Feeling down about “President” Trump? Join Chris Ryan as he wallows in nostalgia, revisiting his trip to the US during Obama’s election campaign.
USED condoms litter the parking lot of the budget hotel on Central Parkway in Cincinnati, Ohio. My room is shabby, with worn carpet and a musty odour. I fling back the blanket on a sagging bed. The sheets are stained and yellowed. In the bathroom a flush of the toilet sends discarded cigarette butts swirling down the drain.
Barack Obama is giving a campaign speech at the University of Cincinnati two days before the 2008 Presidential Election. I’ve flown across the country to hear it. Booking accommodation was an afterthought.
I arrived in the USA a week earlier. Obama supporters I met were restrained with their predictions for a victory – even though Republican John McCain’s campaign floundered after he recruited an imbecile as a running mate.
“There’s a lot of anxiety about this election,” a shuttle bus driver at LAX told me. She reeled off the disasters that could happen: McCain’s scare tactics could earn him a narrow win, the election might be stolen or, “people won’t say it aloud, but Obama wins and gets shot.”
I join the line at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, home of the Bearcats, two hours before people are being let in. It beats hanging in the hotel. When the gates open the line stretches to over a mile. The crowd is as diverse as America, if everyone in America voted Democrat. There are young and old, Black and White, the slim and beautiful, and the overweight and homely.
Once people fill the stadium it’s still more than three hours until Obama takes to the stage. On the roof of the stadium police watch the restless crowd through the scopes of sniper rifles. The long wait doesn’t dampen spirits amongst the 27,000-strong crowd. The applause when Obama arrives is thunderous.
I have a spot on the field less than twenty yards from the podium but only catch intermittent glimpses of the man who will be president, my view blocked by fans waving placards and a woman filming the entire speech on her camera.
The speech is much like others I have heard on television. The crowd doesn’t know or doesn’t care. “After decades of broken politics in Washington, eight years of failed policies from George Bush,” The crowd boos at Bush’s name. He has been reduced to a pantomime villain. “You don’t need to boo, you just need to vote,” comes Obama’s well-worn quip. “After twenty-one months of a campaign that has taken us from the rocky coast of Maine to the sunshine of California, we are two days away from bringing change to America.”
The crowd loses their shit. More of Obama’s tried and true formula follows: “In two days, you can put an end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election; that tries to pit region against region, city against town, Republican against Democrat; that asks us to fear at a time when we need hope.” He brings out one of his oldest, most optimistic lines, “We can prove that we are not as divided as our politics would suggest, that we are more than a collection of Red States and Blue States – we are the United States of America.”
The rapt faces in the crowd, the cheers and applause at the close of the speech, tells me what it means to these people. A red-haired woman is on her cell phone as she trudges up the stairs and out of the stadium: “It was the same speech he’s given the last couple of days, but he was right there mom, he was right there.” She sounds like a child telling her parents she’s spotted Santa’s reindeer. She goes on, “An old man asked me, ‘Was it worth the wait.’ I said I would have waited ten times as long, and he said to me, ‘I’ve been waiting 60 years.’” Obama’s election will be a dream realised.
The roads around the university are gridlocked as people head home. There isn’t a car horn sounded. The spirit of goodwill is palpable walking along Martin Luther King Drive. Then I reach my grubby hotel and stop in at its bar, the Pit Stop Lounge.
A clock with Budweiser branding hangs on the wall. Its red LED display gives the date as November 03, 1987. Two grizzled men in flannel shirts play pool. A young guy counts money at the bar, sorting notes into piles, and then goes to the hotel parking lot to conduct his business. Another customer comes in and asks the barmaid, “Have you seen a girl called Daria, has a bruise on her face?” The barmaid runs a rag over the counter: “Skinny girl? Yeah, she was in here.”
In my room I wedge a table behind the door, not trusting the lock. The night is alive with the slam of car doors, the screech of car tyres, and people shouting and swearing. Obama’s speech in the stadium, with talk of hope, feels like empty words.
THE Tuesday of the election I’m in Indianapolis, having stayed with a woman who worked on the Obama campaign. She encourages me to hang around for the victory party but there’s no way I won’t be in Chicago to watch Obama give his acceptance speech.
I expected bedlam at the Greyhound station. It’s busy, not overrun. A row of bags marks the line for the bus to Chicago. I drop my bag and park on an uncomfortable metal seat. A lean African-American woman in the seat that backs against mine lets out a low whistle as a huge lady ambles past, then hollers like a street vendor: “Chitlins, chitlins, we got chitlins.” She chuckles to herself then looks around for an audience.
She finds me. She throws an arm over the back of the seat and leans over to my side so she can talk to me directly. “I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself.” She shakes her head in mock disbelief. “I tell you, they’re big down here. They like that Southern food.” The woman says she travelled from Chicago to help on Obama’s campaign in Indianapolis. She calls out again. “Chitlins, chitlins, we got chitlins.”
I sink low into my seat. “They love their chitlins. You know what chitlins are?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Fried pig gut. I tell you, they’ll eat any part of that pig they can get their hands on. They’d eat the oink if they could work out a way to fry it.”
She turns away for a moment, then comes back, glad to see I’m laughing at her patter in spite of myself. She looks over sixty but carries herself like a much younger woman. Her hair, which turns out to be a wig, is in pigtails. She wears tight jeans and a denim jacket. “People say it’s genetic,” she tells me. “It’s not genetics. I got a sister and she is huge. At her graduation she was wearing an orange gown with that black cape and black hat. I said, ‘Damn sister, you look like a goddamn bumblebee.’ She didn’t take kindly to that.” She laughs at the memory.
The woman is on my bus to Chicago. We’ve barely left the terminal when she finds a new target for her attention: a big guy whose frame engulfs his seat and half the seat next to his. “What’s your excuse for being so big?” she asks. He explains he’d been driving trucks in Iraq. It was hard to stay active stuck behind the wheel.
Then woman isn’t having it. “You got to lose that weight. Do you eat fruit? My husband, he keeps in shape. Us ladies don’t want no big flabby man bouncing up and down on us when we’re in bed. You got to eat more fruit.”
“I will ma’am,” the big guy promises – anything to stop her onslaught.
A trio of teenage girls joins the bus at Lafayette. An Irishman strikes up a conversation with them. He’s a journalist. Well, he has a blog, which is one up on me. Two of the girls haven’t told their parents they are headed to Chicago, but they have to be there. “It’s the Woodstock of our generation,” one says.
When we pull into Gary, Indiana, the fruit-loving lady announces to the bus. “Welcome to the murder capital of the US of A. You want a gun, you come to Gary.” She ducks low in her chair, pretending to dodge stray bullets. “I can look after myself. My daddy taught his girls how to fight.” She stands in the aisle and in one smooth motion unbuckles her studded leather belt, whips it from her jeans, and wraps it around her left hand: an improvised knuckle duster. She throws a combination: left, right, uppercut, bam, bam, bam. She looks dangerous.
The driver calls down the bus: “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to sit down.” The woman calls back, “You want to call the poh-leece, ’cause I’m out of control.” She laughs as she takes a seat. “You got to be ready,” she lectures the passengers. “In my handbag, I always keep a big ol’ bottle of moisturizer inside a stocking. I keep my hand on it when I’m filling up with gas. I swing that around and hit you, I will knock…you… OUT.”
As we near the lights of Chicago her thoughts turned to the election, “I hope Obama wins,” she says. “If he doesn’t Chicago is going to burn.” She’s prepared whatever happens.
ON THE streets of Chicago I join the stream of people flowing towards Grant Park where the victory speech will be given. Naturally, I can’t get anywhere near the stage at this event. There are more than 100,000 people in the park, most of us watching huge television screens rather than Obama in the flesh.
Listening to his victory speech amongst the crowd, it’s impossible to feel cynical. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” he tells us. We all cheer.
“It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled. Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of Red States and Blue States; we are, and always will be, the United States of America.”
He claims a victory for all America. In Grant Park that night it feels like a victory for the entire world. I join the crowd’s chant of, “Yes We Can,” feeling assured of a better, brighter future. Long after the speech ends people linger in the park, savouring this moment.
A Black man yells into his cell phone, “In our lifetime! In our lifetime!” He needs to repeat it so it can sink in. A White man wanders through the crowd following his wife and child, “We’re a free country again,” he says almost blissfully.
A big, burly guy marches through the crowd yelling, “No more Bush. Bring our vets home.” He hits a bottleneck and shouts, “Two tours of Iraq: I’ve earned the right to yell till I lose my voice.” As the crowd starts moving, he goes on, “This is real! This won’t be some Jack Daniels blackout. We’re going to wake up in the morning, and it’ll still be real.”
I know photos can never capture the jubilation, the euphoria. I just tell myself to never forget how good this feels – that it’s the greatest moment I have ever experienced.
In the street people buy tacky t-shirts and jumpers, posters and badges, commemorating the moment. An Asian American accosts strangers and asks them to sign his jumper. “Yes we did,” people have written. He hands me a pen. I scribble a message and sign my name.
Millers Pub is packed with revellers celebrating into the early hours. I sit with a couple of men who have followed Obama across the country. They drove 15,000 miles in two months to sell clothing and posters on the campaign trail. On the table between them a suitcase stuffed with jumpers is straining at the seams.
They’re an odd couple. Paul, a strident Libertarian, says it pained him to pull on the Obama jumper he’d been selling that night. David, a blue-collar Democrat, says, “This country has an opportunity to head in a new direction. For the good of everyone who’s not making big money, let’s hope we get there before it’s too late.”
He goes to the bar, buys a couple of shots of Jägermeister, and hands one to me. While Paul looks on with a surly expression we make a toast to the victory, a brighter future, and as corny as it sounds, “Hope.”
On this night at least, it feels like more than just a word.