Politics as Usual


Our Daily Correspondent


Al Smith in 1913.

At a certain point in the late nineties, my family’s living room needed to be rewired. It seemed the wiring had not been replaced since the house was first built. The hardware store sent up a very old man to tackle the job. I know because I was hanging around; it was summer vacation.

“I remember this house,” he said. It seemed he had worked on it as an apprentice electrician. 

“In 1919?” my dad asked.

“Yup,” said the man, getting to work.

“So Al Smith had just started his first term as the governor of New York,” remarked my dad, who takes an interest in such things

At this, the old man’s face darkened. He glowered, really.

“Goddamn Al Smith,” he muttered, furiously.

“I take it you didn’t vote for him,” said my dad.

“Goddamn Murphy. Goddamn Farley.”

“Were you a Charles S. Whitman man?” said my dad. “Did you vote Republican?”

“Yeah, I’ll vote for Whitman,” said the old man. “Hell, I’ll vote for anyone before I’ll vote for a Catholic.”

“How do you feel about Prohibition?” my dad asked casually.

“I’m for it. That Goddman Smith is in Tammany’s pocket, though. And they’re the ones making money.”

“Hm. But surely there’s a pretty big Catholic population here in town,” remarked my dad. “All the Slovakians and Croatians who … work in the copper factory.” The copper factory had been closed, at this time, for more than thirty years.

“Oh, they can work in the factories,” said the electrician, “but I don’t want them in Albany!”

“That was like being in a time machine!” my dad said later. “That guy really didn’t like Al Smith! I should have told him I was Jewish, just to see how he reacted. He’d probably never met a Jew in 1919.”

At a certain point, my Dad placed an AL SMITH FOR PRESIDENT sign in the window of our house. Sometimes he did this; he liked to rotate pieces of his political memorabilia collection. But I couldn’t help but wonder if it was for the benefit of that old electrician, and whether he saw it.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.