Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Umbrellas, Oreos, Obama...Oh, I Don't Know What to Call This One

Well, this is what I get for declaring I'll write a new blog post when an African-American is sworn in as president of the United States of America. Thought I was safe with that one. Thankfully, no. And I guess that, like everyone else, I got a little something to say about it.

Everyone has their election stories. Like a lot of people, mine begins on the evening of the Democratic National Convention in 2004. I was driving home from Wisconsin, and I turned on the radio, which happened to be tuned to NPR. Barack Obama was in the middle of delivering the speech that would somehow, unfathomably then, lead directly to the events of today. I didn't know who he was or why he had been chosen to speak, but I stopped my car and I listened. There was something undeniably compelling about his words and his tone. For a moment, I was roused from my 20-something cynicism by a stir of emotion I would have been ashamed to admit to then. And I thought, "I wish I could vote for him in November." I also thought, "I wish I had an Oreo Blizzard." The latter of my wishes was easily addressed, as I had conveniently stopped my car in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen. As to the former, I tucked that hope away with my desires to have an Olympic gold medal, an Academy Award, and my own show on the Travel Channel.

On election night, I was devastated not at John Kerry's loss but at George Bush's win, and I made what was, at the time, an idle oath to do whatever I could personally to make sure that my candidate won next time.

Never would I have imagined I'd be knocking on strangers' doors in the cold Minnesota Februrary, asking them to consider caucusing for Barack Obama. I don't even like knocking on my friends' doors. Or using "caucus" as a verb. I may be visiting a friend I've known for years, been explicitly invited to arrive at an appointed time, and yet, my hand will hover, knuckles poised for knocking, while I worry over whether this is exactly the right moment for me to announce my presence. "Oh, I hope I'm not bothering them. Maybe I'll just go home." Imagine my horror at announcing my presence and my political stance to people I'd never met, people who, until the moment of my knocking, might have been peacefully reading a book, having just found the most comfortable position in which to sit, that perfect balancing act of relaxation and poise for page-turning. Ugh! It gives me shivers just to think about it. But I did it.

People have definitely used the word "hope" almost to the point of bleeding all its meaning over the past couple of years, but I really started to feel it. On the night of the Minnesota caucus, I voted at a school in one of the oldest and fanciest neighborhoods in Saint Paul. I had to park several blocks away and walk through the slushy snow and past Victorian era mansions to get to my polling place. At one point, I fell in pace with a middle-aged man and we both wondered at the crowds of people streaming towards the school. "I went to school here," he said. "Nice neighborhood," I replied, trying not to sound too impressed. He said he couldn't believe the crowds of people lining up to vote. He cast a quick glance around us and adopted the tone of an anthropologist, "I've never been to one of your people's gatherings before." I wondered what he meant by "my" people: Polish? Sci-Fi fans? Vegetarians? How could he know all that about me? Who was this guy? He looked around again and lowered his voice: "I'm a Republican."

"Can I ask what brought you out here tonight?" Then he caught my eye and simply said, "Obama," and I lost him in the crowd.

And then I found myself in another crowd in June. This time, I was in a line of thousands that snaked through the streets of downtown Saint Paul. Obama would be speaking in a few hours at the Xcel Energy Center, and he was expected to clinch the Democratic nomination. I'd gone alone, but I spent the entire evening talking to people, listening to their stories and their thoughts on social issues, on the environment, on the unique political and historical moment we seemed to be experiencing. I spent most of the time with a couple from South America, he from Venezuela, she from Colombia. They were so excited, so engaged in the American political process, so inspired by Obama's campaign and his message. Never mind they couldn't vote.

A lot of people who wouldn't be able to vote in the election in November stood in that line. One particularly lively group of teenagers took it upon themselves to remove what had become a hazardous roadblock as people finally started moving toward the Xcel. Minnesotans are a rule-following bunch, and when the police put one of those wooden horse-type barricades along the sidewalk, people kept away from the area it was blocking. But as more and more people crushed toward the Xcel, many found themselves pushed up against the barricade and unable to move safely beyond it. On reaching the barricade and finding themselves stuck, several people expressed a wish for the thing to be gone. It was a group of teenagers who embraced the activist message of the campaign and hoisted the thing above their heads, crowd surfing it up and away with chants of, "Yes, we can! Yes, we can!"

It had been threatening rain all day, and many of the people in line had brought umbrellas. Sure, we were a hopeful bunch, but we were still in the Midwest, and weather awareness and preparedness is a way of life. We could hope the rain would stay away, but, you know, just in case it didn't...

Our umbrellas were, however, a security risk and would not be allowed through the doors, we were told once we finally got to the Xcel. This explained the scores of umbrellas that littered the lawns around the building. As I approached the entrance, I chucked mine under a bush and counted the number of trees to the door, hoping I'd remember and be able to retrieve it after witnessing history or whatever. And even though I was in the nosebleeds, it was electrifying inside the arena. At the center of it all was this man whose steady voice I'd listened to since that day in the Dairy Queen parking lot and whose tone and message was just as compelling four years later, all the more so for its now being so clearly a real possibility. At the end of the night, Barack Obama bumped his fist into his wife's and walked off stage, but the energy of possibility lingered and radiated through the crowd, into the nosebleeds, out onto the streets--where thousands more people who hadn't made it through the security checks in time had watched on the jumbo screen outside--past the silent vigil of our our abandoned umbrellas, through the city, the state, the country, the world.

It was dark by the time I got outside, and I joined the throngs of people hunched over in the bushes, pulling back branches, holding up umbrellas and examining them in the light of their cell phone displays; black umbrella after black umbrella tossed back into the bushes in search of the exact one they had come with. I ran into people I knew, people I hadn't seen in five years, and perfect strangers. It was one of those completely surreal moments of odd community. "Is this it?" a woman asked to my right. "No," answered her friend. "Well, where did you leave it?" "Right here, I thought." "Well, what color is it?" "Camouflage." Good luck, I thought.

For those couple of hours in the Xcel, we'd been forced to abandon our cautiousness and our umbrellas; but we were also practical, and we fished our umbrellas out of the bushes and forced ourselves to consider the possibility that John McCain could have been standing at that podium today. But today I gathered with coworkers around the television in our break room and listened to that steady voice and those compelling words once more, and I'm just so glad to find myself in the happy majority of Americans. Also, I find myself craving an Oreo Blizzard.

1 comment:

KD said...

Damn you and your ice cream! I just got some neapolitan ice cream, and now you bring up Oreo blizzards!

So did you ever find your umbrella?