Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election Night, Cargo Bar- 2008

by Nomad

It was exactly four years ago. Another election night with all of the apprehension and lip-biting that goes with the political event. Having watched the election for those several months that I was back in the US, I kept asking myself whether it was actually possible that Old man McCain and his cartoon sidekick, Sarah Palin might actually win. No, definitely not. Well, maybe. What if..

I had been living in Staten Island- the least appreciated borough of New York City- for a few months as I sorted out some family business. Although Staten Island seemed the complete antithesis of New York City in so many ways, the shimmering lights of the towers of Manhattan were in clear view across the harbor. On that night I chose to be a recluse and keep my distance. 
I had my reasons, though, looking back, they do seem pretty silly. 

As the election results filtered in from various states, I sat at home, in front of my laptop checking all the usual sites for information and then confirmation. I had, I admit, hesitated a little about going out. The neighborhood was primarily minority and poor. In the rush of an unexpected Obama loss, I thought that I might be conceivably be mistaken for a symbol of white elitism. It seems silly now but at that time, I thought: why take any chances? It probably had a lot to do with my Midwest upbringing than any real threat.

Slowly the CNN projections became more and more indisputable. And then, it was definite. Hope had won out. America, it seemed, now had its first black president.

Eventually, by around 11, after the results confirmed an irretrievable Barack Obama victory,  I conquered by white man fears and decided to go out to one of my favorite local hangouts, Cargo Bar on Bay Street. 

Cargo had its pretentions of hipness (a mildly offensive set of paintings a local artist, indy-label music and micro-brewed beers). The predictable crew of men with braids and piercings. Girls with one side of their heads shaved or blue hair, hipster retro glasses, and clunky boots. That sort of thing. (Never mind that it turned out to be a lot of cosmetic improvisation and posturing it was still fun/interesting to look at.)

When I finally arrived there I was surprised. It was much more crowded than I had expected. The owners had wisely anticipated that whatever the final result of the election, both winners and losers would want to drink. For that reason, they had installed a large screen projection which would flip back and forth from the McCain to Obama headquarters. There wasn’t any celebrating, as far as I could see, perhaps the Cargo clientele thought it would have been too uncool. Perhaps, as it often is when "big things" are afoot, people weren’t exactly sure how to react. 

I sat at the bar at the far end, back against the wall, taking in the moment. It was hard not to see that a bit of history playing out. I for one was quite pleased with the outcome. Given the choices, I was relieved that the American voter had made the best decision. I also felt a certain sense of giddiness about the possibility that the long and dismal conservative era had finally come to an end. 
McCain’s concession speech was pretty predictable. Boilerplate politics. 
Thanking everybody, all the people that had believed the things he had said. Graciously he told the crowd:
The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama-- 
At that point, the crowd interrupted the Senator with their booing at Obama's name. congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.
McCain noted how significant the election was for African-Americans:
A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit -- to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States.

I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences, and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.
His speech was interrupted several more times. Near the final statements, the  crowd mindlessly began to chant “USA! USA! USA!” What a peculiar reaction. 

A little later, the newly-elected president came out onto a different stage in Chicago with his wife and daughter. His supporters held up cameras to capture that moment. Then his family left and Obama began:
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer...

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.
I promise you, we as a people will get there.
There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as president. And we know the government can't solve every problem.
But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it's been done in America for 221 years -- block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.
In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. Let's resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.
That's the true genius of America: that America can change. Our union can be perfected. What we've already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
For a moment the bar went unusually quiet. Then somebody began talking loud and somebody else shushed him. I heard him reply, “What? I didn’t vote for the guy!”

By the time, Obama made his own acceptance speech, the short man standing next to me (I don't think I ever caught his name) was fast becoming extremely pickled. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him order shot after shot, draining the alcohol as quickly as any bathtub. After that, he seemed in free-fall, drinking down toxic combinations of whatever was put in front of him.

Because I was, like him, white and middle-aged (wince), he must have assumed I would automatically share his particular prejudices. I was a kindred spirit, as far as he was concerned by virtue of the pale color of my skin. Under his breath, he muttered increasingly racists remarks about Obama. As the alcohol levels soared his whispers became more like the stage variety. I grew concerned that, because I was sitting next to him, people might mistakenly think he and I were together.

As the president-elect joked about the promised puppy for his daughters, my neighbor sneered and turned to me and said, “Yeah, a black lab?” He must have thought the remark was extraordinarily witty since he repeated it loudly several times.

The last I saw of him he had gone outside (to pee apparently) and had returned with his trousers both unzipped and unfastened, held on only by his belt. Altogether it was a sad image. Was this a symbol of something? Standing alone, he stared blankly at his shoes, tottering dangerously.

Minutes later he was gone. A black guy sat down next to me and asked “Is that guy your friend?”
“Uh, no. Why?”
“He’s passed out outside. In the back.”
I really didn’t know what to say. The best I could manage was “That’s embarrassing.”
After a few minutes, the black guy went out and was gone for about ten minutes. When he returned, I learned that he had walked the guy back to his home. It was, I remember thinking, probably a lot more than he deserved. 

Not long after that, the crowd began to thin. It was, after all, Tuesday and the news was suddenly old. I looked at my third beer and thought about heading home. But then a young slightly disheveled white woman saddled up next to me and said,”Hi, there. What’s your name?”
I was caught off-guard. Her approach was very un-New Yorker. 

It was clear she was sizing me in some way. Naturally, as a marginally attractive person, I was suspicious. As she sauntered away, I quickly learned that my apprehensions were not unfounded. The woman met up with another woman and both sat down at a table with a pair of beefy black men who gave the impression of being operators, or arrangers.  The other patrons of the bar were also noticing without appearing to notice.

The women were directed to make one more pass around the bar in a search for customers but to no avail. Then they all magically disappeared. The short event left me feeling a bit depressed. On this night, one that should have been one of the proudest moments in black American history, these individuals (and I want to stress that word) choose this night to pimp. From the eyes of even the mildest bigot, it would certainly have reinforced their stereotypes.

The theme of Obama’s election was all about change and empowering people to make their own changes. Yet, despite this victory, I wasn’t sure if , white or black, progressive or conservative, women or men, any of them were prepared to make any personal re-adjustments. They all seemed to think that change was something that began in Washington.  Something maybe that Obama was going to give them.

And as I finished off the last of my beer that night in Cargo four years ago, I recall asking myself whether America, in spite of being a leader among nations, was really and truly ready for a black president or whether Obama’s election would open up something dark and ugly that had been safely caged inside the heart of America.