Saturday, November 25, 2006

Black Friday

Long gone are the days when I’d casually drop major bucks at the November Nordstrom sale. In fact, my reign as a super-shopper ended when I stopped working with the public. No longer compelled to wow others with a new outfit everyday, I now buy clothes primarily through catalogs and during occasional forays into Ann Taylor Loft.

The urge to shop the day after Thanksgiving remains primally strong, however, and so it was no surprise that I found myself casually suggesting to Tim—like a junkie falling back into a bad habit!—that it “might be fun” to go to the Camarillo outlet stores the day after Thanksgiving. Not understanding the need to shop just for the sake of shopping, Tim asked what I was going to buy. "Uh, underwear," I said—a concept he could understand. His interest was further piqued when we saw shoppers (mostly women) already lined up outside the Camarillo stores on the 11PM news. Although most malls weren’t opening until 5AM the next day, the outlets opened at midnight Thanksgiving night. Tim was now completely on board.

Still, it was a shock when he whispered in my ear Friday morning that it was time to head to Camarillo. Realizing it was still dark, I mumbled, “What time is it?” “5:30AM,” he answered wide awake. “Ugh! Let’s sleep a little longer,” I insisted. But the urge overpowered me as I sent Tim out for sustenance. Armed with coffee (him) and a blueberry muffin (me), we left the house at 6:30AM and headed 35 miles north to Ventura county. I didn’t even blink when we passed a bank thermometer claiming that it was only 40 degrees outside.

Dubbed “Black Friday” by the media, the day after Thanksgiving is—along with the days directly before and after Christmas—one of the busiest shopping days of the year. No wonder then that the parking lot was already full by the time we arrived in Camarillo. Following all the other latecomers to a lot across the street, we parked behind the Edwards moviehouse, completely ignoring a huge sign that screamed “THEATER PARKING ONLY!!” We then waded back to the outlets and made a beeline straight to Ann Taylor Loft, my favorite of all the stores. Tim read the newspaper outside (along with all the other husbands) while I went in to shop.

Over the years I’ve developed several shopping rules that are especially imperative on a hectic day like Black Friday. Rule #1: what you wear to shop is almost as important as how much money you have to spend. Always wear pants with an elastic waistband (for easy off and on) and comfortable slip-on shoes. Rule #2: if you find a pair of pants or a skirt that fits, buy it in every color available as you never know when you’ll find another well-fitting pair of pants (or skirt) again. And Rule #3: unless it’s something you absolutely must have, never stand on a long cashier line for just one item. Life is too short; plus you don’t want to alienate any husbands or friends you may have conned into shopping with you.

Back in my svelte days when I was a size 8, I used to find everything I wanted on the rack. But now that I’m the same size as every other healthy woman in her 50s, things sell out more quickly. The pickin’s were disappointingly slim this time for women of a certain size. Both Ann Taylor and Jones of New York, my other Camarillo favorite, were a bust.

Tim and I had fun anyway, watching other shoppers and steering clear of several stores that had long lines to even get in. Channel 7 news was there in full force (three news vans!), but we managed to steer clear of them, too. To escape the crowds, we ducked into various food shops, like Le Gourmet Chef and Harry & David’s, and snacked on their samples (hence the need for a larger dress size!). Our haul for the day included peppermint bark (to give as Christmas gifts), key lime pie mix, maple sugar (yum!), a silk shirt from Chico’s, and, of course, several boxes of Jockey underwear.

After three hours I asked Tim if he wanted to go over to the Edwards and catch a movie. He opted to go home instead. We were back in bed by 11:30AM.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Working the Polls

I worked my first polls in 2004. It was a presidential election year and several of my former students had volunteered to work. I figured that if they could do it, then why not me and so contacted the county registrar for an appointment. I was asked to be a clerk at a polling site located in a small building at the back of a nearby Volvo dealer’s lot. The polls were supposed to open at 7AM, but the lot manager didn’t show up with the key until 7:15AM. I lobbied for setting up the booths in the parking lot, but the site inspector (i.e., supervisor) refused even though some of the 20+ people, who had shown up early, started leaving for work. Eventually we were able to open—and, indeed, had a wonderful day participating in the democratic process—but I swore that if I ever did this again, I’d be the inspector so no one would go away unhappy.

Well, be careful what you wish for! Sure enough, last March I got a call asking if I’d like to supervise a polling site during the June primaries. Remembering how rewarding it was to help facilitate the election process in 2004, I said yes and quickly proceeded to recruit three students to work the polls with me. Unfortunately, our site was located inside a decrepit convalescent hospital that smelled of urine and housed several moaning and screaming patients. Still, despite these distractions, we got the job done and felt good afterward. So much so, in fact, that I gladly agreed to supervise another site during this week’s gubernatorial election.

So, what do pollworkers do? Once you agree to serve, you’re invited to attend a 2-3 hour orientation. There you watch three videos (how to setup, how to close, and what to do in-between) and ask all manner of questions. Much of the work is just common sense; but there are certain protocols that must be followed and there’s a ton of detailed paperwork to complete once the ballots have all been cast. The best thing to do is recruit competent clerks who can each handle a small part of the process (e.g., check-in; mark rosters; collect ballots; etc.). The inspector then manages the clerks and troubleshoots any problems. I also make a point of insisting that everyone who walks in the door gets to vote, even if s/he lives in a precinct thirty miles away.

Ten days before the election, the inspector picks up the voting equipment at a designated place in Culver City (e.g., Fox Hills mall). With a major election like the governor’s race, it’s expected that many people will want to vote and so we were given five regular booths, one lower (more sturdy) booth for disabled voters and (something new!) a “talking booth” for visually-impaired and non-English language-speaking voters. In addition, this was the first election to use the new Inkavote ballot-scanner—a small photocopier-sized machine that reads each ballot to make sure the voter hasn’t double-voted, etc. This sits atop the ballot box, which is a little larger than those Rubbermaid boxes designed to store Christmas ornaments or other less precious items.

I guess enough people complained about the convalescent hospital, because this time we were assigned to a polling site in the waiting room of a tire store (!) The manager couldn’t guarantee that anyone would be available to open the store at 6AM, so I threatened to setup on the sidewalk if necessary. For two nights, I tossed and turned with nightmares about having to open the polls late. I even convinced Tim to go with me in case we had to setup everything outside. Come election day, however, the store owner himself was there by 6AM (phew!). The polls opened right on time at 7AM. By 8:30AM, fifty people had already voted. It looked to be a busy day.

Only two of my students were available to work again; but happily two other pollworkers—a mother and her 18-year-old son Nick—unexpectedly joined us at 6AM. Between the five of us, we were able to handle all duties quite smoothly and even had time to take long breaks during slow times. Poll watchers stopped by periodically to see how things were going. A staffer from the Secretary of State’s office also dropped in and asked me some questions. Taking notes on a clipboard, she congratulated us on doing a great job and then gave us all red-white-and-blue lapel pins. At 7PM our young pollworker Nick cast his first ballot. We all cheered.

Despite some celebratory moments, it’s always a long day working the polls. By 8PM we were thoroughly exhausted and reeked of rubber. Once we declared the polls officially closed, Tim returned to help us tear everything down and count the ballots. Two hundred and thirty-nine people had voted—over 30% of our precinct. Not a bad day’s work.

Still, it’s a wonder to me that the process even works. For little more than minimum wage, the county registrar is able to recruit thousands of volunteers to staff the polls for thirteen long hours every election. That the ballots even get delivered safely back to the registrar seems a miracle.

Driving back to the Fox Hills mall late that night to deliver the ballots and equipment, I turned on the radio just in time to hear that the Democrats had reclaimed the House of Representatives. Bursting into tears, I realized that the process does indeed work and that sometimes even the longest days have a happy ending.