OF COURSE YOU CAN Barack Obama
By Mark Guarino
Elation in the first 48 hours. Both perfect strangers and dearest friends signing emails, ending phone calls, peppering conversations in the street and over cubicles and across El train aisles with that gooey group rejoinder relayed in Grant Park and spread around the world: Yes We Can.
Grant Park, the same acreage of Chicago lakefront property where, 40 years earlier during a similar Democratic bash, city police whacked the stoned and shaggy under the gaze of television eyes. Now a white tent you might see sheltering buffet tables alongside a tone suburban racecourse is positioned halfway across the field from the podium hosting orderly rows of cameras to capture the change in this city: one of its own as president-elect.
The One upended the world, but in Chicago he upstaged a sitting king: Richard M. Daley, son of the original Boss, the Decider Of The Batons in Grant Park all those years ago. When The One announced he would prevail over the nation on that very same grass, the son stepped aside and shrugged:
“Could you see me saying ‘no’ to Senator Obama? Give me a break. I’m not that dumb,” he told reporters days earlier. Of course in Chicago, the bullshit walks when the money talks – The One’s people reportedly paid the mayor $2 million out of pocket for the privilege of the mayor’s ignorance.
Yes he can. Of course you can, Bob Dylan responds, 48 hours and 70 minutes north at the Riverside in Milwaukee, a one-minute stroll from an actual bronzed Fonz. People danced in Grant Park, but where the television cameras did not roll was down Cottage Grove Ave., the storied South Side Boulevard that hosted the marching heels of Martin Luther King, and where, less than an hour after The One retreats from the stage, young blacks dance on the hoods of cars.
Dylan plays Summer Days, a novelty disguised as a Louis Jordan oldie that his band of leathered costumed and faced musicians gun at a speed set for seizures.
This is the mindless party music the tie-died Great Lakers bought their tickets for and they boogie on, unaware Dylan is croaking one-liners under their nose:
Politician got on his jogging shoes
He must be running for office, got no time to lose
He been suckin’ the blood out of the genius of generosity
You been rolling your eyes – you been teasing me
Yes he can. When they were once rivals, The One’s VP was reamed for calling his current running mate “clean, articulate,” but in this new era where a president can shoehorn a trick bag of terror, torture and tax breaks into holy writ without losing 40 winks, clean and articulate is in the least not dirty and dumb. Irony was supposed to be left behind in the rubble of 9-11, but then came Paris Hilton and we forgot.
But not The One. He and his Chicago operatives knew: Amnesia taps Apathy when it’s time to road trip across America, a funeral procession always disguised as a July Fourth parade; like tigers spinning round the tree, the only ending in this eight-year victory lap is the one where everything good melts into saturated cheese.
They’re like babies sittin’ on a woman’s knee
Tweedle-dee Dum and Tweedle-dee Dee
This time Dylan spins his heels from his keyboard and saunters to the front like dandy Cary Grant miscast in a western; facing the audience, his fingers hang off his hip like pistols unhitched from their holsters.
He’s in Milwaukee, Beer Town, except please don’t tell ma: all the god-honest breweries are owned overseas. Here’s where teenagers scream The One’s name from a passing car one hour earlier as concertgoers cross the city river. Forty-eight hours earlier Dylan’s gunslinger act takes place without him in Phoenix when Maverick reclaims his swagger, free at last from having to halve his brain to barker the Big Top starring First Dude, Caribou Barbie, Trig, Track, Average Joe, Joe Sixpack, Joe The Plumber, The Washed-Up Terrorist, Sarah The Barracuda and the Hockey Mom in the $150,000 couture.
Maverick says he blames himself for losing; but behind his back, his fingers point to Hockey Mom. She never wanted it in the first place, just warmer weather and a break from Troopergate, plus all those free duds. Squeezed between Maverick and First Dude, she has the frozen smile of someone who just got the pink slip back to Wasilla.
Tweedle-dee Dee is a lowdown, sorry old man
Tweedle-dee Dum, he’ll stab you where you stand
“I’ve had too much of your company,”
Says, Tweedle-dee Dum to Tweedle-dee Dee
Chicago police more than locals fill the streets on the South Side, where unlike North of Madison, Tuesday’s celebration is obviously an indoor thing. Long past midnight the streets are bare except for cops flanking every gas station waiting for rioters that never show. Just like Baghdad, it’s the oil that gets the best protection.
Why so serious? The Joker asked this summer while standing in the streets of Gotham, really just a disguised Chicago Loop. If he really wanted the answer, the creepy clown would have come down here. The Dark Knight would have gotten lost in this dark night, no matter what time of day, where rows of empty storefronts and rubble-strewn lots, fast food crap, cratered side streets and Jesus Saves ministries offer no reason to either celebrate or riot. Here is the physical manifestation of the Daley Shrug, a terminal condition of policy.
The lights fade and the band plays one song in the dark. A fiddler weaves in and out of music that moves, then hesitates, then again picks up the pace. Dylan is a lonely devil wandering the streets of the Apocalypse – when there’s no one’s left to spook, even Satan shrugs and moves along.
Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
Through this weary world of woe
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
No one on earth would ever know
The only action is at Ashland and 76th, a Maxwell Street walk-up where two in the morning stragglers wait on dogs and fries. Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/Eatin’ hog eyed grease in a hog eyed town. While watching for her friend to pick up food, one woman passes time in her mini-van sipping wine from plastic, honking her horn and shouting The One’s name out her window. But mostly, everyone looks tired, hungry and not happy to get up for work tomorrow that’s really today.
Where are those pundits and radio hosts that predicted the flames and broken glass and chaotic masses who do the same no matter if they’re angry or elated? These gatekeepers of America’s Official Conversation the kind accompanied by book tours and front row stadium seats, are under many-threaded linens, behind gates, across states.
In the backyard of The One, the only outbursts happen at stoplights: smiles between drivers, a pumped fist, a slammed horn.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” said a 47-year-old man waiting on food to bring home to his family. The One’s victory “is not based on him being African-American, because if an African-American was on the Republican ticket, he wouldn’t have won. He was the most qualified – bottom line.”
Even one of South Side’s last remaining soul clubs is closing shop. At Linda’s Place, on 51st St. in Englewood, the owners, a married couple, are shutting the lights after their election party. “It means a lot to have (The One) here,” says the husband – also the bandleader every Monday night over the last 17 years – “I recall when blacks couldn’t vote.” He neglects to say that at age 63, that once included him. But even so, there’s no time for that, it’s late, it’s time to go home.
Shrug. The reality of Chicago is it is a low-key city. Here is a place where the weathermen – the guys suggesting you remember an umbrella tomorrow, not the revolutionaries – are major celebrities. Everyone pals around with terrorists here. The mayor shrugs at the headlines screaming corruption and as long as he keeps planting flowers downtown, everyone looks away too.
Eggheads and street kids file home from the train near The One’s home. The longest line is of cars backed up at McDonald’s. You try to drive by his home, but the police stop you – there’s a six-block perimeter and at the lip of each alley and intersection, is a bored cop leaning against a barricade.
Neighbors now must show IDs to bring groceries home or take their kid to school. It won’t end unless The One moves to the suburbs or a ranch in Texas. This is the reality of electing a world leader from Chicago, where the gated communities are far in the sticks, a place where zoning laws are designed to somehow make cornfields regal.
Shrug. So far, ID checks are a burden Hyde Park accepts. This side of town doesn’t suffer from the national amnesia. Earlier that night you spent time in Chatham, 98% black according to the 2000 census. When Maverick wins the Southern states and Texas, conversation steers to racism, not the abstract kind reserved for talk shows. People talk about their first time being called nigger, with the nonchalance of how others talk about their first concert.
A day spa owner from Flossmoor says she was ten when two boys on their front steps called her nigger when she took a walk through Bridgeport, Daley’s neighborhood. Her friend the real estate assessor recalls a run-in with unmasked members of the Klu Klux Klan while visiting relatives in Missouri. Coming from adults younger than The One, who’s 47, nigger is still not “the N word,” which is the first lesson in teaching that the colors of the Two Americas are not red and blue.
“People say about this election – does that mean we’re done [with racism]?'” says their host. “It’s better. You still have subtle forms of racism in the workplace, but this is better. There’s hope.”
Yes we can. Dylan’s former teenage paramour Mavis Staples lives nearby. The very day The One is elected she releases Hope At the Hideout, a live CD recorded at the Chicago music room, a collection of Civil Rights-era empowerment classics she made famous with her family’s gospel group The Staples Singers.
In his twiggy days festooned with hair, Dylan tagged behind the Staples when the group brought the music from Chicago churches and sang alongside King in Alabama and on the great mall in Wash. D.C. She is still singing those songs – at the Hideout last June it included Eyes on the Prize and For What It’s Worth, titles alone that sound like snippets of conversation you’ve been overhearing all night.
Tuesday is the night when Devil in a Woodpile, a country blues trio, is in residence, and this night is no different. Outside the Hideout, a wall-sized banner of The One is draped over the building and inside is a dance party that goes on long after closing time thanks to the free drinks; it’s okay, the Alderman’s there and he’s imbibing too.
Except before you arrive to get your share, you’re on South Chicago Ave., a diagonal street that happens to cross the street named for Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who made the unfortunate mistake of whistling at a white woman in 1941 and ended up with his eyes gouged out, a bullet through his head and his body dressed in barbed wire and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. An anchor at the local NBC affiliate brings up Till before you head out the door and minutes later you’re crossing his street in the neighborhood he grew up.
At the stoplight the man in the car next to you waves. This is the routine of the night and you know what to do. Except this time he points to the curb and you steer behind. He needs to talk and on the side of the road, in the night chill of 3 a.m., conversation starts with The One but doesn’t stay there long.
Crippled all his life from exposure to Agent Orange when he served as a marine in Vietnam, the man, 65, tells you his life since his service has been a struggle to pay medical bills, keep a family, satisfy his woman.
“I ain’t got nuthin’,” he says.
You smell proof on his breath. He laughs, he gets angry, he trembles – after 40-plus years he’s still seeking strangers to talk this out.
Dylan stands before the audience, his legs in constant motion. Unlike the hard and fast blues of most of the night, this music gently rolls. A white, wide-brimmed hat shelters the harmonica he raises to his lips to play a solo of just one repeating note that sounds like a winded heartbeat of a long, troubled life.
Well, they burned my barn, they stole my horse
I can’t save a dime
I got to be careful, I don’t want to be forced
Into a life of continual crime
I can see for myself that the sun is sinking
How I wish you were here to see
Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking
That you have forgotten me?
“They poisoned me,” your new friend tells you and then starts crying.
He excuses himself to take a curbside leak. A police wagon hits the brakes slightly and when you tell them everything’s fine, they drive away.
Yes we can. You want him to hear those waves of jubilant voices from all the way downtown, but by now, the city’s silent; everyone’s settled, they’re asleep.