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Saturday, November 4, 2023

Nov. 4, 2008

     Friday's column ends with a quick gloss on a scene at Grant Park, 15 years ago tonight. A number of readers mentioned it, and I thought I'd share the full passage, from my memoir, "You Were Never in Chicago," published by the University of Chicago Press in 2012:

    The mass of people at Grant Park the night Obama was elected — I almost didn't go downtown to be part of that. My tendency is to shy away from crowds and, besides, the paper had it covered. There was also a concern — what would happen if he lost? It might get ugly.
     But Ross wanted to be there on the historic election night, and I understand that impulse. A kid doesn't want to miss anything. So we drove downtown, left the car by the Sun-Times Building and walked over to Grant Park. A calm, pleasant night in early November. I've never seen the park so crowded. Big searchlights threw shafts of white light into the night sky. We had passes to a crowded press area. Barack Obama was across the park, on a distant stage — most people were watching him on giant TVs, but I figured we were here, we should see him, not just on a screen, but directly, at least once, with our own eyes, his image reflected against our retinas.
     All the vantage points were taken, so I went up to a group crowding around a gap in the fencing, pushed Ross ahead, and said, to no one in particular, "Could this boy take a look, just for a moment?" A large black woman turned, regarded him, and then commanded those in front of her, "Let the baby through!" and they parted, affording Ross and me a momentary glimpse of the future president, a tiny figure, far away. I thought of that famous photo of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, a distant, barely recognizable speck in a multitude.
     But that wasn't the moment that lodged in my heart. That came afterward, when a quarter of a million people flowed from the park to Michigan Avenue, buoyant with victory, intoxicated with promise and possibility and hope, filling the street from curb to curb, from Roosevelt Road to the Wrigley Building. They were in their new Obama t-shirts and in church clothes, whole families, including wide-eyed toddlers, some cheering, some walking in quiet, careful formality.
    It seemed so strange, so fantastical — this famous street, empty of cars but crowded with Chicagoans, waving flags in the brightly lit midnight.
     "Take a good look around," I said to Ross, then thirteen, as we walked up the middle of Michigan Avenue. "Because you are never going to see this again." People whooped and hugged, beat cowbells, and chanted.
    We were walking north, toward the brightly lit Wrigley Building in the distance. We passed in front of the Hilton and I stopped, actually bending down to pat my hand against the asphalt. "This was the Conrad Hilton," I told my boy, in my pedantic dad fashion, choking up a little. "This was the spot where the protesters sat down and were beaten by the cops in 1968. It was right here."
     The contrast was stunning, between the long-ago violent night, so seared in public memory for so many years, and now this harmonious scene, not to replace it but to soothe it, finally, another cool layer of dirt spread atop the burning memory, adding to the 1996 Democratic Convention another strata of forgetfulness, the police this time watching from the medians, some steely-eyed, some scowling, some beamng, some bemused. Maybe it was finally time to put the 1960s away. Maybe the party was happening right now and we were in the middle of it.
    I usually never smoke a cigar in front of the boys — I have an example to set —but this was a special night, and I pulled out a celebratory stogie, brushed off Ross's protests, and fired it up as we walked, taking in the commotion around us.
    Did they dance in the street? Yes, they danced in the street. Were people really singing? Yes, I can report on good authority, that at least one prematurely cynical teenage boy, a born skeptic, by genetics and by upbringing, who earlier that evening compared Chicago to a wormy apple, "addled with corruption," spontaneously broke into song as he walked up Michigan Avenue at midnight.
    "O beautiful, for spacious skies..." he began.
    "For amber waves of grain," his father, no small cynic himself, joined in.
    "For purple mountains majesty ..." the continued together, loudly and off-key, really murdering the high notes, linked arm in arm. "Above the fruited plain. America, America, God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good, with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!"


  1. My father and I were there, no, not in 2008 -- he'd been dead for 25 years then -- but in 1968. He was in a squad car rushing to join the fray, but injured his knee exiting the car, while I, driving a Yellow Cab, was well West of Michigan Avenue, hoping to catch a fare leaving the park, when a young woman, maybe a teenage, ran over to the cab, hysterically shouting, "They're beating people up; the cops are beating us up." My thought was, "What do you want me to do about it? I'm just a cab driver." My dull reply, "Do you want me to take you somewhere?" frustrated us both. And she ran off.


  2. I, too, was in Grant Park that night along with my wife, although we don't recall seeing you ... :) ... Yes, it was a spectacularly happy evening. Long gone, sadly.

  3. My friend and I had tickets and waited in a long, long line, way down the sidewalk and around the block. Everyone was so upbeat and excited ... every so often, a person in line who was monitoring the election news would shout out a new state Obama had won, and the line would cheer. Suddenly, there was no line or gate to enter - we just walked over and sat on a hill. So much happy, hopeful feeling everywhere! I wish I knew how to recapture it.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. I remember the evening well. Already seems like too long ago.

  5. We were sitting around a kitchen table in a Chicago fireman's house. In Niles. So the residency rule didn't apply to him, but they had no problem calling out the protesters that night in 1968. Still, the fireman and his wife were good to us, providing a second home for a group of high school graduate 16 inch softball playing, draft eligible boys. Some of us considered a trip downtown but wisely dropped the idea. Later in life I attended a Pope John Paul II welcome party in Lake Point Tower. I liked the eagles nest view and the refreshments, glad to avoid the crowd. I could have been part of a darker event in JP II's life when he visited Phoenix. A guest in our hotel was building bomb fuses, but got arrested in San Diego before he could finish what he started. Locked out of the room for non payment, eventually police were called, they called in the bomb squad etc. One of the officials speculated that the Pope might have been the target, as he was due in a few weeks. Glad I wasn't part of that possible history. Kinda wish I had ventured downtown to see Barack's Victory Lap.

  6. I celebrated on November 4 at a downtown Cleveland hotel, in a mostly Black crowd. Young people were screaming. Old people were praying out loud and giving thanks. A lot of folks were dancing. I dropped my phone and it was kicked across the dance floor and skittered under some tables like a mouse, and was kicked some more. I never did find it again.

    But it's better to begin at the beginning. In August of 2008, my political engagement was at its lowest ebb in decades. I was just living la vida loca...a summer of art fairs,
    live music, theater, hiking trails, and a visit to Put-in-Bay, on Lake Erie. That all ended on Labor Day. Sarah Palin was nominated. Like the volunteers after Pearl Harbor, I was down at Obama HQ the next morning.

    The next few weeks were not exactly pleasant ones. Three weeks of banging on the phones, mostly the ones in affluent red suburbs. I was called a Communist, a baby-killer, a n****r-lover, and more. Then, fortune smiled upon me. I was re-assigned to a direct-mail facility, where printed campaign literature was being trucked in from the Donnelley plant in Chicago, and sent out to every mailing address in Ohio. A state, back in the day, that was still a hotly contested battleground, an electoral Stalingrad. Not the Red Sea it is today.

    Three shifts of volunteers, 24/7, processing a million or more pieces a day. People arriving from all over the country, and even from overseas. Sleeping on couches and working 12-hour shifts. Morale was high. Extremely high. I met an amazing cross-section of Obamaniacs, and have never worked at anywhere else like it, before or since. Only things missing were the pep rallies. But we didn't need them. We were all Rosies, working in a war plant to put the ax into the Axis. I did it for the whole month of October, before going back to the phones. Yuck.

    Finally, I was sent out into unfamiliar Cleveland streets, to bang on doors. Neighborhoods that I didn't know existed, as somnolent and hilly and rustic as hamlets in Tennessee or Kentucky. Folks drowsing on rickety porches in the November sunlight, and old dogs asleep in the streets. Next came the aforementioned party. And the need for a new phone, after Ohio put Obama over the top.

    The day after. The fifth. Probably the best day. One thought and one thought only: "This is what victory feels like." Walking up to the front door of the campaign office, as total strangers stopped me on the street and hugged me and shook my hand and thanked me for my efforts. When I got home, the 1945 feeling continued...out-of-state friends had sent flowers.

    And suddenly, my Obamarama drama was over. Back to the harsh realities of Real Life. Fifteen years later, it feels like something I merely read about. Or maybe dreamed about.

  7. Great story, Grizz. I was poll watching in Kenosha that day. We heard that Pennsylvania had gone for Obama before we left so I drove back to Chicago under the lovely night sky listening to the radio reporting from Grant Park. It was marvelous.

  8. btw, it's idiotic that america the beautiful isn't our national anthem instead of that mess we have now.
    paul w
    roscoe vil

  9. In October of 1979, I remember having a similar feeling. I accompanied my Uncle Michael, and his friend, Mary Ann, Bergerson, to mass in Grant Park presided by Pope John Paul II. I was a freshman in high school and got to miss school that day. We stood quietly pressed together to hear the Pope say mass. After mass, I remember walking down a vehicle free Michigan Avenue. The throng of people were singing. Now of course, I can't remember the song. At that point, I thought I would never forget it. To this day, one of my favorite memories.


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