My cousin Joel (from Chicago) works with the secret service and he's been assigned to Barack Obama since his candidacy was announced in spring of last year. I've been waiting for a chance to come to an Obama event in my area so that I could, of course, see Joel. That's why most people go to Obama's events, right? The difficulty has been that Obama doesn't campaign around here.
Then Joel emailed me last week that they were coming to the area, not for a free, everyone welcome town hall thing or a rally, but for some exclusive, private, big money ticketed event. He said he'd do what he could to try to get me in, but by sunday morning when I talked to Joel (and he and Obama and crew were still in a neighboring state,) the difficult string-pulling arrangements for me were still up in the air. Then in the early afternoon I got the word--they're about to hop on a quick flight to get here and I'm in...so change clothes and come to the city, basically, right now.
Now prior to Joel me telling about this event I heard nothing of Obama coming to the area, but perhaps I was the only one. When I arrived at the ultra schmancy hotel there were blocks and blocks of Obama supporters waiting all around, but primarily across the street from the main entrance. The news trucks were already there and police were everywhere too. Everyone had their signs out and cameras out and were waiting for I wondered how many hours that day. Before going in I decided to take a picture of a little bit of the amassing spectacle. The people behind the barricades stretched for more than a block in either direction.
Inside I went to the entrance area for the event where a dozen or so campaign volunteers each had a printed list of the invited guests and after checking with one or two, I wasn't on their lists. I informed them that I was a late addition and asked if someone have a very recently revised list, and no one was exactly sure what to make of that question.
So I decided to sit inside a cafe in the back of the giant hotel building with huge windows facing the street behind the hotel, and wait for Joel to return my call. There were much smarter (and therefore not as many) people congregating on these back streets too, because that side of the hotel had the private hotel garage entrance where I parked and which was Obama's most likely entrance point. I took a few shots from inside the cafe--another clue that this was to be the path in--many more police on this side.
Then the motorcade turned the corner and arrived--a dozen police motorcycles leading, then one blacked-out SUV after another, maybe 7 or 8 total, then some "staff" marked minivans, then a few police cars at the rear. It was really something. Not five minutes later Joel called me and met me inside the cafe. I hadn't seen him in five years but he didn't look a bit different, except that someone took my young goofy cousin and traded his football uniform for an ominous-looking dark pinstriped suit, complete with characteristic earpiece and funny microphone thing in the right sleeve. It's a strange feeling hugging someone wearing a Kevlar vest and a couple of guns, and not a good feeling to think about why he has to wear that stuff.
We walked around together for about a half hour and he introduced me to people on the staff and some of the other agents.
"I worry about you sometimes, his life isn't worth more than yours, you know," I told him.
"If you think I'm a big guy you should see some of the other guys I work with. And we're just the last line of defense...there is so much more that's there, that goes on...I can't even tell you. I mean, I literally CAN'T even tell you. Believe me it's incredible. I'll be fine." Then Joel made sure my admission to the main event was all set, and then he was off.
I stood in the long but organized line to go through the metal detectors and into the ballroom and people chit-chatted with me while we waited. Everyone was so smiley and friendly, but I felt like the undercover Narc in the middle of a high school. As if the other guests, the richy-rich liberal types who all paid tens of thousands of dollars to get admission to this thing really took the time to notice, my cover would be blown and I'd be thrown out at the least, and maybe even ceremoniously tarred and feathered or drawn and quartered first.
Still in line, my mind wandered:
What if someone asks me who I'm voting for? (Actually, I haven't decided that yet but I have decided that I'm not voting for Obama.) But no, I thought, that's stupid, inside an Obama event, why would anyone ask anyone who they're voting for? What's it gonna be like in there? Will they have tables set up like at professional sports events, trying to sign people up for a Planned Parenthood edition Visa card with the promise of a free t-shirt or can cooler? Will someone try to sell me some carbon offsets?
Inside the venue I had some free (only to me, ha ha!) beer and appetizers and walked around. The crowd smelled rich. There were about 1000 of us, I heard someone say. I saw many familiar faces but I couldn't place why there were familiar. I recognized the owner of the Mens Warehouse from his years of TV commercials. Lots of people like that. Not exactly famous, not exactly not famous.
Someone was passing out campaign buttons and I declined. That got me a few puzzled, semi-disgusted looks. I thought of Kramer when he did the AIDS walk but wouldn't wear the AIDS red ribbon.
A woman approached me and started talking after I settled on a place to stand for the duration. She was also there alone, an attorney, a mom. I mentioned that I was there as the guest of my cousin on the staff, which I could tell she wasn't entirely believing, but just then I saw Joel and waved and he saw me and came over and gave me another big hug, perfectly timed. "If you wait in this area afterwards I'll come see you again before we're outta here," he said.
"Wow!" she said, smiling, but then a minute later, "Oh, wait......so that means.....you didn't PAY?"
"Ah.....no," I admitted while simultaneously sizing her up and figuring if necessary, I could take her.
"But you ARE a supporter.....riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight?" she probed, with her eyebrows raising ever higher on her forehead as she approached the end of her sentence.
"Ahhhhhh...........no," I answered, realizing that I should have not talked myself out of coming up with a better answer to this question.
"Well, then, what ARE you?"
"I'm an undecided voter and I'm interested," I offered. And with that her eyebrows resumed their normal position on her face. She asked me why in the world I wouldn't vote for Obama and I offered two or three points to which she said, "Yeah, those are good points, I can see that." And she still stood next to me and we chatted about our kids off and on through the evening.
Jackson Browne and Graham Nash, two musicians who at this point I suppose are about as famous and about as not famous as many of the people in the crowd, came out and sang for a while. Good GOD, make it stop. That was that some truly awful racket, but then things got worse. Nanci Pelosi came out and made a little speech as part of her introduction of Obama. I changed my mind--bring Browne and Nash back!
Then the big man came back out, and Obama was there too. There's Joel, to the left of the stage by the american flag.
Obama didn't say anything new or even anything specific. He didn't have a prepared speech, it was just off the cuff-type talking. There were plenty of emotional generalities like "educate our children for the 21st century" "provide every american with a college education" "energy independence" "bring back the jobs" "heal the sick" "take care of our seniors" "heal the planet" and on and on, and of course everything was peppered with the "hope" and "change" buzz words.
I was interested in what his plan was for any much less all of these things but those details weren't part of the evening's agenda. Lots of applause was. I felt the distinct sensation of my federal and state withholdings rising. I thought back to an article I had just been reading in the New York Times while I was waiting in that cafe for Joel. Someone should give Obama a copy of it. This line from the article stuck out, "It’s fine to tell people about hope and change, but you have to have plenty of concrete, pragmatic ideas that bring hope and change to life."
Obama raised $7.8 million in three hours there, I read the next day. I really enjoyed the evening and the opportunity to see and listen to Obama and I especially enjoyed seeing Joel. I'm thankful to him for his time and effort to make it possible for me to attend. Shortly after Obama's speech the entourage packed up and headed to New Mexico. I hope Joel is getting enough rest and isn't too stressed with this work this schedule, though to me it seems impossible not to be. He's looking forward to November and the vacation he'll get after the election which should include another visit out here. And shortly after that, if the election goes the way I'm predicting, he'll be moving to Washington for presidential duty. Though he says I don't need to worry about him, I know I still will.