At 9 a.m. on Election Day, 2004, I do what I've done every Election Day since I moved to a street I'll call Fairlawn in North Oakland, Calif., in 1989: I call my neighbor, Ms. Anderson, and ask her when we're going to vote.
"Come get me now, baby," she says, but when I knock on the door of her sea-foam green stucco house, three houses down from my yellow clapboard Victorian, I hear her shuffling to the door, still in her slippers. She wrestles the door open, reaches up to wrap her matchstick arms around me, pulls me tight against her 4-foot-11, 85-pound body. "Sit with me while I finish my breakfast." I follow her into her bedroom. She lowers herself into the Naugahyde chair at the foot of her king-size bed. On the TV tray in front of her is a single scrambled egg, one slice of turkey bacon, a fist-size bowl of Grape Nuts in milk. She takes a bite, sets her fork down, shakes her head. "Everything takes so long now. It took me half an hour just to button my blouse."
Ms. Pauline Anderson is 96 years old. And until last year when her blood pressure roared up and sent her to bed, she was curbside each morning by 8, sweeping her gutter and her neighbors' with her stub of a straw broom, shooing off the BART commuters who tried to park in front of her house. "The mayor of Fairlawn Street" we've always called her, and still do, although since Ms. Anderson got sick she hasn't been convening the neighborhood meetings she used to call when a crack house on the corner was breeding break-ins, when a neighbor fell ill and needed help, when a lesbian couple was being harassed by their next-door neighbor -- prompting Ms. Anderson to announce to the harasser and the entire assemblage, "There's one thing we don't tolerate on Fairlawn Street. And that's intolerance."
Since Ms. Anderson got sick she hasn't even made it to the East Oakland church where, just last year, my middle-aged wife and I, along with 100 of her closest friends -- a lively crowd of elderly African-Americans -- celebrated her 95 years as a civil rights activist, member of America's first black sorority, oral historian, mother, and friend.
When Ms. Anderson can't get to church, church comes to Ms. Anderson. And so do we. In her living room, dropping off a plate of the treats she asks for -- homemade lemon bars, baked chicken, a bag of pre-washed spinach -- I often run into church members and neighbors doing the same thing.
It's three blocks to our polling place, the funky rec room of a dilapidated community center on Shattuck Avenue. Every Election Day until this one, Ms. Anderson rounded up and marched to the polls a troop of Fairlawn Street voters: her fellow widows, all of whom moved up from the South in the 1950s, all of whom bought their three-bedroom houses for $12,500, all of whose husbands died years ago of heart attacks and strokes; her niece, who lives next door; and the rest of us: the 30-to-50-year-old "newcomers," most of us white, many of us lesbian or gay. Along the way, Ms. Anderson would tell us our neighborhood's story: That's the house where Johnnie Mae lived till her daughter died; look how that renter is letting old Ms. Jackson's yard go; remember how quiet it was on Fairlawn Street before they put the BART station in. But this year I'm driving Ms. Anderson. This year she clings to me, her breath rattling sharply against her chest, taking careful baby steps as we hike from her front door to the curb.
"Ms. Anderson!" "Pauline!" Her name rings from the rec room rafters as she sweeps into the polling place on my arm, like Julia Roberts making her entrance at the Oscars, stopping to hug her adoring fans, greeting each one -- black, white and other, young, middle-aged and senior -- by name.
"Right this way, Ms. Anderson." Mr. Harrison, the wizened 80-year-old who's been running this polling place at least as long as I've been around, takes her from me, leads her to the front of the line. He escorts Ms. Anderson into a voting booth, hands her a plastic voting card and a Q-tip, asks if she'll be OK.
Ms. Anderson beckons to me from across the room. The crowd parts; I leave my spot at the end of the line and squeeze into the booth beside her. "You got the list, baby?" she asks. I pull out the door hanger that guides her vote and mine, every time: the recommendations of our beloved rebel congresswoman Barbara Lee. This is our first time using an electronic voting machine, but Ms. Anderson seems unfazed -- until she taps the box next to John Kerry's name with her Q-Tip and nothing happens. So I cover her hand with mine, exerting the necessary pressure.
"Measure BB?" she prompts me. "Yes," I read, Barbara Lee's list in my left hand, my right hand on hers.
"Medical marijuana?" she asks. I search the list. "It's not on here," I tell her.
"Ask Mark." Ms. Anderson nods at the man in the next booth.
"Yes," Mark whispers, and I help Ms. Anderson vote to make prosecution of marijuana possession a low priority for the city of Oakland. I wonder, briefly, what an election observer would make of our four-handed operation, but our only observers are our neighbors, who know Ms. Anderson would no sooner cheat on an election than vote Republican, and know too that unless she lives to be 100 -- "which she just might do," I overhear her niece saying -- this will be her last chance to vote.
"Did you see all those young kids in there, voting?" Ms. Anderson asks as I help her to my car, her step distinctly more sprightly going out than it was coming in. I agree that there were a lot of young black men voting today. "That's the Black Panthers, got those kids out to vote," she tells me. As we pull up to her house I notice that the Kerry/Edwards sign in her window -- first one up on our block, this time around, as always -- is buckling in the heat of the sun.
"You know, when I was a girl in Texas, we used to have to pay $1.50 poll tax to vote," Ms. Anderson tells me as I help her inside. "That was a lot of money back then. But my daddy gave me that $1.50 so I could vote. Haven't missed an election since."
"Think we have a chance this time?" I ask.
Ms. Anderson looks up at me, her eyes milky cataract blue over bittersweet brown. "It's tough, baby," she says, and dread stabs a hole in my fragile optimism. She's never called an election wrong yet. "But we gotta do what we can do," she says. "And that's what we just did."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
On the day after Election Day, I wake up with a Mack truck on my chest. At 5 a.m. the newscasters are still talking about votes yet to be counted. By 8 a.m. there's word of a Kerry concession soon to come. A friend in New York e-mails that she's researching real estate in France. A friend from Los Angeles e-mails that she can't work because she's "psychotically depressed." A friend in Berkeley calls, crying for the future of her 9-month-old son.
I notice that I am not hearing from the friends I don't have in Ohio, Florida or Texas.
I ask my wife, who moved from France to be with me, for forgiveness. I bring her a cup of Peet's coffee in bed, to remind her of the good life we enjoy here in America. I spill it on our white Ikea sheepskin rug.
I flick on our 30-inch HDTV and watch a panel of perky, pretty 34-year-old Beltway wonks analyzing Bush's victory. "People voted their values," says one. "In the end, this wasn't an election about the war, or the economy, or healthcare," says another. "It was an election about gay rights and abortion and Jesus."
I carry a bowl of brown basmati rice and vegetables to Ms. Anderson's house. She comes to the door in a shocking pink fleece bathrobe, pink terry cloth slippers, and a pink bandanna tied around her head. "Did I wake you?" I ask.
She shakes her head. "I stayed up till 1 in the morning. They're still counting, right?"
I shake my head. "Is it bad?" she asks.
"Worse than we could have imagined," I answer.
"I like to think there's a reason for everything," Ms. Anderson says, "but I sure can't see a reason for this." She follows me into her kitchen. I transfer the rice and vegetables from my bowl to hers. "We're going to suffer," she says quietly, her head hanging so low it brushes her fake granite Formica countertop. "And it's the colored people, the poor people who are going to suffer the most."
"Of all the elections you've been through," I ask, "which was the worst?"
"This one," Ms. Anderson answers without hesitation. "We never had all that burning and bombing over here. It's always been over there. And now we're gonna have more of it."
We hug goodbye. I feel her heart thudding through the thin wall of her chest. I think about the note that's taped to our fridge: "To my 2 Very Dear Friends, I love you! Lots And Lots. Don't ever leave Fairlawn Street. Lovingly, The Ole lady, Ms. Anderson."
"Don't forget, baby," Ms. Anderson tells me as she walks me to the door. "When all those politicians have jumped off the bridge, us little people will still be here, making the world go 'round."