There are certain events that become a sort of ritual for folks. When I was a kid growing up in South Carolina, each New Year’s Eve when the grownups would carry on with their drunken festivities downstairs, I would be upstairs in my bedroom listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 100 countdown of the year on WBBQ out of Augusta. At the time, it was important to me to participate in this annual bit of musical nostalgia, so I would lie in my bed in my flannel J.B. White pajamas and wonder what the next song was going to be (Oh, I hope it’s Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America!”).
But because I was an even bigger dork than listening to the radio every New Year’s indicates, I had a similar tradition for every presidential election since I can remember. Starting in 1976 (which for those of you keeping track at home, means my Grindr age doesn’t match my legal age), I would keep the big election special edition of the local newspaper on my lap and track the results state by state as results came in over election night. If it was a big blowout (like in 1984), I might stop once the network declared a winner, and my red and blue markings on the newspaper map of the Electoral College would be only half filled in.
Since moving to Paris in 2006, I’ve been through three presidential elections, and I have a new habit adapted to the times and place. With my husband and our slightly spoiled Jack Russell terrier, I go for a late dinner at Joe Allen, the Manhattan-style restaurant down the street from our apartment. There we join the large colony of expats and wait patiently for the first results to come in.
With Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the French national press was at the restaurant to get local reaction (elation!) to this historic victory. In 2012, we were there again, and this time I was interviewed by a radio reporter who asked what I thought of the results (relief!). The atmosphere was convivial, with everyone clapping as polls closed and more and more states turned blue. For both elections, we wore our “I VOTED” stickers we had saved from the absentee ballots we had mailed in weeks earlier, and because we’re gay, we dressed our dog up in his fake tuxedo (it was a special occasion).
And then came 2016.
Like the crash of the Hindenburg for earlier generations, or perhaps the Kennedy assassination, everyone remembers where he or she was when they heard that awful phrase, “Trump has been elected.” At Joe Allen that night, things started getting quiet around 3:30 in the morning when CNN’s John King started doing his breakdown of the vote coming in from Wisconsin. We were sitting next to a cute French couple, and the boy was trying to make sense of what was happening.
“I don’t understand why Wees-CON-sohn is so important,” he asked.
“It shouldn’t be, but it is all of a sudden,” I remember telling him, trying to make sense of it myself.
By dawn, most of the would-be-revelers had left, and as the neighborhood rats darted about across the paved stones of the quartier, we glumly slunk back home in disbelief at what had just happened.
Since then, there have been innumerable post-mortems of what happened, how Hillary Clinton could have lost to Trump, how the polls could have gotten all of it so wrong, the influence of social media disinformation, foreign intervention, and the backlash of many against the Clintons. There are many theories, and obviously nothing is certain in political life, but the shock of that fateful November night was not easily assuaged in the ensuing years.
Will November 3, 2020, be a repeat of that infamous evening?
One thing seems certain. We won’t be going to Joe Allen this year. The tension in this election is just too palpable. The near certainty that there will be uncertainty in the results stemming from the avalanche of mailed-in ballots, along with the predictable preemptive claim of victory from Trump, followed by the long, tedious fight in the courts, mean that my longstanding tradition of watching the election night coverage until the winner is called will be ended.
I quit listening to the year-end countdown on WBBQ when I left for college, but there was still a part of me that wanted to stay in and fall asleep listening to Casey Kasem’s golden voice. It saddens me that this year I will most likely go sleep on election night and wake up the next morning with no clear idea whether this nightmare is indeed over. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear that old familiar refrain coming in over my bedside table, “…and coming in at number 46, Joe Biden.”