Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Syrupy Tales of Election Day, Pancakes

It started as either a clever plan to instill the importance of participating in our democracy in my children or a hankering for butter pecan syrup. 

Since my two children, now 20 and 18, were old enough to stand still for a minute in the voting booth, we have followed an Election Day ritual: Wake up on the first Tuesday of November, cruise to the polling place in the minivan to cast my ballot, and then head out for a breakfast feast. The IHOP is our usual destination — owing to that aforementioned jonesing of mine. My family rarely went there in my youth, but its steep royal blue roof had been such a familiar sight to me over five decades, at least from a car window, that it seemed a perfectly stable and secure spot for building a lifetime memory along with a customized pancake combo. 

This Election Day, I knew long ago, would be different. My daughter had missed the previous two rituals for college, and my son would be miss this one for the same reason. That would leave me, my increasingly creaky minivan and, most likely, a return trip home for steel-cut oatmeal because, according to the latest numbers, my cholesterol could withstand a drop of a few points in the polls.

Then came COVID-19.

With my daughter doing remote learning from home and my son at a college near enough for a quick “vote and nosh” round trip, the tradition could have carried on by investing a little more time and a lot more risk than just adding the usual sides of fried animal flesh to our sugar-smothered carbs. And by risk, I’m referring to the chance of encountering a mask-less pseudo-patriotic zealot playing self-appointed “poll watcher.” 

Instead, we gathered this past weekend and filled out our ballots as a family with my wife taking my spot (my ballot was the only one not to arrive in time for this) while I did a contact-less takeout run for lunch. Not quite as satisfying, for sure, but having the whole brood safe together, putting democracy in action tasted just as sweet as any butter-enhanced stack of flour. Rather than mail the ballots (that guy who hired the postmaster general keeps warning us how bad an operation he runs, you know), I duct-taped the minivan and took off for our government center. There, I dropped the envelopes into what could have been — if not for the signage — mistaken for a street-side waste bin.

Still, it felt more secure than voting in Texas. We lived in an affluent Dallas suburb for a while around the millennium’s turn. I remember being shocked my first time at the polls. After filling out my paper ballot, I was told to drop it in a plastic five-gallon bucket though a rough rectangular hole cut in its lid — a lid jerry-rigged with hinges and padlocks. See, kids, back then Mexico hadn’t yet paid for that Great Wall that protects us from bad hombres ... wait - they still haven’t?

The ride home from ballot dropping this year, as expected, was not exactly euphoric. But how could it be? These are strange days, filled with more divide and darkness than most in my generation and since have ever seen. It’s hard to believe that just 12 years ago my children and I experienced such a completely different Election Day. 

That morn of Nov. 4, 2008, the IHOP was buzzing. Families, couples and individuals white, Black, brown — many sporting certain red, white and blue stickers on their breasts — laughed and smiled and filled the room with a palpable energy and warmth that no bottomless coffee refill or fresh off the griddle pancake could match.

Maybe someday again, it will.

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