After watching three debates (two prez, one vp) in northwest Indiana, I persuaded my sweetheart to return to my longtime adopted home of Chicago last night to watch the final debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. We made the 40 minute drive on the toll road (which Indiana's Governor, Mitch Daniels, sold last year to a Spanish/Australian consortium, you'd think there would at least be a tapas bar by now, but no such luck) past the gritty steel mills, neon lit gambling casinos and squat white oil tanks and onto the Skyway, a stretch of road that literally rises into the sky and then deposits you onto the Southside of Chicago.
We arrived 35 minutes late at a "FUNdraiser for Obama" and debate watching party held by a group of writers and cartoonists at the Chopin Theater in the Wicker Park neighborhood on Chicago's near west side. The Chopin, built in 1918, is a funky, beautifully tattered theater in an old Polish area with a storefront entrance and a small auditorium that was nearly packed. Carlos Cumpian, a Chicano poet who has also published Latino and Native American writers with March Abrazo Press, was reading when we arrived. He was followed by Stuart Dybek, a Chicago writer and poet who has made an art form of writing about Chicago's working class folks and neighborhoods. Quarash Ali Lansana, an African American poet and professor, read a moving piece about his five year old son and the stresses of contemporary American education on children when they are given 10 pages of homework a night in kindergarten. Haki R. Madhubuti, the founder of Third World Press and author, read a call and response piece with the audience invoking the word "art" as the key to bridging cultural differences. Rosellen Brown (full disclosure here, she and I are on a board of a Chicago based group together), an author and novelist, read from her book, Civil Wars, based during the civil rights efforts of the 60s. There was a pretty funny skit involving Sarah Palin, a water gun and a man dressed in a moose suit, and then we went to the basement lounge to watch the debate.
About 50 people, many of them writers and cartoonists (including best selling crime novelist, Sara Peretsky and nationally syndicated cartoonists Estelle Carol and Bob Simpson (Carol Simpson Labor Cartoons) and Nicole Hollander (Sylvia), ranging in age from a couple in their twenties who cuddled next to us on the couch to white haired seniors, crowded onto couches, chairs, and the floor. Many people wore Obama buttons; styles ranged from dreadlocks with a suit jacket to jeans and t-shirts. The lounge was decorated in 20th century American Victorian with fringed lampshades, large mirrors, glass balloon lamps dangling from the ceiling, comfortable stuffed couches and framed theater bills on the wall. Homemade desserts were arranged alongside signed first editions of the writers' works for sale in a silent auction as well as political cartoons, all on sale to raise money to send volunteers to Iowa to canvass for Barack Obama.
The group intently watched the debate on a flat screen TV; occasionally an el (the elevated subway in Chicago) would roar overhead but you could hear pretty well. It reminded me of being in my parents suburban basement "playroom" in the 60s with newer technology; wine and beer. The only thing missing was the civilian defense sign on the wall. As we arrived, five minutes into the debate, John McCain was talking about "Joe the Plumber." The entire crowd laughed when Bob Schieffer reminded McCain that he hadn't answered the question.
When McCain started to talk about Obama's earmarks for an "overhead projector," someone yelled, "we should drink shots every time he mentions that projector." (The now famous "overhead projector" is a Zeiss planetarium projector requested by Barack Obama for Chicago's Adler Planetarium, so this is a hometown issue for Chicagoans. Many of the members of this crowd were teachers and educators and the Planetarium projector would have been used for science education.)
When John McCain cracked, "if you wanted to run against George Bush, you should have run four years ago," a number of people said "ooohh sarcastically and laughed." At the point he told Obama that John Lewis should have repudiated his remarks about the McCain/Palin campaign, the crowd began to boo, and continued to boo when John McCain said he was "proud of the people who come to our rallies."
When Barack Obama mentioned "Joe the Plumber" the crowd laughed; this was a guaranteed laugh line for the rest of the evening. As the questions turned to the qualifications of their running mates, the audience was rapt; when Senator McCain called Sarah Palin a "role model," they broke into loud and raucous laughter. When he said what sounded like "she is a breast of fresh air" (it wasn't that easy to hear in the back when the el rumbled over) there were mild screams. Whenever Obama was speaking, the crowd was completely quiet and intently listening; when McCain would speak, there was palpable restlessness in the room; people would get up and walk around; and shush each other at times.
Obama's comments were frequently met with applause; when he spoke about solar, and wind energy replacing American dependence on foreign oil, someone whispered "yes!". At the point that John McCain said "Senator Government" the man next to us yelled, "you're an idiot!"
During the summary statements, everyone listened quietly;at the end of Barack Obama's summary, the crowd applauded loudly. I got distracted by the silent auction at the end of the debate;but several people crowded up to the screen to hear the post debate commentary. This was a hometown group for Obama, a number of the attendees live in the same neighborhood as Obama and have met him personally over the years and almost everyone (including me when I lived in Illinois) knew him as their elected representative in Congress and in some cases, in the Illinois state legislature. The sense at the end of the debate was of going back to work; collecting money to pay for a bus to take volunteers to Iowa; and raising funds to help the campaign. We headed out for the rainy ride back south; so I didn't get a chance to ask anyone what they thought of the debate, except my sweetheart, Tom, (a mugwump- as my father would say, whose "mug is on one side of the fence and his wump is on the other side" (ie, a fiscal conservative who is socially liberal) an independent who is an Obama supporter. Tom thought McCain did a good job in his summary statement but probably lost another 3-5 percentage of the electorate because he sounded so uninformed and confused during the debate.