PHILADELPHIA, PA--The best thing about covering elections in Philadelphia: The polling places. City policy prioritizes spots within walking distance of people's houses, which means that the 1,600-odd divisions within a 120 square-mile town include bowling alleys, garages, bars, a roller rink, a karate studio called Urban Defense Fitness Center, and numerous private homes. One reform, though, has prohibited the locating of polling places inside the houses of people who happen to be on the ballot.
Late this morning, I watched the festival of democracy inside Saigon Maxim, a Vietnamese restaurant in a neighborhood that was until recently heavily Italian. The signs on the door reflect the melting pot: Italian-Americans for McCain, Irish-Americans for Obama, Asian-Americans for McCain, and vice versa for all. Inside, the poll workers--all of them Italian--had just gotten a pizza delivered for lunch. The restaurant, though, had provided tea. Voters trickled into the establishment's banquet room, where the booths were in front of a stage bedecked with a red velvet curtain and Chinese calligraphy. At a back table, one of the restaurant workers quietly sorted a bucket of sugar snap peas. As in many other places, the vote count was 50 percent higher than in a normal presidential election.
One of the new voters was Gina Marie Elizabeth Garramone, 22. She said she'd never bothered to vote before, but was inspired because "I really like Obama. I admire him so much." The multiple generations of her family in the neighborhood don't agree. "They're thinking, they want McCain. They don't want a black president."
So it goes in South Philly, an aging neighborhood of row-house sentiments and, at times, the bigotry to match. Voting in a social club decorated with Frank Sinatra memorabilia and pictures with captions like "Crab Trip 09-20-03 ('I Got a Big One,' Paul Casiero)," a guy named Georgie claims that an Obama worker called him "prejudiced" because he wouldn't say how he was voting. In a division in Southbrook Park, on a mostly white block in what has become a mostly black part of South Philadelphia, that's the response I get from a Democratic committeeman when I asked whether his constituents could vote for an African American candidate. "Why should I tell you how I voted," he said, declining to leave the Cadillac he had parked in the alley outside the voting place.
The voting place, it turns out, is the basement of one Mary Tursi, who decorated the place with old posters of Frank Rizzo, Sylvester Stallone, the 1980 Phillies, and George W. Bush. The crew inside is a lot more friendly. The 84-year-old Republican ward leader, with a feather in his fedora, estimates a 50-50 split at the polling place. "It's more Democrats," he says, "But ... you know." One of those Democrats is Amedeo Grassia, 83. "McCain's my buddy," says Grassia, whose jacket identifies him as a Marine and a two-time Purple Heart. He says he was at Okinawa. ("He was the cook," jokes Catherine Imbrenda, one of the poll workers.) "That guy suffered for us. Now it's his turn," Grassia, a retired City Hall building superintendent, continues. "This is for my men in Okinawa." But it's not for his wife, Grace, who announces that she hates McCain. "Oh, and if he dies and that Miss Showgirl lady gets in, God help us," she says.
This is one stop where the turnout is no better than 2004. The neighbors have an easy explanation: "This is an older division," says Imbrenda. "A lot of the people are deceased." One of them, it seems, is Tursi, who owned the house but died three months ago. Imbrenda is hoping one of her kids moves in and takes ownership of the basement reliquary (and the $90 stipend for hosting the polls).
Meanwhile, at the Urban Defense Fitness Center in the heterogenous Northern Liberties neighborhood, all three voting machines were broken for a time this morning, generating chaos in the line (though not requiring a black belt's intervention). By the time I arrive, the anger has died down, and there's no wait to get into the booth, which sits just in front of a poster illustrating defensive karate positions. The one remnant of the morning was a handmade sign out front bearing an Obama sticker beside the words: "With your help we will do fine. Please, please stay in line." Poll workers said they expected to double their previous presidential turnout.