Sew the Vote: Pole-2-Polls

Pole-2-Polls coordinator Penny Mateer

Penny Mateer with one of Pole-2-Polls’ handmade “Vote!” yard signs

A large table is covered in distinct, ordered piles. Scraps of fabric are chosen from every imaginable eye-popping design–striped and polka-dotted, neon pink and electric orange, fuzzy patterned and criss-crossing plaid. The selected swaths are inspected, stenciled, marked-up, and cut out with fabric shears. Final shapes are stacked in neat towers that form the distinct 3-D message V-O-T-E.

“It’s our power. It’s our voice–we can’t afford to waste it,” says artist and activist Penny Mateer of the group Pole-2-Polls, “Democracy is not a spectator sport. It’s our civic duty. People have died for the right.”

It, of course, is the simple act of voting for elected officials. The right to cast one’s ballot is the absolute bedrock of democracy; participating in biannual elections is every (of age) citizen’s bare minimum civic engagement.

Fabric V-O-T-E letters on cloth sewing board

Fabric V-O-T-E letters cut out and ready to sew [photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

But–you know where this is going–the number of eligible voters who actually show up on election day is depressingly low.

In 2016 , just over half of the country’s electorate [55.4%, according to CNN] cast votes for the big one–the next president of the United States. Pennsylvania, along with other “battleground” states, clocked-in slightly above average [we had 61.26% in 2016, per Statista]. Four out of ten voters in super-important media-saturated Pennsylvania still don’t care about who will become president? It boggles the mind.

When it gets down to primaries at the state and local level, the numbers drop off the cliff. I couldn’t locate an exact figure, but multiple sources have Allegheny County turnout for the 2018 May primary at “around 20 percent.” Ask the Costas if midterm primaries matter.

handmade "Vote!" yard sign on chain link fence

[photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

Pole-2-Polls began before anyone was talking about Access Hollywoodme too, Stormy Daniels, “The Mooch,” or Bart O’Kavanaugh. In 2013, the amazing–and completely non-political–Knit the Bridge project had gone up and come down over the course of one magical month at the end of summer. The organizers cleaned and donated the large, blanket-sized knit and crochet panels to homeless shelters but were left with miles of black acrylic yarn used to coat the railings of the Andy Warhol Bridge, downtown.

Andy Warhol Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh decorated with colorful knit panels

Knit the Bridge, August, 2013

So in advance of the 2014 midterms, an informal group–many fiber artists, all “excited about positive action”–met to recycle the material into yarn-bombed banners. The creations would go up just prior to the November election, temporarily attached to utility poles (hence the group’s name). The message would be simple, non-partisan, and direct: VOTE!

For 2016, the group changed their medium to fabric. Bulk-purchased at the yearly Salvation Army sale, the oddball hard-on-the-eyes, itchy-on-the-skin patterned polyesters would likely find few more appreciative homes. In the hands of Pole-2-Polls group members and volunteers, cloth is transformed into the ubiquitous political yard signs we see every October–just with a lot more love and a lot less detail to remember.

handmade "Vote!" yard sign in bed of fall flowers

[photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

“We’re not political scientists,” says Penny Mateer, “but any reminder of voting is a good thing. It’s good civic engagement. We’re makers, we love to make stuff. It’s a combination of the making and making it together–if you come [to one of the group Make a Sign, Take a Sign events] you can see for yourself.”

did come to the October 6 event and while I stupidly didn’t budget enough time to actually, you know, “be helpful,” I can tell you it’s a fun group and a great feeling to make something.

In addition to the group’s informal Make a Sign events, Pole-2-Poll has engaged with students at Duquesne University for a set of workshops and inspired offshoot groups in Montana and California. We should be seeing the fruits of all these efforts on front lawns, highway berms, and porch railings very soon.

handmade "Vote!" yard sign in large front yard of old home in Pittsburgh, PA

[photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

This blogger will admit to some skepticism over the ability of such a simple message to transform much larger societal apathy toward the political process. But one also hopes that maybe if instead of the generic red, white, and blue, mass-produced signs we’re used to glazing over every fall, Pole-2-Polls handmade banners offer a welcome alternative. The signs won’t yell at you, but just offer the encouraging suggestion of a good friend: Your voice matters. Vote. You can do it!

Whether we can convince America of it or not, these things are all true. The Orbit applauds Pole-2-Polls and all the other great activists and “craftivists” out there spending their Saturday mornings trying to convince your lazy ass to make one little detour on November 6.

collage of Pole-2-Polls volunteers holding handmade "Vote!" yard signs

Pole-2-Polls volunteers at an early October event [clockwise from top left: Kirsten Ervin, M.J. Shaw, Natalie Sweet, Delli Speers]

Pole-2-Polls will have one more group Make a Sign, Take a Sign event on Saturday, Oct. 27, 11 AM – 3 PM at the Brew House on the Southside. All are welcome. No experience necessary.

Whether or not you can make it on the 27th, Penny encourages everyone interested to get in touch via the Pole-2-Polls web site, FaceBook page, or Instagram.

Need information on your voting status or a look at the November 6 ballot? There are obviously a ton of resources out there, but the great Vote Save America site is a pretty solid one-stop shop.

On the Trail of the Train-Squashed Penny

Four pennies lying on a train track

In an age where one may receive instant communication on where distant acquaintances are eating lunch and realtime updates on the line at the grocery store, The Orbit thought it might be fun go back and explore a slow burn pastime that’s as old as coal-fueled locomotives and nearly-worthless coinage. That, of course, is the sport of creating train-squashed pennies.

I know, I know–a sport? It’s an activity that makes yogurt-making look like The X Games, but bear with me. Squashing a penny is going to involve some transportation to the track (we recommend a bicycle ride followed by a walk down the ties) and the non-physical cunning of more rugged and/or glamorous pseudo-sports like hunting or sailing or stock car racing.

Both one-cent coinage and interstate rail infrastructure exist all over the place, so this is definitely not a uniquely Pittsburgh thing. That said, our fair city is surrounded by train tracks and there are many easy access points to get to the rails. It literally costs pennies to participate and hopefully by now you’ve got ObamaCare in case you lose an arm. The world is your squashing ground!

Train-squashed penny found against gravel and a rail tie

Found! Squashed penny amongst the gravel along the rail tie off the track

I’d like to train squash a penny. How do I do that?

You put a penny on a train track, you come back later, you pick up the penny. What’s to know? Oh sure: it seems this simple. (It is almost this simple.) But there are a few things to be mindful of:

1. Safety. It goes without saying that if one encounters an oncoming train, get thee away from the track! Squashed pennies are great, but they’re not worth losing a life or limb over. There may be pennies in heaven, but there are no trains to squash them!

2. Choose your location wisely. Not all tracks are actually in use. There is no disappointment in life quite so devastating as returning a day or two later to find out that one’s pennies remain on the track still legal tender. It’s that kind of indignity that will send young penny-squashers screaming to video game consoles, vowing to conduct their transactions solely with charge cards when the they grow up. Don’t let this happen! Know the active tracks! Stake them out, if necessary! Often you can tell just by looking: tracks in use are smooth and shiny; unused ones will quickly develop a thin layer of rust.

3. Pay attention to the weather. Train tracks are not flat–they have a gentle arc, which leaves the coins suspended in unanchored balance. A heavy rain could easily dislodge the pennies before Norfolk-Southern has a chance to flatten them.

4. In for a penny, in for a pound. Pennies are cheap. Heck, they’re practically worthless–that’s why we squash them! Don’t just bring one, grab a handful! They don’t all pay off (see next item) so you should take the gardener’s approach: one for me, one for the bugs*.

5. Locating squashed pennies is no walk in the park. Sometimes you lay coins down just to come back later and find no trace of them. Were they absconded with? Lost in the weeds? Jettisoned from the rails? Who knows! The clever flattener will mark his or her starting point carefully and may still need to don deerstalker and pipe, spindly fingers stretched in concentration to locate the far-flung Abraham.

Close-up of the train-squashed penny

Train-squashed penny #1, day one

Where can I squash a penny?

A fine question! Obviously one needs to locate an active set of rails (see above), but where to do that? Here are some easy-access suggestions:

  • Riverfront Park, Millvale. Right as you enter the park from either 40th Street Bridge exit ramp or the town of Millvale you’re forced to cross two sets of tracks. This is where we squashed our pennies. [Only the set nearer to the river appear in use. The pair we placed on the other tracks were still there the next morning.]
  • Panther Hollow. Taking South Neville Street all the way to the bottom of Panther Hollow, you’ll cross tracks at the base of a bunch of CMU buildings. These still get plenty of daily use. Drop off a couple cents on your way to school or work and they’ll be squashed by the time Jeopardy starts.
  • Riverfront Park, South Side. The bicycle trail runs alongside the train tracks throughout the South Side, so there are ample opportunities to drop some coin, frolic, get a tattoo, binge drink, etc. and return to hunt for your treasure.
Close-up of the train-squashed penny

Train-squashed penny #2, day two


* In our experiment for this story the result was exactly as described: four pennies placed on the track, two flattened pennies found. We never located the other two.