Grant Park, Chicago: Nov. 4, 2008 November 26, 2008Posted by merp in Life, Travel.
I’m a little behind the curve in my reporting – it’s been a busy month – but here’s my piece of Election Night 2008.
Mr. Merp scored us actual tickets to the Obama rally in Grant Park by emailing a request the instant they were announced. We weren’t sure we would actually go – the crowds, the 130-mile drive each way, the risk of it becoming a mass wail of disappointment, etc.
But as the day drew closer and hopes grew higher, the urge grew stronger. In order to go, I said, we would have to earn our place. So the Sunday before, we canvassed in Lafayette, Indiana, where the Obama campaign was operating four offices downtown. It was like a little Obama festival that day, with volunteers pouring in and out from all over. Never did see a live McCain supporter. And indeed, Tippecanoe County went for Obama, 55.3% to 43.7%. We played our tiny role in giving Indiana (land of my foreparents) to Obama.
Tuesday, we left town at 3:30 in the afternoon, dropping Pisco off at Samo’s, and drove two hours to Chicago’s southernmost commuter train station. The Metra trains offered a special-event roundtrip fare and seemed to have no passengers other than Obama supporters that night.
In short order, we were in Grant Park, funneled in with thousands of others through the bag searches and metal detectors so efficiently that there was no chance to get bored. And we were in place and actually in sight of the stage long before 8:30, when the gates were originally to open.
And then we watched CNN for a couple of hours. Kind of like being at home, but with 200,000 other people. And they were all kinds of people, too, all ethnicities, all ages. Twenty-something hipsters shared election results with us in line; a middle-aged Evanston mom sat next to us and chatted about the ’60s. Waiting in line for t-shirts, I was smooshed behind three black women carefully (oh, so carefully) considering their many t-shirt purchases and in front of a blonde sorority girl’s cleavage, inhaling the alcohol on her breath as she screamed, “He won Ohio!!” (Because CNN was conservative in making its calls, the news of each win was spreading through the crowd by word of mouth, delivered to cellphones by friends in other places.)
At 10pm, almost the instant the California polls closed, CNN flashed a huge banner: President-Elect Barack Obama. You saw the roaring crowd on TV – and so did we. Every time CNN would cut to us, Grant Park would roar louder. After all, we couldn’t really see ourselves, or even hear the crowd as a whole except on the big screen. Each of us could only see and hear the couple dozen people right around us.
And then we waited.
I looked around me at the Chicago skyline. Eight years since I first arrived in Chicago, uncertain of the city, unemployed and wandering through Grant Park to kill time. It was Bush, Gore and Nader that year; I remember cringing every time I heard Bush’s vapid voice on the radio – confident, though, that he could not possibly be elected. We’ve changed a lot in those eight years – Chicago, me, the world.
I think it was just about exactly an hour later after CNN’s call that the First Family emerged and walked out onto the stage, tiny little flashes of color and movement way off in the distance! See, there’s the man himself:
He’s that little smudge behind the plexiglass shield on the left, about 2″ high. Actually, we watched his speech on the screen, just like you:
The speech was both sobering and inspiring; it was the first time in my life that a political leader did not pander to us, but with the respect due to full citizens, asked us to serve. My full thoughts and feelings on the election, the historical moment, and Barack Obama himself are complex and I’ll leave them for another day. To say I was, and am moved does not begin to cover it.
After the Obamas and Bidens said their goodnights, the fences were taken down and the crowd poured effortlessly out in the streets of the Loop, now closed to traffic.
We were 200,000 people (actually, I never found out how many were actually estimated to be there) – happy, relieved, joyous people – spilling out of Grant Park on Balbo Drive, Congress Parkway, pouring up Michigan Avenue, bursting into spontaneous cheers, chanting “O-BA-MA.” T-shirt hawkers were inevitably, instantly ready with “President Obama” gear. The police, also happy and relaxed, were joking with the crowd and posing for pictures – they had nothing better to do. The boys who drum on paint buckets every day in the Loop were in there somewhere – I heard them. Dunkin’ Donuts was open, fortunately. The crowd flowed north and west, out Congress, up State, on and on.
And this is me. Very happy.