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From porch, euphoric, the Wests cheer and hope

on November 4, 2008


Nov. 4 — When Clara West woke up this morning, she really wanted to wear blue jeans and a denim shirt, complete with fringe hanging off the sides and arms — her “protest clothes,” she calls them. A Berkeley baby, West says protest is in her blood; if there were ever a day to demonstrate, today, Election Day is it.

“But no one would understand,” her husband, Harold, told her. So Clara settled for something more modern: a gray sweatshirt thrown over a t-shirt featuring the silk-screened visage of Barack Obama, and topped with a fuschia, black lace-trimmed fedora.

Clara adjusts the colorful throw swung over her legs. “This is a little more ‘today’ than my old protest clothes,” she says, in the tone of an experienced fashion plate.

Clara West, 73, in her election day hat.

Clara West, 73, in her election day hat.

“And you don’t want to say, ‘I’m protesting,’” Harold reminds her kindly. “Right?”

Clara raises an eyebrow.

“You want to put on ‘his’ demeanor,” Harold continues, nodding toward the Obama ’08 sign Clara holds in her lap. “Calm, collected.” This time, she doesn’t protest.

It’s 10:30 AM, and Clara has been perched atop her 58th Street stoop for more than three hours, since the polls at Christ Holy Sanctified Church opened. She has no intention of going back in the house now.

“I have a number of physical disabilities,” she explains in a raspy voice. “My legs, my eyes. I can’t do phone banks. I couldn’t get down to the main office. But this is a time for change. America is hurting. So here I am.”

Clara sits quietly, for the most part, smiling at passersby and chatting with neighbors as they make their way to the polls. A number of friends tell her she looks beautiful. Harold, leaning nearby and sipping coffee, is teasingly chided for not tending to his lawn. One man sees Clara and hurries down the street; he forgot he wanted to pick up a croissant for her from a nearby bakery.

Every once in a while, Clara lifts her Obama ’08 sign over her head, trying to attract the attention of voters.

“I’ll challenge them coming and going at the polling place,” she says with a small pump of her fist.

“Don’t say that,” Harold whispers. “You don’t want to challenge people. You’re a silent protester.”

Once again, Clara cocks her eyebrow at him, before bursting into laughter. The couple has been married for 53 years, living in their North Oakland home for 50, and it’s clear this is their shtick.

“I’m not bending anyone’s ear,” Clara says.

“You can’t solve all the problems she’ll want to throw at you,” Harold says.

 “You know,” Harold continues, “I didn’t think I’d live to see this particular day. I could use every adjective in the dictionary and I still couldn’t describe it. It’s a euphoric feeling, the prospect of having a president of color.”

While his wife was raised in the East Bay, attending Berkeley’s public schools, Harold was born and raised in Louisiana at a time when race relations were marked by conflict. When World War II broke out, his family followed the call of industry.

“Jobs,” he says. “Jobs were falling out of trees.”

In 1943, at 14, he moved to California.

“California was a melting pot,” Harold says. “Louisiana was a melting pot, too, but it was a segregated melting pot. If you go back and look at the history of the United States, it’s a world of difference now.”

Clara and Harold are among the early voters making headlines this election season. They cast their ballots nearly a month ago. They say they are full of hope, hope for change. But their hope is tinged with anxiety, the couple says; they believe too much pressure has been heaved on the shoulders of their preferred candidate.

“It’s going to take a long time to see change,” says Clara. “I think Obama’s able. He’s young and focused. But you can’t do it in four years.”

Harold interrupts her, insisting that America won’t see change for another 15 or 20 years. He’s not confident he’ll live to see it.

“I just hope our voting comes out to what we need,” Clara says. She leans forward. She gives her sign a little shake. “Not what we want,” she says. “What we need.”||||||||||||||||||||||||

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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