An unexpected meeting in line turns perspective on its head

Tuesday, November 4, 2008 | 6:02 p.m. CST; updated 8:06 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 4, 2008

DES MOINES, Iowa — I am standing in line, like millions of people across America, waiting to vote for the next president of the United States.


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All day long gas station attendants, bank tellers and deli managers in Des Moines have been asking me one question: Have I voted?

So I am inching my car into the last space in a downtown parking lot one day before the general election, prepared to take my place in a long line that has already snaked behind the Polk County Election Office. After filling in the forms for early voting and seeing the staff run after the papers blown by strong gusts of wind in the alley, I begin to look at those ahead of me and behind me in line. This will take a while.

Before me a 21-year-old woman in a long, flowered skirt leans into her 6-foot-tall boyfriend, who looks like Paul Bunyan in dreadlocks. The couple behind me in their 30s is literally juggling their 18-month-old son between them, hoisting him at times onto their shoulders and laughing. A bi-racial couple, they echo the views voiced by earlier residents of Iowa's largest city; they are apprehensive yet hoping nothing unexpected will happen at this critical time.

Then something unexpected does happen.

I begin to study the man directly ahead of me, wondering what his background is. He is not from Senegal or Haiti, as I first thought; he is from a country where voting in a democratic system was recently an unimaginable luxury, a dream that died for two decades during one of the bloodiest wars in recent history.

He is from Rwanda.

Suddenly my immediate concern with the wait and my long-term preoccupation with our failing economy fades, and a montage of visions sweeps across my mind's eye: stacks of bodies on the side of a dirt road; the dead eyes of a 13-year-old soldier wielding a gun half his height; the looks of saturated dread in the defeated postures of the stunned survivors.

I tell him that I am sorry that his country experienced such suffering and that all of us did too little too late.

He replies, with a smile, that he understands: Humanity has a short memory, and if people are not there, it is not real to them. That is the response of people halfway across the world. David G. (who requests that I not use his last name) says, in a self-deprecating tone, that he is here today to vote for someone who understands the "path we must walk in order to make a difference."  

We both look up at the bright sun beating down on us and say nothing, aware of the gap between his former country and the one we are standing in now, the one with patient crowds of all ages and backgrounds talking quietly as they share a right that is also a privilege.

We are now inside the building and at the head of the line; a woman asks him if he is registered, and he shows them his Iowa driver's license.  His hands shaking slightly because, after years of living in a place where the right stamps on the proper forms determine your future, he is afraid that he doesn't have the proper papers to participate in this process.

After five minutes of discussion, he is given the voting ballot and instructed how to complete the process. We move from the head counter where three registration assistants are calling out names like rushed bingo captains and retreat to the right wall, pens in our hands.

In our separate collapsible booths that, I think, resemble our voting system in their adaptability and fragility, we bend over the printed names and their adjacent boxes.

And we vote.

Andrea Heiss is director of the Arts-In-Depth Program at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is in the process of moving from Iowa.


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