Hot Air

Machine Politics

[Big Mike Note: A blast from the past. This post originally ran in my old blog, The Third City, more than five years ago. It’s fitting to reprise it right about now, considering we’re a scant nine days away from what might be a landmark election day. Enjoy.]

Voting – The American Way

June 20th, 2009

The electoral hijinks in Iran have caused politicians here to wring their hands. Americans are howling for a simon-pure democracy in that Middle East theocracy. If only, we cry, the Iranians could have an honest vote.

Like ours.

My parents hosted our precinct’s polling place a few times in the early- and mid-60s. Several weeks before each election, a gang of 36th Ward patronage workers would dolly heavy, dark green voting machines into our basement. They were pot-bellied, grunting brutes who pushed and shoved the contraptions as if they were made of granite. The workers raised a frightful racket, slamming the machines into door jambs and walls. Watching this, I figured the machines could withstand a direct hit from the nuclear missiles President Kennedy had recently forced out of Cuba.

Voting Machine

Vintage Voting Machine

“Mike,” Ma warned in her gravest tone, “stay away from those machines! Don’t touch any buttons or levers. Don’t monkey around with the innards. If they find anything wrong with those machines, they’ll press charges against us!”

Ma, for most of her life, lived in constant fear that someone, somewhere, would press charges against us. This despite the fact that her scrupulous honesty would have made a young Abe Lincoln look like a chiseler. Plus, she believed with all her heart that elections in the United States, in Illinois, in Cook County — in Chicago, for christ’s sake! — were as pure as new fallen snow. Heaven forbid her son would muck up the machinery of democracy.

Invariably, election day was overcast and bone-chilling cold. Ma would get up long before the sun rose to let 36th Ward sachems in. Within minutes, our entire house was would be redolent of strong coffee and precinct captain Barney Potenzo‘s cigar smoke.

“Mrs. Glab, I dunno howta t’ank you fer d’is,” Barney would holler as he pumped my mother’s hand. He knew no way to communicate other than to holler. He wore a narrow-brimmed fedora and horn-rimmed spectacles as big as picture windows and thick as bullet-proof glass. “I mean it. Any time you need anyt’ing from us, you just ask. Louie really appreciates it.” Louie was Louis B. Garippo, the Democratic ward committeeman and, as such, the most powerful man in the neighborhood (other than the Outfit bosses, of course.) “He’ll be here later, after he goes to the other polling places. D’is is his fav’rite place!”

Ma would swoon. For years afterward, she’d tell relatives, neighbors — even the checkout lady at Dominick’s grocery — that Louie Garippo liked the Glabs better than any other polling place hosts.

I’d watch from the basement stairway as neighbors, cops, men in suits and more pot-bellied patronage workers passed through our basement door. One time, our neighbor from across the alley, Joe Martin, staggered in, drunk, and promptly fell face-down next to the washing machine, bloodying his nose and the front of his jacket. Barney and a cop helped him to his feet. “What the hell’s goin’ on?” Joe Martin yelled. He was a hard man who, I was told, worked for the unions. Only later I’d learn that he was really a thumb-breaker, dispensing justice to scabs and malcontents.

“Yer awright, Joe,” Barney said, brushing him off.

“I gotta vote,” Joe Martin said. He took a step forward but his legs buckled beneath him again. Barney and the cop caught him and started walking him to the door. “But I gotta vote!” Joe protested.

“Doan worry,” Barney said, “we’ll take care of it. Ya wanna cup’a coffee to go?”

“Bah, coffee. It’s poison.”

Barney instructed the cop to walk Joe Martin home, then he turned around and directed one of the judges to pull Joe’s voter card out and mark it. “He’s fer us,” Barney explained. “We’ll put his vote in.”

Our basement door would slam a thousand times on those election days. Once, though, the slamming stopped for an uncomfortable few moments. A little old Italian lady shuffled in and spoke broken English. The judges and poll watchers looked at each other and shrugged. Barney dashed up and asked her, “Nonna, che cosa e il problema? (What’s wrong?)”

The old lady told him she didn’t know how to use the voting machine.

O, Madonna! Quello e niente! Mostrero (Oh, mother of god! That’s nothing! I’ll show you,)” Barney said, laughing. He led her to the machine and pulled the straight Democratic ticket for her. Seeing this, an unfamiliar cop who’d just arrived for duty grabbed Barney by the arm.

“Lock that door!” the cop ordered the judges. “This polling place is closed until further notice.” He turned back to Barney. “I’m sorry, sir, you can’t do that. You’ll have to come with me.” He slapped the handcuffs on Barney and led him out to the squad car. As the cop pulled away, Louie Garippo arrived. The judges quickly filled him in on the incident.

“The son of a bitch!” Louie hissed. “Mrs. Glab, pardon my French. Can I use your phone?” Ma led him upstairs. He dailed a number and spoke. “Commander? we got a problem….”

Fewer than 15 minutes later, Barney was back and the basement door was unlocked again. The cop, I would hear later, was subsequently assigned to the paddy wagon detail, hauling dead bodies and drunks. The last I heard, he’d left the force and had become a barber.

The Democrats, as expected, won big that day.

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