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We're all getting used to that shiny new-president smell now, but I'm still recovering from a journey that was half euphoria and half really, really hard work.
As some of you may know, my head was one of the six that rolled in the Reader's latest round of layoffs, but like the ghost of Ann Boleyn, I'm in surprisingly good spirits for a decapitatee. Before I lost my job I'd made plans to be on the magic bus heading from the Hideout to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the inauguration of the man for whom many of us in the club's extended family had gone canvassing (and whose face graced the facade of the building for three months, on a giant banner painted by Rabid Rabbit's Andrea Jablonski). And even though as a freshly pink-slipped person I probably had more urgent things to attend to, I was determined to follow through and make the trip.
The descent of roughly two million people on what is really not that big a city was doomed to be a logistical nightmare (a "clustercluster," as our bus driver Vince called it), and Hideout owners Tim and Katie Tuten saw it as their patriotic duty to contribute to it. So on Sunday morning they packed two buses with musicians, staff, Hideout regulars, and canvassers from Interchange, the organization that cooperated with the club to organize Obama fund-raisers and canvassing car pools. Then they emptied half the bar into plastic soda bottles for the road, to contribute to the juvenile-delinquent-field-trip vibe. Any bus filled with Waco Brothers and Tortoises and Icy Demons and sundry friends and relations is going to be a party bus by definition, but on top of that there were a lot of rambunctious rest stops and awesome in-flight movies. (Muddy Waters? Anime? Ray Harryhausen? Thumbs up.)
The hotel in Baltimore, where we stayed Sunday and Monday night, was surprisingly luxurious. It was, however, in Baltimore, which posed a problem on Monday, the evening of the Big Shoulders Ball itself (blogged here at the Reader and at DCist, among other places, and benefiting the Future of Music Coalition and the Chicago Public Schools Marching Bands Program). More on that later.
The concert went off without a hitch, and in his speech between two of the bands Thomas Frank fairly eloquently expressed what was on many of our minds. That is, not only is Obama the first African-American president, but he's also the first president in a very long time to represent a big city as though he's actually from a big city--no aw-shucks-isms, fake Texas accents, fake ranches, or hixploitation dressed up as back-patting about "real America." I have high hopes that following Obama's example the words "urban" and "inner-city" will stop being used as euphemisms for some kind of disease. Big cities are, after all, full of voters, and drive the engines of economy and culture. They're at least as American as anywhere else. The Hideout's musical selections helped make Frank's point, with Chicago artists playing Delta blues, country, folk, funk, jazz, and solid old-fashioned rock 'n' roll (as well as the artsy kind). Chicago-flag lapel pins were everywhere.
Once the music was over, though, the trouble started. Do the math: Show over around 1:30 AM, buses leaving for the hotel in Baltimore by around 2 AM, then turning around to go back to D.C. at 5:30 AM. You just know there had to be drama. (I contributed to it, sorry!) Yet our bus still made it to D.C. by around seven on inauguration day, just in time to get snared in the mother of all crowd-control snafus. It was election night in Grant Park raised to the nth power (plus a hell of a lot colder), with throngs of milling, meandering, tightly packed people all but mooing in consternation. But as on election night, the people were, in every direction as far as I could see, happy and kind to one another, making way for the elderly and disabled like our mamas raised us right.
Obama merch dealers swelled the crowd by a not-insignificant percentage. ("Obama pretzels!" yelled a vendor. Just normal pretzels, from what I could tell. I wonder if the name cost an extra dollar.) There were young ladies selling champagne bottles with Obama's picture on them for five dollars. I bought some hastily rechristened "Obama" incense for a buck. But nothing can top something I saw in a shop next to the Black Cat--a bar of soap adorned with Obama's ubiquitous smiling visage, labeled "The Audacity of Soap" and priced at $9.95.
We eventually found a spot at the base of the Washington Monument, from which we could see pretty much nothing. (Well, we could get glimpses of a Jumbotron if we jumped up and down on our toes.) But we could hear everything, and we could look out over the teeming masses that fell pin-drop silent during the stuttery oath. OK, so the trip was a pain in the ass in spots, but it was also a complete triumph--there was no logistical hassle that wasn't worth it to be there.
I want to thank everyone who had a hand in organizing this, because I've never been so proud to play a small part in the Chicago music scene--even now, when I no longer know just what that part will be.