“Read my lips…Obama won’t kill Grandma.” The slogan is printed over the image “Whistler’s Mother,” and the button-seller tells the small student crowd around her that this one was very popular during the President’s push for health care reform. There are salesmen like her all along the 59th street Midway, men and women vending and hawking and politicking their products: carts of campaign buttons, anti-Republican buttons, Obama buttons; tables of t-shirts and posters; glossy handouts for PATRICIA VAN PELT-WATKINS, Democrat; printer paper pamphlets on the FBI’s repression of civil liberties; glossy pocket-sized cards with pictures of OUR PRESIDENT, who NEEDS YOU to VOTE DEMOCRAT; volunteers walking the lines calling out for you to please support the Party and the candidates in this critical time by registering as a campaign volunteer; a man planting signs every few yards for MILLER, Comptroller; women selling shirts and calling for you to “proclaim your nationality–Islam, sister” and to “come and get some food for the soul!”
There’s advertising everywhere but there are people everywhere, too; people lined west down the Midway Plaisance, students and faculty and neighborhood residents and salesmen and all standing and sitting and everybody waiting to see what’s going to happen, waiting to see the President, waiting to see Common, waiting to see something. A few students sit on the road reading copies of Karl Marx’s “Selected Writings,” studying in silence. Just off the line kids play in the park. Girls dance through the fallen leaves and look up at the sky and its vapor trails, laugh and fall down. A boy lies apart from them, propped up on one elbow, prone in the park leaves. He has a stick pushed back against his shoulder and he’s looking down the barrel of his stick-gun at the hundreds of people waiting in line, shooting imaginary bullets at unknowing targets. No, his mom says when she notices him killing off the crowd, this isn’t the time to play stick-gun, we’re going to see President Obama–but the boy can’t help but get caught up in all the excitement of the rally, it’s the day before Halloween after all. He smiles and runs off again, laughing, and a couple of girls walk by in their Halloween costumes. It’s getting cold but like the boy they can’t help but be excited; they’re costumed in shorts, tiaras, and face paint anyway–it’s the day before Halloween after all.
By the time the gates open at 4:30pm and everyone is searched, screened, and sent into the center of the Midway the tens of thousands have extended out towards the setting sun and moved closer together, extending the hope that this will be something like King’s March on Washington, that this crowd will be witness to some great and historic moment. An opening band plays for an hour; police horses watch the crowd. The sun goes down and the names come up: Pastor Clay Evans, Toni Preckwinkle, Mayor Daley, Sheena Patton, Senator Dick Durbin; names from headlines, snapshots from newspapers, voices in the dark now illuminated under the lights so that when Common comes out and plays his set the crowd knows that they are seeing faces of history, seeing something that for so long has seemed distant and far removed, untouchable and unalterable, driven by the actions of the few, unaffiliated with the lives of the many.
The President comes on stage and the crowd raises up hands and cameras and video cameras, anything to see. He talks about coming home, sleeping in his own bed, mentions Slurpees; he laughs and smiles. He makes the same home as his audience, drinks the same drinks. Has feeling and is real and alive, no less than anyone else in attendance, but as President will probably outlive most everyone there through history. It doesn’t matter though, they can see that history, and with that sight, the feeling–the tell-the-grandkids feeling–that this moment has been important, that they have been a part of it. The I-was-there feeling.