The Plank

A Velvet Sinatra And A Picture Of Two Pigs Humping: The Philly Tour Continues

PHILADELPHIA,
PA--The Obama volunteers don't yet blend into the scenery in lower Northeast Philadelphia. At the intersection of a variety
of lower-income white, black, and Latino neighborhoods, it's still a land
of dollar-a-beer bars and used appliance stores. The signage advertises
improbable establishments like the Rock and Roll Exxon or Old London Pizza or
No-Cost Diabetic Footware. Gentrification is creeping in. But not fast enough
to account for all those healthy looking young people in stylish eyeware
hanging out in front of the Police Athletic League or Luke's Back Room
bar. For them, you can thank the magnetism of one Barack Obama.

The Obama-ite outside Luke's is sharing the day with local Democratic and
Republican committee people. Both of them note that he looks a lot more like
the kind of guy who would frequent Memphis Taproom, the area's first gastropub,
purveyor of craft beers and artisanal onion rings. "The newcomers,
they're the ones who are supporting Obama," says Steven Suarez, a
Democrat who works for a lumber distributor and grew up nearby. "A lot of
the others are elder people, and they're set in their ways, and they
won't vote for Obama." Inside, the bar can't open until
eight, though that doesn't stop one voter--a relative of the owners, he
says--from reaching behind it for a Coke. On the wall, there are velvet
portraits of Sinatra and of two pigs humping. A Democratic state legislative
candidate, Harry Engasser, ambles by with his own theory on voting in the
neighborhood. Engasser posits a reverse Bradley effect: "A lot of people
will play like they're voting for McCain, like they don't like
Obama," he says. "But when they go in the booth, they'll vote
green." He pulls out a wad of bills from his pocket, wrapped in a rubber
band, to make his point.

A few neighborhoods up, green motivates people the other way, says Dan Murray,
a Republican who's just voted in the garage of his neighbor, retired
saloonkeeper Bill Mullen. "Obama is at best a socialist and at worst a
communist," he says, citing "spread the wealth," among other
sins.

At the Masjid Al-Furqan, a former union hall that kept on hosting elections
when its occupant changed, Abdul Majid, a leader of the mosque, has laid out a
cover over the prayer rug on the room's floor. Ruth DiCicco, a Democratic
committeeperson at the poll, says turnout is way up, and she thinks the
old-school neighbors are going her way, too, despite the efforts, a few polling
places away, of one of the few GOP paid street workers we've encountered.
The poll worker is a young African-American man. He made $75 for a day's
work. Was he a Republican? No. How'd he vote? "I'd rather not
say." Ditto his name. So why was he out here? "I've gotta
eat," he said, grinning. He hands me a sample ballot for McCain, Palin,
and a host of smaller-time candidates. Such ballots have been the standard
stuff of election-day tomfoolery, and this year is no exception. At the
traditional election-day lunch gathering of local politicos and hangers-on at the
Famous Fourth Street Deli, a union operative shows me a couple samples that
apparently made it to the streets of South Philadelphia.
One is a Democratic ballot with the presidential nominee's name left
blank; another features a local Democratic state house candidate's name
under the McCain-Palin line. The electricians' union is countering with
its own pro-Obama punch, handing out 5,000 MP3 players pre-loaded with
statements from union and political officials in favor of the Democratic nominee.
"Vote Your Job," the machine's exterior reads.

And after watching Americans exercise the franchise in a mosque, it's
only appropriate to move on to ... a roller skating rink. The Elmwood
Roller Rink, back in the city's Southwest Quadrant, is home to one of the
few integrated polls in the city. "We're like the United
Nations," says Linda Callan, 57, a Democrat who voted for Obama.
"There's black, there's white, there's oriental,
there's even Indian, with the saris." The total number of
registered voters in the division is around 580. By late afternoon, 300 have
already voted. "I bet 298 of them were Obama," she says. Among them
is owner Ernest "Puff" Edwards, who grew up near Callan and has
worked at the rink since he was a kid. "People are just so much more
excited" this year, he says. "They're more enthusiastic than
I've ever seen."

--Michael Schaffer

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