People in NYC are Very Polite

As a non-resident, non-Usian, it felt very weird to be standing on the corner of Second Ave and 10th Street handing out voter registration cards. One of the first people I asked, "Are you registered to vote in New York City?" answered in a strong London accent, "Nope, I’m disenfranchised here."

"Me too," I said. (Not that I think I should have the vote, given my non-resident status.)

He cracked up.

It was a breezy warm Sunday afternoon. Breezy is probably an understatement, there were gusts big enough to send all the flyers, voter rego cards and the rocks holding them down, soaring off our table. Every time it happened people helped the four of us—Daniel, Elena, Scott and me—on our brief scavenger hunts, handing them back, or if they wanted to register, keeping them.

No-one was rude to any of us. Not one person. The worst I got was a few folk walking past without responding (and since I’ve marched past people handing out bits of paper it was hard to be offended).

I’ve never done anything like this before. I confess I did have several moments of feeling like the heroine of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit handing out religious tracts and saying, "Excuse me, but can I interest you in the love of Jesus?" But I got over it pretty quickly because people were so darn polite and enthusiastic about what I was doing.

Mostly people proudly declared that they were registered to vote, or that they were foreigners and couldn’t, or smiled and said no thanks before they’d even heard the question.

One woman I asked, dressed expensively (lots of gold jewellery and crisp white linen) with a deep tan, leading two beautifully groomed german shepherds, gave me a broad smile and said, "Nope, I’m not registered."

"Would you like to be?" I said, smiling winningly and proffering a registration card.

"Nope," she said with an even bigger smile. "I wouldn’t."

There were quite a few people who wanted to talk. One young man expressed interest in my Freddie Baer James Tiptree Jr. 12th Annual Award T-shirt. Claiming it was the best T-shirt he’d ever seen and that he really had to have one. He made me spell Freddie’s name several times, clearly determined to commit it to memory. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that they were all sold out this year—as they are every year—had been within hours of becoming available at this year’s WisCon.

One woman from the Dominican Republic told me proudly that the first thing she’d done when she got her US citizenship was register to vote. She’d voted in every single election, always Democrat. She would never, ever, ever vote Republican because they were bad people and George W. Bush was the baddest of them all. She took two cards from me for her sister’s children and told me that I was a very good person.

Two old men were very keen on having the "George W. Bush is a very bad man" conversation. One of them patted me on the shoulder and gave me a big thumbs up. "Good job, girl, good job." They both walked off, turning back once to smile and wave.

One man walking by, wheeling his beat-up bicycle, looked me up and down and declaimed: "I’d eat dolphin if I could. I love sushi." And kept right on going. Talk about your single-issue voters.

Elena got a very middle-of-the-road looking guy dressed in a going-to-work-middle-management kind of a suit (on a Sunday?) who talked to her for ten minutes, earnestly explaining how the government is controlling everyone electronically and that it all starts with the electronic voting booths. Neither Scott nor Daniel attracted any nutters.

Another woman (proudly registered) was looking for her friend who she described as tall, thin, dark and beautiful who was the choir mistress for St Mark’s Church (the church I was standing in front of). It was also a pretty good description of the woman herself (except for the tall bit). Though saying, "You mean, like you?" seemed somehow sleazy so I refrained. I did say I’d keep an eye out on account of I was already doing that. The woman ended up walking around the block several times, each time stopping to chat and commend us on our efforts, searching for her friend or an entrance to the church, and finding neither.

I learned pretty quickly that I would be a shithouse profiler. As people approached I’d check out what they were wearing, how they were dressed, how old they were, and have a little bet with myself about whether they’d talk to me or not. I was mostly wrong. I figured well-dressed young nightclubber types would just zip past. Wrong. They took more voter regos than any other group. Almost all of them saying, "Oh yeah, just moved here. I’ve been meaning to do that. Thanks." They also seemed to be the group most excited by the postage-paid aspect of the card. "You mean I just fill it out and pop it in the mail box? Cool."

The only groups that consistently ignored me were headphone wearers and those heavily burdened with shopping bags. Though one man weighed down with several bags and walking very tentatively, said that yes he was registered and he’d like to pick up a couple of cards for some friends of his but he couldn’t take them now cause he was on the way to the hospital where his niece had been born (Maria Lilly) and that he had a big boil on his you-know-where but he’d be back to collect the cards after he’d made the visit. He also said that I was doing a fabulous thing. "Everyone should be registered to vote."

By the end of the three hours I was feeling very saintly. I got many thumbs ups and "well-dones". I’d been told by lots of registered voters to keep up the good work, and that people like me were what made America great (okay, only one person said that—didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t actually a US citizen).

I was saddest when I asked a young man dressed in a Jason Kidd jersey with an anchor tattoo on his forearm if he was registered. "I’ve got three felony convictions," he told me. "I’m not allowed to vote."

I was proudest of the cards I handed to two people who said they’d never voted before but had decided they really had to in the next election. One of them, a young woman, said that my being there to give her the card was a sign.

I enjoyed handing out the cards far more than I had imagined and walked home in an excellent mood, feeling like I had achieved something important. Even if we end up with the same people in power for the next four years, at least I’d done something.

New York City, 27 July 2003