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Election Day 2011

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Election Day is a lot like February 29th: it comes every four years, you always forget about it until the night before, and, even though it’s supposed to be important, the following day you feel like nothing really changed.

I covered the 2011 Raleigh local elections for the Raleigh Public Record, so, to make up for not having anything posted in a while, here’s my story about that. To properly misreport it, I won’t cite my sources and I won’t tell things as they happened. That’s much more interesting.

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I can’t sleep well. I’ve alluded to this many times before, it’s been a constant throughout my life. When I was little, I remember sliding off my bed and walking a few steps into the living room of our old house. My dad would look at me from behind his newspaper and tell me to think of floating around in space or to count backwards from 100. Neither helped much. Massive amounts of drugs helped though. When I went into surgeries, they’d put a mask over my face and tell me to breathe deep. In two or three breaths you’re blacked out. I can’t even describe the smell of the gas they use- it smells like… pink, but that doesn’t explain much.  The nurses called it “monkey perfume”- it’s a nice catchall term for flurane gases- a common anesthetic. Some of these gases boil at room temperature and you need special caps while they’re in storage. I just want to drive home these points for you before we begin.

The night before elections I can’t sleep. I’m pretending I can smell the monkey perfume wafting around my room, but it doesn’t work. It never works. I go in and out from 1am to 4:45am. At 4:45 I decide to go ahead and take my time getting ready for the day. I get in the car around 5:40 and slosh up the hill to Parkwood Village. I’m picking up my co-reporter/friend Jacob at 5:45- the polls open at 6:30. It’s pouring rain and it’s pitch black. I feel like I’m inside a washing machine as I wait for Jacob to walk out of his apartment. His tall, stout frame shuffles out. He’s got a nice suit jacket on and a laminated press pass around his neck like me. Jacob’s going to be my buddy for the rest of the day. We hit up a Circle K to get Big Gulps of coffee (lots of cream, lots of sugar this morning.) Then it’s on to our first precinct- Method Road- my voting station.

We walk into the voting station. It’s the community center building of some church and there’s one little old black man with a broad smile standing patiently in front of the room with the voting stalls. We quickly learn this is Mr. Curtis- and he’s a local legend. He’s been the first person at this voting station for over 30 years. He used to work the polls, and now it’s tradition that he’s always the first person here every election. The ex-military lady that came in behind us said she was worried when she didn’t see him in 2008 when he broke tradition and did early voting- Mr. Curtis is that much of a fixture to this tiny section of neighborhoods bordering NCSU’s campus. It’s funny to think there are legends living down the street from you- we usually think they live far away.

Eager to get my own voting out of the way, I approach the table right after Mr. Curtis and give my name. The woman searches for five minutes- no “St.Claire”. Maybe it’s under “C”- go there she said. Not here either. I think back to the guy that registered me for Wake County. I was in line to get Obama speech tickets and figured I’d go ahead and do it. Fuck- maybe I got screwed by doing that. Maybe I didn’t do it in time or, worse, maybe some guy’s got my information and is making down payments on a condo somewhere. I sit at the “help table” and watch a few more voters in varying attire file in and take their ballots. Sure enough, we find my name after another fifteen minutes- it’s the only name under “STC.” I get my ballot and finish it super quick. I pop it into the counting machine- number 13. That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the day I say to myself as I put the little “I Voted” sticker on my shirt. On to the next precinct.

That was the phrase of the day- “on to the next precinct.” Just like that Foo Fighter’s song: “done, done, on to the next one, done, done, on to the next one.” Precinct 1-1, precinct 1-40, precinct 1-22, 1-23, here, there, everywhere. Done, done, on to the next one.

“You like Finnish death metal?” I ask Jacob as we pull away from some random voting station on some random road in some random district. He looks at me puzzled. “Here. I sort of need this to stay sane right now,” I say as I crank up some Children of Bodom. About the time the fourth guitar solo comes in on “Banned from Heaven”, we park behind Cup-A-Joe to leech off their wifi. I pass Jacob my quotes from whatever place we were just at and he types out a quick story about why Mr. So and So and his wife were voting for clean shaven candidate #1 and not clean shaven candidate #2. I feel claustrophobic even though I’m in a parking lot. My bones are eroding as Jacob decides whether to use a comma or not. It’s almost 8:30am and I come to believe that this is actually a dream- it’s not reality. In a moment, I’m going to wake up next to some cute girl. We’ll make out and I’ll tell her about my silly dream and she’ll laugh. Then she’ll make me pancakes in her lace panties and I’ll go skateboarding at State. I pinch myself and try to draw blood- try to wake up and get those pancakes. No, this is real, this is life- you’re still sprinting blindly to your demise. This is real and you can’t escape.  You’re not getting any pancakes. Jacob looks over at me and tells me he’s done. He recommends we get a coffee and maybe catch a voter to interview. I agree. We get inside and do just that. We manage to find a friendly, yet very opinionated, voter and pick his brain together from across a table strewn with king coffee mugs (that’d be a venti mug anywhere else.) Jacob and I return to my car (her name is Betty) and he gnaws at his muffin. It’s around 9:30am and I try to convince myself that another 14 hours isn’t that long- right? I roll out back into the rain towards whatever the next place is. At this point, these beacons of democracy are just tallies on a checkboard.

Done, done, on to the next one. Done, done, on to the next one. I write down quotes in the rain and watch as someone’s words literally run off the page as they articulate them. “Hi, ma’am, my name is Drew St.Claire and…” No. “Hello sir, my name…” No. “Hi…” No. The only difference between being a reporter and a telemarketer is the amount of writing involved. Done, done, on to the next one.

It is possible to be polite while you have a nervous breakdown. I had one at a Burger King off of Rock Quarry Road. I’ve never been here before. There’s not too many trendy bars here, or gourmet eateries, or places to sip fair trade coffee. Not that I even go to those sorts of places that much myself. Places like these remind you that where you hang out is a relatively small area. It’s easy to think you’re baller when you only frequent places within a five block radius. This was the closest place with food, so we pulled over. I scarf down a cheese burger and fries in about three minutes- they taste delicious. As Jacob noshes on a fish sandwich, I begin typing a 250 word (word- not character) set of quotes into a text message. There’s no wifi out here, or at many of the places we’ve been to for that matter, so I’m basically texting huge chunks of stories to the various editors. My laptop is about as useful as a lunch tray for the moment. I have the feeling that maybe this is a dream again, and I contemplate just jumping through the windows of the restaurant- crashing through the “Bacon Whopper Supreme” sign and flying out into the sky towards freedom. The taste of the sesame seed bun reminds me this is real though, despite the overwhelming sense that it can’t be. No girl in lace panties. No pancakes. Just the bitter aftertaste of 1000 calories.

This isn’t what I want to do with my life. I don’t want to be a journalist. I don’t want to be tracking down people I don’t give a fuck about or, better yet, who don’t give a fuck about me. I don’t want to use my talent to crank out bland accounts of an apartment fire or a budget meeting. I don’t want to be a politician either. I don’t want to lie to people. I don’t want to be the reason some kid never goes to college or why that same kid gets shipped off to a country to die for no good reason. In fact, the best job route for me right now would be behind the counter of the Burger King we’re in. At least I can give people something tangible, something that’ll help them until it clogs their arteries and kills them. I’m a sympathetic kind of person. By the time Jacob’s downed the sandwich, I’ve resolved myself to the fact that this day is just a step towards something bigger. Something good is going to come out of all the tokens I’ve been putting in the karma slot machine lately. We ship out to some more precincts, meet some candidates, interview others, same old, same old. Done, done, on to the next one.

By about 3pm, we’ve made a giant loop all around Raleigh. My phone has no power, my laptop has no power, I have no power. Jacob acknowledges we’ve done a lot and that we can take a break till tonight. I agree and drop him off at the office. I rush home in order to get an hour and a half nap. I look over in the seat and see that Jacob’s muffin is everywhere, as is his coffee. I bite my lip hard and remind myself, “This is just more good karma being built up. You shall attain what you deserve one day.” When I start tasting blood, I stop biting down and make my way toward the apartment. I lay down on the bed and just chill, the way I did the day after graduation- just staring at the ceiling. I know I’m not going to sleep, but being motionless is the next best thing right now. This is the only respite I’m going to get till I’m back in this bed about eight hours from now. There won’t be a cute girl there eight hours from now, and there won’t pancakes either. An hour and a half speeds by. I check my phone to make sure a little money didn’t come in and mess with the buttons on my alarm clock- no, it’s time. I’m unbelievably awake as I head towards the Morning Times.

#

The Morning Times is a spin-off establishment of the Raleigh Times- a popular bar based out of what used to be a newspaper building back in the day. It’s befitting that now the Raleigh Public Record is turning it into a newsroom for the night. I wonder if that was intentional? All the tables here have had their mochas replaced with monitors and there are laptops instead of lattes. I try to make myself look like I belong here. I’ve gotten pretty good at that- parties, awkward group gatherings, restaurants where I’m under dressed- I get lots of practice making myself look like I belong somewhere I don’t. After chilling for a bit and watching them set up the cameras, I get my assignment for the night in a yellow folder. I’m going to be covering parties given by a mayoral candidate, a school board hopeful, and anyone else they call me to cover. To boot, I’m getting a new partner. She’s a cute blonde with freckles, bubbly and a student in one of the journalism classes at State who’s here earning extra credit- I forget her name. She’s spunky and smiles as she talks- she’s destined for a job in broadcasting. Destined for a job I don’t want. I wonder if she can make pancakes though? We head out towards the mayoral candidate’s party at the contemporary art museum. Right as we get to the door, she’s called back to cover another party- they think I can handle this one solo. I’m about to put this “looking like I belong here” thing to the test.

I walk into the museum. It just opened a few months ago and is a beautiful modern building. I’ve wanted to go here for a while, but never seemed to have the opportunity. It’s beautiful- clean cement floors, high ceilings, metal latticework, and plenty of crazy artwork. Down in one gallery there’s about thirty well dressed men and women milling about. There’s a table with artistic looking hors d’oeuvres and a band playing 60’s folk rock covers. I gather up some artisan meatballs and stuffed cherry tomatoes (artisan is good way to raise the price on something)  and start looking for the candidate. Almost like a video game, she’s easy to spot- a red dress among a throng of black and white. Perfect. I whore myself out as best I can and shmooze people so I can arrange a few minutes of talk time before she addresses the crowd. After a while of talking to her campaign manager and some of her staff, I get my chance. You never really perfect talking to someone like this no matter how much you research. In fact, I don’t think you ever perfect talking to someone in general. I never have. I feel like I’m grasping at every word I utter the whole conversation. I do the best I can asking her how her day was and what she thinks her campaign’s strengths are, then I sneak in some unanswered questions about water usage, of which she gives me a politician’s answer. A politician’s answer is phrased almost exactly like this, regardless of the question, “That’s an important question and I’m glad you asked that. I think the problem requires a combination of different efforts and we should investigate it further.” If you put this as an answer to a test, you’d fail miserably, but for some reason this is acceptable anyplace else. I call my quotes back to the editors, repeating every phrase three times to be heard over the din in the newsroom. One of our photographers comes in and we decide to go ahead and hit my school board guy up the street.
I hadn’t prepared an interview with this guy yet, so I run over to the bar next door to his party and scribble down some questions on a rod iron table. He’s an NCSU chemistry professor, so I figure I’ll be able to soften him up with a joke about Chapel Hill or the football team’s performance this year. I walk into his party and it’s night and day from the other one. This one is in a small room, no decorations, and it’s mostly kids and family. It reminds me of a family sitting around on Christmas Eve watching It’s A Wonderful Life. The only big shot is the mayor, who leaves to go to another party after I shake his hand. The results show school board guy down by 73%. This is probably not the best time to pull a joke about a losing football team. Right as I’m reworking my questions, the candidate walks in and the polls on the computer refresh, almost as if he had timed it. The previous number was an error- he’s the one up by 73%. The little group erupts. Using this fog of happiness to my advantage, I meander in with the photographer and ask the guy some questions. As we spoke, he got me laughing and answered everything clearly. I got the impression this was either a genuine guy or he was a perfect actor- he reminded me of my dad a bit too much. I give him my best wishes (he’d go on to win that night) and hustle back headquarters to type out my stories.

The now iconic photo of me working on a quick news story. Photo: Hide Terada.

The place is a madhouse now- people typing as information comes in from reporters like me, interviews going on in front of the camera, and guests noshing on sandwiches. I pick out a corner to start typing and feel one of our other photographers, Hide, come up in front of me. I can’t help but smile as the shutter clicks. I email my bit to one of the editors and she turns around, “Perfect, Drew. If I could just copy and paste that, I would. Great job.” The momentary high is crushed by my new assignment. “So, umm…your mayoral candidate just lost. We need you to go and talk to her.” This is the part I don’t like- I have to get up in someone’s face when they’re definitely not going to be wanting someone getting up in their face. I’m a shy person deep down, and a non-confrontational one at that, so this gig is pushing me way out of my comfort zone. This past year has been pushing me out of my comfort zone come to think of it. I make my way back to the art museum. There’s still a good number of people here, but now they’re all looking at me as if I club baby seals on the weekend. People at the party are grabbing the candidate’s arm and leading her away from me, but I stand my ground. With my eyes, I say “I’ve been here patiently, if you’re a true Southerner like me, you’ll be polite and let me speak with her” to the old man chatting with the candidate. Despite the odd choice of nonverbal words, he gets it and passes her to me. She’s noticeably bummed, but still smiles and answers my questions, albeit a bit aggressively. I thank her and all but sprint out of the museum.

Back at the Times, I sit down and begin to rest on my laurels. It’s over, finally. As I’m about to shut off my computer, I get another assignment. “Drew, we don’t have anything good from this other school board hopeful. He just won, so go find him and get us his reaction. He’s at some restaurant at the Marriott.” I trudge downstairs and onto the street. It’s cold and windy now- it reminds me of earlier this morning when I picked up Jacob, but without the rain. I feel like so much happened since then. I feel like so much has happened in the past few months, the past year, the past lifetime. The cold reminds me that it’s fall- my favorite season with my favorite holiday, Halloween- and that makes me able to push on for the last interview. I walk into the lobby of the hotel and wait by the front desk. There’s a bell boy here talking shop with a concierge. He notices me first and looks at my press pass. “You here for the guy in the election?” I nod my head. Can you help me out man? He relishes in the fact he’s doing something sort of against protocol, then nods. “Yeah, follow me.” We get in the elevator and make our way up to the suite. “You aren’t some type of assassin are you?” He jokes. The doors open and we walk out. “I don’t get paid enough to want to kill anyone,” I retort. He likes this comeback and escorts me to the room. I get the quotes I need from my candidate (who looked exactly like rapper Rick Ross) and trot back to the Times, thanking the bell boy on the way back. The quotes go in as the final piece of coverage we do for the night. It seems befitting. I volunteer to ride in the back of a van with some of the equipment we need to drop off at the office.

Moving stuff back into the dark office building reminded me of my own move when I was younger. An ice storm hit the day before, and we had to pack our stuff by candle light. We saddled up everything into a U-Haul around 2am and slept on the floor of our new basement with our bulldog. The next day, my mom had to drive me to Saturday detention (I got detention a lot in middle school) and she couldn’t fit under the school’s skybridge that connected the church and the school. The U-Haul was too tall- so she let me out and I walked in to file reports and lift things with the janitor. Moving all this in there had that same vibe. I expected to see a bulldog puppy wagging it’s stubby tail inside one of the law firm offices, but I didn’t. No bulldog puppy. No cute girl in lace panties. No pancakes. After moving everything in, we head to the bar everyone is at. I get a free drink for my efforts- a Hoppyum IPA from Foothills. I worked at Foothills for a summer, but that’s another story. To be cheap, I only drink the one, and when everyone seems to be leaving, I excuse myself as well.

I lay down on my bed back at my apartment- it’s 1am. I remember being here a few hours ago, but it felt like days to me. I still can’t fall asleep quick, but I try and pretend I can smell monkey perfume. If I try hard enough, I can fall asleep, I tell myself. And I’ll get those pancakes.

#

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for accounts of the first ever HYPE Art Collective show, Occupy Raleigh protest, and much more. Check for new projects and content in the near future. Thanks.

Listen to This: “I Know”- Willoz, “Carry On”- Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, “Walking on a Dream”- Empire of the Sun, “Sleeper Hold”- No Age, “Hellhounds on My Trail”- Children of Bodom, “The Illness”- Kid 606, “Millionaire”- Queens of the Stone Age

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Written by dstclaire

October 19, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Posted in Non-Fiction

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