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by Kyle Sanders
There he was: the Leader of the Free World, right before my very eyes, the size of a Tic-Tac. I, along with tens of thousands of other fortunate folks, was sharing a space inside McCormick Place with President Barack Obama, and at this particular point of view, I could squash him between by index finger and thumb. While I had the convenience of a projection screen easily within view of my peripheral, there was something more meaningful behind straining my neck and standing on my tip toes just to catch a glimpse of this man who I had supported these last eight years as it would be perhaps the only time I would have the chance to see him in person.
It was a bittersweet night of course, but not as bitter as the negative degree temperatures I endured in the wee hours of Saturday morning to stand in line for a free ticket. After what seemed to be just a four hour power nap, I awoke at 4:30 AM with little effort in cleanliness and was picked up by a friend at 5 AM. After a short detour of picking up a few other friends, we rode off to Lakeshore Drive in a caravan of hope--hoping to find a parking space, hoping to beat an onslaught of other Obama fans, and hoping to survive a most miserably freezing forecast (if anything, we were hoping the weather would deter a few hundred people from even attempting to show up!).
At 5:45, we were lucky enough to find a parking space on the street, walk our shivering selves into the coziness of McCormick Place's warmish hallways and line up behind what appeared to be a line of 1,000+ eager hopefuls. Props to the team who had to organize the line formations, as the expansiveness of McCormick Place's perimeters had everyone up against the venue's extended walls, forming a pulsing blueprint made up of human beings. My group felt overwhelmed by the massive crowd that already lay ahead of us, but it was nothing compared to the ever growing line behind us!
It was clear that not everyone who showed up was going home happy-handed, and it caused a bit of concern. While it was mentioned that no one could line up before 6 AM, it was clear that rule had been broken. So by the time the tickets started being handed out at 8 AM, the reality of even receiving one became intensified. As we began to move forward, the line was being sectioned off as volunteer workers divided us out about twenty people at a time, crossing a bridge from one building to the next.
Having waited indoors behind closed walls for the past few hours, seeing the endless line stretched out into the cold streets was mind blowing (so glad I wasn't in that line!). Finally, our group was escorted across the bridge and on into phase two, where the line had expanded to TWICE its size from earlier in the day. It was at this time when I had found out that the remaining parties in the other building had been told to go home, that there were no more tickets available. It was now a down-to-the-wire situation that fate would have to decide for us. We remained positive that we would get a ticket, but I quietly prepared myself for disappointment just in case.
When we finally turned a corner, the end was nigh! We were welcomed by screams and cheers, as the line had finally whittled down to velvet ropes leading us to an awaiting conference room ready to hand us our golden tickets. Confidence began to ease itself back into my already rattled nerves, and it was finally confirmed that this early morning trek was finally going to pay off. As the doors opened, Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" was blaring it's joyous melody, reminding us to stay "to the left, to the left" as we approached the ticket booths.
I stepped up, and there it was: a shiny blue ticket--and it was all mine. To quote a scene from Full Metal Jacket: there were a lot of others like it, but this ticket was mine. I felt like Charlie Bucket at that moment, ready to race home to mom and Grandpa Joe to sing along to "I got a golden ticket!" It was finally going to happen. I would be a part of history, to send off President Obama before his term finally ended.
But of course, that was just the warm-up round. Like any season of American Idol, I had made it to Hollywood, but was still far off from stardom. Since these tickets were general admission, there was still the quest of arriving at a decent hour to snag a decent seat. Doors weren't opening until 5 PM, with the farewell address going on at 8 PM. After garnering a ticket that many had previously attempted, I would now have to compete with a select few (and by few, I mean a few thousand) to get a good view of Obama. I rushed to the train at 3 PM to make my way to the Mecca of political history. According to a friend I met up with at McCormick Place, some people had waited since 5 AM to get inside. Also: a ticket was not a guarantee for admission. Hello nerves, nice to see you again.
I managed to grab a hot dog from a vendor inside the center before staking out a space in line, and thank god for that, because once I was in the mosh pit of Obama-rama, there would be no escaping for snacks or bathroom breaks. It was a solid two hours before the gates opened, and an additional two hours to inch closer to the awaiting metal detectors at the entry point. After all the dissections of my coat and body scans, I was finally introduced to a bright trio of red, white and blue lights flashed over a bridge ceiling, welcoming us weary pilgrims to the land of Barack. Once I had crossed over, only one thought came to mind: I can't wait to sit down.
Unfortunately for me though, the venue of Obama's farewell address included no additional seats. While the VIP section made up of the Bill Nye's and Michael Moore's of the pop cultural world had chairs to comfortably rest in, I had to continue standing surrounded by hundreds of nobodies anxious for the night's event. With just an hour before Obama's speech, thankfully I didn't have to wait long for the festivities to begin. Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder came out to sing a few songs with the Chicago Children's Choir, including a cover of Patti Smith's "People Have the Power." It was a low-key, acoustic set, but it was inspiring and distracting enough to ignore the stiffness of my lower back to push through until the event was over. And after a stirring rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by BJ the Chicago Kid, the end was just beginning.
Obama barely stepped a foot on to the stage before the crowd erupted in boisterous cheers. The anticipation I had felt was clearly equal to the feelings and emotions belonging to the crowd. With such a warm welcome, it was a little disappointing that the acoustics and audio levels of Obama's microphone were not top notch, as anytime the man spoke a positive or inspiring phrase, the next few words out of his mouth were muted due to the high energy of the crowd's applause.
And what about that speech? Within a brisk hour, Obama managed to remind us of every single highlight of his presidency, from the killing of Osama bin Laden to marriage equality. He reviewed everything that we had accomplished, as well as everything that we must continue to work on as a nation. Three particular threats he mentioned included rising economic inequality, the increase of people retreating to their own particular ideals of experience and opinion, and the ever-growing racial tensions in our country. These were definitely three of our nation's key weaknesses that bubbled into last year's presidential election, and Obama put them into peaceful perspective. Regarding the results of that heated election, Obama urged the crowd and to those who were watching elsewhere to stay involved and remain encouraged to make a change in what they believe in, reminding us all of his rallying statement during his 2008 presidential campaign: Yes We Can. "Yes we did. And yes we can."
Before concluding, he thanked Michelle and his two daughters as well as Vice President Joe Biden, in what was perhaps the emotional highlight of the night (I say this, because everyone around me seemed to be grabbing for the tissues and passing them around by this point). It's hard to believe that for almost a decade, we not only watched a man make history and prove his merit as president, but we also watched a loving, supportive family move into the White House--and now we had to watch them move out.
As the Obama and Biden families took to the stage waving their goodbyes, it was time to face the music of sifting through the crowd to get back home. I reflected on the many hours I had put forth in this venture--all for a sixty minute speech. It almost doesn't seem like a worthwhile endeavor, but considering the unknowing of the future, considering all the progress we have accomplished as a nation, and considering the history that was made all of eight years ago, this was a moment to be experienced and to be a part of.
President Obama was the first Democratic president I had voted for who won the election (my first was John Kerry, but unfortunately that didn't work out so well). He led this nation throughout the entirety of my twenties, as I was finishing up my undergraduate degree and planning/struggling through my years of grad school. All of those hours spent waiting in lines I was able to scan the varied faces of the crowd--all the different genders and races and ages and orientations--knowing they were there for the exact same reason I was: to bid farewell to a man who meant something to them, in whatever version of inspiration and change that occurred because of him.
The Obama years mean something to everyone, in good ways or bad, but regardless of political affiliation, Barack Obama will always symbolize hope in this nation. And if I'm going to be sacrificing sleep and risking cold temperatures just to hear a person speak, I can think of no one else to do this for except for him.
[Click here for a Chicago Tribune video featuring folks who attended the event, including this article's author.]
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