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Chopping collards and talking politics

Last in a series.

On the corner of 22nd Street and 18th Avenue N, in the parking lot by a warehouse, two women sit on metal folding chairs chopping collards.

Their knives slide in unison, long silver blades thwack-thwacking the thick stems: eight whacks out, quarter-turn, six to the side. Stuff the shredded leaves into clear plastic bags. Toss them into a cooler in the back of the truck.

Do it again, again _ 300 times, maybe more. Sit on hard chairs in Florida's sweltering sun for eight hours. Eat exhaust, cringe as motorcycles roar past, feel the ground rumble under your feet when cars with big stereos boom by.

Cut more collards.

Dorothy Powell and her friend, Jessie _ she won't say her last name _ do this four days a week. They build a makeshift table with milk crate legs, carry their wooden sign to the curb, click on a portable radio just before the 9 a.m. news.

Sometimes, they talk about what they hear.

"So that new president might give money to the farmers. That would be good," Powell says in late August. Not that she's a farmer. She's never been to a farm, never met a farmer. Someone drives the collards down from Georgia, drops them off on Wednesdays.

"Well, I didn't vote for him," Jessie says. "Now Clinton, I loved Clinton." She's a God-fearing, churchgoing grandmother who thinks Big Bill should be forgiven. "He got shafted by Monica. That wasn't his fault. Every president makes mistakes. He wasn't prejudiced. Seems to me he was good for the black community."

"He helped poor people," Powell agrees.

"Now this new man . . . "

"Bush."

"Yeah, Bush. Well, I don't want to say anything about him. He stole the election from the black people."

Powell nods, knots another bag of greens. "Now, what was that other one named? The one against Bush? Clinton's man?"

"Now I like Clinton," Jessie says again.

"Gore. Yeah, it was Gore. Now he should've won."

"Guess I should've voted for him," Jessie says. "If I did vote, it would've been for him. But they're going to put whoever they want in there anyway. It's pitiful, the way he and his brother did."

Both women are 52, both grandmothers. They've been cutting collards for four years.

A whole collard bunch sells for $3. So does a chopped one. If they don't make more money on chopped bags, why chop them?

"Well, some folks like to cut their own collards, some like collards cut for them,"Powell says. "We give 'em both options."

"You get plenty tired of collards. You sure do," Jessie says. "But when you go home, you can say you put in a good day's work."

If Gore had been elected, Jessie says, she might be getting higher wages, more help finding affordable housing.

"It probably wouldn't change all that much, really," says Powell, who has lived in St. Petersburg all her life. "We'd still have to be here in this heat."

"What's he in for now? How long?" Jessie asks, as if the presidential term were a prison sentence. She reloads her cutting board, gets back in synch with Powell's slicing.

"Four years."

"Four years? Oh no!" She stops cutting. Contemplates this a minute. Goes back to the pile of collards.

"Then there ain't nothing we can do but pray."

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