As I stood at the table to sign in for my ballot, an elegant, middle-aged black woman was just ahead of me. Her voice was subdued but clear, with the deeper timbre of age and experience, her diction betrayed a practice of speaking and a college education. With a sculpted face that had been beautiful and still was, she wore a tailored, perfectly pressed, deep-gray skirt and jacket of fine wool.
We were in a large, worn, dark wood-paneled meeting room at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, stuffed with voting booths, all of which were in use. After punching the ink marker through the slots for my picks, I walked outside, pulled out my press badge and looped its lanyard around my neck.
Our political coverage at Courthouse News Service had been a shaggy mess two years ago, and we had a plan to make it stronger and better organized. Part of that plan was to roll out the army of reporters that work for Courthouse News and put them on the streets, away from their computers and desks, to talk to voters.
I was going to do my part. But, not having been out in the wild for a long time, I was a bit apprehensive. It turned out that most people were happy to talk and the engagement was like a shot of adrenalin.
Outside the church, a woman saw me standing with pen and paper, and walked in my direction, with a rolling gait, gray hair piled in a loose chignon, and a Mona Lisa-like smile. I had to do no more than ask my first question, then she was ferociously clutching my forearm, such that it was difficult to take notes.
“I am praying,” she said. I assumed she was deeply religious but as the interview progressed, she told me she does not attend church.
“I’m praying because I am so sick and so nervous. He is the worst president we have ever had. He is a bigot. He separates us. There has never been so much hate.”
A retired artist from the fashion industry, white, and, as she volunteered, in her 70s, she gave only her first name, Terry. She talked about a friend whose long-withheld prejudice had been released by the current political climate.
“All of a sudden she just wants white people. She doesn’t want blacks, browns, Asians, you name it. She’s saying it now because she feels she can.”
Terry added that her Republican friends had become difficult to talk to, hardened, dogmatic in their views.
“This is so different,” Terry added, once more putting a firm grip on my arm. “You have to fight. This man. What is he doing to us. He’s preaching such hate and division. I’m praying that tomorrow I will feel better.”
Next, one, then two, thirties-ish blond women strode purposefully past, politely refusing a request for an interview. I suspected they were Republicans. I was unable to find one who would be interviewed.
Then a Hispanic man with a cane walked past and stopped. A 49-year-old retired Army paratrooper, Steve Sandoval saw politics through the lens of his career. “It’s about leadership. He’s not that leader. I don’t approve of his tactics, demonizing, division.
“I’m looking for balance,” he added, “as opposed to fucking it up and getting away with it.”
Then along came a thin Asian man with a loose shirt and an open mien. He said he came to the U.S. as one of the “boat people,” his father a refugee from the Vietnam War.
Personifying the past welcome to immigrants and the promise they bring, Thai Truong is now a research professor at USC in the fields of neuroscience and physics.
Articulate and a close observer of politics in our nation, he said the Democrats have been “dancing around” the immigration issue.
“Are you afraid of your white culture being usurped by these people? The Democratic side has to be able to talk about that, address those concerns from a large swath of America.”
Based on his roots, he said, “We take this democracy thing very seriously. We know firsthand what it’s like when people don’t have it.”
It had been wonderful to get away from the keyboard and talk to people, ask them questions, hear their answers, listen to the rhythm and originality in their manners of expression, trace the outlines of their political philosophy and concern for the nation.
But as I was walking from the church back to the keyboard at work, there was something nagging at me. Out of practice, in my first interview, I had seen out of the corner of my eye the elegant woman that was in front of me in the voting line. But I did not want to be rude and cut off the man answering my question.
So I just watched as she walked by, a slight, wry smile on her lips and the hint of a sideways glance. The interview that got away.