Mannequins for Obama
Mannequins for Obama

For me, the inauguration was a bust . . .

Never having witnessed an American inauguration before,I’d expected it  to be a big celebration, akin almost to the election when thousands of people took to the streets in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and over here in Bed-Stuy people fired guns from the projects on Lafayette like it was New Year’s Eve.

But no, it was quiet, very quiet.

We had brunch and watched the inauguration on my friend’s big screen TV. As show, theatre, it was something else – no one does showbiz like the Americans. Obama’s speech, while workman like, set out his policy in clear terms. Big government, the end to the age of irresponsibility, a reaching out to the rest of the world, a shift to renewable technologies. Aretha was great, the crowds were great, the dude at the end was great (“so the yellow can be mellow, the red man can get ahead, man”) – and Obama was great, or almost great. Curiously, the British press gave Obama’s speech a better grade than the American, though perhaps that’s just relief . . .that W. is gone.

The  end of an era: watching the chopper carrying W whirring off into the Washington haze as we slowly wake up from the parallel universe that has been the last eight years.

Outside the window, we saw one person pass in the whole hour and a half.

Up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the inauguration had been broadcast in the theatres so we decided to walk up, see if anyone was around. Bed-Stuy was totally dead, even more dead than usual on a weekday afternoon. CJ speculated that all the people who’d really wanted to be involved had gone up to Washington “Maybe that’s why there was so much parking space available this weekend,” but I figured up in gentrified and politically active Fort Greene, there would be some visible celebration. But Fort Greene was dead too – the BAM event shut down so completely we wondered if anyone had even showed up.

We went to Union Square. No one around. Had lunch, CJ went to school. I went to Harlem.

Got there around five. 125th street was busy, but no more so than on any after-work five o’clock day. I hadn’t been to 125th in a few years and was amazed by the changes. I guess it started when Clinton moved his offices up to Harlem and made 125th respectable again. Big chain shops, Starbuck’s. A curiousity like the TDBank, ie Canada’s Toronto Dominion – since Canada’s banks, inherently more risk avers, survived the crisis better than their US counterparts, were they now starting to take advantage of the stricken US banking system to swoop south? Is this the stop of Canadian banking imperialism?

Most visible signs of Obama support: mannequins in the store windows and street vendors with Obama t-shirts. Obama family Barack, Michelle and the two kids in Star Wars garb holding light sabers, Obama and McCain in a boxing ring in boxer shorts and gloves and Obama standing over a prostrate McCain over the logo: ‘Obama: Knockout, McCain: Zero”.

A lot of white people getting off the subway, travelling down the street, but still aware of black faces checking me out, curious, not entirely dropping that defensiveness that always greets a white person going into a black neighborhood. A lot of very poor people here too – a drug ravaged woman standing on the corner in the cold, a man in a wheelchair, limbs disfigured by some sort of wasting disease – working class NY faces, tough, hard, guarded. A general energy, but Harlem’s always had energy . . .

t-shirts in harlem
t-shirts in harlem

Back into the train. People seem mostly shut down, as New Yorkers always do when it’s cold. At my favorite bar downtown, a little more full than usual, but not much. General elation, since this is still a largely liberal bar. Friend of mine gave Obama’s speech ‘A solid B+” which about got it I think. One of the black girls who works there looked up at Obama’s image on the TV screen with a kind of reverence . . .

Then, back on the train into Bed-Stuy. Looking at all the black faces on the train, staring ahead, still shut down. Faces I’ve seen on the train since I first moved here in 1991, that have seemed to become more, not less, closed off with the years. I wondered how THEY felt, these mostly working class people from inner Brooklyn, the neighborhoods along the A line that not so recently were scarred by drugs, gangs, constant violence. How did they see Obama? Did they think he was going to change their lives, or had they given up?

At Nostrand Ave, I got off behind four German girls and walked behind them down the street, listening to their German voices skirt around the edges of the Bed-Stuy night. They were blonde and tall, and hardly looked around them as they talked so I guess they were staying in the neighborhood in some capacity. That curious look of Nostrand/ Fulton with the iron walkway over the street, the lights, the brick buildings along Fulton – a 1950’s New York that stopped dead and just decayed. Black eyes along the street meeting mine, checking me out, checking out the Germans – so unlike before when they seemed to just look right through you. Not friendly exactly, but curious, as if they finally had the confidence to study white people in their neighborhood, to try and understand them . . .

Back in front of the TV. Beyonce singing to the Obama’s as they made a slow shuffle on the stage. Obama dancing 80’s style – a self-admitted bad dancer, he dances more like some suburban white geek than a black dude which is surprising given his natural grace – with his fists up in front of him – that self-commenting ironic dancing that was big in the 80’s.

And outside, hardly anyone on the street, a woman yelling at the crackhouse across the street, yelling one name repeatedly for ten minutes. Then silence.

Shop Window in Prospect Heights
Shop Window in Prospect Heights

6 Comments

  1. great one, tim. great observations.

    my inaug day was much different. i caught it at work in the waiting room of the department. nurses, patients, and others all watching this tiny tv. absolute silence as everyone stared. the woman next to me was practically crying. it had the weight of a religous event.

    • Thanks for the comment – it was a curious day, both banal and curiously affecting. I think above all else – and this is not to diminish Obama’s speech of the sight of his family up on the podium, or the slow dance with his wife with Beyonce singing behind them – I think what I remember above all else is the sight of W flying off in the chopper and thinking at last this era and whatever it has meant is over.

  2. i missed W flying away….i did go to a variety show on the evening of the 19th in which a W pinata was thoroughly thrashed though! i’ll post some pics.

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