Along Harlem's West 125th Street, a part of this fabled neighborhood that's in the early throes of gentrification, signs of the New Prosperity are mixed in with the offtrack-betting counters, wig shops, discount stores and the Lady Love boutique.
A sprawling new Magic Johnson cineplex is being completed near the intersection of West 125th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, along with a massive Old Navy store and an HMV music store. Just across the street is the legendary Apollo Theater, where Democratic candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley tried to mobilize African-American voters behind their campaigns two long weeks ago.
Volunteers for both camps are plying West 125th; a phalanx of older Jamaican women are distributing "Only Gore" buttons and fliers to passersby.
When I tell them I am a journalist, and that I'm looking for the nearest polling booth, they ask me for identification. After a momentary pause, one of them then tells me to "keep on walking." These three women, in their 11th-hour effort to rally voters, aren't going to have some scrappy reporter from the Washington press corps interfere with their work.
Moments later, a Bradley for President minivan pulls up across from the Apollo, blaring sound bites from the candidate and an unnamed endorser who sounds an awful lot like Spike Lee, and probably is. As I search frantically for the rumored polling station in this neighborhood, I come across vendors selling books by and about Sister Souljah and Louis Farrakhan. The political process seems alive and well on West 125th Street.
A few blocks away at the Ennis Francis House, a brownstone high-rise apartment building catering to a cross-section of Harlem residents -- from Section 8 housing recipients to young professionals -- is the polling station. For the 45 minutes I wait at the exit, all of three voters emerge. The first, an attractive college-educated woman in her late 20s, tells me she voted for Gore "because he was under Clinton, who's been good to our community. I usually follow the majority, so that's who I'm going with."
As she's giving me her insights, a rowdy group of guys walk by. One of them taps me on the shoulder in a friendly gesture. "Hey professional, you probably know this ... Can a felon register to vote?"
I ask another man leaving the booth whom he voted for. "A Democrat," he responds, unwilling to elaborate further.
I speak to one last woman, who is also unwilling to go on the record.
A little later, a Bradley supporter, a professional in her 40s, offers this: "Let's just say I'm not voting for the son of the former president. And I'm not voting for Gore either because [Manhattan Borough President] C. Virginia Fields is one of his delegates." She goes on to tell me that volunteers at the precinct told her the turnout up to that point had been dismal -- a mere 90 or so voters -- and it is only a couple of hours now until closing time.
But when I ask the volunteers themselves for their estimate of the turnout, they decline to comment, and ask to see my I.D. This whole thing reminds me of that old joke about what it's like talking to people in New York: "Excuse me. Do you know what time it is? Or shall I just go fuck myself?"