Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
In the hours before the gates open, it has become its own unique status symbol…the +1. The guest, attached to somebody already holding a ticket to the epicenter of the earthquake. It is in many cases a gracious and humbling thing, to know that you have been asked to stand with somebody and watch as history unfolds. Or it is a testament to resourcefulness, and camaraderie, and a desire to not let something like this go by without you; as people barter and coax the plus-one out of their friends and acquaintances, out of their friends of friends of acquaintances.
The deals have happened over the course of a few days in phone calls and text messages, and as the sun sets over Indiana the attendance list of our immediate circle of friends has shaken out as follows. Chloë is expecting to go to the rally this evening with her friend John. My wife is going with our friend Erik. I have been asked by Dina, and Ryan’s extra ticket is going to Caitlin. On the drive back, and with no further avenues we could think to exploit, Chloë receives a phone call from Rachel, who explains that her friend Kaara has a newly open plus-one, which we then claim for Caitlin’s boyfriend Brad. We plan to meet at the Art Institute, along with Kristie, Mike, Seth, and Kerensa at 6:30 and keep ourselves together in the mass, which is expected to be 70,000 ticketed individuals and 300,000 people standing outside of the cordoned area. We have no idea if we will actually make it back in time for this plan. Lake Shore Drive is being shut down for the evening and traffic going back into the city could potentially be heinous. Chloë suggests that we drive into Hyde Park, on the south side, park near the 57th Street Station and then take the Metra to our destination; Caitlin and I agree with this plan.
Chloë has been very carefully keeping our driving speed no higher than the posted limit, so we are all startled when the police lights suddenly flash on behind us, a half-mile from the Skyway toll booth.
She tells me later that she had a brief irrational panic that the Obama car magnet on her trunk had made her a target. However, when the police officer comes around the passenger side, asks me to roll down the window, and collects her license and registration, the first thing he asks us is if we spent the day in Indiana working the polls. When we respond affirmatively, he smiles at us, tells Chloë that she has a busted tail light–the sort of violation I didn’t think actually happened anymore except when a crooked cop from a suspense thriller decides to crack one in the moment with his baton, as a makeshift probable cause to mess with you–and that he’ll write up a quick warning and send us on our way. As he walks back to the patrol car, Chloë looks at me and wryly tells me to put away the cash I’ve had sitting in my hand on my lap…the buck twenty-five we’d pulled from her wallet to pay the toll ahead. (“Officer, are you sure her tail light is busted? I’ve got one dollar right here that maybe says otherwise. No? What about if I throw in this shiny quarter?”)
Traffic into the city is surprisingly light, but we try not to make that observation vocal. We arrive in Hyde Park without further incident. My phone has been dying all day, a victim of its own age and my lack of foresight to charge it the night before. When I turn it on to check for messages I discover a voicemail from Dana telling me she’s not coming to the rally.
Erik had been standing at the gates right after getting off work at the Goodman, and when they decided to open some of them early, he got pushed into the area by the rush of people…and security procedures were such that once you’d been ushered into Grant Park, you couldn’t leave. Not even to meet up with your plus-one. Dana is, understandably, crushed when she calls me. And I spend the Metra trip up north–a trip, I should note, for which none of the passengers were charged a fare–in a state of conflict about my next course of action.
When we emerge from the Van Buren Street station the city is vibrant and electric and in perpetual motion, a tap dancer under amber lights. Crowds of Obama-adorned people barely able to contain their excitement, shouting their optimism at the clear night sky, walking briskly south past the hustling vendors of stylish T-shirts, their “Obamapalooza” buttons. The campaign has been something of a minor renaissance in the field of graphic design and even the cheapest items for sale seem to have been carefully considered before production. We buy nothing, intent on our destination. We are ten minutes late, but we have already been told that many of our party will be arriving later than expected. But then, we have waited nearly two years for this moment, we have fought for it in whatever way we could; we are willing to wait another hour or so while our friends and colleagues make their way through the mass of humanity already headed in the same direction. I stand on the steps of the Art Institute, enthralled by the sight of the world shifting.
And I decide.
I think about what it means to observe a defining moment. I think about what it will mean to say I Was There. I think about the two women I spent all day with, and the other Neo-Futurists with whom I have staged my most political work for the past four years. I think about my love of Chicago and what it means to add my breath and my voice to that of my fellow citizens, I think about the etymology of that word citizen, one who is of the city. I think about the way Caitlin offers to give up her plus-one if it means Dana can come downtown and I can stay for the rally, an offer which I refuse because I will not be the cause of anybody missing this event and because the disappointment of what has already happened to Dana has sapped her will to travel downtown.
I think about what it means to be married to somebody. I think about what it means to love that somebody so much that you want to have them by your side for all of life’s most important events. I think about my wife sitting at home watching the returns alone with the dogs falling asleep on the couch next to her. I think that the man I have supported in his bid for the Presidency has been married for sixteen years to the same woman, has had two spirited and adorable children with this woman, has never strayed from her side, has both committed of himself and sacrificed of himself to make that marriage work. I think about how he left his campaign behind during a critical period to be with his dying grandmother, a woman who surely knew, as she passed, that her grandson was about to become legend. I think about my admiration for Barack Obama and then the decision comes easily.
I tell my friends to have a great time, tell them I’ll be there in spirit…but right now I gotta see about a girl.
I take the Brown Line north to Francisco and meet Dana at Ehren’s small apartment gathering. We have too much pizza and other things not really good for us and we yell loudly at MSNBC as we are surprised by the projections. As “godless” Kay Hagan defeats Liddy Dole in North Carolina, as Shaheen takes down Sununu, as Arizona Arizona of all states remains too close to call. As Ohio turns blue and we all realize that Obama has hit 207, with the reliably Democratic West Coast still to report in…as we know, in that moment, that the election is over but for the official calls and concessions and the final margin of the victory.
At 10:01 pm, the room goes silent, the graphic and text floating on the screen: Barack Obama Elected 44th President of the United States. The shouts and cheers are unreal, they rocket forth from some other dimension that has opened up inside my lungs.
McCain takes the stage in Phoenix to console his followers and regain some of the statesman’s soul he recklessly traded away in his pursuit of the office. He delivers a gracious and noble concession speech about the need to move forward in unity and respect, and is sadly forced to tamp down the last vestiges of the monster he, his teary-eyed running mate, and his campaign staff unleashed…shushing those who continue to emit ugly jeers at the mere mention of Obama’s name.
McCain walks offstage to what Ehren and I are pretty sure is the score from the film Crimson Tide, which strikes me in the moment as a very strange choice and which strikes me again the day after as a very tone-deaf choice. Perhaps it was selected because the film is about the Navy. But the film is also about the ideological conflict between a hot-tempered, older, Caucasian military man, and a younger, cooler-headed, less experienced African-American. It is a film in which Denzel Washington fights tooth-and-nail to keep Gene Hackman from launching a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, and it is a film in which Denzel eventually emerges victorious. I would need to see the coverage again, but if the music was an MSNBC overlay then it is needlessly bitchy; if it was selected by the McCain/Palin campaign then it is a tragicomic epilogue on a campaign that was riddled with boneheaded public gaffes.
And then Obama, the intelligent, barrier-breaking patriot Obama, takes the stage with his family before delivering a thesis statement, a call to action, for the ages. He echoes McCain’s plea for us to come together again, he promises transparency and maturity and that he will be President for even those who have disagreed with him for this long and brutal election. He continues to evoke Lincoln, the other man Illinois proudly sent to the Oval Office. He reflects on the long life of Ann Nixon Cooper and how the “true genius” of the nation is its ability to change; these are words that ring clarions in my brain…the strength of this nation, the way it has risen so far so fast is in its adaptability and ideas, its ingenuity and evolving vision. He promises that we as a society, as a community, will be great again. He promises that we will rebuild alliances, that we will defeat those who wish destruction and support those who wish peace. He promises his daughters a puppy.
As our 44th president leaves the stage with Vice President-Elect Joe Biden and Caroline Kennedy and the rest of his retinue, Ehren mutes the television and begins playing W.G. Snuffy Walden’s extended musical suite from The West Wing, and a number of times the swells and dips of the music match the footage so well that one can only be reminded of the remarkable nature of the day. One can only be reminded of the remarkable nature of America.
Through all of this the warmth of her hand is in mine. Her smile as she watches me sink further into political intoxication and triumphant physicality.
Twenty years from now the rally will be like the original Woodstock Music and Art Fair; an impossible number of people will swear that they were standing there in the crowd as history happened. I will not be one of these people. I was not there and I won’t pretend I was, certainly not after my new President has made a vow of honesty. I was somewhere else. And although I may always wish in the depths of my heart that I was there with the rest of you in Grant Park…although I may wish that, I know I will always be glad that I was where I was–or rather, with who I was with–when it finally happened.