Restaurateur Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-American in his 50s, has built a successful set of Busboys & Poets locations known for a diverse crowd, a high-energy vibe, and plenty of poetry and progressive politics. Shallal, who made his own foray into electoral politics this year with an unsuccessful run for the mayor’s office, advertised election-watching opportunities in all the Busboys & Poets sites in Washington, D.C., and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs just outside the city.
At the original B&P at 14th and V Streets, NW—in the historically black U Street neighborhood—the performance room was reserved for an open mic night for area poets, so election watchers gathered around television sets in the bar area. As the returns began rolling in, so did a steady stream of people sporting “I voted” stickers. Most of those I talked to were not feeling optimistic. When Ashley*, who works at the House of Representatives, said she was hopeful about the overall outcome of House races, her friend Derreck*, a Senate employee, laughed that it was the liquor talking. Both are African Americans who appeared to be in their thirties.
A portion of the bar area was reserved for Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, and her campaign staff. Norton described Busboys & Poets as “my favorite D.C. spot.”
"Going to the Mayflower is just not me," Norton added, referring to the swank hotel where D.C. pooh-bahs power-breakfast, and at which J Edgar Hoover and his longtime aide Clyde Tolson famously lunched every day.
Norton was surely among friends at the B&P gathering; the crowd applauded loudly when it was announced that she had been reelected with 85 percent of the vote.
When I asked Norton if she thought the election results would change the dynamic in the House, she said the more likely change would be in conference, the committee that reconciles the House version of bills with those passed by the Senate. Mitch McConnell, currently Senate minority leader, and House Speaker John Boehner will have to show that they can govern, she said, even while dealing with people in the GOP caucus like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who will resist any compromises with President Barack Obama. Norton said she considered it “very likely” that the House will move to interfere with D.C. voters’ approval of a marijuana legalization initiative, but she noted that Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said this week that he was opposed to the federal government overriding the wishes of the district’s voters.
In the Langston room, named for African-American poet Langston Hughes, open mic host Twain Dooley, a veteran poet and performer on the D.C. scene, started off the night by asking how many people had voted, a question answered with only a smattering of applause. "That sounds very tepid,” he said. “I hope that means your hands hurt."
He then asked how many were watching returns on their smartphones. Under the gaze of the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, whose large, painted portraits form the backdrop of the stage, only a couple of us ‘fessed up.
For the most part, the open mic performers read love poems and other work not directly related to the elections, though some poems addressed political and social themes. One exception was Cristina Bejan, a playwright and poet in her thirties who holds both U.S. and Romanian citizenship. She introduced her original poem by talking about the fact that within the past week she had been able to vote both in the U.S. elections and in Romania’s presidential election, which was marred by the inability of many expatriates to cast a vote. Bejan, who said she is a Busboys & Poets regular, said afterward that she had Election Day in mind when she chose to perform her poem and one by Romanian Nina Cassian—who died in exile in the U.S. this year after having faced political persecution at home. Bejan said her politics in the U.S. are conflicted, because she comes from a “Reagan brought down the Berlin Wall” family but is “to the left of the left” on social issues. She worries that Obama has not done enough to help Americans understand the threat posed to Europe by Putin’s Russia.
Out in the bar, as the bad news for Democrats piled up—albeit with some bright spots that earned cheers—some people chose to look ahead to 2016, when they were confident Democrats would hold the White House and perhaps re-take the Senate. Norton was among those saying they were not worried about 2016.
Kyra*, who works for an international nonprofit, is an Ohio native who told me she was keeping an eye on that state’s governor’s race, which was decided early in the night for sitting Governor John Kasich. She said she hoped the next two years might be a “sugar rush of power” for Republicans, after which Democrats would regain enough control of Congress to make changes.
In the Langston room, Dooley, for one, was perhaps less sanguine. He started the poetry with a rollicking poem about the power of funk that referenced Nina Simone's “Mississipi Goddam,” and added the locations of Sanford, Florida, (where Trayvon Martin was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman) and Ferguson, Missouri, the scene of great strife after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer. Both victims were unarmed young black men. Dooley spoke:
Well, I was born by the river, in a little tent. But unlike the river, the Funk has never been content with wadin' in the water. Nope! The Funk dances, underwater, and don't get wet. What am I talking about? Well, the Funk's cousin, the Blues, came before to testify, there ain't but one way to be free, and that's to free your mind, and your ass will follow. You see, the Funk put wings on the wake of the Blues, flew it through the galaxy, dipped it in the chocolate Milky Way and brought it back down here to say, 'Mississippi ain't the only hell!' Somebody say 'Mississippi Goddam!' Somebody say, 'Sanford, Florida, Goddam! Ferguson Goddam!'
*Designates patrons who asked to be identified by their first names only.