November 4, 2008 in Chicago has been one of the most magical days of my life. From the moment I stepped onto the train this morning, I would say three out of every five people in the city of Chicago were wearing some kind of Obama paraphenalia. Everyone in this city was walking with a sense of purpose, with eye contact and with determination. We all knew what needed to happen today. It was like we were all part of a conspiracy to make the world a better place.
I worked an early morning shift at the Symphony and walked out onto Michigan Avenue at 1 pm. I wandered for two hours, buying an Obama button to wear, watching everyone encouraging each other. Everyone was just hanging around downtown, waiting to hear, whispering and texting and talking, calling friends in battleground states. The names of Indiana and Ohio were on everyone’s lips. I saw students sitting on street corners and planters, older women sitting at corner benches, businessmen on curbs and professors on the lawns. Strangers spoke to strangers. Friends held friends’ hands in nervousness.
It was a city full of superstitions, but also full of celebration, even prematurely. The T-shirts for sale on my walk to the rally included “Remember, Remember The Fifth Of November,” “Yes, We Did,” “President Obama,” “Obamapalooza,” and others already announcing the victory.
I met my friend Janna at the Intelligentsia cafe on Wabash to walk to the rally, where I have been until now. It’s 1 AM. I just got home from Grant Park. I’ve been there since 5 pm this afternoon, sitting in the overflow area in Butler Field next door (I and my friends didn’t have tickets) watching the CNN coverage on an enormous television screen, with thousands of people cheering each electoral victory and booing each loss. It felt like a music festival. We sat and waited and debated each state, one at a time. We crossed our fingers for Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio. New Mexico! Florida! And every time we won a state, or every time the pundits said something even slightly positive for Obama, we jumped to our feet and screamed. Thousands of us.
When they called Virginia for Obama and then called the victory his, the world blurred and dissolved into a mass of hugging, screaming people, delirious with disbelief. We had not allowed ourselves to hope. We couldn’t believe it was true.
We kept saying it to each other, repeating the words on the screen:
“Barack Obama elected President.”
“Barack Obama elected President.”
Again and again and again.
Robert bought me, Janna, and our friends American flags, and we waved them in the air. I looked at the flag, really looked at it, for the first time in my life, and realized how beautiful it was – is – has always been. I have that flag with me now. It no longer seems like a symbol of fundamentalism and military aggression. It seems like a symbol of a nation of opportunity, diversity, tolerance and democracy. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
When Obama began to speak, our entire overflow crowd walked calmly south to huddle around the closed-off ticketed area and watch him on another, larger screen.
And his words, as always, were the right ones, bringing tears and laughter to the Chicagoans around me, and to the world.
To be known, as he said, as a nation, not for our military might or wealth but for our national ideals.
When he said that, Robert and I looked at each other, and knew that something significant in our nation’s mind had just opened. Our national ideals. Ideals!
To work together. I will need your help, he said.
It’s not going to be easy, he said, referring to the war and the economy.
He promised to be honest and to listen, especially when he disagreed.
And he seemed, as always, calm and intelligent and grateful for the opportunity to be speaking to Americans.
The McCain supporters booed Obama’s name during McCain’s concession speech. I will admit that the Grant Parkians, including myself, did boo each red state going to McCain. But when Obama acknowledged McCain and Palin, we did not boo their names as individuals. Maybe it’s easier to be gracious in victory – or maybe, as I believe, Obama’s spirit of postpartisanship and collegiality has truly pervaded and captured the hearts of his supporters.
I was there. I heard him. I was there tonight, with Chicago, with President-elect Barack Obama. I still can’t believe it’s true.
When his speech was over, and the rally broke up, a hundred thousand people, all together, walked up Michigan Avenue in a spontaneous parade, laughing and crying and with rippling cheers rolling through the crowd. Every few minutes, another cheer would start and be gradually taken up by the whole group. We took over the streets – there were no cars downtown – and careened through Michigan Avenue in a slow-moving happy human river. We climbed walls to watch each other. People were clicking cell phones all around them, photographing as they walked.
Robert and I got off the river of celebration at Lake, to catch the Blue and Brown lines, but Janna kept going on up Michigan. I believe that she and they were so elated that they may still be walking now. It was such a peaceful crowd, moving slowly. We reflected that no one was rushing, like New York, or pretending to have fun, like LA, or worried about safety, like either one. It was just a hundred thousand people, dazed and happy, slowly and respectfully walking up a street together in awe at what had just occurred. It was not a riot, not a rush – only a gentle flow of very happy, very hopeful people of Chicago.
I love this city so much.
The El was so crowded on the way home I had to get on a train going the wrong direction and ride it six stops south, past the entire Loop, to get on a northbound train back to Division.
At my bus stop, I heard the noises of the night continue – a gentler fugue of car honks and cheers. Traveling packs of bikers, wandering pedestrians, people sticking their heads out of cars, simply yelling with happiness, a drawn out “wooo-hoooo!” sound, and cars talking to each other. The streets of this city are alive with a very dignified and honorable spirit of celebration. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s so happy but so restrained, somehow! There’s no violence to it, just total happiness. I scream at you, you scream back at me, we all scream for Barack Obama. And we keep on walking. Cause we have places to be, people to go home and hug and kiss and tell that we love them, children to tell how lucky they are to remember this day. I will never forget it.
I still have my fifty-cent plastic flag, from Election Day, November 4, 2008, sitting here on the coffee table as I write my dispatch from history. It is still the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
God bless Barack Obama, and God bless the United States of America. And, what the hell, God bless the great city of Chicago, too. May all three of them live very long and prosper, and may all of us live to tell the tale.