Before the polls opened, before the sun rose, they arrived.
Brought by pick-up by a man with slicked-back hair who kept calling one of them by the wrong name, the four yawned their way into the defunct Polish-language parish school to fill out poll watcher forms, then to the trucks for signs.
Signs after signs.
Signs for the committeeman they were paid to electioneer for, signs for his slate, his friends, aligned political candidates in races from local judicial seats to Congress. Paid for by different “Friends of” and “Citizens for” groups, but delivered from the same truck by the same four men who would spend the next 13 hours standing outside a closed parish school.
I volunteered for a campaign yesterday. I was a poll watcher in name, but my work involved standing outside the opposite street corner from a friend, accosting voters with fliers and pledges.
The four other men outside the polling place were paid, I believe. Or at least Israel said he was.
He wasn’t sure how much it would be, but he would be glad to have it. He had been picking up shifts at a chocolate factory on the South Side, he said. They hadn’t put him on the schedule in two weeks.
Juan left a little before 7 p.m. to go to work. He had been at the polling place since 6 a.m. but had to go to his night job, booting cars for the city.
He hated working the South Side. They always hear him coming.
“They can hear a pin drop,” he said.
Juan said he had worked every election for 26 years. He couldn’t have been more than 30, probably four years less. He and Omar talked lovingly about candidates they knew, respected, admired.
Piotr, he didn’t talk much. What he did say in broken Polish-English was kind.
I expected to hate these men, or at least feel better than them. I was a volunteer, free for a candidate I believed in. They were paid party operatives, stumbling over names of the candidates on their slate and pulling out sign after sign for Machine flunkies they had never heard of.
Instead, I found myself admiring their hustle. They were making a buck, yes, but doing it for an alderman/committeeman they liked, even if the other names on their signs and fliers (including my candidate’s opponent) were blanks to them.
Other precincts had the opponent’s smear campaign ads. We had four tired guys handing out lists of candidates their guy liked. Other precincts had ballot confusion and election judges who threatened our peers. Our judges offered us pizza.
Other precincts were everything they said Chicago voting is.
Ours either was a kind blip or I was too dumb to catch on what was beneath the surface. But the system worked. The stupid, brutal, horrible, corrupt, venal, money-laden political system created something nice and kind, at least for a few hours on the grass outside one defunct Polish-language parish school in Chicago, Illinois.