A Crash Course in Democracy

By Karen Brown, the author of the story collection Pins and Needles (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 19/10/08):

I live on a dangerous intersection. Longtime residents claim that in the 1920s the woman who owned our house strolled the lawn in the morning in her negligee. Now despite the installation of a traffic light, cars still end up inches from our oak, their hoods steaming, broken glass thrown along our curb.

The drivers have been teenage girls in swimsuits, businessmen eating a fast-food lunch, harried mothers heading home from school drop-off in their pajamas. Even a former professor of mine confessed to a nasty wreck in front of my house. Thankfully, no one in the years we’ve been living here has been seriously hurt.

The cars stream along our boulevard to a busier road a block away. At this intersection, mightier than mine, the cars sidle up three abreast. In the lines waiting for the light to change, cars sit cowed, begging to be allowed access. Then there is the thundering of acceleration, the puff of oily exhaust. Here on Friday afternoons you’ll find valiant political backers waving signs. They stand with neon poster boards, with their candidate’s official signs plucked from their front lawns. They wave and smile. They are ardent and upbeat. They know polling statistics. On the day I joined them, we talked about the debates. I grabbed a sign to hold.

Standing on a street corner, you are always vulnerable. I don’t mention the accidents I know about up the road in front of my house, or that near this very spot a pedestrian was knocked out of his shoes. I do suggest to the mother with the stroller that she park it up on the grassy embankment, away from a possible swerve. We are women and men, one child, and a grandfather.

Supporters honk and give thumbs up. They roll down their windows and hoot and yell out in agreement. They are VWs with young men, Hondas with women driving home from work and Expeditions with children leaning out the windows. There are work trucks with men piled in the back, and tractor-trailers that pass with a shudder and rush of dust, sounding off their long, low horns for two full blocks. The horn-honking and waving and shouting are ebullient.

Detractors are another species altogether. Some give smiles that my sign-waving friends interpret as smug. A few, the couple in the black Mercedes, the man in the white S.U.V., offer an energetic thumbs down. But more raise their middle fingers, angrily, with a forceful jab.

One idling car holds a driver who seems to be trying to get out to accost us. Another, its bumper hanging, its fender rusted, turns the corner filled with people whose faces are a mask of fury, and during the green light a car speeds past with a driver who calls out, “Whores!”

When I told my son my plans to join the sign-wavers, he cautioned me against it. At first I took this as the apprehension of a boy who has been jarred from sleep by the squeal of tires and buckling metal. But the women I stood with had heard the same things from their families. We are all leery. There are stories of yard signs stolen, or destroyed. We suppose that there are many who may be afraid to honk. Canvassers meet people who admit whom they’re voting for in a confessional whisper. “Don’t tell my neighbor,” they add.

I place my yard sign just to the side of the oak, where car bumpers never reach. During the day we check on it, periodically, like a sleeping baby. Still there, we say. At night, for safekeeping, I will bring it in.