It was like Times Square at midnight... oh, wait, it was Times Square at midnight, only it wasn't New Year's Eve, it was something much, much better than that.
All day long there had been the feeling of something momentous in the air, beginning when I showed up at my polling place, a sleepy little senior city where poll workers usually outnumber potential voters, to discover lines of people spilling out the door. A mostly genial chaos reigned, even though those in charge were clearly overwhelmed by a turnout that dwarfed anything most of them remembered ever seeing. Nobody knew which line to stand in until some local artists waiting for their chance to vote took it upon themselves to make some colorful signs.
When I voted at the same location in the primary last spring, I was in and out in a minute or two; yesterday it took me nearly an hour, and apparently people who'd showed up earlier had to wait for up to an hour and a half. And yet I didn't see a single person give up and walk away, and this in a city where the outcome was never in the slightest bit in doubt (the networks called New York State for Obama before a single vote had been counted).
Normally I would have stayed home to watch the results, using my remote to flip back and forth between the channels and quietly cheer or grieve, but tonight I wanted to be in the midst of the excitement, so I headed up to Times Square, where various networks had screens set up on the sides of buildings and a sizable crowd had already gathered even before the first polls closed at 7 pm. For the first hour or so McCain was in the lead, both in electoral and popular votes, and people nervously cheered any sign of movement, no matter how minuscule, in the Obama totals.
Things started picking up, with a tranche of states moving Obama's way, and the crowd grew, spilling out into the streets. Drivers honked their horns in time with the "O-bam-a" and "Yes we can" chants. A handful of onlookers cheered when McCain carried showed some strength ("Must be tourists," someone near me said), but apart from that, the crowd was practically unanimous in its sympathies. People chatted back and forth about which states "we" needed to carry, as though there was never any question of who "we" were and what "we" wanted.
When Pennsylvania was declared for Obama a wild cheer went up and people began to show a little more confidence in the result. Still, there was the looming question of Ohio, of Virginia, of Florida... "They better not be trying to steal it from us again," said one feisty fellow behind me. "Don't you worry," his girlfriend assured him, "This time we got the people on our side."
Then the sound went out on the ABC broadcast, so I moved over to Rockefeller Plaza, where there was a choice of NBC and MSNBC, along with some hokey but cool props, like McCain and Obama elevators that moved up the side of the building toward the 270 mark as the electoral votes came in. I was there when Ohio went for Obama, and the sounds of people cheering drowned out the announcers for nearly five minutes. Someone did some math and declared that - assuming California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii went Obama's way, about as safe an assumption as you could make - there was no possibility of McCain winning now.
It seemed logical, but too good - and too early - to be true. The vote count in Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida seemed to be taking forever, and it would be more than an hour before the polls closed on the West Coast, so I migrated back to Times Square to discover that while the election hadn't been called yet, it was looking more positive all the time.
Then came 11 o'clock - 8 pm California time - and almost instantly the Left Coast put Obama over the top. It was sheer bedlam. Half the people were screaming and banging on things, the other half standing there agog in the sheer wonder of it all. "Look at Jesse up there!" a girl shouted, pointing up at a closeup of Jesse Jackson on the big screen overhead, "He cryin' his eyes out!"
The crowd was more or less equally divided between black and white, and though everybody looked ecstatic, it was especially marvelous to see the looks on the black faces, a mixture, it seemed, of sheer ecstasy and darely-baring-to-believe wonder. Maybe it's a testimony to my own residual racism, but I have to admit that I was surprised to see how many of the celebrants were the sort of guys you'd more expect to see hanging around in front of the liquor store rather than taking an active - and often very knowledgeable - interest in the political process.
My preconceptions were shattered again and again, something I expect was happening all across the country. America will never be the same again, and I say thank God for that. Obama may never live up to the expectations we've placed on him - though at this point I remain hopeful, as I think most of us do, apart perhaps from the rabid right wing talk radio crowd (and even they can expect a giant uptick in their ratings as they can look forward to boundless amounts of material to bitch about).
All the way home, as I passed dozens of impromptu celebrations on subway platforms and random street corners, I reveled in a mixture of excitement and gratitude, finally daring to believe that America had turned a giant corner, that once more it would begin living up to the enormous promise and lofty ideals that we'd been so often told about but too seldom seen.
A great national realization has come about, one that lets us know beyond a doubt that love of country, true patriotism, can be about something more than bellicose chants and mawkish anthems, that it manifests itself in the most meaningful and historic way when millions of people find the confidence and strength to cast aside their disillusionment and cynicism and allow themselves, no matter how tenuously, to believe in a common purpose and a shared destiny.
No, of course I don't expect everything to change overnight, and it's entirely possible that things will get worse before they get better. Or not even get better at all, because there comes a time in every nation's life, just like an individual life, when an inevitable decline sets in. But after what I saw this Tuesday, I don't think that time has come for us yet. In fact I'm fully prepared to believe that some of America's greatest moments still lie ahead. Sorry if that sounds like a campaign speech; it's just a simple statement of how I feel right now: proud, happy and thrilled to be a part of one of the greatest social and political experiments in the history of humankind.
I don't want to slip into the mindless chauvinism that has unfortunately characterized this country in recent years, so I feel compelled to note that there are many wonderful countries and cultures around this planet, most if not all of which have something to teach us. But I don't think it's stretching things too far to say that what happened here in America in the autumn of 2008 probably couldn't have happened anywhere else.
The only time in my life that comes close to how I feel about my country right now is when at the age of 13 I heard President Kennedy's inaugural speech, and his words then sum up that feeling better than anything I could manage:
I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
Maybe it will all come to nothing, or worse, dissolve into the contention, violence, acrimony and social decay that the 60s came to embody in the wake of Kennedy's assassination. But despite the dark side of that era, then too a seed was planted, a torch was lit. The night before he died, Martin Luther King told us that there was no reason to fear the future, that he'd been allowed to go up the mountain and look out upon the promised land. "I may not get there with you," he declared, "but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"
Many, perhaps most of us, may never journey all the way to the promised land. It could be that "the promised land" will only ever exist just beyond the horizon, a beacon to light our way and spur us on. But as Dr. King said that night, it didn't matter anymore, because he'd been to the mountaintop. Now, as of Tuesday, November 4, 2008, we all have.