That Old Political Machine

By David Kaplan

The Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club has met every Tuesday at 7:30 on Conklin Ave. in the Flatlands neighborhood of south Brooklyn for the last 73 years. It has the feel of an old legion hall. The original wooden floors have been perfectly smoothed by the shuffling of old shoes. The wood once shone bright blond. But now, it’s covered in layers of decades old grime.

Sometimes, one of the members sweeps up the fallen cigarette butts that are invariably smoked to the nub. The crumpled coffee cups from the shop next door rest for days under tables or kicked from one corner of the room to the other. No one drinks the coffee made at the club. That’s mainly because the coffee is rarely made. As such, no one tends to know how long the viscous black liquid has been sitting in the pot in the back of the room. And yet, when some rips open a bag of stale pieces of coffee cake, the members all rush to shove a few crumbling bites in their dry mouths.

It’s an unusually balmy August afternoon. The creaky tin fan above the door is off, but it turns like a bent pinwheel when a breeze comes. Stan, Frank, Harvey, and Harvey’s wife Roberta have been playing cards since 4pm. The other 12 regulars show up after 7. They’re all in their 50s. It’s either come here, go to the boardwalk in Coney Island, or sit at home with their kids and fight over the TV. Stan is the only member with two TVs in his apartment, which is notable because he’s the only one who never got married.

“What’s with him?” Roberta would say to Harvey on the drive home. “He’s an accountant. I don’t get it. With his money, he could have his pick of the litter.”

“I wish he woulda picked you, Bobbie,” Harvey would say to his great amusement. Roberta would stick her tongue out and mime “Nya, nya, nya” and blow smoke in Harvey’s face.

The 1974 elections were coming up in November. But the members didn’t really talk about politics, except to complain. They’d mostly complain about past elections and officials.

“Remember when Wagner was mayor? He wasn’t so bad.”

“That guy was a complete idiot. What are you talking about? Do you even know what you’re talking about? He didn’t do a thing. His father, Senator Wagner. He was all right. But as a mayor, he was a dog. He ruined this city! I shoulda moved to New Jersey then. But Bobbie didn’t want to.”

“Go to hell, Harvey,” Roberta would respond from across the room. Without looking up from her mah jong tiles, she hissed, “You’re the one who didn’t want to spend the money on a house.”

“What kind of moron is going to pay $30,000 to live all the way in Leonia? Please, why doncha get back to your game already? It looks like you’re losing the way you lose arguing with me.”

The 28-year-old man standing at the entrance cleared his throat. He was about 5-foot-9, lanky, with a full, dark beard and long, thinning black hair. He wore bell-bottom jeans and what were then called “earth shoes.” They were boxy, flattened, and dun colored. He was with a young woman, who had long straight blond hair parted in the middle. She brushed them away from her blue-tinted aviator glasses. She was wearing flared red pants and open-toed sandals. The old men stared at both of them like they landed from Mars. But mostly, they were looking at her toes and her tight, faded Bob Dylan and The Band t-shirt she got at a Madison Square Garden concert two months ago. She wore it every other day and washed it every few weeks.

“Hi, I’m Sean and this is Sandy. We’re here to sign up for the Democratic club,” Sean said walking over to Harvey’s table.

Harvey sighed. Why did everyone always come to him?

He went into the office and handed Sean a pen and some papers to fill out.

“Okay, thanks, mister!”

Harvey shrugged. A few minutes later, Sean came over again and handed Harvey the papers.

“Don’t forget my pen!”

“I wouldn’t try to steal your pen, sir,” Sandy said.

“Well, ya can’t be too careful these days,” Harvey said, and put the papers on a desk in the office.

“What do we do now?” Sean said, unsure if he was in the right place. “Isn’t there a meeting tonight?”

“You’re looking at it, bub,” Harvey said.

“Is there a discussion? I’m interested in working for Howard Samuels. I think he’d make a great governor,” Sean said, feeling as if he and Sandy were the ones who landed on Mars.

“He’s got a very smart record on civil rights,” Sandy said.

“Well, we’ve already decided: We’re backing Hugh Carey. He’s the average guy. We don’t care for professors like Samuels. So, maybe start your own Democratic Club. This is our place, see? We know how politics works and we didn’t need to spend the price of a house in Leonia to learn it in a classroom for four years.”

“We live here too, mister,” Sandy interjected, her voice rising. “And we learned all we need to know about you and your club in about 2 minutes. Thanks for the free education. I don’t know if you can tell from where you’re sitting, but we’re the future. So you just play your card games and your mah jong. And we’ll teach you something soon.”

“C’mon, Sandy,” Sean said, putting his arm around her and leading her out the door. She pushed his arm away and walked out slapping her sandals on the pavement.

The place was quiet for a long minute.

“You know, I’m thinking of voting for Samuels,” Stan said, taking a long sip of his coffee. “My cousin works for him and he says he does have some good policies. This city is going bankrupt you know and –.”

“Ah, shut the hell up, Stan,” Harvey and Roberta shouted in stereo from opposite ends of the room.

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