I am eighteen and a freshman in Santa Cruz. 1991. A gaggle of students have set up an ironing board and are distributing voter registration cards.
"Are you registered?" asked the girl who smelled like Birkenstocks.
"No," I said, and reached out for a card.
The name part was easy. So was the address. But which party? My parents were Democrats, which ruled that out. (This was my rebellious first year of college, after all.) But I wasn't stupid enough to vote Republican. I wasn't that rebellious.
The Birkenstock girl spoke up. "If we get enough people to register for the Green Party," she said, "we'll be able to get on the ballot next year."
Green it was.
I am sitting in Grandma Powazek's kitchen. It's a Sunday morning, and for the first time I can remember, it's just her and me. No big family gathering. No wedding or funeral to bring us all together. Just a twenty-something boy and his Grandma from another world.
Grandma and Grandpa Powazek came to America from Poland in 1950, after barely escaping the war with their lives. She says she hates Poland and the Poles for what they did during the war, but in many ways she belongs there. Here, in her house, in America in the year 2000, she feels like a fish out of water. The old world is still very much alive in her.
Suddenly the conversation turns to politics and I'm caught off guard. "Did you know?" she says, leaning into me. "Gore's vice president is a Jew?"
Of course I knew. The day I heard the news I thought, well, that seals it. I'll vote the first Jew into the White House. But that was before I read up on Lieberman and his calls for censorship of the media. The more I heard him talk, the less excited I was about it.
I'd love to vote a Jew into the White House. Just not that Jew.
"Yes, I know," I said. I didn't want to talk to my bubbe about politics. I wanted to talk about the old country. The Powazeks I never knew. The stories about the war that fewer and fewer people are alive to tell.
"You're going to vote for Gore." she said, decided.
"Am I?" I smirked.
She grabbed my arm and looked into my eye. She is almost two feet shorter than me, my bubbe. But in that moment she towered.
"It was the Democrats that let us into this country," she said. "I will always be a Democrat. And now a Jew? In the White House?"
She put her hand to her face and looked up, joy on her face.
"You vote for Gore. I'm telling you something."
"I'll think about it, Grandma."
I am standing in my neighbor's garage. I am staring at a voting card. And the old world in me fights with that rebellious college kid in me.
And it occurs to me that voting is the ultimate act of hope. In that moment when it's just you and the little lever, you have to put aside all your skepticism, all the politics, and make a decision based on your ideals.
They say it's going to be close race in California. And it is.