Welcome to the Suck
I met President Barack Obama when we were both losers.
Okay, not losers like scrounging around a sticky table at the OTB, lifting half-drunk plastic cups of Old Style in search of winning betting slips. Not that kind of loser. More losers in that our respective duties had dealt us each a losing hand for the day.
It was just before the 2000 Presidential Election.
I was a reporter for a weekly paper where the pay was so low that I was only hours off my waitressing shift and now sleep-deprived and hustling for more extra money by agreeing to photograph a lot of glad-handers at a fundraiser for some local everyman seeking state office, which meant the event wouldn’t even have good food and made me wish I’d gotten a hot dog on the way over.
At the time, Obama was an Illinois State Senator with a strange name who’d not yet appeared on the national stage. He’d been anointed by the State Democrats to run for Congress against long-time incumbent Bobby Rush. He was destined to lose.
If you recall, there were a lot of losers in that 2000 election, including the winner.
We met outside Reilly’s Daughter, a bar in Chicago’s south suburbs, best known as a place where weekend softball leagues rallied after games around pitchers of spiked lemonade until someone’s acidic vomit hit the non-descript concrete floor.
Softball season was over and it was one of those early fall days so dreary that it showcased the area’s unique ability to make Seasonal Affective Disorder take hold with one swift “winter isn’t coming, bitches, it never really left” kick to the throat.
So yeah, neither of us wanted to be there.
Both of us wanted a smoke.
It’s telling that Obama had lit up outside the bar. Maybe it was because he wanted to keep the habit hidden, as I tended to when I was working an event. But you could still smoke indoors back then, and at a south side Irish bar, it was almost a requirement you did, holding your beer in one hand and your lit cigarette in the other, raising it over your head as you weaved through a crowd where 70 percent of the people were doing the same thing.
I was about to sneak one outside when the Democratic Spokesperson accosted me in the parking lot with yet another “You have to meet Barack.” I sighed as he led me over to the man standing next to the door. The spokesman had been trying to get me to interview Obama for months but I was covering about five other races and the 1st Congressional District barely fell into my paper’s coverage area. (This was before the Internet would make it possible to cover something for the web only, a small mercy given how little I was getting paid to fill half the paper.)
But covering Obama’s run seemed foolhardy no matter what. Even at my greenest, I knew Barack Obama wasn’t going to beat Bobby Rush.
Turns out, I later learned, so did he. (He might have started out in it to win it but halfway through — and definitely by the time I met him — he knew it was a losing race. As he wrote in The Audacity of Hope: “Less than halfway into the campaign, I knew in my bones that I was going to lose. Each morning from that point forward I awoke with a vague sense of dread, realizing that I would have to spend the day smiling and shaking hands and pretending that everything was going according to plan.”)
But I acquiesced to the spokesman’s wishes — I’d need his help getting the photos I was being paid for, so I had to. He led me up to Obama — in a leather jacket and khakis.
We shook hands, smiled pleasantly and the spokesman said he’d leave us to it as he went to fetch some campaign banners from his trunk.
Right away, I got the sense from Obama, this guy doesn’t want to be here. Every other candidate was quick to grin too much, be instantly “on,” or — in the case of a particularly vampiric Republican state senator — to eliminate all comfortable personal space to urgently detail his platform and whisper mean things about the opposition in my ear.
So, free of the spokesperson’s prods, Obama and I smoked. In silence.
Stared at the sky.
And by some unspoken agreement enjoyed a comfortable quiet that somehow acknowledged neither of us wanted to go inside. I like to think we were toeing the border of some new selves. He, maybe saying that he’d take this loss and let it fade away — maybe he was thinking of passages for his book, or just that he’d like to take Michelle to dinner that night. Me, knowing somewhere under my scrappy south side outside that I wanted to be a contender too, just at what I wasn’t sure.
Uncomfortable moments, comfortably shared.
Welcome to the suck.
It’s a phrase used by Marines and I’m not military.
But the suck is everywhere, and we all know it.
Look, I believe in soaking up the joy when you can, of savoring every moment, of devouring the marrow from all those meme-able Pinterest-isms that we prop up as personal philosophies.
But we can’t avoid the suck.
And nor should we.
(I’m not talking about complaining and whining, so much as that silent assurance in your gut that you are experiencing something that just sucks, and the recognition you feel when you look in the eyes of another who’s right there with you.)
It’s when you and your co-workers know the giant layoff axe is coming and you gather in conference rooms, doing little, tossing around gallows-humor jokes where you play the roles of the executioner and the sentenced.
It’s when your car’s wrecked on the way to a concert and you and your friends slump by the side of the road, scraping sneaker-toe patterns in gravel as you wait for a tow.
It’s standing with your sleep-deprived spouse making what-have-we-done eyes at each other while regarding the puzzling new alien bundle you’ve brought home and fallen completely in love with but are sure you will kill or will kill you because there’s so much poop and no one’s sleeping and its head just flops around and everyone is crying.
It’s when someone you love is dying quietly a room away and you take your turns going into the room to say last goodbyes and then return wiping away tears with the back of your hands and take your turn telling a funny story until your collective uncomfortable laughter trails off into silence, as together you clutch the first edge of the grief that’s to come like the corners of a blanket that’s not quite big enough to cover you.
It’s waking up the day after an election to find that the reality show star with the hateful message and the scary ideas has actually won, and that this was no common loss to something you understood, but the start of the punchline to a joke so dark it should have never been told in the first place. It’s the quiet sadness you don’t know how to articulate when you look at the president who’s leaving — the one who, even if he didn’t get it right for everyone all the time, you can’t argue led with class, taking knocks every day and both cool-and-warm rising above them, sticking to his pledge to try try try — and can’t believe his antithesis is replacing them.
Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing that you’re not in the right place, not doing the right thing, that you’re sure to be rejected or to fail or to fall and you don’t know what’s next and you don’t want to say you’re fine to the next person who asks because it’s a goddamn lie. So maybe you just shrug with sad eyes and they shrug back and it’s okay. It sucks, but it’s okay.
Success and happiness can be a beautiful things, a big trophy cup and a shower of champagne at center court, a symphonic piñata of emoji party horns bursting with a rainbow of colors down on you.
But success and achievement are only medals or trinkets we can hold up for a while until the sun sets and they cease to shine.
At a shitty job, you don’t connect with the guy who displays his trophies and prizes all around his cubicle but you do with the dude who’s hoarding the free snacks in his drawer and remembers knowing you’ll be friends because once, at a particularly pointless meeting, you muttered, not meaning to be heard, “if there’s a sniper outside the window, I hope he gets me in the back of the head first.”
Celebratory types walk into a bar and buy everyone a round.
The guy who needs to talk about a shattering heartbreak goes straight to the bartender, who’s witness to more taciturn truths than all of us put together.
We’re so motivated to share our moments in the sun but trust me when I say there are small silences in the dark that mean just as much, if not more.
Welcome to the suck.
And thanks, Obama.