Lessons From Waiting For an Election

Kaitlyn Greenidge
·9-min read
Photo credit: VW Pics - Getty Images
Photo credit: VW Pics - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

On Wednesday, November 8th, 2000, I woke up without reading the news. The night before, my roommate Emily and I had sat on the living room floor of our apartment in Juneau, Alaska, listening to the Presidential election results on a portable radio.

Emily and I had gone to high school together in Boston and we both become sick of our first year of college at around the same time. She was at school in Canada, at McGill. I was at school in New York City, at Barnard. After two semesters of trading forlorn emails back and forth, we had hatched a plan to drop out of school and start a new life. At the time, I thought I could merely tip myself into a better existence. That the sadness and general feeling of drift in New York would magically disappear if I left the city.

Emily and I decided that we wanted to go somewhere the complete opposite of anything either of us knew. But neither one of us knew how to drive. So we researched cities on the West coast with the best public transportation. Our choices came down to San Francisco, Seattle, or Juneau, Alaska. Juneau was the farther than any place either one of us had ever been. So we saved over the summer, 800 dollars each, and bought tickets on the last ferry of the season, sailing from Bellingham, WA . We knew nobody on the other side. Our only contact was the address of the local hostel.

The ferry ride took three days. During it, I remember looking for glimmers of this new exciting life and seeing only fog. We had bought the cheapest tickets possible, which meant we did not get cabins and had to sleep in the boat’s common area in sleeping bags. We woke up every morning at 5 am, just as the crew began setting up a portable coffee bar. We would stand on the deck in the early morning, shivering, cold, clutching cups of bad coffee, trying to feel like we were looking at something different. You couldn’t see the water moving beneath us from the deck. The only sign that we were advancing was the steady roar of the boat’s engines and the scruff of forest that rolled past. It looked like the same crowd of trees passing us by, over and over again.

Eventually, a fellow passenger struck up a conversation with us. Emily and I were the only two people on the boat under 40 who were not small children, which made us objects of fascination. We told our new friend that we were huge David Sedaris fans, that we loved This American Life and National Public Radio in general. It was one of the ways that Emily and I had become friends in high school. She used to call me up and tell me to listen to Car Talk. “Is it about cars, though?” “No,” she lied. When I protested, she said, “I just want you to hear how strange it all is.”

All of that slightly unwilling public radio consumption paid off. Our fellow passenger happened to have a job at the local NPR affiliate. “Call me when you get settled,” he said. “We’ll try to find you girls a job.”

He was good on his word, sort of. He found jobs for the two of us, as camera operators for their local version of C-Span, called Gavel to Gavel. But the jobs wouldn’t start until January of the following year, when the legislature was in session. So, for the next three months, we were on our own.

Walking around town, we spotted the place we thought we should work at, a café that made its own bagels and hosted vintage movie nights. That’s where we would work if we were in the movie version of this escape. But we were in reality. Hobbled by the same anxiety that had permeated our first years of college, we were both too shy to apply there. Instead, I ended up working in a local day care center. I did not realize, when I first started working there, that the owners and most of the staff and many of the families there were Evangelical Christians. I remember thinking it odd that the only children’s media allowed was Veggie Tales and a very saccharine CD of lullabies sung by a local guitarist. But none of this clicked until I came to work the morning after the election.

The 2000 election was the first one Emily and I were old enough to vote in. The year before, miserable in New York City, I could remember wearily lifting my head to see the posters for Bill Bradley’s primary run against Al Gore on my dorm’s walls. I had a vague sense, like most people my age did then, that there was no difference between either candidate, Bush or Gore. It was something everyone my age said, knowingly, and few people pressed each other on. I remember my older sister saying she almost felt bad for Bush when he was campaigning. “He’s just so bumbling,” she said. She said it in the tone you reserve for an especially harried toddler, waiting for their turn at bat. That’s how naïve we were, then.

In Alaska, we dutifully sent away for our absentee ballots and filled them out on the kitchen table of our apartment. We both voted for Nader, reasoning that since we were registered in Massachusetts, a state that Gore was projected to win, we could bolster the Green Party as a viable alternative to the two-party system. I felt very grown up, very reasonable as I sat at the glass topped table and filled in the appropriate bubble next to Nader’s name.

That table was the only piece of upright furniture we had in the place. We had found the apartment via the town newspaper. It was in the basement of a house built into the side of a mountain, the last residence on a curving road that ended, a few hundred feet past our door, at the mouth of a state park full of ravines and steep walks and pine trees. The house itself was white, with the comfortingly tidy and boxy architecture of a Lego set. When I saw it, I felt as though I had dreamed it. I thought it was perfect. Here my new life could start, the one that I had hoped to be running towards. It did not matter that when we opened the door, we saw that the previous tenants had left behind a few pieces of furniture, like the glass topped table. Or that they had painted the bedrooms a deep, depressing purple. Or that they had left behind a huge frozen fish in the freezer. When we moved in, we had enough money to buy a used tv and a used cd player. It did not occur to either one of us to try to buy anything more. This is what the apartment came with, the one that seemed so perfect for us, and even if the bare walls, up close, looked awful, who were we to try and change the dream.

I bought an air mattress for my bed while Emily sprung for an actual twin set, something I thought was overly luxurious. She took the front bedroom, the one that looked out on the winding road in front of our house. I took the back one, which had only one small window, and in all that purple paint, felt dark and cavernous. No matter, I told myself, as I lay on my softly hissing air mattress in the gloom. Surely, this place would reveal its part in my dream life soon.

On Election night, sitting on the wall to wall carpet in the living room because we had no chairs, we stayed up for as long as we could, listening to election results. But at a certain point we gave up. We were both pretty certain that Gore would win. We were sure the answer would come in the morning.

The next morning, at work, the other women at the day care center would stop every few hours to whisper together in the corners. At a certain point, one of them included me.

“This whole election thing is crazy, isn’t it?” she said. “Let’s hope the right guy wins.”

“Gore, right?” I said.

There was a noticeable chill and after that, no one pulled me aside anymore.

It started to occur to me that the things I took for granted, the things I counted as certain, were not based on anything real. Or rather, were based on something I did not have all the information for.

Over the next week, Emily’s mother called every night to talk to us about the election. “I hope you girls don’t think this is what politics is,” she said. “This has never happened before. It won’t ever happen again.”

We had wanted to find a place completely unknown to us and that was what Juneau was. But not in the ways we expected. Sometimes, in the weeks we were there, I thought that I could simply imagine my way to a better life there. That all I had to do was dream it. But even when things seem to materialize out of my dreams—a job, a house, a whole landscape—it was different than the dreaming. I did not know, then, that that was not a cause for panic. That the world only gives you so many chances, so you grab on to the thing that most closely resembles what you want, even if, up close, it looks shabbier, darker, dingier, more human. I did not learn my lesson then, that when you hold on you keep dreaming and thinking and plotting to make bend the thing closer to your dream so that, eventually, you get to a new version of reality. Back then, I just gave up.

If I could go back twenty years, I would tell myself to buy the furniture. I would tell myself to repaint the purple room. I would tell myself that even when something seems to come to you out of a dream, seems so certainly what you asked for, you still have to work to secure it as yours. Nothing in this world comes easy, even wins. The world can offer you what you think you need, but you still have to do the work to properly receive it.

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