By Rebecca Thal
We were way back in the crowd, on a patch of the lawn where it was possible to see the jumbotron only from tiptoe, and completely impossible to see the stage. So, when my flexed toes finally gave out, while Barack Obama's words resonated around us, I kept myself occupied by looking around at the people standing packed around me.
There was the middle-aged Black lady to my right, absorbed alternately in clasping her hands in reverent disbelief and cheering boisterously. When McCain, in his concession speech, spoke of the historic moment of electing our first African-American president, she shouted, "That's RIGHT!" and shook her head fervently, eyes wide and rimmed with tears.
There was the grandmother behind me, who dialed up some family member on her cell phone and held it out up over the crowd to hear, saying only, "Listen. This is live."
And there was the couple in front, two men dressed in vests for a night much warmer than this one. The shorter of the two had a view of the TV screen and was leaning over someone else's shoulder to watch. His partner stayed still, not looking up to the screen, just shaking his head and weeping. He kept it up all through Obama's speech. He kept having to remove his glasses to wipe his eyes.
So that's it. That's how it was, in Grant Park, with hundreds of thousands of people on the eve of the election. There was no riot and there was no ruckus. People were too busy to riot, and what they were busy with was crying.
Not that it wasn't also celebratory. As the crowd dispersed I found myself on the receiving end of vehement handshakes from all sorts of strangers---congratulations, they said, and I told them "you too" since I didn't know how better to respond.
On the bike ride home, going south on King Drive, every car that passed leaned on its horn. "Obama!" the drivers would shout, waving their arms out the windows. "Obama!" we yelled right back, at stop signs and to people out on porches and to kids outside the convenience store. It was like nobody could believe their luck. We had to keep shouting it back and forth to each other, to affirm it---yes, this is real, and it's not going to go away. It's happening to us, now.
And already I can feel the cynic in myself mobilizing. There's a time for that---a certain spirit of political skepticism that I tend to think of as healthy---but for now, just for the moment, I am holding it off. I think we just witnessed something big, and I'm not going to pass my quick judgment on that. It has been too long coming.
Rebecca Thal is a student at the University of Chicago.