I Was There When
So often, it happened like this: my mother, once outside the car opens the driver side door, letting the interior lights (one on the ceiling, two on the floor) turn on. She sits in the driver seat, rears back the wrist and shoulder of her right arm to fasten a seatbelt with her left. Then she hunches over the wheel, turning to me, shivering.
"It's windy out there," she says, or "not fit for man nor beast."
This was not a regular weather pattern, but the wind coming off a hurricane churning in the gulf. You could feel the winds three days before landfall, a reminder of the things that were to come.
I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, a city on the Gulf Coast. Before moving to New York, I lived through at least nine notable storms (including Hurricane Katrina). A hurricane gave the city a sort of focus. Small talk disappeared. Everyone could only talk of one thing:
"I heard Lowe's was having a sale on wood if you need to board your windows..."
"My cousin in Birmingham told me I could come up and stay with her."
"They say it might be category four..."
Though we had our bills, our sadness, our to-dos, they were filtered through the worries of an upcoming storm. It was as if the city were operating together as a unit, that we were of one mind. I can't describe it better than that.
On November 8th at 6 pm, I exited the subway at 42nd Street and felt this focus for the first time since I left Mobile. Crowds of people were speed walking west toward the Javits Center where Hillary Clinton was hosting her Election Night Party. I didn't know the numbers -- how many tickets had been given out, how many crowds were due to show up, but I thought I'd try my luck. I'd spent an hour on Sunday standing in line at her Manhattan headquarters just to pick up at ticket. I'd come too far to go home and watch it from the sofa.
The crowds were bottlenecked into a barricaded area that ran up to the back entrance of the Javits Center. For at least an avenue block behind me, all you could see were hundred of heads and people taking photos. We were a civilized, but complaining crowd. I was all alone, promising to meet up with my sister as soon as she could get to midtown. After an hour of shuffling and stopping, and a brief security check, a woman directed me to Eleventh Avenue in front of the building for the "Street Party." A jumbo-sized TV ran Clinton campaign videos and switched between the news networks. There were a few food trucks, people were complained that there wasn't any booze, and everyone wanted to be inside. A volunteer told us that no one was going inside.
A small stage was set up on the street and the mayor, the governor and even Katy Perry spoke, among others. Trump began winning many states. People started sitting on the asphalt. By 11 pm, friends at home were texting me. If the world held it's focus on the election, then I was standing in the eye of the storm.
"What are people saying?"
"Morale is low," I wrote.
I overheard a cameraman saying to his producer, "We need more shots of worried faces."
I looked to my left and right. Everyone including myself, had their jaws open, bitting their nails, near to tears, groaning, texting, calling friends, pacing. Someone even started to smoke a blunt, the smell wafting over the crowd. People stopped waving their flags.
By midnight, and without full results, me and my friends decided to go home. We joined the crowds back to Tenth Avenue and eventually reached 42nd Street. I said goodbye to them, and waited on the corner to hail a cab. Three Trump supporters from his Hilton Hotel party had made their way down 42nd Street. They were drunk.
One of the men ran the back of his hand along my shoulder and giggled.
"Sorry, darlin', I had to switch sides," he said. Then he burst out laughing and so did his three friends, they were all wearing "Make America Great Again" hats.
"I mean, this is the best part," said one of the men, he stood next to me, so that we were nearly shoulder to shoulder. He held up a stack of about 50 Trump bumper stickers in bright red.
The signal changed, and they could cross the street.
"Have a good night," they said politely and continued down the street. A cab pulled up just then, and the driver saw my two American flags. One had broken into pieces. I'd forgotten to throw it away.
"So, what is happening down there?" the driver said. He was wearing a skull cap, he had a long but plump baby face. He turned in his seat to look at me through the glass partition in the cab. This wasn't small talk -- he really needed to know. I swallowed, was I really going to have to break it to this stranger?! This man with eyes so big and wide, it was like telling your child some very bad news. How do you do it?
"It..." I said, "it doesn't look so good."
He nodded. "OK," he said. "OK." Then he turned in his seat, put the car into gear and we went up the West Side Highway and eventually home. I recall the small amount of money I gave to the Clinton campaign and while shaking my head, tears welling up, say to myself: "I would have given it a million times if I could have."
I got into bed and remembered a conversation I'd had over the summer. I was working with a strategy and branding expert, and she was scrolling through this blog.
"What is the purpose of this?" she asked.
"I write about my life, I tell stories and vignettes," I said.
"But...why?" she asked.
I could see the answer in my mind, but couldn't verbalize it well. My own reasons had been so self evident that it wasn't even a word -- but a feeling, an attraction. The night of the election I was able to verbalize these feelings, because I recognized the conditions from which they come.
I write because I live (and have lived) the majority of my life in sadness. There are times when everyday life is very, very hard. But the past is the only thing I know for sure. When the status quo is too overwhelming and unbearable, that is when writing has it's value. I can reach back into happy and sad experiences to keep myself moving. To escape.
This is what art is for.
I woke up at intervals during the night to check the news. My Facebook feed fell into chaos.
"No one really cares what I have to say," I said to myself as I drafted status updates and posts and deleted them. I knew I wanted to write about that night, and I knew it wouldn't be an all-encompassing post that did anything of worth. Even with the distance from it, I could never write it right and catch it all besides saying: "I was there that night."
But that does nothing.