The day before the election I bike down to the museum. I want to try for about the thousandth time to understand Joseph Cornell’s boxes. I try, lingering in the darkened gallery where they’re displayed in a vitrine which, unfortunately, reflects so much of the room that the art within is hopelessly half-obscured in a kind of hall of mirrors. It doesn’t help me to understand these impregnable little mystery objects at all. Besides, the day before this election is no time to learn something new. I give up and go a few rooms away to perhaps my favorite painting in the whole museum.

I sit by Matisse’s Woman before an Aquarium and stare into the distance like she does.

The alarm rings a little past 4am the next morning. I put on some clothes in the dark, get on the bike and peddle to Dunkin’ Donuts. I walk the bike east on 31st, eating a greasy sausage/egg croissant and sipping coffee. I turn north on Parnell and park the bike by the south entrance of Robert Healy Elementary School. There’s no one around. I walk north to the next door and see a few young people waiting there. No one acknowledges the others’ presence. A few minutes later a security guard pokes her head out and tells us to walk to the north entrance in the parking lot. We’re joined there by a couple women and an older man. The guard opens the door to the gym and we file in.

The following hour and a half is free-for-all chaos. It is clear that none of us has set a polling place up for an election before. The online training we all presumably passed in order to do this work is of little use with no practical experience and no one in charge. The coordinator for the 18th Precinct is a Chinese woman with marginal English and a wheedling manner which inspires little confidence. She spends a lot of time studying her heavily marked up handbook, then running over to one or another of us with pleading, hectoring requests/demands. In the fifteen hours I spend in the same room with her I’m never sure whether she’s asking or telling.

At 6:30am—half an hour late—we open the doors to voters. There aren’t many but they’re not pleased with us. I overhear several of my fellow workers explain that we’ve never done any of this before, pleading for patience. By and by roles among the five or six of us—there are two precincts sharing this gym and it’s never entirely clear where a few of the younger kids are actually assigned—become more or less defined. I station myself by the ballot box to help voters feed their ballots in, give them an I VOTED sticker, and thank them for voting. In the training it is suggested that election judges learn each of the work stations and periodically switch jobs, but in practice, once we get the hang of one task no one is eager to change it up.

About an hour in the screen on the ballot box scanner flashes an error message and no longer accepts ballots. The coordinator calls tech support but in the meantime I’m forced to tell voters to put their ballots in a slot in the side of the supply cabinet. Every third or fourth person gives me a suspicious look but I assure them their vote will be counted. An obese woman arrives to check on the malfunction but leaves a few minutes later, saying our scanner has to be replaced. Another even more overweight woman comes an hour later, messes around with the chords and connections and announces the scanner operational. After she leaves, per handbook instructions, I ask a Republican judge—a Chinese high-schooler—to help me feed in the ballots which have piled up in the supply cabinet. It feels like a sloppy, borderline wrong procedure. Several ballots are rejected for overvoting or ambiguous marks but we can’t fix them as the voters are long gone. The coordinator puts in another call to higher ups but this issue isn’t addressed again until just before 7pm when we’re closing shop.

Throughout the day my sense of time and reality warp and slow. It’s that purgatory bureaucratic feeling. A lot of clock-watching and daydreaming. When you’re trapped in a room the mind goes to all the places you’d rather be, all the things you’d rather do if you didn’t have to be here. The truth is that if I wasn’t in this gym at Healy Elementary I wouldn’t be doing anything worthwhile. One of the reasons I signed up to be an election judge, aside from wanting to have a front-row seat to the messy process of American-style democracy, is that I wanted to be occupied with a task on a day I knew would be fraught and likely unproductive otherwise. The creeping dread of the past year leading up to this day demanded some higher level of participation. This is the best thing I could think to do.

In the fourteen hours we’re open less than two hundred peopIe cast ballots. The vast majority of the electorate has already voted. This antiquated in-person ritual feels completely out of touch with contemporary life, especially in the middle of a plague. It’s absurd that we still do it this way. Still, there is a sense of urgency and mission among those who I talk to. Many are voting for their very first time. Not just eighteen year olds but also middle- and pension-aged citizens. That’s encouraging. But I can’t help but notice that a few people have voted for the monster as they feed their sheets into the machine. It’s depressing but I thank them for voting anyway and don’t let on what I think of them.

The oldest member of our group is an elderly Hispanic man named Cervantes. After helping set up the portable voting booths he’s relegated to sitting by the door to hand out I VOTED stickers. Throughout the day he periodically approaches me and says some words, half of which I don’t catch. I nod because I can tell he just wants a moment of communion or commiseration. Then he stands silently for a few seconds before moving on to someone else and repeating the ritual. In the non-time of this day it feels like this and many other mostly pointless gestures are repeated dozens of times. I can’t help think of the old man’s namesake who wrote about a fool who wanted to be a hero. Is that all of us in this room? In this country? 

At closing time I concentrate on disassembling the ballot scanner and transmitting the votes to be tabulated via wireless. The coordinator keeps running up and saying things, I do my best not to be rude, but tell her to go away so I can get this one job done. Sometime early in the day an election worker asked for a volunteer to deliver the completed ballots and gear to a central drop-off point and, unthinkingly, I raised my hand. It was good for an extra $25. Now a rolling case and knapsack filled with forms, memory cards, etc which we’ve done our best to pack is in my possession. We disperse with barely a goodbye. It’s been a long day and I didn’t learn anyone’s name. Because we’re all masked I haven’t seen most of their faces and wouldn’t recognize them on the street.

One coworker sees me wheeling the travel cases toward my bike and asks how far I have to take them. It’s about five blocks away. That’s not so far, she decides, gets in her car and drives away. I pull the case behind me awkwardly while walking the bike, then fasten the handle to the back rack and slowly ride south. The long line of waiting pollworkers see me pull up and laughs and applauds. I must make a funny sight with my trailer hitched cargo. I take my place at the end of the queue. It’s nearly 10pm when I’m free to go home.

I buy a breaded steak sandwich and onion rings and shovel them in my mouth at the kitchen table while refreshing the New York Times election page. It doesn’t look good. I throw away the food half-eaten and go to sleep. I wake three times throughout the night and open the laptop to look, then fall back asleep. In the morning things look slightly better but there won’t be a definitive result for awhile. I’ve voted in every election since I was eighteen but this is the first I’ve felt part of. I have no idea if what I did served any purpose or whether it was an elaborate distraction designed to occupy people needing tasks to do while actual decisions are made elsewhere.

I probably will never do it again but I’m glad to say I’ve now seen how it works.

p.s. I reviewed Pete Beatty’s Cuyahoga.