We Were There: Election Night in Chicago’s Grant Park

Originally posted Nov. 5, 2008

Oh, what a night, and Noah and I were there! Along with an estimated quarter-million other Obama fanswho squeezed into Grant Park last night, we heard Obama make his victory speech in person. I still can’t believe he won, let alone that we were there to see it happen – to feel it happen, alongside so many.

I’m still not sure howwe got so lucky. Millions wanted those free tickets to Hutchinson Field in Grant Park, and I’d been put on the notorious waiting list. But Monday evening my ticket arrived in my in-box, valid (and non-transferrable) for me plus one guest.I had to print it – twice – beforebelieving it was real.

My hubby Todd needed to be on his game to teach all day and evening today so Noah jumped at the chance to go with me. Todd wasn’t thrilled at that prospect, butappreciated the historical significance and gave his blessing. My Mom worried too, like a good Mom should, and called as we headed out to alert us to the news that S.W.A.T. teams were reportedly at the ready in five U.S. cities, Chicago their most pressing concern. I myself called the windy city police and Obama’s campaign three times each to make sure no threats had been received and that security would be stellar.

But who knew for sure?

What if someone got stupid and targeted the crowd? What kind of mother tempts fate? As every mother of a ten-year-old boy knows, getting him to hold your hand in public is near-impossible. Would he give me any guff this time? Safety aside I also wondered: what if they can’t call this election tonight? What if this thing drags on for a week? What if Noah gets too worn-out to enjoy himself? He never did, though. The crowd’s chanting for Obama was infectious, the night was balmy, and wescored the best seats in the house.

“It was awesome,”Noahvolunteered this morning, oddly buoyant after a mere four hours of sleep. “I knew Obama would be President, but it was awesome to be there.”

And it was. The train was filled with people obviously heading for the Obama rally, and their energy was electric. We arrived in town after four p.m., when hordes of working peoplerushed out of the city early, but plenty more streamed in. Michigan Avenue had a festive atmosphere, and Obama t-shirts and buttons were hawked on every street corner. Afraid to pause too long for a sustaining meal, we grabbed a turkey sandwich on our sprint from the Ogilvie train station to Grant Park.

We arrived early enough (after being scanned by metal detectors – I even got the ‘wand’ scan) to stand near enough to the podium to have positively I.D.’d Obama when he spoke,but I knew that Noah would never see over the crowd, let alonelastanother five, six or who-knew-how-many hours on his feet.Noah suggested that we head for the grassy knoll we passed on our way in. Brilliant move, as we were able to sit – sit! – the whole night (until Obama spoke, of course), very close to the potties and to the exit, which appealed tothis Mom on oh-so-many levels.

We’d brought along paperbacks and a book of word-searches, opting to leave Noah’s heavy history book – his homework – at home (it seemed a fair trade given the in-vivo history lesson he was to receive instead), but people-watching and simply soaking- it- all- in proved irresistible. He did play a few games on my cell phone – which I had no idea was even possible, and programmed my phone book -but he also got a fabulous lesson on the workings of the electoral college and the relevance of the popular vote. From time to time folks in the remarkably amiable crowd shouted out news-outlets’ projections gleaned from their BlackBerrys and iPhones, and we cheered right along with them.

At Hutchinson Field we got to keep up with CNN on the jumbo screens as all around us conversations sprang up about the import of various swing-states’ votes. Pennsylvania then Ohio wentObama’s way, but I keptreminding Noah that we just had to wait for Virginia.I explained thatfor me, Virginia’s decision would be the most telling vote of all. Not just because of its number of electoral votes, but because of its history of slavery. It just seemed necessary that our first black President should win-over historically ‘red’ Virginia, and win it he did,earning forhim the electoral votes he needed toclinch the election.Immediately CNN flashed the news of Obama’s decisive victory and the crowd erupted, startling me out of my struggle to make my camera perform. I’ve neverexperienced anything like that before. It was absolutely breathtaking. Noah enjoyed some friendly high-fives fromteary strangers and chanted right along with the massive crowd. A priceless moment, for this Mom.

This morning I spoke to my brother, Patrick Boyle, who is a resident of Liberty County, Georgia (reportedly named so in deference to the fact that the county was eventually settled in large part by freed slaves each endowed with ’40 acres and a mule’ following the Civil War, as per General Sherman. After Lincoln’s assassination President Johnson revoked Sherman’s orders, returning the land to its former white owners.). Patrick says that he was impressed by the quiet joy he witnessed in the demeanor of the older black men and women who voted alongside him at his polling place. They gave little cheers as they cast their ballots for their candidate, in apparent disbelief that they even could. This morning, NPR-Chicago featured an interview with an elderly black woman – 106 or 109 years of age – I cannot recall – whose father had been a slave. Her father. That’s just one generation before hers. What must this vote mean to her? I can only imagine. She must be pinching herself silly that her father’s daughter lived to see the day that anything is possible for a person of color. I don’t think she’s alone in her jubilation. Call me crazy, but I swear that last night I saw a whole lotta black folks walkin’ taller on their way outta Grant Park than they didwalkin’ in.

Perhaps it’s just the poet in my heart, but I know what I saw.

(For the record, Noah did hold my hand, and even got his homework done before pedaling off to school this morning …)

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