Election Night 2008
He will always be My President, capital M, capital P, the way Kennedy will always be my mother’s. There have already been entirely too many Camelot references, and so you’ve just seen the last of mine, readers. Promise. But I think we needed a reference point. We needed a way to understand our excitement.
This article is about President Barack Obama and his election to office, but it’s not about politics. It’s not about the left, the right, or the droves of the disillusioned in between. It’s not about your vote. It’s about Chicago, and being a Chicagoan on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008.
Flash back two years. It’s a delightful fall day, unseasonably warm, sandwiched between more typically cool autumn days. I was an undergrad on my way to class, and before heading to the #147 stop at Berwyn and Sheridan, I hung a right on Kenmore and cast my vote for Barack Obama in the lobby of a retirement community.
I was wearing jeans and an Obama t-shirt I had received “free” for donating money to the campaign, and a black cardigan. As I approached the door to the polling place, I buttoned the cardigan over the shirt, as no campaigning is allowed inside. As I secured the last button, an elderly African American couple exited, and starting undoing their cardigans, revealing t-shirts and buttons bearing Obama’s visage and quotes. We smiled at one another. “God willing,” the man said to me.
I gave my ID and voter registration card to the poll worker and then practically ran behind the privacy folders to begin filling in those SAT-style bubbles. As I pressed my pencil into the bubble next to Obama’s name, I did so harshly, purposefully, making the mark dark and undeniable. I wanted no confusion. I finished, fed my sheet through the machine, and left to catch my bus.
Walking downtown that day was unforgettable. Fellow Chicagoans, we were smiling at one another. Do you remember? Do you remember spotting another Obama button or t-shirt and grinning knowingly at the wearer? Do you remember the people selling buttons and hats and bandannas outside of train stations? Street corners were full of co-workers talking, guessing, betting. Traffic on State Street was thick, as it was being re-routed from Michigan in anticipation of the rally in Grant Park that evening.
I attended Roosevelt University, and for a week prior to the rally, secret service roamed our halls and the sidewalks around the school. Night classes were canceled. Nothing makes you feel like you’re part of a moment in history like receiving an email from your university president saying your class on Tuesday is canceled, per the security officials of the United States government.
My final class of the day was held in a classroom looking directly onto the park and Michigan Avenue. We began to hear singing, looked out the windows, and saw an impromptu gospel choir and step team in the middle of an eerily traffic-free Michigan Avenue. Our professor smiled and told us she felt our education lay somewhere else that afternoon. Class dismissed.
I walked around the South Loop, savoring the day. I bought a button from a guy at State and Van Buren. But then, I boarded the red line and headed north for home. Most of my friends were planning on attending the rally, but I wanted to be alone that night. I had a paper due the next day, and the loner in me was hungry for a night on the couch with a drink and the remote, flipping between news stations and, of course, Stephen Colbert and John Stewart. So I made my way north, the setting sun suddenly illuminating the L car as it rushed out of the earth from North and Clybourn to Fullerton, and my head was jumbled with the possibilities of what tomorrow would look like, post-Bush. Who? Who would it be?
Wolf Blitzer told me. I was on my sofa, a dog on each side of me, a laptop elevating the temperature of my thighs to that of the sun’s surface, and I had the remote at the ready, flipping between about four stations all night. But then California came in. I was on CNN and Wolf Blitzer said it. Barack Obama was projected to be the next president of the United States. My phone started ringing. I started screaming. The dogs started jumping with me. I hurriedly leashed them and took them outside before any of the speeches began.
Two buildings south of mine, two African American men sat on their stoop with a radio between them. They were crying and laughing, and when they saw my shirt, they high-fived me, patted my dogs on their heads, and told me I was lucky to live in Chicago that night. Just then, the windows above them opened, and their children started banging two pots together, cheering. I heard car horns for blocks, shouts from open windows, and I told the men that yes, tonight was the night to be a Chicagoan. Any regret I had over skipping the rally vanished.
Back upstairs, I heard the next president of the United States address “gay and straight Americans” in his acceptance speech and, being the daughter of gay fathers, I choked. I was on the phone with my dads when he said it, and we all gasped. I spoke with friends in other parts of the country and my neighbor’s comment really began to hit home. “What is it like up there?!” they all wanted to know. I told them. I told them in great detail and I tried to remember everything because I knew this was a night like no other.
Two years later, of course, the public, even those who voted for him, has had time to find faults and to criticize. I’ve done my fair share as well. But his presidency and his legacy are separated from the election for me. His presidency belongs to the entire nation, and the entire world, really. But election day, my election day, belongs somehow to Chicago. His political career started here. He spends holidays here. Our news media has told us where he gets his hair cut and where eats his barbecue. His daughters play in our parks.
That night, in this city that is so obviously racially divided, we found a common place. This place was on the national stage, but it was experienced on public transit, street corners, in cafes, and taxis. The world was watching us, but it felt small. It felt personal. It was a good night to be a Chicagoan.
*Disclaimer: The opinions contained in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily of upchicago.com.