Fleeing a hot, crowded brownstone, Tom built his life on a dead-end lane: some trees, a brook, and extra land to parcel out to kids. For decades, he made the commute to the city, but most of his relatives followed him home. They were charmed by the place where he chose to raise chickens, plant string beans, and tinker with gadgets in peace.
The Piscataway soil will never be known for producing fine wines, but the tangle of vines on the side of the house was Tom’s own little piece of Provence. On the morning he never grew tired of griping about, he was tending his few feeble grapes. The sun was high, and the only sounds were birds and barking dogs. Perhaps he stopped to wipe his brow; he surely snuck a sip of beer and dreamed about the homemade wine to come. Then a stranger slipped into the garden.
Dapper but fat, the stranger was speckled with dust from the road. He fanned his spiny jowls with his hat, introduced himself without a handshake, and eyed the gawky farmer. Uncreative, as all of them are, he asked about the clump of vines. He expressed delight, this bringer of mighty compliments, for who was nearer to God, who better understood the common good, than a man who coaxed life from the earth?
The vines gave the stranger a sudden idea: He knew a nearby farmer whose cows were a sight to behold. Their output, he said, was impressive—no, not impressive: magical. This farmer had worked miracles with manure, and the kicker was, he always had a little dung to spare. Picture it: these grapes here growing and thriving, while neighbors and family toasted each other’s health with the sweetest wine in town. A diligent public servant, he said, might easily procure a bag of this miracle fertilizer and bestow it upon a neighbor in need. Delivery would be quick, and it wouldn’t cost a penny—as long as that public servant knew he could count on a vote or two come November. Speaking of which, was the lady of the house at home?
The two men exchanged promises. Weeks passed, and then months. Only one man kept his promise. Tom remembered; fifty years later, it still made him angry.
By the time we were children, the suburbs had grown up around us, and Chaucerian frauds were sprouting like mushrooms: Combed-over charlatans who failed to hide their disdain as they loped up our porch steps to beg for support. The part-time mayor who never had time for parades or graduations. The priest who crept through the halls at the old folks’ home, buying cheap votes for his patron by handing out kitchen sponges. The sheriff’s sergeant who stole from the pension fund. Judges who snorted cocaine with their staff. Real-estate developers who hand-fed their pet creatures from town hall to Trenton. We were taught to laugh at them; only as an adult did I learn that “freeloader” was not, in fact, a valid civic office.
But sometimes, on a Tuesday, the grown-ups gathered at the kitchen table and unfolded an arcane sheet filled with drawings of dozens of levers. They studied it, they agreed on a time, and then, dressed as if going to church, they herded us into the Pinto. Sometimes we did go to a church; more often, we drove to a school, or the nearby college campus. Old ladies waited in line, as somber as schoolgirls in black-and-white photos, and old men talked in tones we never heard around the house. No one introduced us to any adults—we were small, badly dressed, and invisible—but we knew to behave while our elders, one by one, stepped behind a curtain. When they emerged, looking mostly unchanged, we all drove home, with no speeches about privileges or duties. The whole of the ritual spoke for itself.
The earth never shook, and our street still went unnoticed, and nobody told me which outcome was worse: the leader who promised a sack full of crap or the leader who failed to provide it. But we learned to detect its distinctive bouquet, that whiff of impending election. My grandfather taught me the grown-up response: get up, and go, and vote—but hold your nose.