Wednesday, November 5, 2008

proud to be an american...finally or YES! WE! DID!

Somehow people must be free,
I hope the day comes soon.
Won't you please come to Chicago,
To show your face.
From the bottom of the ocean
To the mountains of the Moon.
Won't you please come to Chicago
No one else can take your place.
We can change / yes we can change the World.
Rearrange / rearrange the World.
~excerpt from “Chicago” by Graham Nash

I thought when I woke up this morning that last night may have been a dream. Or that overnight the presidency had been handed over to the undeserving cheater as it has the past two elections. But when I awoke, despite the little amount I slept, everything seemed brighter and calmer. President-elect Barack Hussein Obama graced the cover of every newspaper, as well as the banners on every streetlamp in downtown Chicago. As I drove to Shilpa's in my minivan to return her camera that I convinced her to let me borrow overnight so that I could steal all her videos, I rolled down the windows, smiled at the cloudless sky and blasted "Revolution" by The Beatles on repeat.

My friend Andrew informed me yesterday morning that he was going to the rally as well (after reading my gchat status) and said, "I'm worried about terrorist attacks," to which I replied, "Well I've already lived through two, so I might be immune at this point." Around 2:45 I met Shilpa at the Aon Building, which stands tall on the north side of Millenium Park (a building that makes me involuntarily shiver when I look at it because it eerily mirrors the deceased World Trade Center towers). There are perks to being unemployed, one being that as soon as I received an email last week regarding the proposed rally for Obama in Grant Park, I immediately signed up for a ticket. I passed along the email to friends and family who I knew would want to be there, but most of them, being employed, didn't have as instantaneous of a reaction and therefore were put on a waiting list. Shilpa was the first person to ask if she could be my guest, as each ticketed person was allowed to bring someone. Soon after, I received about five more emails asking to be my "+1" and I noted that I don't seem to have this problem when trying to recruit a date for a wedding, etc.

The weather was unseasonably warm and it seemed like every person I passed on the street was wearing some sort of Obama paraphernalia with confidence.

A station wagon slowly paraded down the city streets decked out in pro-Obama posters and graffiti, with a megaphone attached to the roof, which broadcast Obama’s speeches that stopped people in their tracks.

Shilpa wanted to join in the festivities so we went to a tourist t-shirt shop twice, while in between stopping at a Starbucks to get a free cup of coffee for proving we voted. I actually voted early with my mom at Hoffman Estates' Village Hall on Monday, October 27, where I donned a Wilco shirt, since it was the closest thing to "not campaigning within 100 feet of the polls." I saved my "I Voted" sticker and wore it again on Election Day.

After Shilpa picked out a child-sized shirt that read "HOPE" we stopped in Cosi to get some sandwiches to hold us over in line. As we walked east on Congress we joined the masses congregated at the top of the hill, where people were separated by ticketed vs. non-ticketed guests. I heard someone call out my name and sure enough it was Max’s aunt, Betsy, and her two sons. I wish we would have taken a picture together to mark this historical event, especially because Max’s mom, who raised major funds for Obama’s campaign isn’t even in the country to experience Election Day.
We parted ways and soon after Shilpa and I found ourselves amidst the group about be let in past the first checkpoint. I got in despite breaking two rules: No bags and No food. The man checking my ID didn’t notice I had a second bag (besides my purse) draped over my opposite shoulder and therefore didn’t discover the partially-eaten sandwich not so well-hidden inside. “How safe does that make you feel?” I said to Shilpa, sarcastically. “At least it’s only a sandwich,” I added, and thought back to December, 2001, two months after September 11, when I snuck two baby turtles in my sweatshirt pocket onto a flight home from school in NYC home to Chicago.

We sat down on the pavement and watched the sun set over our strong city skyline. We scarfed down the remainder of our sandwiches and Shilpa took pictures of my shoes. I purposely wore my pair of Toms, which have Ghandi's quote, "Be the change you wish to see in the world" typed over and over again.

I took out a pen and drew a peace sign on my hand, surrounded by the John Lennon song title, "Power To The People"

and then pulled out my telephoto lens to start experimenting with it. What better time to get up close and personal through a lens than tonight. I also, in my typical traveling A.V. department, brought along my video camera, but I never took it out because it's been acting up lately and I knew Shilpa had video capabilities on her point-n-shoot.

The excitement in the air was contagious, yet no one went crazy when they finally let us advance to the metal detectors. No people getting trampled or impatient words yelled, just arms around shoulders and cheers of, "O-BA-MA!" When we were released from the detectors, Shilpa and I ran onto the field like it was "Obamapalooza" (I can't take credit for that, someone was selling shirts with the phrase). We stood as close as we could to the stage, which we could see on tip-toes, and had a perfect view of the jumbotron, which was broadcasting CNN live to all of Grant Park. It was quite thrilling every time CNN showed growing footage of more and more people celebrating on the same ground where thirty years ago there were mass riots. Now we've come in peace, I thought, and look at that skyline sparkle!

I began receiving "OMG" and "Where are you in this crowd??" text messages from my friends in New York, who I hope are now second-guessing their anti-Chicago-ness. My friend Sharon, a brilliant writer, even referenced our brief text exchange in an article she wrote for "The L Magazine," which you can find here. And Travis, who was lucky enough to celebrate his Sweet 16 on Election Day, texted me that he went streaking through his neighborhood.

But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Again. Leading up to the victory, Shilpa and I made friends with the people around us. We met a nice couple behind us who gave us space to sit down and rest our feet. I only sat down a few times, but every time I did, I thought, I can't believe I considered not coming to this! Every time CNN predicted Obama the winner of another state, the crowd went wild with harmonious cheering. And every time they cut to commercials, they blasted songs like "Higher And Higher" and "Signed Sealed Delivered," always a favorite. Shilpa happily documented these moments, as I tend to sing along to everything, regardless of how I sound.

When it was declared that Barack Obama won the presidency, I cried. I cried because hope and idealistic views are not unachievable. And I remembered what it was like to believe again. I feel like I can be patriotic again. Or for the first time. Because, as an international traveler who's been harassed in several foreign countries, I can finally say I am proud of our country and who will be running it in a mere 11 weeks. To those who told me he didn't have enough experience and made me briefly doubt my support, until I made up my own mind that experience doesn't always mean positive results, the last 8 years case in point..."It's a choice between who's had more time in Washington or who is going to *change* Washington," Obama said on Super Tuesday. (Sarah Palin: Now is no time to begin experimenting with Socialism, Jon Stewart: Now is not the time to experiment. Now is the time to stick with what hasn't been working.)...To those who tried to tell me I was just buying into his eloquence and accused me of being "wrapped around his [Obama's] finger," I don't take shame in that. I take pride. Because I'd rather be wrapped around a revolutionary than a fraud. To all of you, I say, "YES! WE! DID!"

"This will be the last sound check before you hear from the next president of the United States," said the man at the mic, and once again, instead of doing the typical, "testing, testing 1, 2," said, "1,2,3,4, O-ba-ma!" Everyone responded by chanting "YES! WE! CAN!"

And we got to hear the oh-so-appropriate song, "Sweet Home Chicago."

I have to say that McCain's concession speech was pretty great, and I liked that he took the initiative to reprimand those in his crowd who were boo-ing Obama's win. That's the McCain I liked in 2000.
Then came the string of people on our stage. During the Pledge of Allegiance, I couldn't say it without crying even though I haven't recited it since probably elementary school. Next up, a group prayer. These moments always boggle my mind because how do they know we all pray, that we're all praying to the same God, or that we all know the prayer being spoken. I feel the same way in religious ceremonies, such as weddings and at kitchen tables, when people grasp hands and speak words to an idea of a creator. I always find it fascinating to watch people in these moments and truly wonder what they're thinking.
Here are things I thought about while I stood amidst a million people lost in prayer...
Obama is like our generation's Martin Luther King Jr. I forget that the Civil Rights Act was something that happened within my parents' lifetime. I never experienced life with MLK, but I became obsessed with him and the idea of civil disobedience during high school. I visited his home, church, and memorial in Atlanta. I am not a religious person, but, as I've stated already, I find people who are, fascinating. Sitting in his church, on a pew he could have sat on himself 40 years before me, that felt religious. Standing here now, although not immersed in prayer, this could feel religious.
I also thought about another one of my idols, Studs Terkel, an iconic Chicagoan who died at the age of 96 only FOUR days ago. What would he have to say about this day?
And then, following the death theme, I thought about Obama's grandma who died last night. When I heard the news, I felt that heartbreaking pain when timing is just so off you want shriek. What would SHE have to say about this day?

My contemplations were interrupted by the woman who took the stage to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." For some reason I get choked up whenever anyone sings a national anthem. The same thing happened when I listened to a 1948 recording of people singing "Hatikvah" in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv last year. My tears came to a halt, though, when this woman SANG THE WRONG WORDS! Her mistake threw the crowd for a loop, as everyone looked around seemingly wondering if anyone else heard the slip-up.
Here's video footage of the ending:

Then he, the man of the hour (or 9 if you count how long Shilpa and I had been standing/waiting), took the stage with his beautiful family.

I had asked the tall guy next to me if he'd be willing to snap a few photos once Obama finally started speaking, and he graciously took on the assignment. He ended up taking my favorite photo of the night, which I wish I could take credit for. His name is CJ, and I'll let his photo speak for itself...

I have to be honest. My emotions had already reached their peak by the time Obama started speaking and my brain became more concerned with taking pictures than actually taking in every word he was saying, like I had the other four times I've seen him speak, which have all given me chills--in May of '06 when I was in the audience when Conan taped in Chicago, in Washington Square Park September of '07 when I happened to be in NYC for a wedding, in December of '07 at the Riv, and at Park West this past July in celebration of his primary victory, where I got to sit in the V.I.P. section thanks to my boss.
This was my favorite quote of the night,
"And all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular but our destiny is shared. A new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those--to those--who would tear the world down, we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security, we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright, tonight we've proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope."

Also, like most of America, I found it pretty charming that he addressed his two daughters by saying, "You have earned the new puppy who's coming with us to the White House." I smiled to myself because when I was in kindergarten I found out that President Bush's (Sr.) dog had puppies and told my mom I wanted one. She, in turn, said, "So write a letter." I took her response literally and composed a handwritten letter to the President and some time later received an official typewriter-written response, which I found in my nightstand drawer, scanned and posted below (p.s. I wonder if Obama also has a Special Assistant to the President for Presidential Messages and Correspondence position available because that could qualify as a dream job of mine)

Believe it or not, it didn't take me long to find my sister and her friend Molly immediately following Obama's speech.

I desperately wanted to locate my best friend Shawna, who was there with her boyfriend, Brendan, so we could document being there together and because I knew we'd be wearing the same shirt (which I found out later, we had been), but alas, they had already gotten in a cab to go home. So the four of us slowly meandered out of the park. I made my sister take a victorious photo of myself.

I think the city was expecting post-election chaos, but everyone stayed cool, calm and collected and took to the streets like we were all in a musical.

Even the cops and EMTs looked bored.

Obama already helped boost the economy through t-shirt/button/poster/sticker street sales! There were even Obama and Biden cardboard cut-outs to pose with in the middle of Michigan Avenue.

We took the blue line home to Wicker Park, but the excitement didn't stop there. As we came up to street-level at the Division stop, there were two exuberant young people holding a sign that said, "HONK FOR OBAMA!" and getting a whole lot of followers.

You can read about why Chicago's the best city HERE but this quote exemplifies why.
“There is a really strong sense of self in Chicago: People aren’t defined by wealth or by work or accomplishments, but rather who they are,” said Alex Kotlowitz, an author who makes his home in Chicago because he believes it is a place to peer into America’s heart. “Obama seems so comfortable in his skin and with who he is. That’s so Chicago.”

All in all, this was a night I'll never forget, another historical moment I've witnessed first-hand, this time full of relief instead of dread.
You can click here for the album of photos, in collaboration with Sheri and Shilpa and here for the remaining videos Shilpa shot

I leave you with Will.I.Am's pre-election and post-election videos worth watching.

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