The upstairs patio of OConnells Restaurant on King Street affords a unique birds-eye view of the lively marketplace along the citys most celebrated main drag. Below, on the red-brick sidewalks of the historic district, workaholics hasten to happy hour while tourists strut slowly, cameras in hand, looking for something worthy of their Nikon zoom lenses.
One can learn a lot about Alexandrias evening life from this snapshot of crooners busking in the street, diners sipping red wine tourists becoming physically violent with cardboard cutouts of presidential candidates.
Seriously. The political moment is of such passion right now that the life-size cardboard standups of presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in front of the America! store are no longer safe. Their faces are bent and battered from passersby realizing their political trepidations on the doppelgangers paper bodies.
Most patrons take a traditional say-cheese picture but on one occasion a woman delivered a closed-fisted punch to the McCain prop, knocking him to the ground. One man throttled the Obama likening around the neck jocularly, just long enough for the camera to click.
An employee of the store said he was not allowed to talk to the press perhaps they must remain nonpartisan but mentioned casually a few instances that are too lewd for a family newspaper.
What do these incidents say about the election culture? Are they friendly competition akin to a sports rivalry or do they hold deeper meaning?
I just think theyre neat, said Missouri native Betty Cummings after getting her picture taken in front of both Obama and McCain. I wouldnt vandalize either of them even if my choice lost. Cummings said she was still undecided about what that choice was an apt answer from a swing stater but she seemed to understand that using the opposition as a punching bag was not effective.
Less cheeky and far more serious incidents have popped up all over the city. About a month ago, Alexandria Police officers investigated multiple cases of vandalism on Trinity Ave. in which numerous Obama yard signs were spray painted with racial slurs. Officials investigated it as a hate crime.
We do take that stuff very seriously, Alexandria Police spokeswoman Ashley Hildebrandt said. We view these as serious crimes and we want people to feel like they can express themselves safely.
Christine Roberts was inside her Alexandria home drinking her morning coffee when she heard a pop sound from the front of her house. When she went outside she saw a woman in a jogging outfit walking away with a John McCain sign that previously was attached to her house.
I called down the street and yelled, Stop thief! Roberts said. Youre stealing from me.
Literally barefoot and pregnant, Roberts thought it better to chase the culprit by car. She drove around until she found the suspect and confronted her, telling her that all she wanted was her sign back. She just looked at me with wide eyes, then turned and ran down an alley, Roberts said. I was mostly flabbergasted that I could be within two feet of her and she could just turn and run.
Roberts called the police. When an officer arrived, he took the crime more seriously than even she did. The officer told her that, especially during an election, the force views such crimes as a serious matter of public safety and personal rights. The police took a description and canvassed the neighborhood to no avail. Since the incident, Roberts has received seven new McCain signs from concerned citizens.
Anne Cabaniss Prince Street home contains a collage of political signs. She said she regards the physical sign as fanfare, but if youre knowledgeable about the issues and what the person stands for they actually signal something. She has had no issues of vandalism.
A political fever unlike any in memory seems to have uncloaked itself as the local and national elections loom. Some instances can be seen as friendly competition while others indicate deep social enigmas. The only sign that will matter after November 4 is the nameplate on the Oval Office desk.