At first, we were just going to sit in my house and watch the results, perhaps with some alcohol on hand to dull any sad news. But Monday night, we went to Rockefeller Center to do something I'd never done there before: ice skate. And when we arrived we noticed that the square was decked out as though it were planning for a New Year's celebration, with large screens and flood lights and tents. We skated over a clear but buried map of the US. We went to Magnolia Bakery and got election-themed cupcakes (and when Sue's came out with an elephant on it I exhorted her to return it and get the donkey one, to the amusement of one of the staffers). It became clear that the city was gearing up for a party. That alone seemed to radiate confidence in the outcome, for New York doesn't party for John McCain.
So, on Tuesday, we arrived back there at 7 p.m., and already there was a crowd; MSNBC had put up two large window-washing apparati that had been covered in blue or red, and bore the name of Obama and McCain, respectively. Trailing out the bottoms of these machines were wide swaths of matching curtain, and as the electoral votes started to tally each machine rose toward a large projected "270," leaving a tongue of color waving to the floor below it and giving all of 30 Rock the impression that it was an enormous thermometer of democracy. We stood with the crowd and craned our necks, watching as the votes tallied, checking on our phones to CNN and FOX to make sure we could believe the results. We kept waiting for something to go wrong, for one state to head into recount territory, for a revisit to the nailbiting 2000 and 2004 elections. It just never happened.
Every time a state was called for Obama, the place went up. We cheered and jumped and hugged; the first time I was standing there for a big state's call (for we had been eating dinner during Pennsylvania's moment), was Ohio. The place seemed to quake. A few minutes after it was called a random and impromptu "Yes We Can!" chant went up, and I shed my first tears of the night. Everyone was talking to people they didn't know, was all smiles and sharing of stories, even walking respectfully around each other as they maneuvered the crowd, which is an experience I have never had in New York City in my life.
It was like a New Year's Eve that mattered. A New Year's Eve that was going to affect all of our lives and this great hope we all shared.
Everyone was waiting for Obama to rack up the 215 that would make anything else irrelevant, for once California came in that would become 270. He was at 207, and the polls were finally about to be closed - everyone in the crowd knew how important that was, that those 55 votes would slide over and we'd be eight votes away. MSNBC had a clock up; so we counted down. Thousands of us, counted down like it was New Year's, expecting to only be cheering the polls closing - however as soon as we got to zero we got the best and most fitting surprise: they called the whole race. Game over. An already enthusiastic cheer turned into pandemonium. We hugged, we cried, we jumped. We chanted "Yes We Can!" and very quickly it turned into "YES WE DID! YES WE DID!" Cell phones were produced, Twitter might have exploded, Cheryl and I hugged and felt proud that we had canvassed in Pennsylvania, that we had done some small part above voting.
We waited with stiff nerves for the speeches. At first the John McCain speech wasn't going over well; people didn't seem to be happy that it started all about race. But that ebbed as John McCain became the guy we liked in 2000, and liked throughout the first half of this campaign season. As he spoke with honor and dignity and took blame and called on his followers to come together. Granted, it has probably been written for weeks, and it is the speech that he has to make to ensure he has a life in the political world at all after this grueling and, because of him, oftentimes exceedingly ugly campaign. But it was a great moment for him, and a fitting and elegaic end. His nostalgia was evident, and he seemed sincere, and by the end of his speech people were clapping for him and nodding their heads.
Jesse Jackson, weeping. John Lewis, having wept enough. Oprah Winfrey standing in the crowd like anyone else, tears sparkling in her eyes. The enormously funny shot of the White House immediately after the concession speech, where thousands of people were dancing right outside its gates. The e-mail that the Obama campaign sent out before he took the stage, reminding everyone that it wasn't just his victory but all of ours. Curling my hands around themselves and pressing them to my chest, seemingly trying to convince myself it had really happened. How could we have considered staying home?
Obama's speech was electrifying. He looked serene and happy, but not giddy or smug. He looked as though the enormity of his job had occurred to him - he looked as though he knows that this was very much the easy part. His call to Republicans was strong and touching, reminding them of their august past and that he won't forget them in the future. As he started repeating "Yes we can," we in the crowd did it along with him. My sister and I hugged.
Afterward, we started making our way to the subway. But something became clear: There was no way we were going home. Cars were driving along honking the whole way, people hanging out of them and screaming. Cheers were going up every which way; we were hi-fiving with each other on the streets. Everyone was videotaping everyone else, absorbed in the reaction. We passed by the FOX building and rejoiced. And then we knew we had to go to Times Square.
I have done NYE in Times Square, and I have witnessed the winning of a world series. This was like everyone's team had just won the world series. We stood at 47th and Broadway and drank it in, the cheering, the running, the people standing out of moon roofs with their Obama signs, the tourists taking pictures with one enterprising man's full cardboard cutout of the President-Elect. A man walked by me with a giant O painted on his chest. Alex scored a Tshirt exulting about the win. Another read, "Have you seen these men? Wanted for war crimes," and showed mugshots of the Bush administration. Every time the lights changed and the signal read "Walk," hordes of people would run into the middle of the street and simply dance until the light changed again or the police told them to stop. Chants of "O-BA-MA" and "YES WE CAN" dominated. There were balloons, and people kissing romantically or affectionately, people crying and simply screaming. No one was mean. No one was angry. No one seemed to mind the traffic it was causing. Obama's picture loomed from all the electronic billboards around Times Square.
It continued on the subway. You could say "Obama" very loudly and start a chant that way. I hi-fived with people I'd never met, and we all talked as though we were old friends. It was some sort of unwritten code that everyone who left at their stop was required to shout "Obama!" as they left.
We trekked home, put on the news, and fell asleep happy.
A midnight vigil at Martin Luther King's grave.
PS: We made another stop at Magnolia bakery, too, where the same laughing worker joyfully told me that all the donkey cupcakes sold out the night before.