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At Grant Park for Obama's acceptance speech

Hard-nosed Chicago became a wonderland of strangers who beamed at everyone.

Dateline: Monday, November 10, 2008

by Dylan Kome

Leaving Grant Park, ChigagoHyde Park, Chicago, is Barack Obama's neighbourhood. Everyone here can tell you a story about how they've met him, know his kids, how he and Michelle went on their first date at the Baskin and Robbins that isn't there anymore. How smart she is, how she grew up in a two-bedroom bungalow. The president-to-be voted at a local grade school, Murray Shoesmith School, a tiny anomaly in the hood, where my friends and I once were robbed by a boy holding a broken bottle. Now the yard was clean, the broken glass gone a decade ago.

On November 4, the weather was gorgeous, 71F and bright sunshine. It dipped down to 65 in the evening but everyone was wearing tee shirts and hoodies.

About 9:00 pm, I couldn't stand to sit at home anymore. I went down to 57th and Stony Island to catch a bus downtown. The old bus route would have gone right by the new President's house. I drove by there earlier, and saw cops everywhere, but the Secret Service was invisible.


After that amazing speech, I just had to go visit the Chicago Hilton, scene of the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention. This night, I shook a cop's hand there.

At every stop more people piled on the bus, mostly young adults, all the skin colors, in couples, groups. No need to say where we were going. Tonight, there was only one destination.

I was lucky to grab a seat. The lady sitting next to me brought her 10-year-old son. She was from South Africa, had left 30 years ago, much as I had left Chicago 30 years ago. She was a teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. She had met Obama many, many times in the hallway. That's who he is, around here, a guy you met in the hallway at work. She said the Secret Service was terribly discreet — they came to work in blue jeans and tee shirts. Did everything to blend in.

The bus wandered off its route, looping weirdly toward the Loop. Lakeshore Drive was closed, Michigan Avenue was closed. The road is four and five lanes each way past the Art Institute, past the Field Museum and the infamous Adler Planetarium where (McCain was quick to point out) Obama had asked for $3M funding for a new overhead projector. This made me laugh, as if they were projecting power point slides instead of the whole freaking cosmos. Difference of vision.

The bus finally arrived at Dearborn and Harrison. We all disembarked and walked east toward the park, the crowd quietly building. Grant Park is separated from Michigan Avenue by the old Illinois Central (now the Metra) railroad tracks. We had to cross bridges to get to the park. The bridge I crossed led straight to the Ticket Holders gate. Seventy thousand tickets were distributed free over the internet. Suburban girls begged and pleaded to be given one. Brats. People were approaching the gates waving their tickets overhead. The mood was excited, happy. The election victor had not yet been declared. This was around 10:30 pm.

I started working my way north. The skyline was perfect on a clear night. The diamond shaped building had its windows lit in a Vote 2008 pattern. A building I had never seen was lit up so its windows spelled out USA. A smattering of flags.

The crowd was young, mostly hip, more white than the city's demographic but mixed like the bus, people of every color in every imaginable grouping. Spontaneous chants of "O-ba-ma" went up everywhere. Tee shirts for sale that read "Yes we did" — the best line of the night.

In front of the Hilton Hotel, ChigagoAs I walked north, a girl with a video camera came by. She was yelling into her phone and I heard her say that Obama had just been declared the winner. I let out a whoop. She started filming me, which I hated. I didn't trust the report. We'd all been all been walking around like people who are afraid that the dream of flying will end with some horrible descent.

I kept walking north on Michigan Ave. The very next bridge was for non-ticket holders. I realized that I had not seen any cops, any garbage, any drunks. I hadn't seen anyone who wasn't smiling. I crossed the bridge. People were saying, "It's over". I'm tingling as I write this. "It's over". It isn't possible. The dream of flying was the reality, the horrible crash was the impossible part of the dream.

The city had set up a dozen giant monitors just far enough apart that the speakers could barely be heard from one to the next. I walked steadily north moving to the from monitor to monitor. I passed a huge line of port-a-potties with crowds of people standing on them. The smell of very good reefer was in the air but strangely very little tobacco smoke.

Everyone had a camera, everyone had a cell phone. I called my mom to tell her I was ok. It was the last time I would be able to get a connection in the heart of Chicago on a Tuesday night.

I stopped next to a group and watched their screen. John McCain came on the monitors and began his concession speech. It was unreal. It was so early. It was over. The crowd listened respectfully with occasional outbursts. I said to the person next to me, "I didn't come here to listen to John McCain," and moved on to the next monitor. I had a clear view of this screen.

Standing in front of me was a young black man in his 20's. On my left, an attractive white girl in her 20's and her Indian boyfriend. On my right a white man in his 60's who was there at the urging of his Canadian friend. Behind us were women in hajibs. Chants came and went.

I looked behind me. There was no way to leave. We waited and talked. Watching the CNN coverage. When the cameras showed Jesse Jackson crying, a cheer went up. The cameras showed Oprah and we laughed. A woman in the crowd turned the Star Spangled Banner into a slow torch song. Some of the crowd joined in.

I talked with the man in front of me about Chicago's bid for the Olympics. He was worried that they would build things in the parks, that they would leave useless structures. I talked about Toronto's bid, about working in Montreal before the Olympics there, how many jobs it brought but how we had just finished paying for the Big Owe.

In 1976 — 12 years before he was born — I was the age he was on this night. It was my first real job. We agreed that the new president would probably put his weight behind the bid. We wondered how many there were in the crowd and looked for helicopters. The pretty girl pointed out the one with the single green light that never moved.

Another man in the crowd, who said he was from Oakville, Ontario, told me he had voted for Harper. I told him I think Harper is a dangerous ideologue. He started to explain the pun of the big Owe to the young man. I decided he was a self-centered asshole with no sense of what this night meant to everyone around us. Just then Obama came on the monitor and the place went berserk.

Obama gave his speech, a somber speech, not boastful. He thanked all his people and thanked his wife, his kids. Told them they would get a puppy. I muttered, "and name him Checkers," but everyone else was too young to get it. He gave an amazing speech. He said "gay and straight", he called everyone to rally to the task at hand, he didn't gloat. He didn't say "I", "I", "I".

It ended. The crowd just turned quietly to leave. The young black man and I shook hands. He thanked me. I wished him well.

Michigan Avenue, ChicagoThe trip out of the park was orderly, polite. Everyone was smiling into their bellies all the way. No one was drunk or obnoxious. I picked up two beer bottles from the grass and put them next to trees just to make sure no one stepped on them. It would have been insane to carry them anywhere. Cameras were everywhere. Phones had long since stopped working.

Crossing the bridge back to Michigan Ave took ten minutes. Michigan Ave was closed. State Street was closed. The whole Loop was closed. I saw the first police of the night, a group on horseback, posing, smiling and talking to the crowd. I held out my hand to one of the horses and he gave me a gentle bite. I stood by another and he nuzzled my shoulder, sensing that I was a quiet place in what must have been a horse's nightmare. Someone walked right at him and he stepped back.

I saw a handsome light skinned black woman taking a picture of a couple with the USA building in the background. I asked her if she could do the same for me. We laughed. Her shot would be the only good picture taken with my new camera.

I walked down Michigan Avenue, knowing that I had to go see the Hilton, 40 years after the blood in the street destroyed the Democratic party. I stood on the boulevard and took a picture. I took dozens of pictures. A young man came running at me waving his arms. "You took a picture of me," he cried and shook my hand.

A group of young black men was walking beside me. One of them said, "So I guess all that bad stuff is over now, won't be nothing wrong." I laughed so loud he put his arm on my shoulder. Chicagoans touching strangers. Stranger things I haven't seen.

At the Hilton two cops were standing in the middle of the street, one an old sergeant, but, I realized still a younger man than myself. I offered him my hand. We shook. I said, "What a difference 40 years makes." He scowled at me. At least he knew where he was. The young people around me had no sense of the history.

I walked down to Roosevelt Rd, where I tried to get on the Metra commuter train to go home. The police stopped us from going east toward the lake. They just told us no one was allowed to go that way. I asked the cop if I could go down to the Metra platform. He put his hand on my shoulder and told me that it was closed, I would have to go back up to Adams. I said, "Poop."

I walked west on Roosevelt until I found a line of buses. I asked the CTA man which way I had to go. He put his hand on my shoulder and pointed. Again with the touching.

The crowd on the bus was again a mixed bag. I sat sideways at the rear. Two women sat facing forward at my right shoulder. One of them played non-stop with her phone. They were holding hands. After a time they put their heads together, snuggling with the moment.

The seats at the back of the bus were filled with college kids on one side, street kids on the other, and a man in his 60s between them. Our eyes met. We shook our heads in disbelief.

"It's been a long time coming," I said.

"We knew it would happen someday," he said.

"But I didn't think it could happen in my lifetime," we said in unison.

I told him that, when I was a schoolboy in 1960, the teacher said that anyone could be president. But when I looked around the classroom I knew that wasn't true, that over half the people in the room would never be president. He said he was a precinct worker in 1960 and that he had helped to elect John Kennedy. We talked about how smart the Obama campaign had been and he kept saying, you wouldn't believe the technology. I thought of 1960 election with dead people voting and free short dogs to the winos.

Two white boys tried to get off the bus. The driver lit the green exit lamp. They waited until the light went off then pushed the door. A buzzer sounded at the front door. The driver lit the exit light again. The boys didn't push. The bus started to pull away and they pushed the door again.

The driver stopped. He called back to the boys, "Let's do this together. I'm going to light the green light and then you push." The bus erupted in laughter. I yelled out "Yes, we can." The laughter continued. The boys finally got off.

One of the street kids said, "I see one black president, then I see all those white presidents." I thought, "The longest journey begins with a single step" but I kept quiet. Couldn't remember if it was Lao Tze or Mao.

The college kids cracked me up. A fair complected girl said, "Now we got nothing to blame things on."

The bus wandered around through the neighborhoods. I didn't know where I was. Everyone got off. It was just me and the bus driver. He was very black, heavy, tired looking.

I finally recognized my stop. I was the last one on the bus. I said to him, "You know just when think you have left this woman forever she turns around and does something so beautiful you wonder why you ever let her go."

He said, "Naw, you don't never give up."

I walked home under a clear midnight sky.

Dylan Kome owns and operates Understanding Computers in Ottawa. He worked as a letter carrier for ten years before osteoarthritis forced his early retirement from Canada Post. After studying Computer Science at Algonquin College for two years, he switched to Technical Writing. He received an honors diploma in 2001. He, his two teenage sons, two cats, assorted fish and house plants live in a modest home on Arthur Street in Ottawa's Centretown neighborhood.

Understanding Computers has a unique marketing strategy, teaching clients to fend for themselves and encouraging them to share their knowledge with their friends. There is no mark up the price of parts, and they depend entirely on good will for business... It's just easier that way.

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