You can always come back
but you can’t come back all the way
— Bob Dylan, “Mississippi”
I’m walking along with Summer Lee, a progressive democrat running for state representative of District 34 of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. Lee and I are walking through Homestead, an area I’ve lived in or around and worked in or around most of my life. We are collecting signatures to get Lee on the ballot for the upcoming primary; people are generally supportive, though having worked the Homestead field office for Obama ’08, I know that many of the residents here are rightfully wary of any and all things political. Homestead is a town that lost its world-famous steel mill in the 80’s and has been resisting gentrification ever since.
We’re talking to some folks at a bus stop on the corner of 8th and Anne, in front of a credit union which has changed hands a few times and is only notable for having a red ticker which poorly displays the temperature. Today is it 342 degrees outside. Next to us a Valero gas station where they’ll sell you a cigarette for fifty cents; across from us is a check cashing place where I used to buy greyhound tickets in cash because I was paranoid my probation officer could trace if I used a card.
We get a few signatures, but one man is holding out. He sits on a bench, decorated with a then ten-year old advertisement for the album Lie Down in Light by Bonnie “Prince” Billy: a graphic of a man in purple wrestling trunks putting some sort of mothman / angel / fairy thing in a headlock. The man who doesn’t want to give a signature says he can’t vote. We explain that he doesn’t need that ability to provide his signature; this is just a collection of citizens who think Summer Lee should be allowed to run for the state rep position at all.
“Yeah but what’s that mean to me?” The man says. “I can’t vote.”
“I understand,” Lee says. “May I ask why?”
“I’m a felon,” the man says, as flat and as sharp as a knife. It is a statement delivered in a way as to end any discussion on the matter. I know because I’ve said it many times for the same purpose.