Greenwich Village, 3 p.m.
Kenny’s Castaways—a rock dive on Bleecker Street between Thompson and Sullivan—has been a daytime hangout for lowlifes since time immemorial. (Or at least the mid-1970s, when it opened; Bruce Springsteen played his first gig here.) Early this afternoon, Jerry the Methadonian came by to rally the flock. “Is everyone voting? You’re all getting out there right?” Everyone grunted in response.
A gallery worker named Sam, one of the few regulars with a job, wondered aloud if Jerry was a canvasser. But by this point he was off, on to the next shithole. “Fuck politics,” was the response of Tommy Kenny, the owner.
Paul Sudia, a porter at the Back Fence next door, had another take. “There was a line around the block on 13th,” he said. “I told someone that was voting for Obama, ‘Look, you just don’t vote and it’ll be good, it will cancel each other out.’ Everyone just stared at me, though. It’s a great system, but you can’t trust people,” he said with a sigh.
We were skeptical. Mr. Sudia lit a cigarette. “Uh, to be honest I wasn’t gonna vote anyway,” he said.
Columbus Circle, early evening
On election night, Ted Sorensen, legendary speechwriter and shadow of John F. Kennedy, and his wife were preparing an election-results gathering in the three-bedroom, 3,444-square-foot apartment they bought last November for $10.75 million.
This was where people who are smarter than just about everyone currently alive in New York City would be gathering to privately mark the occasion, and watch the results pour in.
“I’ve spent my life writing books about political power,” the godly 73-year-old biographer Robert Caro told The Observer on the phone (while we were trying to get in), “and for me, there’s no one on the face of the earth that I’d rather be watching an election night with than Ted Sorensen, with the exception, of course, of Lyndon Johnson.”
Mr. Caro, of course, won one of his two Pulitzers for his third book on Johnson, President Kennedy’s successor.
Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel, who is even better-spoken than that mellifluous, multi-syllabic name suggests, was invited, too. He was Robert F. Kennedy’s assistant in the ’60s.
Sadly, Mr. Sorensen and his wife, a senior adviser to the United Nations Foundation, are not allowing uninvited guests.
“He has, of course, been a participant in some of the great primary and general-election contests of American history,” Mr. Caro said about the speechwriter, “and this is going to be another one.”
In some Harlem precincts, as the day progressed, it became not so much a question of whether Barack Obama will win, but how his victory will be thwarted.
“I think it’s going to come down to a mess-up in the voting,” said 70-year-old Ervin McLean, a golf caddy who lives in the neighborhood.
McLean was hanging out today with a couple of other caddies on 130th Street, off Lenox Avenue. The three of them described Obama’s victory as simultaneously imminent and impossible.
Sonny Clifton, a 73-year-old, predicted violence if something goes wrong with voting machines or vote counts.
“If you’re white, get out of Harlem,” said Mr. Clifton, who was missing most of his teeth and had an empty Budweiser can by his feet. “If they kill him, don’t be seen in Harlem,” he told me, adding, “They got these young boys who will turn this place out.”
Thomas Mullins, a 52-year-old fellow caddy, was less pessimistic.
“I definitely think they’re going to throw a monkey wrench into the machine,” he said, but, “I don’t think there will be no disarray. There will not be unrest, but there will be a lot of disappointed people.”
He added that if Obama loses, and it’s blamed on voting irregularity, it will “stay in the consciousness of America’s mind.”
Harlem, late afternoon
At 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, State Senator Bill Perkins hopped onto a bus heading downtown.
Perkins, who represents Harlem, was one of the first elected officials in New York to endorse Obama.
On the ride to 108th Street, a man on the bus called him “courageous” and said he had “character.” Perkins nodded and said thank you.
Another passenger, an older African-American woman, echoed concerns about voting fraud I heard earlier in the day, wondering aloud, “Do you think they’re going to steal it?”
Perkins said no, because the turnout is so large. “They can’t steal an elephant,” he said. He told me the fear that the election will be somehow taken from Obama is one he’s heard often. “That it’s going to be stolen, yes. So, we believe if there is a big landslide, it’ll be harder to do, impossible to do.”
One older black woman said there was a line five blocks long when she went to vote in Harlem at 7 a.m. She took it as a sign that something was amiss.
Perkins was optimistic. “It’s a record turnout,” he said with a smile.
The Lower East Side, 4:30 p.m.
By late afternoon on Essex Street, the line to vote at Public School 20 was nonexistent, and voters trickled out at five-minute intervals.
Which is not to say voting here was entirely seamless.
“The machines were weird,” said neighborhood resident Nikki, 30, emerging from the gymnasium in a black puffy jacket after voting for Obama. (She asked that her last name not be used.) “I’ve voted before, but I had to ask how to do it. I’m kind of worried about that, actually, because what will happen to the people who aren’t so sharp? I don’t know if they’ll be able to figure it out.”
“It’s a bonk process,” she said. “Kind of prehistoric.” She said it took her 15 minutes total.
Lower East Sider Danny Rivera, 23, had also voted for Obama, but not with a lever. “My name wasn’t on the list, so I had to do an affidavit,” he said. He thought perhaps it was because he hadn’t voted in the last election, because he knew he was registered. He was with Maritza Alimonte, also 23, who had voted for Obama earlier in the day in the Bronx. They couple was confident Obama would win, but they were not Obamaphiles.
“I don’t trust him,” said Ms. Alimonte. “I don’t trust any of them.”
Midtown, 6 p.m.
By nightfall, midtown Manhattan was awash in jumbo news screens and fresh-faced temp workers handing out TV news schwag.
Outside the News Corp. building, a young lady passed out “fair and balanced” buttons and Fox News paddles. There was free hot chocolate, she said, and pretzels. Overhead, spotlights swirled through the night, catching here and there on the facades of the buildings. A crowd of onlookers watched Bill Hemmer and Brit Hume announce the early returns on a screen parked on 48th Street.
A few blocks away, at Rockefeller Plaza, a guy in a donkey costume posed for pictures with passersby. On the north end of the plaza, two al fresco screens carried Brian Williams coverage on NBC News. On the south end of the plaza, a single screen carried the MSNBC coverage. There were more free buttons to be had, these of the commemorative variety, celebrating “NBC’s Election Plaza.” The armada of American flags ringing the center of the plaza drooped in the sill, mild air.
At 6:45, Nora O’Donnell did a stand-up report from the plaza, on the latest news about the Elizabeth Dole’s difficult path towards reelection in South Carolina. “Elizabeth, go get some botox!” a middle-aged woman in an Obama t-shirt yelled at the screen.
Bits of nervous analysis—“The fact that Georgia is too close to call is a good sign,”—flitted through the crowd.
A few minutes later, MSNBC announced McCain the projected winner in Kentucky. Silence. Then MSNBC announced that Barack Obama was the projected winner in Vermont. The crowd cheered lustily.
At Times Square, ABC News and CNN jostled for attention. To the south, Diane Sawyer’s face floated high above the crowd. To the north, men and women sat in risers and watched on a giant screen as Wolf Blitzer interviewed a hologram of Jessica Yellin. Cheerful helpers handed out free CNN=Politics hand towels. There appeared to be no ABC News freebies.
Hell’s Kitchen, 7 p.m.
At the old Times building at 1475 Broadway, there was an electric “zipper” running up the side of the building that New Yorkers used to consult to find results. This time, the first ever election night at the new Eighth Avenue Times Tower, the building opened itself up for two hours for a panel session with Times editors and writers.
The panel took place at the TimesCenter, the ground floor auditorium that fits 378. Tickets are available WQXR listeners for $80 a pop and attendees are treated to a buffet afterward that includes free beer, hot dogs and popcorn.
Magazine contributing editor Matt Bai and metro reporter and host of the NY1 show The New York Times Close Up, Sam Roberts, were the moderators for the event. They were sitting behind a desk, not unlike the one a moderator sits behind at a debate, or that Katie Couric sits behind on the CBS Evening News. Behind them was an enormous screen that was expected to bring in instant results.
To their left were three office chairs, which rotated Times editors.
Jill Abramson was the first guest of the night. She was wearing a knee-length gray skirt.
Did it seem at all odd or interesting that on election night, the masthead of the Times could make time for what is essentially a promotional event for the business side?
“This is the most exciting campaign I’ve ever covered and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been covering them since 1976,” she told the crowd. “The length of this campaign—I feel like I’m going to suffer from terrible withdrawal tomorrow! I feel like I may not be able to do with myself tomorrow.”
She said an Obama administration would change Washington “hugely.”
“Eight years of, you know, the Bush White House, it’s hard to re-create this for you. The whole social axis of Washington will turn. The city that had a Democratic elite and centered in Georgetown gave to a Republican elite centered in Virginia. I think that if Obama wins, you’re going to see a fascination with the new first family that will remind us with an obsession with the Kennedy family when they moved into the White House because there are small children in the picture again. The Obamas have a kind of celebrity that remind me a little bit of the Kennedys in 1960.”
During the summer, masthead editors at the Times went behind two-way mirrors and consulted readers on how they’d feel about a section consolidation (and it worked! You’ll now find Metro and sports in different sections).
With that spirit mind, Rick Berke took to the crowd to get their advice on The Times’ banner headline for the next day’s paper.
Mr. Berke took out a galley of tomorrow’s edition. The banner headline read WINNER, with a subhead underneath.
“What we decided to do, after great deliberation, we came up with a headline like this. What Bill Keller was suggesting we do, and tell me if you think it’s a good idea, and I’ll go up and tell him because we have time to change this. If Obama wins it’ll say ‘OBAMA’ instead of ‘OBAMA WINS.’ And if it’s McCain, it’ll say ‘MCCAIN.’ It’s more simplistic. So, if you like the simplicity of just Obama or McCain, no exclamation point, just their name, clap right now.”
The majority of the crowd clapped.
He reminded them it’s not a democracy, but he can make a recommendation to Keller.
Only a smattering applause came for the alternate headline.
“This will be a front page for the ages, one of those great front pages.”
Lower East Side, 7 p.m.
By Tuesday afternoon, The Onion’s ‘War For the White House Election Night Spectacular,’ at Fontana’s on the Lower East Side, was already sold out. Three hundred and fifty people were on the waiting list, and 800 others had been turned down.
As things got underway around 7 p.m., Onion features editor and party organizer Joe Garden joked that he was still hoping for a win for Bob Barr. He’d voted earlier in the day in Windsor Terrace, where it only took five minutes. (And we think we know who he really voted for.)
So, would it be harder to make jokes about an Obama administration than it has been about Bush?
“No way, that’s bullshit. That’s lazy comedy. You should always be able to make fun of the guy who’s in charge,” said Mr. Garden.
Flatiron District, 7 p.m.
A little after 7 p.m. at the Old Town Bar and Restaurant on E. 18th Street, where a casual after-work crowd had gathered for some election-night boozing, one of Old Town’s co-owners, Gerard Meagher, whose family has owned the place for decades, walked towards the back of the bar, ordered a fine Scotch malt whiskey, and started talking politics.
“We’re probably the only place in New York that has Fox News on,” joked the 56-year-old Mr. Meagher, who, on this unseasonably warm evening, was wearing his customary outfit of tan shorts and brown loafers without socks. The three-inch McCain-Palin button affixed to the lapel of his navy blue blazer was an unmissable clue as to which candidate he had voted for earlier in the day at a polling station on 50th Street where, he said, he had to wait in line for more than an hour to cast his ballot.
“I think this is better than the Super Bowl!” he said.
The returns wouldn’t start coming in for about another hour, and although many of Old Town’s patrons, and indeed much of the city, seemed nervously poised for a Barack Obama victory, Mr. Meagher was holding out hope.
“I don’t believe this election is over,” he said, questioning the “relevance” of recent polls that have put Mr. Obama well ahead of John McCain in many states. “The polls were wrong the last time. I have no idea who’s gonna win.”
Mr. Meagher said there are a number of reasons why he supports the McCain-Palin ticket (though, he admitted, he would have rather seen the Republican nomination go to Mitt Romney), some of which boil down to the candidates’ personas. He said that when it comes to Sarah Palin, it doesn’t hurt that she is, well, kind of a looker.
“I just like what I see,” he said. “I think she’s a beautiful woman. I think she reflects the frontier qualities of the American spirit. I like that she’s a hunter, a fisher, a mother. I think a lot of people on the left really see her as a threat. I said the same thing about Ronald Reagan.”