Saturday, September 06, 2008

Obamarama (August 28, 2008)

The day has looked dubious from the confines of my office this morning: a gray, LA-like haze hangs in the air. But Mick, who has been out on his bike, reports that it’s warm, so I needn’t worry. Still, we’re going to be outside from about 1 p.m. until heaven-knows-when tonight, so I throw a raincoat and a warmer shirt into a backpack before heading out the door. The pack also contains my little digital camera, binoculars, a couple of New Yorkers (we’re going to be waiting a while is the way I see it), a wallet, sunscreen, and a few other odds and ends. (I have never been accused of traveling lightly.) As our time to leave home approaches, I’m a bit frenzied. As these things always go, work has gone crazy, and my plans to get out by noon are screwed. Not at all what I need, especially when we’re going to the event of the year, if not the decade….maybe even the century.

You see, we’re on our way to the Democratic National Convention, to watch and listen as Barack Obama accepts the nomination. This is going to be cool.

I finally duck out of a meeting that is dragging on ad infinitum, and at 1 p.m. prompt, we’re out the door. Mick had said that we needed to be at the gates of Invesco Field at Mile High (“Mile Hi”) by 1 p.m., but I just couldn’t get away any earlier. Besides, if Obama is not set to speak until 7 or 8 tonight, what’s the hurry?

The event organizers have been encouraging attendees to arrive by bicycle, and that suits Mick just fine. I’m okay with the idea of riding over to the event, but am a little nervous about the trip home. It will be dark, and I’m worried about the traffic. But since getting there is going to be the easy part, I put my fears aside, and Mick and I take off on the Cherry Creek bike path. It’s an easy 3 mile ride to Mile Hi from here, all bike path, no traffic at all, so I figure that I will worry about the return trip home later.

It’s odd to be out on my bike in the middle of the day during the work week, and it’s liberating. The 2 mile ride north from my home to Confluence Park is easy, but as soon as we make the turn to head south for the final mile to Mile Hi, we encounter a barrier just going up. “Sorry,” the guy says, when we question what he’s doing. “It’s just too crowded down there already. You’ll have to go around.”

We look at each other. What the heck? It’s now only about 1:10, and the bike path going to Mile Hi is closed already? And where do we “go around”? We need to cross both the Platte River as well as I-25. The city worker has no advice for us, and we spend a frustrating few minutes getting turned around on the local roads. Finally we end up getting across I-25 on a backstreet, and we wind our way through traffic that has me riding white-knuckled until we reach the back parking lots of Mile Hi. Thankfully, when we get closer to the stadium, the roads are barricaded, but the guards allow us to ride through.

All of the on-line information and event planning emails have instructed us to park our bikes at a place called Rube Park, where they will have bike security set up. But try as I might before leaving home, I’ve never been able to figure out exactly where this park is located. I’m fretting over finding the park when Mick says, it looks like we can leave our bikes here. We’ve just happened upon a bus stop, and there are already a number of bikes chained to a chain link fence here. Problem solved. (We never do figure out where the official bike parking is.) In a short time, we’ve locked up our bikes, and we’re joining the tide moving towards the security tents.

The haze in the sky is gone, and it’s now warm and sunny. The atmosphere is carnival-like, with people arriving from all directions, and hawkers selling Obama t-shirts and Obama hand towels and Obama bumper stickers and Obama buttons. We see just one protester holding “God hates Obama” signs, and a few other preachers, who seem to not have a direct connection to the goings-on. There are a few folks giving out stuff: granola bars and Obama “10 Points” buttons and, thankfully, bottled water. The list of items that we are not allowed to bring in to Mile Hi included bottled water, but the folks handing out the water tell us that we can take the water in with us, so Mick and I each grab two bottles. It’s getting outright hot, and cold water seems perfect.

The line snakes around a long ways, but keeps moving, and as we’re downing our first water bottles, we approach the security tents. An event worker tells us that we can’t take the water in with us. What the heck? This seems like organized chaos. We reluctantly surrender our second water bottles. The tradeoff is that we’re moving, and from here it’s only a few minutes going through the metal detectors in the tents before we emerge on the other side, inside the stadium. Sudden freedom. That wasn’t so bad.

We’ve entered the stadium from the west, and our seats are on the east side, so we have some walking to do. It feels nice to be inside the shade of the concourse. As always seems to happen when I’m with Mick, it’s only minutes before somebody recognizes him. We join the friends, and walk together around to our section – Section 124 – and part ways. Mick grabs a burger, and we head back out into the sunshine to find our seats.

When we emerge inside the stadium, we realize that the seating is assigned only by section, and from there it’s open seating. This can’t be too bad – we’re nearly on the 50 yard line of the field. We walk up a few stairs and scope it out – although there are lots of people here, it will be a long time before it starts to fill up. We choose a couple of seats on the aisle, and turn around to take in the view.

We both stop short. We look at each other, then back to the stadium floor. It hits us at the same time: these seats are about as bad as they come. We’re staring directly at the back of the stage that has been built on the stadium floor.

Oh boy.

Mick eats his burger as we digest this information. There’s really nothing to be done about it, but it’s still a bit surreal. To be at the event of the century, and to have no view of the front side of the stage itself.

Oh well.

It doesn’t take long before we’re both ready for a break from the sun. Given that there are really no “good” seats in this section – actually, on this entire side of the field – we figure that our seats won’t matter a whit. We head back into the shade of the concourse.

For now, this is where the action is, anyway. There are tons of booths selling official Obama gear: t-shirts, bumper stickers, hats, car magnets, posters, buttons, typical campaign stuff. There are all of the typical stadium food vendors (minus the beer stands). Mostly, there are the people.

Mick and I grab some more food (greasy pizza slices and too-sweet fresh-squeezed lemonade this time), and find a spot on the stadium walls to park ourselves for a while. The breeze is cool, the concrete warm, and the shade heavenly. We pull out our New Yorkers, and split our time between eating, reading, and people-watching.

From our vantage point, we can see out to Colfax Avenue, where there is a steady stream of people making the pilgrimage from downtown. (We start thinking that maybe Colfax will be the best route for our trip home.) Inside, it’s also a steady stream of people. There are people of every kind you can imagine. Many of the people, like us, are dressed in comfortable clothes – shorts and t-shirts. More than I can believe are dressed up. It’s hot, and there are men wearing suits, and women wearing dresses and spike heels. It seems that half of the people are talking on cell phones as they go by. There are people with babies and a few young kids, but mostly adults – but adults of all ages, and the group spans the socio-economic spectrum. There are many more African-Americans here than I’ve seen gathered in one place in some time, but I guess that’s not a surprise. One thing that we all have in common is that we are all – very proudly, for most of us – wearing our large holographic credentials around our neck. It’s required, of course. But I doubt that any of these are going directly into the trash when the day is done. They’ll make the ultimate souvenir.

At 3 p.m., we hear the festivities get underway out in the stadium. The Yonder Mountain String Bang performs a few numbers. Somebody sings the national anthem, and somebody else leads the crowd in the pledge of allegiance. The speeches start, and they seem to drone on from the beginning. I have an ear tuned to a TV monitor nearby, but Mick is sprawled out on the warm concrete floor, napping. Me, I keep watching the throngs of people moving around me.

Eventually, the concrete floor gets hard, and Mick and I figure it’s time to head back into the stadium to join the festivities. It’s sometime after 4 when we make our way into the sun once again. The stands are filling up, but, unfortunately, our view is still of the back of that stage set. Darn it anyway.

But that, thankfully, is just about the last negative thought that I have on this day. For, once I’m in the stadium, and once I start to listen to the speeches and to the excitement and to the cheers of the thousands of people filled with hope, there’s no room in my heart for anything other than positive thoughts.

The section we’re assigned to has filled in since we were out here earlier, and we quickly find seats among Mick’s friends from Pitkin and Garfield and Eagle Counties. Down on the stage, the Colorado Democratic voice in Washington is getting a chance to address the national audience. John Salazar speaks, and then Diana Degette, and finally, Mark Udall. The speeches are all very short and crisp, and the unifying theme is the effort of every speaker to mention the name Barack Obama as many times as possible, short of just chanting his name over and over.

It’s hot under this sun, even though it’s approaching late afternoon. The drinks salesman makes his round, and we dutifully plunk down our $3.50 each for bottles of water. Too bad they are not selling beer; it could have been a huge revenue generator.

At 5:30, Sheryl Crow takes the stage, and it’s a nice performance. She plays just three numbers, starting, appropriately, with “A Change Would Do You Good” (she changes the lyrics to “a change would do US good”) encouraging the crowd to sing along. She plays a couple more numbers, and keeps the crowd very much engaged. We watch her on the huge JumboTron, and are thankful that at least we have this view. Heaven knows, I have paid a bunch of money to see her in concert before, so I guess I shouldn’t complain about the view when the seats are free, and the sound system is good. (I can’t help thinking that she’s better off without Lance Armstrong.)

At some point, even though our view is otherwise non-existent, we realize that we have a perfect view of the TelePrompter. How odd. We see all of the words right before they are spoken, even the songs. It makes this unique experience just a bit more surreal.

There are more speeches. More musicians. There’s, and his contingent, doing the “Yes We Can” number that was made so popular on YouTube. More speeches. There’s a large group of military leaders (generals and admirals and other officers) who parade out onto the stage, with a rousing speech from one of them. There’s Stevie Wonder to perform a couple of numbers. There’s a granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and there are children of Martin Luther King, Junior, on this 45th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Michael McDonald is the last musical act, playing and soulfully singing “American the Beautiful”, more fitting than ever given that the words to the song were written by Katharine Lee Bates after she visited Pikes Peak in the late 19th century. The caliber of the speechmakers heats up. Howard Dean speaks. Al Gore takes the stage, and he’s truly a great statesman-orator. Too bad he didn’t have this presence back when he won the (popular) election against W.

Finally, the sun sinks below the west stands of the stadium, and we have a nice breeze, and it becomes a beautiful late summer evening in Denver. We could not have asked for more.

Joe Biden makes a short speech, and then we get the de rigueur but still inspirational parade of ordinary citizens who are backing Obama. They amaze me, every one of them, with their poise and their stories and their convictions. I can’t decide who is my favorite; maybe the woman who professes to be a lifelong Republican voter who is voting for Obama this year, or maybe the guy named Barney Smith who says “I want leadership in Washington who will look out for Barney Smith, not the Smith Barneys of the world.”

Finally, we see Michelle Obama take her seat, and we know that the Real Deal is about to start. We’re armed for it. Earlier this afternoon, they came around handing out flags, and Mick and I each got one. More recently, they’ve handed out “Change” placards. The anticipation in the air is almost palpable. The stadium is filled to capacity: you can’t see a single empty seat anywhere. The only experience that I’ve had that was remotely like this was way, way back when I lived in Des Moines in the late 1970s, and a young Pope John Paul II made a visit to the Living History Farms there. Okay, that autumn day was different in many ways from this day, but the experience of people who share a common belief, and a hope, and a dedication to a cause, making a pilgrimage to see their leader, was the same.

Dick Durbin takes the stage to start the Real Deal, and after his brief address we’re watching the video of Senator Obama’s life story, rapt. When Senator Obama takes the stage, the energy is amped up to near-explosion levels. And what a treat is in store! Probably, if you’re reading this, you’ve seen the speech, so I can’t embellish on the content. The only thing I can add is that the stadium was completely captivated for the entire speech. We hang on every word. Senator Obama has become a great orator, and this is a fine moment for him. It’s a fine moment for all of us who hope he will bring the change he promises to Washington. It’s an incredible experience, all this shared hope.

When the speech ends, I look around and realize that not a soul has moved from a seat yet. Many have been here since 1 p.m.; it’s now past 9 p.m., and nobody is moving to get out of the stadium. Fireworks are exploding overhead, and we crane our heads overhead as we watch the confetti fall to the ground. The white bits are little 5-pointed stars of crepe paper, and everyone in our section is soon mesmerized, trying to catch a few of these whiffs of paper for souvenirs. The fireworks continue, the confetti keeps falling, and a clergyman offers up a closing benediction. And then we’re on our way home.

I’ve been fearing this ride back home, and it does take us a while to get back to our bikes. But the incredible thing is that Colfax Avenue – one of the longest, busiest avenues in the world, directly through a major city – is closed to traffic. So we take the more direct route home – maybe 2 miles from door to door – and ride without traffic, and are back at my place by 10:15. The thing I feared the most about the day turns out to be the easiest thing of all. We find other people in my building arriving back home at the same time, and we are all in some kind of spell. It was that kind of experience.

In fact, Mick and I are so jazzed that we come back upstairs to my place, and turn on MSNBC to watch the post-convention coverage. There’s nothing new here, just confirmation of everything that we just witnessed. At 11 p.m., the post-convention broadcast ends, and they start a replay of the Dick Durbin speech, leading to the video and then Senator Obama’s speech once again. The speech plays on until well past midnight, but I stay on the couch, just as attentive as I was a couple hours ago. I listen until the message has been delivered in full again. It’s easy to sit through this again. Although I know that the real process of the election is only poised to begin in a few days – all the nastiness, the negative ads, the acrimony, the ugliness of a process that is still better than what exists in most of the rest of the world – for this brief moment, I can believe and revel in the peaceful process of democracy in action.