After several dislocations during the previous decade, I was finally back in New York City. When I left New York, I had been living in Chelsea, a few doors down from a neighborhood bar called Peter McManus. Not being much of a barfly, I’d only gone there on occasion, but I passed it every day and recalled it as a comfortable enough place.
New York had changed dramatically in the intervening years. A friend of a friend of a friend was playing in a band at Arlene’s Grocery. It was a weird experience walking into the place and suddenly seeing a group of people I’d known when I was still in my late teens and hadn’t seen for twenty years. I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer. A man I thought was cute twenty years earlier sat down next to me and said, “Long time, no see.”
“I hear you’re married and living in the East Village,” I said.
“Divorced and living in Alphabet City,” he responded without much cheer. He held his hands up and mimed hanging of the edge of a cliff. “But I’m still on the island.”
“I’m less than a block away from being off the island myself.”
“Still on the island” summed up a lot about how New York had changed in the intervening years. New York had become colder, harsher, meaner, more of a Hobbesian nightmare than it had ever been during the eighties. If that’s not the image people have, it’s because it’s not only history that’s written by the winners. Journalism is too. Those people who make the t.v. shows and the movies, winners all. The two of us sitting at the bar that night weren’t slated to be winners. We probably knew it in our hearts even then, but we were still clinging to the life raft, to the past, to Manhattan.
Shortly after moving back to New York, a friend came to visit. He looked out my window. “One more block and you’d be in the East River.”
“Fuck, man, you’re in Brooklyn.”
It wasn’t only New York that had changed. A couple of years earlier, when I’d first returned to the U.S. I felt that I came back to a different country than the one I’d left. I’d been homesick and wanted nothing more than to go home and I’d been greeted with a culture shock I didn’t expect.
The radical politics of my youth, which I had come to question long before I left New York, seemed completely, utterly futile in the face of the growing conservatism of the country, a country that had grown more conservative even as Bill Clinton was president. Friends and acquaintances who disdained mainstream politics suddenly struck me as cutting off their noses to spite their faces. If I felt alienated from politics, the answer I felt was to get more involved, at the local level, the party level. I went down to city hall and changed my voter registration from independent to Democrat.
Although the 2004 elections were over a year away, candidates for the democratic nomination were beginning to declare themselves. I went online and researched each of them. I saw that Howard Dean was scheduled to speak at a venue on the Lower East Side. A day or two later, I signed up to volunteer.
In order to get on the ballot for the democratic nomination in New York State a candidate needs to get thousands of signatures. I was with a group of other Dean volunteers when they were talking about mounting a big petitioning effort.
“Where are we meeting,” I asked.
“At McManus.” Someone responded.
Everyone groaned and rolled their eyes. “You’re new to politics, huh?” McManus, I would soon find out, was the largest, oldest and most storied Democratic club in New York City, a leftover from when the corrupt Tammany Hall Democratic machine ruled New York in the nineteenth century.
A day or two later, I went down to the Hell’s Kitchen club on the west side near the theater district. There was a good turnout with a lot of people I hadn’t yet met. We teamed up in pairs, grabbed clipboards holding official green forms and fanned out across Midtown. I’d already done this with another woman during the day a week earlier out in Brooklyn. Now it was evening. A light freezing drizzle did not look encouraging for standing out on a street corner trying to get passersby in Manhattan to sign a petition. My partner was a petite, dark woman, about ten years my junior, whose name I no longer recall. We placed ourselves on a corner near Manhattan Plaza, a housing project for performing artists. It was dark and cold, and, as the night wore on, boring. As people passed by we called out, “Are you a registered Democrat?”
As the evening progressed, the number of people on the street increased with what appeared to be an after dinner crowed. Despite the heavy foot traffic, we got fewer and fewer signatures. The darkness and the weather seemed to make everyone walk more and more quickly. My partner told me that I was doing a bad job, approaching people who were obviously not Democrats.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
At that moment, a middle-aged couple who looked like the very image of well-fed Wasp prosperity were walking down the avenue in our direction. The man wore a camel colored coat that looked expensive even a block away. The woman wore fur. “Well,” my partner said, “I would bet anything that those two are Republicans!”
I stood at attention waiting for them to come within earshot.
“You’re wasting your time.”
“Are you a Democrat?” I called out.
The man came to a sudden halt and a broad smile covered his face, “Why, yes I am!”
“Would you like to sign a petition to get Howard Dean on the ballot.”
He smiled even more broadly, “Yes, I would!”
He took the clip board, lifted the pen, wrote his name and hesitated before the space for his address. “Honey,” he said, turning to his wife, “where are we registered to vote? The Hamptons or the East Side.”
“The East Side, darling.”
He finished writing his name and handed the petition to his wife. As his wife signed, the man in the camel colored coat shook our hands enthusiastically saying how it was so nice to meet us.
“It’s lonely being a Democrat.”
We tried not to laugh until they were out of earshot. Then we counted the number of signatures we’d gotten. As the drizzle turned to freezing rain, we decided it was time to get out of the cold.