The Big Night

What Obama’s victory looked like in Washington.

Barack Obamas acceptance speech will always be inseparable in my memory from the rasp of a blown-out subwoofer. The sound came from the open window of a black Cadillac whose owner, surveying the impenetrable throng of people that clogged the intersection of 11th and U Streets in Washingtons northwest quadrant, had accepted the inevitable. There is really only one thing you can do when faced with a happy mob: join it. The driver turned up the speech on the car radio, opened an umbrella against the warm rain, and got out onto the curb. A young woman was banging a pot against a light post and cheering until another woman quieted her downshe was trying to hear this.

The corner where we stood was once home to a locally famous mid-century nightclub called the Crystal Caverns, frequented by Duke Ellington (who grew up a few blocks away), Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, among others. The nearby intersection of 14th and U is better known, for grimmer reasons: it was there on April 4, 1968, that neighborhood residents gathered around transistor radios to hear reports of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The riots that followed destroyed U Street for a generation, until gentrification began creeping into the neighborhood a decade ago. It is now a place where a black bourgeois past and present, black poverty, and white affluence rub against one another with often palpable awkwardnessexcept on November 4, shortly after 11 p.m., when the neighborhoods disparate populations stepped out of their apartment buildings and nightclubs, rubbed their eyes, and saw that for one night at least, they had one thing in common: they had all voted for the same guy.

I have no idea how many people were there. I know there were enough that the cars at 11th and U could barely inch through. Passengers reached out open windows to high-five pedestrians or stood with their bodies half out of sunroofs, whooping like high school seniors in a limo on prom night. Their headlights illuminated a shirtless black man jumping up and down between cars with an American flag. A semi truck was stuck in the middle of the crowd; behind the wheel, a burly middle-aged driver with a ruddy face and a walrus mustache, the kind of guy John McCain wouldve called Pete the Trucker, was loosing celebratory blasts of the horn and grinning while half a dozen kids hung off the sides of his cab.

I looked around the mostly young crowd for the few people who seemed old enough to have been there during the 1968 riots, and wondered what they could possibly be thinking right now. It felt wrong, in a waya bunch of white college kids were overrunning what should have been their party. But a pair of women next to me on the sidewalk, one black and one white, were holding each other, transfixed by the celebration in the street, which didnt feel wrong at all. The drizzle became a downpour, and a clubgoer in her sequined finest leaned out the back window of a Mazda 3, craning her face upward into the rain. A girl in her early twenties threw her arms around me, kissed me on the cheek, and ran down the street.

We walked to the White House. It wasnt far away, and it seemed like the thing to do. The crowd we met on 17th Street looked like they were in
a nocturnal Fourth of July parade, but with no floats and a lot more drunk twenty-one-year-olds; by the time we reached 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the atmosphere had devolved into something like a goofy college party. “In Obamas America there will be no pants!” one of the kids shouted toward the White House. In front of a wary phalanx
of police officers, they sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.” A street musician sitting on a folding chair on the far curb played “Hail to the Chief” on a trumpet.

The energy of the throng had dimmed since we left U Streetnot much, but perceptibly. Maybe it was because it was now pushing two in the morning, and everyone had been cheering for nearly three hours. But there was also something deflating about looking at the White House, the lights mostly off inside. It seemed like an awfully small building for all the expectations these people were going to pack into it on Inauguration Day.

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