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WAITING IN LINE FOR HISTORY

For some, early voting's a hardship they won't skip.

On a workaday morning outside the College Hill Library on Tampa's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, an old man's knees begin to buckle.

He is standing outside along with dozens of others, most of them black, some who lined up even before the library-turned-early-voting-site opened its doors.

As the man starts to crumple, people rush out of line to help. Get a chair, they are saying, and give him air, and somebody call an ambulance.

By the time paramedics come, as a stranger fans the man with a hunk of cardboard, he looks a little better. I'm diabetic, he explains, and is quickly handed a peppermint from someone's purse.

But when they ask if he wants to go to the hospital, his eyes are clear. No, he says, fully intending to see this moment in history through.

Voters came to the little brick library overlooking the old cemetery this week in church vans and family cars and work trucks. They were young people who never voted before and longtime Democrats and older folks leaning on canes. They waited in hot sun and cool drizzle. They came by the hundreds and, by week's end, the thousands. I've parked easier at Bucs games.

"Is it worth it? To be a part of history in the making? Yes, ma'am," John Jones, who is mid line after about an hour, tells me. "I'll wait 'til tomorrow if I have to."

A few wear shirts that say Obama. On cars that fill the parking lot and spill down neighborhood streets, I see none of the McCain-Palin bumper stickers routine in traffic these days.

The old man who buckled is not the first to rally here in the name of democracy. Earlier in the week, an elderly woman was similarly overtaken, perhaps by the heat. Once revived, she too said no, she would not go.

"She said she'd never have this chance again," says Bernadine White-King, who is standing by the street in a T-shirt bearing the name of a candidate for local office.

"Too many people died for this," she says.

As traffic flies past, people stand talking about Obama and all that electing the first black president might mean. They also talk about work and day care and lunch and whether the rain plans to keep up all weekend.

A nonprofit group in a shrimp-and-sausage truck - sort of the carnivorous bright-yellow version of an ice cream truck - has come to dole out free bottled water and hot dogs.

"People are hungry," says Ola Youngblood, passing a dog through the truck's window into eager hands.

A man stands by the street with a stack of rectangular papers. Printed on each is a list of recommendations from the Hillsborough Democratic Black Caucus, Barack Obama front and center. He leans down to put one into the hands of a small boy clutching his mother.

"Historic, young man," the man says. The boy goggles up at him.

From her front porch across the street, Jacqueline Johnson watches the voters come and go, come and go.

"I think it matters to a whole lot of people," she says as the line inches forward.

We chat awhile - she's a former nursing assistant who likes Obama on jobs, Social Security, choice - and after a time I say goodbye. As I latch the chain-link gate behind me, she calls from her porch.

"Don't forget to vote," she says.

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