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July 31, 2009 / JV

The Day I Met Barack Obama

It was towards the end of spring 2007 in New York City. Despite never making a concerted effort, I was somehow always abreast of who was going to be at Barnes & Noble, which was how I came face to face with Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison, and also, not coincidentally, Barack Obama.

Barack Obama first charmed me for attention when he walked out at the 2004 Democratic Convention to a rendition of The Impressions’ “Keep On Pushing”. I automatically thought who is this guy with great taste in music and the audacity to make it known to a crowd full of people who probably can’t make the elementary connection between Curtis Mayfield and Superfly.

It was to my excitement that three years later, I learned the then Senator of Illinois was going to be giving a talk and signing copies of his second book at the B&N in Union Square. Now of course, it happened to be my luck that this signing was scheduled for the same morning as one of the last days of my 11:00 class. And of course, that day was the day I had to hand in my final project of a documentary I haphazardly directed about communes in New York City. So without the option of skipping, I sent an e-mail to the professor, whom I happened to really like, explaining that Barack Obama was going to be at Barnes and Noble and maybe she should take the class because that’s where I was going to be. I assured her it shouldn’t run too long because it was supposed to start early, but if it did I would find a way to make an appearance in class.

Needless to say, I woke up early enough to catch the tail-end of his speech and then to be told I was standing in line to get my book signed for naught because he wasn’t going to hang out and sign all these people’s books. Time was running low so I passed the torch to my partner in crime who agreed to stand in line because we concluded that he wasn’t the type of guy to just take off after a speech and break a bunch of people’s hearts who took off work and skipped class to see him.

I beat it downtown for my class, screened a piece of the doc and vomited some nonsense about intentional communities and Thomas More. I was losing the hope of making it back in time to get a book signed but was restless enough to still be impatiently social. Once I got a minor cue we were done, I broke out and made way back to union square. Dodging cars and overzealous cyclists, I could only feel the swelling regret of the millions of people I was passing who were, unfortunately for them, not in on the secret that the next POTUS was right under their bloody noses.

Upon arriving at Barnes & Noble, I scaled the 728 flights of escalators to the top floor only to find that Barack Obama had signed everyone’s books and now he wasn’t signing any more. In fact, he was standing up to button his suit jacket because he was going to leave now. I stood in a crowd of other faces with color, people who had probably come in late off the street when they saw others exiting with their signed copies of The Audacity of Hope, still wiping the glory from their eyes. I stood there and watched him walk from behind the long table where he was sitting, offering everyone a wave in his ordinary and diplomatic way. I adjusted my black cap with its red, green, and gold stripes and also found myself wondering why I was wearing it anyway. I was buried behind folks who looked (and acted) like my aunts and uncles, calling for Mr. Obama, throwing their arms about, and employing other guerilla fan tactics to get his attention. Behind all of them, I stood still and in awe of how tall and slender (and okay, handsome) he was IRL.

Somehow — I don’t know if it was the “rasta” hat, or the fact that I was the only person under 30 in site but whatever it was — he spotted me. And this part I only remember in fragments, either because I had no idea it was happening or because I couldn’t believe it was happening, but he began to walk toward my barrier of excited adults, which now seemed much smaller than before. He said hello to everyone through their shrill and somehow — and I still don’t know how he did this without being rude but — he stuck his arm out, and the layers of curious bodies peeled away and there was his hand. Suspended in front of me. And apparently awaiting a handshake. I can’t even remember if he said anything because I was too busy tearing up and trying not to cry and thinking about what I could possibly say to change his life at that moment in some kind of relatable capacity.

I resorted to the conclusion that I should just look at him in his eyes. You have tears in your eyes, I thought. And that will be enough.

And so I did. With my mouth shut — not only because I had no words but also because if I had found them, they’d probably be tucked away somewhere under tear ducts — I shook Barack Obama’s hand. I don’t remember but two shakes probably because that’s what they teach you at conferences about careers in business. And with a firm grip because that’s what my mother taught me growing up. “Nobody likes a limp handshake,” she’d say, scrunching her nose at the topic of women whose droopy hands were always available for the shaking to whoever fancied a squeeze.

I still have the hope that those few moments, scarce amongst the multiple involving handshakes and tears, branded an image, even if ephemeral, in the freedom of the president’s consciousness. I hope when he sits down to talk about poverty and the world and children and education and living for a long time that he will maybe not remember me but perhaps remember forgetting a time when there was a moment inside of which he was changed.

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2 Comments

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  1. Dawn / Apr 29 2010 9:44 pm

    I too had the honour of meeting then-Senator Obama here in Illinois. Not only did I get to shake his hand, but it was a rare one-on-one meeting with just him, me, my (then) 7-year-old son, and BO’s driver. I was charmed then (in 2005) and have never forgotten our brief moment in time together. Your blog is very well written and I plan to follow it from now on. Glad I found it.

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