The day I almost dumped water on JFK

Rosemary Heath at work during the September primary

Confessions of a Stuy Town kid turned local poll worker 

By Sabina Mollot

Rosemary Heath, Town & Village’s advertising representative, is also a Stuyvesant Town lifer and for the past three years, has been a poll worker at local elections.

Prior to Election Day today, Heath spoke with Town & Village about what it’s like to work at the polls, and how she got her first taste of politics at a young age. She was four when President Dwight Eisenhower campaigned in Stuyvesant Town in 1956 and eight when then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy did the same — and almost got a pot of water dumped on his head from Heath’s window.

When JFK came to campaign in 1960, it was at the corner of First Avenue and 20th Street in front of what is now Hane restaurant (then Plymouth, a women’s clothing store).

Heath had waded through the densely packed crowd to get close to the stage area, only to get separated from her mother. She was soon stopped by a police officer, who asked, “Where do you think you’re going?” Too terrified to respond, Heath instead turned heel and ran home to her family’s ninth floor apartment, which was right above the platform where the presidential candidate was speaking. Annoyed at having been shooed away, Heath proceeded to fill a pot with water from the sink and began walking over to the north-facing window, which back then didn’t have child safety bars.

Upon seeing the pot of water, Heath’s mother asked her daughter just what she thought she was doing. When Heath told her how the police officer had scared her, her mother asked, “Was it Mr. Kennedy that scared you?” “No,” her daughter responded, “but it was Mr. Kennedy’s fault.” “Do you really think it was Mr. Kennedy’s fault?” her mother, who Heath noted, was a Republican, then asked. The four-year-old Heath then admitted it wasn’t Kennedy’s fault at all and headed back over to the sink to safely spill out the water.

Rosemary Heath’s apartment overlooked the rally at 20th Street and First Avenue where a crowd had gathered to hear JFK speak. (T&V file photo)

She has fonder memories of a visit from Eisenhower, who, when campaigning, spoke from atop a flatbed truck in front of what was then a D’Agostino supermarket (now home to Stuy Town’s Oval Fitness gym).

“I didn’t know what a president was,” said Heath, nor was she able to follow his speech. But what happened next was more memorable in her eyes; Eisenhower handed Heath a celebratory piece of cake. After noticing it had slivers of nuts on it, Heath then informed him that she didn’t like nuts.

The president then put down the cake knife, put his arm around Heath’s shoulders, leaned down and said, “I’ll tell you a secret. don’t like nuts on cake either.” He then asked her, “Do you know what I do when they give me cake with nuts on it?”

Heath answered that she didn’t know. He then told her, “I eat the part that doesn’t have nuts and I leave the part that does.”

“A pretty good life lesson if you think about it,” Heath later concluded, also admitting that the cake was actually pretty good.

While neither of those presidential encounters ended up inspiring Heath to run for office, she would get into poll work decades later. “My daughter shamed me into it,” she admitted. Heath’s daughter had begun working at polls after graduating from college and pointed out to her mother that she had a flexible enough schedule to do so herself.

Working at polls pays roughly $250 a day, but, warned Heath, it’s a long day. Workers get there at 5 a.m. to set up, and when the polls close in the evenings, they stay to clean up, which can take a half hour to two and a half hours, depending on how experienced the workers are.

Asked if the special elections and primaries she’s worked on are as dismal as they’re often said to be, Heath said they aren’t. However, it’s worth noting, she said, that Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village may not be a typical community in terms of interest in voting.

“They show up,” she’s observed of her neighbors. “We have one person who’s over 100 and always shows up and votes. When we open there’s always some retired person out on his morning walk waiting for us to open the door. And it’s pretty dark.”

Heath, who has an autistic son, makes a point to thank the developmentally challenged voters she sees for coming out, and her daughter has spoken at schools for autistic children about the voting process.

“They’re disenfranchised,” said Heath, “because no one thinks to try and get them to the polls.

“Autistic people aren’t stupid,” she added. “They’re just not good with new experiences.”

In general, voters are very polite, leaving the site “with a spring in their step,” from what Heath has seen, especially those who are voting for the first time.

The only exceptions are when people’s names aren’t on the list, usually because they either registered to vote late or forgot to change their registration after moving. When this happens, poll workers will hand people an affidavit ballot, but grumbling in response is typical.

It gets worse, however, during primaries, when someone wants to vote but is the wrong party and doesn’t appreciate that there aren’t open primaries.

The most irate voters however, are dog owners once told they can’t have Fido with them, unless it’s a service animal. Prior to the September primary, poll workers, tired of arguing about this, requested the help of a police officer should there be a dog situation. And of course there was. One voter, upon being told he couldn’t bring his dog inside, informed the officer stationed to the poll site that he’d be taking his shield number and filing a report.

Fortunately, said Heath, the situation didn’t escalate. “The cop let it roll right off his back,” she said. “He said, ‘That’s fine, but you still have to take the dog outside.’” Everyone else that day was fine, she added, “except for this one man who was a pain. Nice dog, though.”

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