge.

And then as the day gets underway in comes 91-year-old Ziskind, hobbling, cane in one hand, kleenex in the other, 50-something son trailing behind. He announces himself loudly and proudly, reminds me I never know how to pronounce his name (I do) takes hold of his ballot with the kleenex hand, stands at the booth, sometimes leaning precariously to one side or the other, and casts his ballot. Every single election. No matter the season, no matter the candidates. No matter. He is there every election. When he leaves he waves his kleenex good-bye, reminds me to remember him (I do) and scuttles off, good son trailing behind.

He never smiles at me.

I think he's still mad at me.

One year, I asked him how he managed to get to us in such terrible weather. Innocent enough, I thought - just making idle chat - remarking on his good health, I thought - a compliment, of sorts. That's why I was so taken aback when he answered me so sharply, as if I were some flaming idiot with sparks of stupidity flying off me and singing him, "Not to vote? Not vote? For what did I come? For my vote!" The 't' in that word had a 3-dimensional quality.

Why? Inherent in that clipped, deeply accented answer was the real one, a longer one, more painful. It said, without saying, that when a man had sacrificed as much as he had to achieve the privilege of voting, the notion of treating it like a tentative coffee date to be cast off due to inclement weather was so insulting he couldn't help himself but to punctuate with spittle.

So my question, a uniquely American one in its pomp and ridiculousness, was a rather elegant display of my in-bred ignorance. Because for those whose vote does not come by way of birthright, there is a question, but a different one altogether. On election day the question is - if a concentration camp doesn't stop you, and death-inducing poverty and famine don't stop you, if the takeover of your country by a military coup doesn't stop you, if oceans and barbed wire and sewers as gateways don't stop you - if you cannot be stopped no matter what pain you must endure to arrive in this country -will the cold or the snow stop you? What did you come for? Not to vote?

Not me. I remember Ziskind. And in so doing, I also remember the personal sacrifice made by others so that I could vote.

My father came to this country more than fifty years ago to escape a dictatorship in his home country where, to this day, the dictator's party still holds all executive, legislative and judicial power at all federal, provinicial and municipal levels. All the power. One party. No change. Why? Because the vote is pointless there and the people vote simply to please the dictator. Fifty years, no change in power. No vote.

My father left his home as young man and never went back. He could have stayed, kept his head down, worked, lived. He could have given up, been apathetic. Instead, he chose a different path. He came here. It was hard for him, scary, and included more than one confrontation with imminent death. He swam past all that, literally, to get here, to marry here, to have a daughter. Here.

I haven't seen my father in many years for reasons too long to tell. When last I saw him he was tall, strong, handsome, a real man's man. Now, because time is a rigid collector, I know he is older, greyer, perhaps stooped. Maybe he walks with a cane. Whatever else may be, my father has my heart for many reasons and not the least of them is this - he gave me a life and a chance to vote.

I take neither for granted.

And I vote.

Do you?

What did you come for?

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