Politics and a pint

The election bellies up to the bar.

I AM JUST WALKING IN, hitting the darkness of the bar, and asking right away about the election, when Dodie Smith says, "You should have been here last night. They were screaming about politics. It was almost a riot." She lowers her voice, "Ninety percent of them don't vote, and the rest don't have addresses."

She picks up her King County absentee ballot, stamped and ready to mail, from behind the weathered bar in the Rendezvous, a blue-collar joint on Second Avenue, Belltown, and presses it to her heart. "I, on the other hand, vote."

I start to ask. . . . "A bartender never tells who she votes for." She nods to the wildlife, her paying customers. "That could cost money, honey."

A large black man who has heard us talking says, as I slide onto a seat, "Don't sit here if you talk politics. There's nothing to say. Don't any of them deserve to be elected.

"You know why most people don't vote?" the man continues. The two-party system. "All you get are Gores and Bushes—same faces all the time."

You mean color?

"Race? Oh, no. I'd vote for that Nader." But he's so good, the man says, Nader can't be allowed to win. "That would wreck the system."

A white woman on my right says, "I'm for the Jew."

Lieberman, the vice-presidential candidate?

She beams. "Tell him why," she says, hitting the arm of the man next to her.

He leans over with the punch line. "Because he's the only politician who promised not to campaign seven days a week!" Everyone laughs.

"Or maybe, 'Because he's the only politician who atones for his sins.' I got to work on it," the man tells himself.

What's our population? the black man says. About 250 million? "And all we got to vote on is Dumb or Dumber?" They've already been elected anyway, he says, "by the corporations."

Through the bar's red neon light, I can make out a bumper sticker on the wall: "U.S. Government Philosophy: If it ain't broke, fix it till it is."

Earlier outside, I had run into Sean O'Shaughnessy, 75, a tiny, noisy retired Irish seaman once described as "looks like he fell off a charm bracelet." He is a street-level professor of politics. But a few beers and he forgets.

Who are you voting for? I asked.

"Clinton!"

"I don't think he's running this time."

"Then that other guy, Gush!"

"What about governor?"

"The Chinaman!"

"Gary Locke."

"No, no. . . . Oh, wait, that's it!"

"How about senator? Gorton, Cantwell?"

"No, the rich lady!"

This is polling reduced to basics.

But, hey, he's voting.

Inside, the white woman next to me says, "You have the right to vote, and the right to not vote. I am exercising my right to not vote."

You're in the majority, I said. That means the minority decides who runs the country.

"Doesn't matter who runs it," says the black man.

"We can say 'It's not our fault, we didn't vote for him,"' the white lady says, and all are laughing again.

This may not be a representative sample of America. Then again . . .

On the wall is another bumper sticker: "I love my country, but I fear my government."

"Like I said," Dodie Smith reminds me, "90 percent of them don't vote. But they all think they know what's wrong."

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