`I've got to vote tonight'

I VOTE in every election. People tell me that I'm being old-fashioned, that all the candidates are the same and that no one ever won or lost by a single vote. I have never had a terrific comeback to this argument because my reasons for voting are complicated. It all goes back 10 years to the time my brother and I worked on the Savoy Hotel in downtown Seattle. The Savoy was a fine hotel in 1905 when it was built, but a few years later downtown Seattle moved five blocks to the north, leaving the Savoy to become a second-class hotel.

Over the years it descended a few classes as it grew older and successive owners went skinny on maintenance, but at the time I came to know it the place was still a cut above a flophouse. At least, if it was a flophouse, it was a high-class flophouse.

Anyway, a friend bought the Savoy and decided to do something about the chimney, which was in danger of falling into the parking lot below and putting a dent in someone's windshield. The Savoy was 12 stories high, which means that according to the laws of acceleration there would have been a significant dent in whatever a brick hit. The mortar had weathered loose from the bricks, which were sitting there, on top, waiting to go over.

My brother and I agreed to do the job for a paltry fee. Then we found out that the elevator didn't go all the way up. We spent the first morning dragging brick mortar from the top of the elevator up two stairways and through a hatch to the roof. We built a scaffold on the roof and figured to lower it around the chimney with ropes.

We wanted to get going on it that afternoon, but no one would move the cars down below. So we waited until dinner time when the cars left, blocked off the parking spaces, and lowered the scaffold into place. A few bricks fell, and when they landed on the asphalt below they made sharp reddish dots surrounded by circles of red dust, something like asteroids hitting the moon. We lashed the scaffold in place, then began tearing out loose brick.

The chimney was rectangular, covered with soot on the inside, and gave off sulfurous gas. Neither of us wanted to fall over into the parking lot, and we were even less interested in falling down the chimney into the oil burner below, so we roped up. A few bricks, however, did fall down the chimney, along with some mortar. And every so often the chimney gave off a great burst of black soot.

We were working fast, like men who have just figured out they gave a bid that was way low. It got dark. Then my brother said, ``I've got to vote tonight.''

What could we do? The polls were going to close in 15 minutes. We ran down the stairs to my car, drove to my polling place. My brother dropped me off with four minutes to spare and took the car to go to his polling place 10 blocks away.

The point of this story is the white-haired women I saw inside. They sat behind a folding table in the basement of an apartment building that had been rigged for Civil Defense after the Cuban missile crisis. There was an American flag on the wall behind them. They smiled at me courteously and asked for either my registration card or my name and address. When they found my name on the voters' list, they had me sign. I took my punch card and inserted it in the portable voting machine. I punched out my choices, handed back the card, smiled, and left.

I never miss an election because of those women working at the polling place. They had been at their posts all day. They were like other women all over the city who keep the polls open so the rest of us can duck in at the last minute.

If they weren't at their posts, no ballots would be cast, no candidates would win or lose by one vote or any other margin, we wouldn't have candidates who were the same or who were different. Our mayors, judges, councilors would come to power by the appointment of an elite or by the guns of their followers, and neither approach appeals to me.

I vote because women with white hair take the time to preserve our form of government.

After leaving the polls, I went home and noticed something in the mirror. My work clothes were ragged and covered with soot, as were my hands, arms, neck, and face. I wasn't dirty, I was pitch-black. My eyes were two little white things in a field of black.

The women at my polling place on election day 10 years ago didn't care if I looked as though I had just fallen down the chimney of the Savoy Hotel. They were glad to have me.

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