Today, a few weeks before her 89th birthday, a wisecracking great-great-grandmother named Mary Bell Hawkins will rise early and take her post at a South Los Angeles polling station to oversee her 46th Los Angeles County election.
She's been working as an elections inspector since 1956--the same year former Mayor Tom Bradley graduated law school and the year that the two current mayoral candidates, Antonio Villaraigosa and James K. Hahn, were 3 and 6 years old, respectively.
Of the 8,300 or so volunteers who open their homes and businesses or set up at a school to do the grunt work of elections, Hawkins is among the most experienced, says Jay Thompson, who oversees elections officers for Los Angeles County.
Accurate records don't go back far enough to determine if Hawkins is the senior inspector, but "she's probably in the top 1%," Thompson says. "There's just a handful of people like her that have dedicatedly served their community for so long."
Hawkins is a jokester with dark, weathered skin and a bad knee who answers her clunky telephone, "Kelly's pool hall. Eight-ball speaking."
Her granddaughter, Barbara Jackson, 55, chuckles and shakes her head, having seen such antics more than a few times.
"She's something," says Jackson, who lives next door and helps Hawkins with elections and household errands. "She's the life of the party, always telling jokes."
"You only live once. If you can't have fun with it, you might as well be dead."
In 1956, working elections was a change in Hawkins' routine of raising her two children with her husband, Goldie Hawkins, a cement mason who died in 1980. Norris Poulson was elected Los Angeles' mayor in that contest, for which she received $25.
At the time, the quick-witted matriarch was settling in her new home on Gage Street in South Los Angeles, the home she still lives in. Hers was the first black family to mix with neighborhood German, Italian and Jewish families.
She'd been born and raised in sleepy Tyler, Texas, about 100 miles southeast of Dallas, at a time when outlaws Bonnie and Clyde were robbing and looting in Texas and other Southern states. Hawkins claims to have seen them at the local rodeo as a teenager.
She recalls the days, at age 4 or 5, when her father, who had been barred from voting because he was African American, was allowed to cast a ballot for the first time in Texas. She remembers hearing stories of harsher treatment from neighbors who were former slaves.
When she finished high school at 14, she soon married. Her husband was 19. Then, blacks were called "colored." Hawkins still scoffs at the term "African American."
"I don't know nothing about no African," she says.
Her years have taught her to be skeptical of politicians--"They don't tell the truth"--and loathe to preach about voting. If you're old enough to vote, she says, you're old enough to decide if you're going to do it.
Still, she is optimistic: "I have confidence in the [electoral] process because it's all going to come out all right one day."
She also has learned, as any good elections inspector would, to keep her political opinions to herself. Asked who she likes in this year's mayoral race, she announces: "That's private."
Elections clerks check voters' names as they arrive to vote. Inspectors oversee each location's polling operation, receiving all documentation, cross-referencing names with signatures and setting up voting booths.
Inspectors receive $75--less than the minimum wage--for a long day of manning polls, which typically serve 800 to 1,000 voters, says Gloria Chavez of the county registrar's office.
Hawkins is a stickler for setting up booths and tables ahead of time, and organizing paperwork and voters' lists, which were sent to inspectors late last week. Then, on election day, "you just have to put the flag up and say the poll is open."
Why does she do it? "To be out of the house, meeting with different people," she says.
She figures she might see the reelection bid of the winner of today's contest in four years. Her grandmother was 112 when she died. Her sister was 93.
"I'll keep doing elections until my time is up."