Chance to share feeling of being at one with total strangers

Thu, Nov 6, 2008, 00:00

BARACK OBAMA'S election night party had ended hours earlier and the police sergeant was determined to clear Chicago's Michigan Avenue of the revellers who were still milling around.

He had a line of mounted officers behind him to emphasise his point, but a tiny old lady from Florida was refusing to budge until she had haggled down the price of some souvenir T-shirts from a street vendor.

"I'm sorry Ma'am, but I'm going to have to arrest you if you don't stop buying T-shirts right now," the sergeant said.

The woman ignored him, telling the vendor she was sure he could offer a better deal on three "Yes He Did" shirts.

"Okay, okay," the man said, eyeing the horses a few feet away.

"Three for $15."

The mood inside Grant Park had been subdued throughout the election count and Obama's victory speech there, but once they got on to the streets of Chicago's Loop, many of the estimated 175,000 supporters were in the mood for a party.

Michigan Avenue and State Street were thronged as if it was New Year's Eve as groups of young and old danced, hugged one another or just stood around talking about the dramatic moment in history they had witnessed.

"I'm dazed and amazed but I'm not going home yet," said Maurice Lesure, a young African-American who had become separated from his friends on Michigan Avenue.

Chicago's skyline itself seemed to be celebrating the victory of the city's local son, with the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Tower north of Grant Park lit up to read "USA", while the Smurfit-Stone Building to the west declared "Vote 2008" on its slanted diamond-shaped roof.

The more illustrious guests present for Obama's victory speech - like the Rev Jesse Jackson, who wept torrents when the election was won, and Oprah Winfrey - zipped off to private parties afterwards. Most of those who milled around the Chicago streets wanted nothing more, however, than to share for a little longer the feeling the campaign had inspired in them of being at one with total strangers.

Outside one of the big hotels on Michigan Avenue, a white gay couple wearing tight T-shirts and Obama Pride badges were chatting amiably with a group of tough-looking African-Americans dressed in their best faux-thug chic.

As I was stepping into my hotel, a young black woman was standing alone outside, tears running down her face and I asked her whether she was all right. "This is the happiest day of my life," she said. "I'll never see anything like this again."