Harlem — midnight. I might be too tired to get down what I’m thinking, which is a shame, because it’s a great time to be thinking. To think, I was just going to revel alone in my room watching the returns come in on cnn.com for goodness sake. Fortunately, my employer — the world’s largest newspaper — had other ideas, and deployed me to the sea of chanting, expectant humanity on 125th street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. It was the sort of event that makes you realize that political rallies don’t have to just be bullshit. You’re allowed to believe what they’re saying, or at least what they stand for, for an evening or so.
Now, by nature I’m cynical and I’m not very optimistic. Obama went so far as to call out people like me in his speech tonight, and hell, I voted for him. Even after it became clear that this would probably happen, that Obama would probably be our next President, I‘d spent the whole week grumbling about election fraud and scare tactics, then convinced myself that the Redskins losing the Monday Nighter was a bad omen (or was it a good one? I can never remember the rule on this), and fitting also as I’d picked them to lose to the Steelers.
“Go talk to some people at the rally and get their reactions,” I was told by my esteemed employer, who’d anticipated an Obama triumph by shelling out over $1000 to send their top writer into the Obama tent in Grant Park, a thousand miles away. “Just get some comments from people about him being elected.” I shrugged. Isn’t it a little too soon for all of that? I mean, hell, he probably won’t even win, I thought but didn’t say.
But I went anyway, of course, walked half a mile up to the rally with a couple roommates, roommates who didn’t want to stop for pizza en route, which left me basically foodless until now. By the time Obama came on to speak, the hot dog woman had run out of hot dogs, the White Castle guys had run out of everything but the last and nastiest of the burgers which they were handing out for voluntary tips. (I had two.) And oh yeah, the Cair Parvel guys were out of dessert. They only had coffee. I didn’t even know Cair Parvel did coffee. Even the friendly neighborhood Burger King had closed its doors. Twenty hungry youngsters peered in through the glass to watch the staff cleaning up. Probably the staff just wanted to join the party, and who could blame them?
We were at about 120th and headed north when they called Ohio, and that’s the moment when I start to think that hell, maybe there’s something to this. By the time I get to the place it’s raucous. They’ve filled the entire square out in front of the statehouse building, half a block, and those are long blocks up in Harlem, each one better than an eighth of a mile. I hear distant drumming. I hate talking to strangers but I get the requisite interviews done in a few minutes — everybody wants to talk about it! — and I’m left to soak in the scene. Entrepreneurs are out selling Obama shirts already, as if they know something I don’t know. One man stands screaming deliriously to every black passerby, “Your children can be president of the United States!!!” And they all nod like, damn, they hadn’t thought of it that way before. The cops are trying to direct traffic and keep the rally from spilling into the street, but their hearts aren’t in it. They clap along with the steady, pulsing rhythm of the drumming corps and the cars honk their horns in celebration, not really giving a damn that traffic is moving at a mile an hour and it’s nearing midnight.
Twenty minutes after I arrive, they call Florida, and the place starts to go into a frenzy. A horn band shows up, plowing through the crowd and jamming, while everyone chants and claps along. A lot of Obama’s young white supporters got shit for chanting “race doesn’t matter” in Iowa, but right now, it really really doesn’t, thank goodness. We’re all just happy to be there. Various politicians and working class heroes — Roger Touissant?! — take to the stage to exhort the crowd, but we don’t need it by that point. We can smell it. Suddenly California comes in and they call the whole thing — Obama is the President-elect — and all of Harlem erupts. People who had been nervously watching inside their own apartments come streaming out into the night to join us. A hint of drizzle starts up warningly but no one gives a damn and it desists. McCain’s up there conceding, but they’ve turned the sound down so some community leader could bellow “YES WE CAN!” into the microphone. Palin’s grinning as if she didn’t even know they’d lost. Then McCain gives a final wave and Cindy gently helps her husband, who looks very tired but genuine again, decent, human, down the steps away from the podium, exit stage right. The horn players do another pass. The four lanes of 125th street are down to about one and a half as the swollen crowd spills into the street, fills up the next block over, stretches out towards Lenox Avenue, barely visible in the distance. People are sobbing. People are smiling giddily like blithering idiots like they’re drunk but they’re not. Some Lyndon LaRouche conspiracy theorists are demanding a “real revolution” but nobody pays any damn attention to them. I won’t even take their flyer.
And then out comes Obama. Surely he has some music playing, probably U2 or something, but we can’t even hear it, people are cheering too loud. When Obama finally gets to the microphone the crowd starts shushing itself, which takes some doing. Some nut with a bongo drum won’t stop hammering on it. Angry noises are made. “Quiet! Obama’s speaking!”
Obama’s performance is subdued, presidential, inspiring but not raucous. Only at the end does the place explode, on the final “Yes we can” and everyone spills off into the night, honking horns and tooting whistles. Distant fireworks go off. Like I said, I’m a cynical bastard, I’ve not much hope for the capacity of collective humankind and I assume the worst as a rule. I’m Jewish, I’ve got my reasons. But standing there in the middle of that rally, with a crowd that feels like it just had a huge, breath-crushing weight lifted from its shoulders, 8 years brushed aside, or maybe four hundred depending on your point of view, all I could think is that for one day, for one damn day, everything worked out, everything went right, we did right by ourselves. Perhaps we didn’t accomplish a damn thing tonight, except give ourselves a chance. But what a chance.