The Night Obama Was a Stuttering Speck of Light

As you may have read earlier here, I suffered through the Chicago cold to get my hands on a ticket to see America’s 44th president speak.

Instead, I saw the light.

Three weeks ago, I was walking through the streets of Hong Kong, enjoying 70 degrees and medium (no pun intended) level air quality warnings. This time of year, a lot of maids and helpers — immigrant labor is free on holiday as their middle-to-upper class employers themselves are on vacation and don’t need help around the house. As a result, the streets are lined with people picnicking on cardboard “mats”, playing card and board games. The atmosphere is positive, festive even, with people singing karaoke and wearing outrageous holiday gear. They made the most out of their time, even giving lunchboxes of food to street beggars and elderly.

These are people that didn’t have much, but what they did have was a sense of community/belonging, and a firm grasp on happiness.

Flash forward to when I stood in line for the tickets — the people of Chicago were little different as we hung on the streets for blocks until the line finally inched its way into the (relatively-warm) arms of the convention center. The people were upset about waiting, but they were together.

And then when Tuesday finally comes and we get to the event 4.5 hours early, we find stanchions and metal blockades that corral thousands of people ahead of us in this indoor parking lot with an unfinished floor that will soon lead us to another unfinished floor with more porta-potties than seats (only a slight exaggeration — at least there was definitely more floor space devoted to the bathrooms than the viewing space itself).

We wait, and we wait, and when we break free through the TSA-level security and dash towards the speaking stage, we discover that the set-up is the size of a high-school gymnasium, with said thousands of people already ahead of us with priority red tickets or were one of the few lucky ones that got in super duper early and bunched in.

You’re still wondering why I brought up Hong Kong — now imagine waiting for the punchline for 4.5 hours one day just to get a chance to wait another 4.5 hours to see the man speak.

Instead, I first spoke to an 62 year-old man that was really a 62-year-young man. Obama looks old enough to be his dad, or at least older step-brother. Instead, here he is, 62 and angry that despite waiting an extra two hours earlier than I, is stuck in standing-room-only, roughly 1.75 football fields away from where Obama will appear. “I should’ve just stayed home if I wanted to see him from those TV monitors”. I, too, give up and decide to lay my coat down and sleep in my spot, hoping nobody steps on my toes in a room full of adults trying to see some President speak. It’s 7pm — T-1 hours, and people are camping out, trying to find ways to occupy themselves until the President sees the stage, but not them. No happiness to be found, and not really community.

And yet, soon, both happiness and community, like hope and change, would be diffused through the crowd as one dad, husband, basketball fan, former University of Chicago professor, and just down-to-earth dude emerged from the wings and into the spotlight.

Or rather, from where I was, he was just a speck of light on the stage.

It’s him! I can’t even see details on his face from here — or his ears?

Oh, so that’s 4x zoom, that’s not actually where I stood. We were so far, people weren’t sure if that was him standing there or Biden.

Obama didn’t need everybody in standing room only to get the several-minute-long standing ovation. It seemed like even he was aware of his own presence, as he uncharacteristically stuttered, stammered, and stumbled before he could finish his “lame duck” joke.

Obama was human after all. He’s just like you, you, you, you, you, y-you, y-you, y-you, and me.

There were several such moments when you realized that the man that is running the country is in many ways, one of us, and that’s why his energy can exude off of him and right into the cores of the audience. I have never seen anyone else elicit such a yuuuuge response by wiping away tears. He seems like your friendly neighbor that would offer to help rake the leaves in your backyard. He’s that cool.

He hit a lot of key issues, a lot of big problems that lie ahead, but also celebrated the accomplishments made since he came into office. The structure of the address was nothing out of the ordinary, but his typical, meticulous attention paid to the most relevant issues of today, from race relations and marriage equality to security and economic equality, is what makes him an out-of-the-ordinary president.

Retelling what he said would be book-report-esque; there’s no better way to hear it than to just read it yourself:
[Read the transcript and watch a recording of the speech here, or if you have no time, read/watch these soundbites]

Obama called Biden the scrappy kid from Scranton, one that became “a brotha”. He quoted his mom when he said, “it’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating, because as my mom used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.”
He made jokes about social media, made an allusion to To Kill a Mockingbird (hey, maybe this is a book report after all), and said one more time, “Yes we can”.

Near-frost-bite, concrete floors, all to see one of the world’s greatest speakers of all-time. It wasn’t easy, and I hated myself for a lot of the wait time, but I met many of my fellow Chicagoans, many people that embodied my values, and many people that have hope.

*shed’s majestic Obama tear* Thanks Obama!

As I exited the convention center, I ran into 5 people I waited in line for tickets with (and took a selfie to commemorate it), amidst a sea of thousands, yet I couldn’t even find my own roommate. The world works in funny ways, bringing people together and allowing them to cross paths. You never know who you might see.

p.s. To President Obama, if you’re reading this, I hope we play basketball some day at the Lab School or Ratner, or maybe do an impromptu Valois run — for the record, I’ve never eaten anything not on “your” menu. Come back to the University of Chicago (shameless plug). We might just save a seat (not standing-room-only) for you at the dining hall house table.

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