Two Weeks at the Durham Station
I haven’t posted on my website for a while because I spent a month using my spare time to work on the Democratic campaign. I’ve continued to read books in the evening and have seen a couple of movies, but haven’t written about them because I haven’t had the time. I made phone calls, registered voters, canvassed houses, and—most recently—walked around Durham’s central bus station carrying a sign and asking people if they’d like a ride to the polls for early voting.
That work at the bus station—the brilliant idea of a Duke professor who works with my wife—was especially interesting. Durham does not have good public transportation; one hears that complaint all the time (and if there was ever an area that was made to have a light rail system, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle is it. It would save a lot of pollution and traffic headaches). But instead of the one central bus stop in downtown Durham which there used to be, there is now this new and rather nice bus station, where the city buses all come together at the top of the hour, where Greyhound buses also come, and which the Megabus at least comes close to.
At the top of the hour, when all goes well, all of the buses arrive, sit there for ten minutes or so, then head off to their destinations. People arrive on their buses and either walk off to their downtown destinations, or get on another bus to go somewhere. It’s a whole world I had never seen, of people who don’t have their own transportation. There are certainly people who use the bus station as a place to hang out. But the vast majority of people I encountered were the working poor, on their way somewhere.
I understood, for the first time in my life, why some people don’t vote. It isn’t just that they don’t see how the political process influences their lives, though that’s probably true. It’s that their lives are too difficult. When you have to ride two or three buses to get to work, wasting God knows how much time just sitting around waiting for the bus to move, allowing enough time so you know you’ll be on time, the last thing you want to do is take out another twenty minutes, or thirty minutes, or on some days an hour, to go vote. Even if you really want to, you might not do it.
I also saw why Early Voting is such a major issue, and why the Republicans want to suppress it. If all the voting took place on one day, a number of these people wouldn’t have a chance. They would, at best, arrive at the polls after a hard day at work, when they probably hadn’t had enough to eat, then stand around for hours trying to vote before the polls closed. You could hardly blame them if they decided not to do that. I also saw how having an ID card was a big Republican issue. A number of these people didn’t have conventional ID’s. They certainly didn’t have driver’s licenses. The Republicans would have cut down on a lot of votes if their restrictive voting policies had been allowed to stand.
I drove a woman who had just worked two shifts at a nursing home and had been up all night, thought she couldn’t vote because one of the clients at the nursing home—“a real klepto”—had stolen her purse with her ID in it. I drove a man who one year before had been hit by a car in Philadelphia, had been on life support three times and broken both legs, came back to Durham so his family could care for him. I drove a man who at 63 was voting for the first time; when I took him back home afterwards, he asked me just to leave him with a bunch of guys sitting on a wall on East Main Street. “I know every one of those men.”
I drove three people who had come to the bus station just to vote, had heard about our service the day before, a mother and father and their son; the son looked about my age, and walked with a walker, so I don’t know how old the parents were (“We’re young people,” the mother said to me. “We don’t need a bus pass.”) I heard story after story, from all kinds of people. I could tell every one.
But the single thing I saw that most moved me was one woman I didn’t even speak to, or ask if she had voted. It seemed ridiculous to ask. She walked very slowly, with crutches. It took her about ten minutes to walk down two stalls from the bus she had come in on to the one she wanted. She had a huge backpack on her back. She had flip flops on her feet, on a chilly morning. I saw a number of people in wheelchairs, a number who had difficulty walking, but the image of that one woman, walking laboriously, bravely, very slowly, to get from one bus to another, moved me like nothing else I saw that day, or any other day. There are people in this world whose lives are incredibly difficult. They have a kind of courage and dignity that the rest of us don’t.
It’s a crime to suppress the votes of people, or to make it difficult for them to vote. But seeing and meeting and talking to them affected me in a way that transcends this election and the whole electoral process (a field I’m not terribly comfortable in). The bus station is not a depressing place; it’s lively and full of life. It’s also full of people who need a break. I’ve been volunteering at the homeless shelter since I retired. But this population haunts me even more than the homeless.
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