I watch the forty-something couple survey our outdoor table from three feet away. The woman shakes her head and covers her mouth with one hand. The man speaks quietly into her ear. I imagine he's telling her not to be afraid, that everything will be okay. Even after I ask her to share her thoughts, she can't find her voice. The cause of her shock and awe? (Okay, "awe" may not be the mot juste here.) It's a "Bush-Cheney 2004" table that graced a street corner near Madison Square Garden for a dozen Saturdays recently.
We sold pro-Bush pins, bumper stickers and T-shirts, with slogans like "Ten out of Ten Terrorists Agree: Anybody but Bush." Our aim was to let the odd conservative in New York City know that -- believe it or not -- he or she is not alone. And to show our more "traditional" fellow New Yorkers that we're not hiding anymore. No, we're proud to be red (if you must call us that) in this blazingly "blue" city.
And no, we're not crazy. Just a bit bold, and tired of ceding the public square to the left, which flaunts its colors everywhere.
The man finally harrumps, "Not very informative."
"It's a support table," I respond. "Surely you've seen some for Kerry-Edwards?" Naturally he has. The difference, of course, is that here in the capital of blue America, those East and West Coast enclaves that gave Al Gore the nod in 2000, "Rah-rah Kerry!" needs no explanation -- or justification.
I ask how many other tables like ours he's seen around town. In Manhattan, this is a rhetorical question, but the man answers it anyway. None, of course. So I lend him some friendly words: "So . . . it could be worse?" He scowls, grants me that, then pulls his speechless companion along on their way.
It's a small victory, I know. But one to savor. After all, in this city, a conservative dog so rarely has her day (except for those four great days this summer).
Living in Manhattan, I've long been conditioned to self-censorship. I turned it into an art form a decade ago, soon after I arrived here from Maryland and realized that, politically speaking, I was going to be running with a very small circle. Oh sure, New York City voters have elected two GOP mayors in a row, but don't let that fool you. The first was a reaction to the previous (Democratic) mayor, and the second is a lifelong Dem who needed a spot on an open ticket. To be a real live Republican here is to invite pointed put-downs ("How can you live with yourself?"), or at least concerned condescension ("You're a Republican? But you seem so intelligent."). Yes, people really have said those things to me, with perfect artlessness. But that's okay. Everybody knows Republicans don't have feelings.
Lately, though, I've been emboldened by a small but growing community of out-of-the-closet New York conservatives. (We're working toward the day when that phrase isn't an oxymoron.) So I've abandoned the old nonconfrontational approach and started cutting my debating teeth on "real" New Yorkers, who still outnumber the likes of me 5 to 1. I've also been exchanging war stories with other members of this sapphire city's silent minority.
My favorite belongs to 26-year-old John Fitzgerald, who as a college senior in 2000 went to cast his presidential primary vote on the Upper West Side. The other night at a local bar, he told me his tale of travail. He tried to pull the knob for his preferred candidate, he said, but it wouldn't budge. After several unsuccessful attempts, he exited the booth to report that the machine wasn't working. This apparently confounded everyone, since no one had complained about the machine all day. The poll workers conferred, until finally a light bulb went off. "Are you a Republican?" someone asked.
The room fell silent. All eyes turned toward the extraterrestrial in their midst. Fitzgerald fessed up. Yes, he was trying to cast his ballot for a GOP candidate. And therein lay the malfunction: After checking voters' affiliations all day, the poll workers had found the task superfluous and had overlooked Fitzgerald's party. The machine, like all the others in the polling place, was set for the Democratic primary and had to be reset before he could vote. "I've heard about the Democratic machine in New York," Fitzgerald chuckled, "but I didn't know it was an actual one."
In Florida, this would be a scandal; in Manhattan, it's an anecdote for a cocktail party. But that's life for us latter-day "reds" in this bastion of the blue. Recently, an acquaintance told me she'd read a New York Times death notice that requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to UnseatBush.com. My friends and I are waiting to see caskets with Kerry bumper stickers on them next.
Meanwhile, our lonely little pro-Bush table on 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue seemed only to underscore for passersby the imminent need for every one of the 10,985-odd Kerry-Edwards tables, the 2 million-plus "Beat Bush" clipboards and the thousands upon thousands of John Kerry buttons swamping the city. This may be Blue York, but our presence here seemed to make Manhattanites see red.
"Haven't you seen 'Fahrenheit 9/11' ?" one man screamed at us as he passed. "You're close-minded!" (Wait a minute, who's close-minded?)"Not my president!" yelled another.
"The fascists are coming!" boomed a third while walking around in a circle and flailing his arms. "Look, they're already here!"
"Shame on you!"
"Is this, like, satire?"
"George W. Bush is the devilllllll!"
Then there was the middle-aged man who pulled at his hair every time someone actually bought something from us. "You're giving them money?!" he'd cry. When he first came upon us, his greeting was, "This is New York -- you don't belong here!"
So, you're no doubt thinking, why do I stay? I confess, it's my combative spirit that keeps me in this Big Blue Apple (plus the comedy clubs are here). Disagreeing is more challenging than agreeing. When I make headway -- however slight -- with someone starts out dead set against the way I think, I feel I'm fulfilling the -- yes -- liberal ideal of "making a difference."
The need to fight the good fight motivated me to help man the Bush-Cheney table. I'd assumed I'd have to steel myself against endless ideological adversaries, and there sure were plenty of those. But it also turned out that a table marked "Bush" could be a small refuge, a shining red beacon in this blue urban sea. And so every now and then, we heard the startling words: "Thank you for being here!"
A gregarious Haitian woman named Natasha purchased some collectibles for friends and family back in Miami. "I love Laura!" she said in a thick accent. "Everyone I know loves President Bush." Equally supportive Norwegians, Russians, Irish, Indonesians, Poles, Australians and Dutch (some visiting and some living here) also stopped by -- reminding us that sometimes those with intimate experience of the world outside America make the best Americans. Then there was Livvi the dancing Estonian, who sometimes hung out on the corner and did a jig every time she said "George W. Bush." She would bellow toward the heavens: "God bless Republicans!" (Livvi said she thanks Ronald Reagan for her country's liberation.)
Still, the far more common shadow that fell across our table was definitely cast in blue. Like the man who kept saying, "I can't understand why you support Bush." When my friend Kevin replied, "If you can't understand why half the country supports Bush, you need to get out more," the man deadpanned: "I get out plenty. I'm a college professor." As our group laughed in stereo, he yelled, "Anti-intellectuals!" and stormed off.
Against the backdrop of encounters like these, it's gratifying enough for a New Yorker who's the new kind of red to meet a Democrat who actually treats us like people. Someone like Bill, the elderly Manhattanite who strode up to shake our hands and say, "I've lived here my whole life, and you're the first Republicans I've met."
All the more reason to stay, and help paint the town red.
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