"Oh What A Beautiful Mornin"
By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor
4:30 a.m. Election Day. I'm walking briskly across East 82nd Street from the river toward my polling place in the public school off Third Avenue. It's a warmish 53 degrees and pitch dark, or as close to pitch dark as the City That Never Sleeps ever gets. I'm thinking I should have brought my folding stool to sit in the endless line that will greet me, and I'm wondering if the pollsters will stamp my hand or something so I can get my free coffee at Starbucks for having voted.
4:40 a.m. The block is stone cold empty and P.S. 290 is locked up tight as a drum. There's barely a sound on the street, and the usual scaffolding over the sidewalk with its little dim and red lights makes the whole operation feel like a noir setting in some Cornell Woolrich thriller. I wander over to what looks like a portable toilet next to the entrance, but it's actually a Security station and the uniformed guard inside smiles and tells me I'm in the right place. He must think I'm about 400 years old (which is about how I feel) because he offers me his chair, which I sheepishly accept. Look at this--I'm first in line to vote on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Who'll be #2?.
4:55 a.m. Another old senior with a wispy beard saunters up and figures I'm in charge since I'm lounging in a chair by the entrance. The building is still empty--whoops, somebody with keys is opening doors down the block. Lights are going on inside, revealing all those hulking voting machines and tables and district signs. A couple of other oldtimers totter up, but they're volunteers waiting to be admitted to set things up.
5:05 a.m. We're making progress--now there are four of us forming what begins to resemble a line. The first cop of the day makes his appearance and briskly strides in. The four of us are thinking we have a 4th for bridge, except nobody brought cards. It dawns on me that compared to all the nighttime lines I've stood in over a lifetime for free Shakespeare In The Park, movies from "Star Wars" through "The Dark Knight," scores of rock concerts and even designer sample sales on West 18th, democracy seems like a pretty sleepy draw.
5:15 a.m. The line now totals 20. There isn't anyone under 50 standing there, and I'm toying with maybe offering my chair to a geriatric with a cane who's joined the throng a few doors down The real topic of discussion seems to revolve around not just what proof-of-voting we may need to show to Starbucks, but also to Ben & Jerry's which apparently is also giving away treats to qualified voters. All of us are well-practiced in our favorite line, "Do you give senior discounts?" but today there are actually freebies on tap.
5:30 a.m. The sky over by the river is brightening, and the street lights are going out. The city is slowly coming to life, taking on that first, mysterious hum of energy startup that signifies a new morning. The line has grown to about 40. More registration volunteers are heading through the door to my right, and some of them are coming out of cabs, looking like they're running a touch late. I recognize faces from past years--women and men with gray hair who put in countless volunteer hours at the library branches on York and on East 79th--and am comforted that the school doors will open for business at 6:00 a.m. sharp and that things will work like gangbusters.
6:00 a.m. The doors open. My 64th district book is there like it always is, and there's my name. The lady at the table asks if I'm related to Tom Brokaw, like ladies at the table always do. Someone else tells me I'm the first to pull this machine's lever to start up the day's voting. The lyrics "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin', Oh What A Beautiful Day" are inexplicably running through my brain. Everything must be goin' my way, because in 20 seconds I've clicked all my choices, thrown the lever, and voting is a done deal. I ask whether there's any receipts being handed out for Starbucks and Ben & Jerry's, and everybody stares at me blankly, because nobody has even heard they're giving out free product. I'm thinking, it pays to advertise.
6:03 a.m. Strolling back east on East 82nd, and now the line finally looks like people have arrived for an IMAX spectacular or free "Hair" in Central Park. The line curls around Second Avenue and heads up toward 83rd. This is a little more like it. There are actually some 20-somethings in suits carrying thermoses. And look--here's a scattering of what have to be students or unpaid interns--the market targets who are generally miles ahead of me at Irving Plaza and at the multiplex. Democracy is working after all, it just opts for an extra hour's sleep.
6:15 a.m. Checking into my Starbucks on York and 81st, I declare I am the first to vote in the nabe. All the baristas seem genuinely thrilled to hear that, and my first grande of the day is actually brought to my table. Maybe I'll have complementary refill this afternoon, right after my Ben & Jerrys dessert treat.
Nothing beats living in a free country. Nothing.