Shortly after noon today, I walked into a nondescript school on Union Street and emerged minutes later changed, somehow off balance as if the earth shifted in its orbit never to return to the same path again. It was within that passage of time that I somehow became a Californian. It was a subtle event. A man asked my name and a young woman handed me a marker and a few sheets of paper. I stood over a tall, thin legged table and recalled my previous research from the night before and again earlier this morning. I drew lines connecting arrows and slid two sheets into a counting filing cabinet, 45 and 46. A second young woman leaned forward and handed me a sticker, “Thank you for voting.”
Usually voting makes me feel empowered, part of a great system. I voice my opinion and in exchange someone adds one more tick to a column in a back room. It’s small but it counts. Today I felt alone. At any moment I thought someone would wag an accusatory finger in my face, “How long have you been here? Three weeks? You don’t know how things work yet. We’ll tell you when your opinion will count, but it’s not today!”
I’ve voted in numerous elections, across several towns and cities, but always in my home state – Massachusetts. The reputation would have you believe that some generations retired to brownstones after a day of sailing on the harbor. Sitting around the fireplace they would wrap two fingers around their chins as a thorough analysis played out for each ballot question and politician’s stance point by point, confirming agreement with deep sighs through stiff jaws. A caricature of a privileged New Englander. Other discussions would be held around dinner tables holding ever shrinking portions for expanding families. Flannel fathers cradling callouses and forks, expounding on the need to look out for the everyman. Barroom walls would reverberate with the baritone registers of thoughtful debates turning physical as the night wore on. We would all do our duty and one by one make our way to the polls to speak our minds with a check or an “X”, walking a bit taller for a few moments afterward, chest puffed out, smiling to the next passerby.
I’m sure it was never exactly as idyllic as my memory. I’m sure it was much less romantic and much more normal. But when you leave a place and land somewhere new, the memories wrap you in a mother’s embrace, reassuringly strong, before you go back out into the world.