Your Cynicism Shall No Longer Be Tolerated: The View From Grant Park

November 30, 2008

This post was originally shared via Facebook. Re-posting here for posterity.

Election Day, Chicago

We arrived at Grant Park early, at 5pm. A crowd had amassed at the park’s gateway at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue. You noticed the names of the streets – Washington, Adams, Congress, Grant – our shared pastime. We waited for our friends to arrive, our plus 1s. We talked. We stood in silence. We were on the verge of history and we could hardly find the words to express our excitement. My eyes have welled up many times anticipating this moment. Now we were here, with hopes and doubts and fears and joys.

Security kept us waiting as a mob. There were numerous security checkpoints we’d walk through before reaching the park. We looked at each other. We held hands. We checked our blackberries for early exit polls. We were a bundle of nervous energy. We reached the park and a security guard said we could go in one of two directions: straight ahead there was a bank of metal detectors To the left there was a door open to the park. We watched the first people head left and saw bodies sprinting across the field, hopping over barricades to get close to the stage. Hundreds followed. The mob’s tension unleashed. Like a school of fish, excited people ran in half a dozen different directions, leaping over bushes, running behind a long row of portable restrooms. But we were alll caught in a net. Going left meant you were in a run-off area with no chance of getting near the main stage. And once this was realized, those hundreds of people turned around completely and ran back to the gate they walked into. Fucking shit, what the fuck is going on, cursing. It was a scary moment. The human energy of the mass was revealed, so we kept our cool and walked as everyone ran back towards the line for the metal detector.

Once inside, the crowd slowly swelled and we kept towards the back. We bought some slices of pizza – $5 for a slice with sausage, $5 for a slice with cheese (go figure) – and took a breath. Here we are. We are here. What is there to say? We are nervous, we are excited. We check our blackberries again. We send text messages compulsiively. I email my friends. What do they know that I don’t? CNN is projecting states at a slower pace than the other networks, I hear, and CNN plays on the jumbotron. During commercials, the video feed cuts out and the DJ plays Jackie Wilson’s “Higher” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up” and a country song. Over and over and over again. CNN returns with an interview of David Axelrod and the crowd hushes to hear what he has to say. It’s like he’s speaking to us. He looks confident and calm, but not proud or triumphant. He’s still nervous. So are we.

6 o’clock central standard rolls around, and the returns start flowing in. I check the states against the one-sheet I ripped out of the Chicago Tribune that says McCain must win all 10 toss-up states and win at least 10 electoral votes to win. We wait for them to call Pennsylvania. CNN is being conservative in its predictions, but I get a text message that MSNBC has called Pennsylvania for Obama. I share the news with Torrey and her sister and Nihal quietly. I believe it but I’m afraid I might be wrong. I also don’t want to get the crowd too excited. Witnessing the melee earlier made me afraid to incite something. And I think the police presence and Obama campaign were aware of that too. They kept playing that Jackie Wilson song over and over. Its impact wore out pretty quickly. I felt the urge to dance but it was like the was keeping that urge in check.

CNN calls Pennsylvania for Obama and the crowd erupts with joy. Hands rise to the sky. Cheers continue for minutes. A boom camera swivels around and captures the release of emotion. Where the lens points, the cheers grow louder. It’s like a wave in a baseball stadium. We wait for more hourly milestones. We wait for them to call Virginia. We wait for Florida and Ohio. We wait for what feels like hours. It’s painful. The CNN anchors only telegraph the outcome. They report messages from Republican operatives that they see no road to victory for McCain. I check Mark Halperin’s blog on my blackberry and he’s called the whole thing for Obama with the notice: The Page Will Tell You What The Nets Will Not: PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA. I am beside myself. I am crumbling. But I look around and there are no cheers. There is no excitement. There is just more waiting for CNN to announce it. I wish to feel the joy of the collective spontaneously, but the moment is just mine and Torrey’s and Nihal’s. We look at each other knowingly. We smile and then I lose my smile. It feels like my face has gone white, like I’ve seen a ghost, like I cannot believe this is happening. I take off my glasses and cover my eyes. I pinch my nose and hold my head down. A hand surreptitiously drops a kleenex on my forearm, but I am not crying. I thought I would cry but I’m not. I turn to the person who dropped me the kleenex and tell her I don’t need it. She says, “Well, I did.” So I thank her.

Slowly the news spreads among the people standing around me and the realization soaks in. We are all amazingly happy but we are speechless. No ecstatic release. No jumping around and up and down. No cheers. Just an erie silence. We did what we sought out to do. The dream is perhaps really real. Yes We Did? I smile at strangers. Torrey is beaming with light. I reach over to her and we hug each other tightly. I turn to her sister and do the same. I turn around to Nihal and hug him. I feel wonderfully connected to everyone. I want to hug everyone. I could kiss them all on the mouth.

CNN anchors kill time with holograms. The pundits for once have nothing to say. It’s horrible and strange but completely lovely. Like they’ve reached the end of their wire. They are all biting their tongues because they too cannot revel in the moment, part journalistic neutrality, part network decorum to wait and be certain that victory truly belongs to the victor.

A sound engineer walks up to the podium and syncs the microphones. Test, Test. Sync, test, test. OBAMA, he says, to huge, vast, and loud cheers. The sound engineer returns a third time to test the microphones and says, “FINAL SOUNDCHECK BEFORE THE NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.” The crowd loses it. It gives me chills just to type it now. There are moments of pure revelry, but longer durations of a stone shocked silence. I have an urge to dance. But I also have a force pulling at me from below, like I should collapse, or recline in the dirt, kick my feet in the air, let out Whitman’s barbaric yawp. But I can’t make a sound. I have nothing to say. I turn to Torrey and tell her I am speechless. I have no words. I just have the electric feeling. I look around at the crowd. I take photos from my arm stretched on high. I look at the sea of people behind me, people standing on the hill inclined towards Michigan Avenue. I look at the beautiful Chicago skyline, the lights of skycrapers sculpted to spell USA. I breath the unseasonably warm November air. I drink it in. I question the reality of the moment. I ask myself could this really be it? I ask myself why people aren’t dancing. I ask myself why they’ve played Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up for the 20th time.

CNN turns to John McCain’s concession speech. At first I don’t have the interest in putting energy into listening to what he has to say. He’s lost my attention, like a young woman at a party who’s just casually dropped the fact that she has a long distance boyfriend. It’s all blah blah blah. But I force myself to listen, and the crowd jeers and hisses and boos, even as he delivers a message that certainly doesn’t mak
e his supporters happy. I revel in the sight of their disappointed faces. I remember how I felt four years ago. They didn’t deserve to win. I enjoy John McCain’s refusal to give Sarah Palin a moment to speak, (a gesture that was returned in kind by Barack Obama, who later does not offer Joe Biden a moment to speak). As the crowd participates by cheering on John McCain’s loss, it’s like a counter-celebration. We smile when they frown, we boo when they have something to cheer. But really, we just stand there excited to hear from the next President of the United States.

Another long wait before Barack Obama declares victory. First, a soulful prayer by Bishop Cousin. A massive collective amen when the prayer ends. “The fierce urgency of now”: he incorporates those words into his speech twice. Then a serviceman delivers a humbling pledge of allegiance. We all cover our hearts and recite the words we learned in grade school. This moment suddenly takes on this special significance. It is history. But it’s also the civics lessons ingrained in us all in school. Then a black woman steps on stage to sing the national anthem. Halfway through it I hear voices around me start to sing along. Suddenly the entire crowd is singing along with her. We are all participating. It is a beautiful thing. Spontaneous, unscripted and joyful.

Then another long wait. I call my brother to share in the moment. Barack Obama will wait for midnight, a well calibrated media-driven decision even at this moment of whatever. Barack Obama takes the stage, announced as the next President of United States. We erupt in cheers. It’s the release we have been waiting for. But he walks to the podium with great humility. He is exhausted and is also not displaying the pride we supporters want him to show. He’s already past this moment of celebration. He is making a statement. He says he will listen to those with whom he disagrees. He does not suggest the blood lust we feel for the injustices of the eight years of Republican rule. He will be a President who leads from the center. He will be a leader of all citizens. He will tend to the wounds of the past, not inflame them, not push the country towards greater partisanship. He will be a great leader.

I want to dance. His speech ends and people start to walk out of the park slowly. I gather my friends and we stand and wait for god knows what. We soak in this moment. Where do we need to go anyway? I am sick of hearing that Jackie Wilson song, which is playing again. So I pull out my ipod and play My Bloody Valentine. I get a groove in my shoulders and play air guitar as the mob I’m standing in makes its way for the exit. The four of us walk over to a dusty baseball field just outside the gates and plop down under the white lights illuminating the park. Three young men do skateboard tricks on a nearby basketball court. We sit in the grass and look at each other and laugh at what is unspoken.

Ari is filing his reaction with The Nation and we wait for him on the field until some police officers walk toward us and ask us to leave the park on orders from the FBI. We get up and walk across the field towards the Congress Parkway exit. On Michigan Avenue, there are pockets of people in ecstasy, dancing and jumping and laughing and cheering “OBAMA! OBAMA!” in the intersection. We smile and give in to the moment and join them. Ari meets us and we walk towards a bar a few blocks north, where a bunch of people are meeting up. On the way, a Chicago Tribune delivery truck parks and opens its payload: Tomorrow’s papers. A crowd gathers to buy their first copies. Fifty cents for the biggest banner headline: “It’s Obama.” We snatch up some copies and I photograph the scene before we head over to the bar. Before walking in, I put my arms around Nihal and Ari. These are dear friends, and I will never forget this day we shared.

The bar is crowded and full of happy people and busy, stressed out waitstaff. We take shots of Jim Beam Black. Booze is cheap in Chicago. We find a table and order some fries and buffalo wings and try to decompress. We watch the TV screens and look for more poll results. Has Al Franken won the Minnesota Senate seat? How many pickups in the Senate did the Democrats have? More than 60? We still don’t know. Last call, we order another round of drinks, and quickly the harsh lights come on in the bar – it’s 2am and they’re closing. We slug back the rest of our beers and make our way to the Intercontinental Hotel. The Obama organization, the young people who staff its headquarters, are partying on the 35th floor. As we walk into the hotel, another Tribune truck delivers a full bellhop’s trolley with “It’s Obama” headlines. I snap some photos, and we make our way up to the hotel room. The party is in presidential suite. We take photos in front of the room sign. There is so much glee, why not take every photo we can? The door to the party opens and there is a bathroom filled with people drinking champagne from a bottle. What a party! There is music playing from a stereo, and lots of tired looking and disheveled staffers letting loose. They don’t have to go into work til noon tomorrow. I pour a cup full of Knob Creek and make my way upstairs, where a TV is tuned to MSNBC and a few people watch for more returns. I hijack the ipod player and play Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

An older woman, one of the staffer’s moms, stands up on the balcony overlooking the party to make a speech. She delivers the most passionate, thankful speech about Barack Obama being the greatest President we have had since John F. Kennedy. She feels so incredibly lucky that we can have another leader like that. Nobody in the room is old enough to have remembered Kennedy. She speaks from such a deep place in her heart. At the end the crowd erupts into cheers and someone cranks the stereo to “We Are The Champions.” We all sing along. This is massive.

Ari, Nihal and I look at our watches and decide it’s time to go. It’s 4am. We grab our coats and walk out of the party while people dance to Michael Jackson’s “ThrillerWe head downstairs and hail a cab and drive back to Nihal’s place. We give each other high fives before going to bed. It’s been such an amazing night. I wake up at 9:45 to meet Mike for coffee. As soon as I wake up, Ari, who’s sleeping on the floor next to the futon I’m sleeping on, turns to me and gives me a high five. I stumble hungover to the bathroom and take a shower. After my shower, I shake Nihal who I think has overslept. He’s aware that he’s overslept, and lifts his hand and gives me a high five. Lots of hungover high fives. I pack up my stuff quickly and hail a cab and make my way downtown. I meet Mike at a Starbucks near his office. He’s a dyed in the wool conservative Republican but admits to me that even he wept last night. This is a new day in America. This is a new day in history. It feels so good to be here.

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