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I live in Chicago, for those of you who did not know, and Tuesday night the city exploded. Cheers rose up as thousands upon thousands celebrated the state’s favorite son and his victory.
“Were you in Grant Park?” an enthusiastic friend e-mailed me this morning.
I would love to say I was in thick of the crowd, but I was not. I was working — proctoring an exam in my evening class. School was in session. Students were in class at 8:30 PM and I passed classrooms with students in various states of attention. Some slumped down so far that their hats nearly touched their desks. Others sitting in front, upright, attentive. And the professors talked on. Except for one professor who was projecting election results on a screen at the front of the classroom, I would not have know history was being made.
I remember a story someone once told me about what they were doing the day man first landed on the moon. “I was watching it on TV,” he said. “While I finished typing my dissertation.” And, I have to admit, it was like that for me. A black man became president and I was proctoring an exam. But, he was not becoming president in that single moment on Tuesday night. He was becoming president in all the moments before when we did not know him, when he lived in Hyde Park just blocks from where I used to live ten years ago. He was becoming president when he ate breakfast at the Valois on 53rd street that has the great sign advertising its cafeteria-style dining: SEE YOUR FOOD. He was becoming President when he was still teaching law at the University of Chicago, proctoring exams like the one I proctored on Tuesday night. He was becoming President when he wasn’t famous, when he walked the streets in Chicago’s bitter winters and brutal summers.
Chicago is an amazing place. For me, it is no coincidence that he came here after college. Chicago is large enough for someone to grow into himself. Brian and I know this when it comes to being musicians. We have been playing here for three years already and in this vast city with its numerous art scenes and music communities, we can grow in relative obscurity and yet hone skills. And the audiences here are still generous — people still open to listening even in the worst venues. In the dirtiest, the roughest places we have found the odd supporter who raises his head from a glass of beer and nods, “Hey man, that was pretty good.” Then turns back to the TV screen to watch the game. Chicago is an incubator. If you’re willing to grow here, this a place to put down roots and grow leaves.
And then Chicago has that cranky side. That side that says: “Oh yeah? Whachugot?”
I was reminded of this in Reckless Records on Broadway when I walked in and passed a stack of newspapers. The Reader, the free weekly alternative paper, had a color drawing of Obama on the cover with a headline that read:
Don’t Screw This Up.