Midmorning Thursday — on voting day — I was struck by indecision. Just ... couldn't ... decide.
Should I choose the religious guy? Or the one with the name everybody knows? The forward-thinking environmentalist? Or the one so good at promoting childhood education?
"I chose the 'Christmas-Sing-Along with Mitch Miller and the Gang,'" said Janet Clark, of Harrisburg, Pa.
The LPs were $1 apiece. Surrounded by swarms of people wading through The World's Longest Yard Sale, I realized choosing among cheap LPs — the London Orchestra plays "Were You There?", Roger Williams, John Denver or Sesame Street sings country — was far more exciting than what I had done 10 minutes earlier.
When I voted.
"At a yard sale at least you know what you're getting," said Larry Clark.
On Thursday, I visited five polling places and made two stops at the U.S. Highway 127 yard sale. At the yard sale, people were excited. Heck, there were people, which is more than I can say for a few polling places I visited.
At the yard sale, folks were smiling, feeling in control, giddy about the choices before them, knowledgeable about their decision-making and glad that the only outside money was the cash in their pocket.
At the voting booth, the pursuit of happiness seemed to fall somewhere between taste-testing sour milk or 24-hour reruns of "CSI: Des Moines."
"I haven't been excited about an election since Ross Perot ran," one man said.
What does it mean when people -- citizens -- are more excited by a yard sale than voting day?
"Sad, sad, sad," said Pat Lay, election volunteer at Red Bank Lions Club, one of three polling places for Red Bank.
Besides Lay and four other volunteers, I was the only one in the room.
"We have 1,177 registered voters [for this
polling place]," said Charles Peek, election official. "We'll be lucky to get 10 percent."
At 1:53 p.m., the voting machine registered the total voters so far that day: 65.
"It's frightening," said Peek. "Any American ought to be sad to see this, a lack of interest in one of our most basic rights."
This election, early voting was at a record high, with more than 18,000 casting early ballots in Hamilton County. But there are more than 214,000 registered voters in Hamilton County, according to 2012 election documents.
"We'll probably vote 100 (today)," said Jim Dowlen, election official at Falling Water Baptist Church. He estimated his precinct had more than 600 registered voters.
Welcome to 21st century American democracy, on life support.
"We have no representative government, if only 15 percent of the people vote," said John Shaver, election official at North Chattanooga's polling place at Northside Presbyterian Church.
By 2:31 p.m., Shaver said 188 out of about 2,700 voters had come by.
Emerging out of this trend is a demographic crisis: Most of Thursday's voters were of retirement age. Or older.
"One woman came in and [was so old] she couldn't see. She was on oxygen and had her caretaker with her. In bloody 90-degree weather and she makes an effort!" said Ed Lindberg, volunteer at Northside Presbyterian.
In walked George Cherry, 22, and Camille Lapp, 18, voting in her first election.
"Those were the youngest I have seen all day," said Lindberg.
As is common in politics, everybody had an opinion on why turnout — Thursday and in so many other local elections — remains so low. Constant negativity, Washington gridlock, citizen apathy and laziness, politicians whose moral compasses point due south.
But nobody had a solution.
Until I met the skateboarders.
There were three of them. Each had long hair. Two were riding locally made skateboards (Youth and I Am Skateboard Co.), and none were older than 14. They were well-spoken, thoughtful and, best of all, hopeful.
"I want to be in control of what happens," said Nico Robenolt, 13. "I want to have a say in it."
"I have a lot of hope," said Taz Robinson, 14.
"They're always up and down points. We're getting back on track," said Nathan Ramey, 14.
John Denver would've loved them. Ross Perot, too.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...