yes we did

I am not even kidding: I spent the last three months freaking out about presidential politics. There were all these nightmares where like Dick Cheney and John McCain were making jowly gruff faces all over the place and Sarah Palin was somehow related to me and everything was just going terrifyingly to hell in a handbasket. Then, two days ago, I was in Grant Park for Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. While I don’t believe he has magic powers of single-handedly healing everything that’s wrong in this country, I do think he has the greatest potential of any candidate I’ve seen in my (admittedly short) lifetime. That he just won North Carolina, which I never thought I’d see a Democrat do in my lifetime, is even more encouraging.

Because my dad asked for a full report on it, here is what being in Grant Park in Chicago on the night of November 4th, 2008 was like.

It was exhilarating. There was a very pervasive sense of history in the making; the petty gripes that naturally arise in a crowd of strangers sharing close quarters over several hours were hushed. Adrenaline kept me on my feet and cheering every time a state went blue on the jumbotron display of CNN. The crowd seemed mostly young, although among the folks around my age and the kids holding on to their parents’ hands and shoulders, I noticed one tall man several rows in front of me wearing a mechanic’s navy blue jumpsuit. We had gone through three security checks, the last one being a metal detector manned by TSA and Secret Service officers, and I had taken my ticket’s warning “Please limit personal items” to mean don’t bother with a camera, but nearly everyone had one in hand. They were taking pictures of themselves, of each other, of good news on CNN. I cheered when news came in from North Carolina, and the crowd roared every time a state went blue – and especially for Pennsylvania and Ohio. As the West Coast polls began to close, everything seemed to happen very suddenly. The victory we were all hoping for was sudden and decisive, with none of the talk of recounts or court challenges that I had feared, and before I had quite grasped the electoral vote tally surpassing 270, John McCain was delivering his concession speech. No one I could hear booed or jeered; we took it in all of its apparent graciousness and sincerity, and it repaired some of my respect for him as a public servant. The only boos I heard were directed at Sarah Palin, whom I look forward to not thinking about for a good long time now. The women next to me, campaign volunteers who’d worked all day in Indiana, yelled goodbye and good riddance as she waved to the Arizona crowd.

The concession made it real and official for me, and the time in between that and Obama’s appearance at 11 felt like a sigh of relief and a huge group hug, 150,000 strong. People danced to the campaign soundtrack and shouted along to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” There was a benediction, the anthem, the pledge, and then the 44th first family took the stage, smiling and waving, before Barack delivered his acceptance speech. Standing about 200 feet from the stage, I could occasionally catch a glimpse of him in person through the throng, but the jumbotron offered a better view.

It was a fine speech, acknowledging the hard work done by workers and volunteers and, even more, the hard work ahead. Towards the end it picked up the chant that the crowd had propagated off and on all night: Yes we can. Yes, we did. It was still stunning with every repetition.

The walk out of the park (interrupted a couple of times when the CNN cameras panned over our heads and everyone crowded around and waved; I still don’t know if I was somewhere on TV that night) continued in the same vein of stunned relief mixed with proud accomplishment. On every corner and in the middle of some sidewalks people were hawking different designs of Obama shirts, many based on the iconic Shepard Fairey design. (I expected to see that dude’s art associated with a presidential candidate about as much as I expected to see North Carolina vote for a black Democrat from Chicago in my lifetime, which is to say I did not ever expect it.) At Wabash and Harrison, a tall young guy held aloft a McCain yard sign and called as the crowd passed by, “Souvenir! Five dollars! You’ll never see one of these again!” I laughed and rode out towards home, ringing my bike bell and shouting along with every group cheering on Obama’s election on the sidewalks of Chicago.

I’m still thrilled and thankful that I had the chance to be right in the middle of this Big Deal History Thing. It certainly shook out at least some of my cynicism with the political process. And now that I can no longer freak out about the election, I hope to channel my energies into more productive things, like writing here and co-editing thbpppt, a photo-zine whose title is pronounced by blowing a raspberry, and knitting fine garments. I am also reading the work of another fine Chicagoan, Studs Terkel, which I would eventually like to write some stuff about. It’s fascinating stuff for the interesting times we’re in these days.

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