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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 01:37 pm

Smiling faces of diversity at Obama’s victory rally

“I’ve never seen so many people happy to be squished together.”

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As I write this, I have been up all night. My feet are throbbing, my legs feel like they're made of old recycled tire rubber and my back has seized up so stiff that it hurts to stretch. I just made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — for breakfast. And I am the luckiest person I know.

I spent last night in Chicago at Grant Park at the Barack Obama rally. A friend scored one of the 70,000 tickets for a spot inside Hutchinson Field, and even though he could have traded the accompanying guest pass for as much as $1,000 cash (or any number of tempting would-be companions on Craigslist offering everything from good karma to massages to juggling lessons), he took me. We missed work, we missed sleep, we paid absurd prices for parking and bottled water, and we never got to actually see Obama. But hey — we feel like we experienced history.

I know, I know: Us and 200,000 other souls. But what a remarkably diverse congregation we were: Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, and plenty of people who looked like they have to always check the box "other;" white-haired elders, infants in baby slings, boomers and Gen X, Y and Z-ers; gay, straight, jocks, geeks, hippies, and yuppies, plus a little of everything in between.

If there was a common thread other than support for Obama, it was jovial decency. I've never seen so many people happy to be squished together. Nobody complained about standing in line; we passed the time swapping info about the early returns. Nobody complained about the four security checkpoints; we all wanted Obama to be safe. Even the law enforcement officers were cheerful, purposely overlooking allegedly contraband items like bottled water, potato chips and Swedish fish.

I met plenty of people you might consider obvious Obama-ites — middle-aged minorities like the elementary school counselor who had been working at the polling place inside her school just a few hours earlier when her alderman stopped by to vote and ended up giving her his rally ticket. "My principal and I were the only ones there, and the principal had to stay until the building closed. So I got the ticket!" the counselor said.

I met a young blond man sporting a starched button-down shirt embroidered with the Ralph Lauren polo logo. While we were waiting to go through security checkpoint number four, his chatter about swing states was spiced with an accent. "I'm from Hungary," he said. "This was my first time to vote."

Red-headed Mary Kate Cahill might not have been the most enthusiastic spectator, but she had to be close. Like anyone else shorter than seven feet tall, she couldn't see the stage from her vantage point somewhere around the third base line in the baseball diamond carved into the field. So Mary Kate pogo-ed like she was practicing her jump shot — over and over and over again. Her New Balance trainers got saturated with clay; her wind pants had dust halfway up to her knees. But it was totally worth it to Mary Kate.

"I could see his head!" she said. "I could see him and [Joe] Biden and I was just like wow, he's actually there!"

In between leaps, she kept hugging her mom, her dad, and her aunt. Just 13, she had spent the past two weekends knocking on doors in Indiana and Ohio. Her sweatshirt was festooned with campaign buttons, including one that said "canvasser."

"We are big Democrats, and we love Obama," she said. "This is just amazing. I mean, it's like an African-American president of the United States of America! This guy is young and new and I just think this is gonna be a really great time. I just think it's gonna be great."

When I asked Mary Kate how she would've felt if John McCain had won, she chided the rally guests who had sung a stanza of "Hey Hey Goodbye" while the Republican contender's concession speech played on the Jumbotron.

"I didn't like when they were singing 'Na Na Na.' I'm not into that. I mean, McCain's a classy guy. He called [Obama] and didn't make him wait. I would've been obviously disappointed, but I wouldn't have booed McCain," she said. "The American people have the right to choose who they want."

When the rally ended, 200,000 people had to be funneled out of the park. Amazingly, the egress was just as orderly and cordial as the ingress. Maybe that's because alcohol was banned in the park, and even in the nearby hotel where Illinois Times food writer Julianne Glatz booked a room overlooking the festivities. But it couldn't have hurt that all those 200,000 people were both utterly exhausted and deliriously happy.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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