OF COURSE YOU CAN Barack Obama

Chicago‘s South Side finally finds its hope
rekindled. Meanwhile, Dylan, Mavis Staples and The Joker offer cautionary
advice.

(Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

BY MARK GUARINO

 

 

Elation in the first 48 hours. Both perfect strangers and
dearest friends signing emails, ending phone calls, peppering conversations in
the street and over cubicles and across El train aisles with that gooey group
rejoinder relayed in Grant Park and spread around the world: Yes We Can.

 

Grant Park, the same acreage of Chicago lakefront property where, 40 years
earlier during a similar Democratic bash, city police whacked the stoned and
shaggy under the gaze of television eyes. Now a white tent you might see
sheltering buffet tables alongside a tone suburban racecourse is positioned halfway
across the field from the podium hosting orderly rows of cameras to capture the
change in this city: one of its own as president-elect.

 

The One upended the world, but in Chicago he upstaged a sitting king: Richard
M. Daley, son of the original Boss, the Decider Of The Batons in Grant Park all
those years ago. When The One announced he would prevail over the nation on
that very same grass, the son stepped aside and shrugged:

 

“Could you see me saying ‘no’ to Senator Obama? Give me a
break. I’m not that dumb,” he told reporters days earlier. Of course in Chicago, the bullshit
walks when the money talks – The One’s people reportedly paid the mayor $2
million out of pocket for the privilege of the mayor’s ignorance.

 

Yes he can. Of course
you can,
Bob Dylan responds, 48 hours and 70 minutes north at the Riverside in Milwaukee,
a one-minute stroll from an actual bronzed Fonz. People danced in Grant Park,
but where the television cameras did not roll was down Cottage Grove Ave., the storied South
Side Boulevard that hosted the marching heels of Martin Luther King, and where,
less than an hour after The One retreats from the stage, young blacks dance on
the hoods of cars.

 

Dylan plays Summer
Days,
a novelty disguised as a Louis Jordan oldie that his band of
leathered costumed and faced musicians gun at a speed set for seizures.

 

This is the mindless party music the tie-died Great Lakers
bought their tickets for and they boogie on, unaware Dylan is croaking
one-liners under their nose:

 

Politician got on his jogging
shoes

He must be running for
office, got no time to lose

He been suckin’ the
blood out of the genius of generosity

You been rolling your
eyes – you been teasing me

 

Yes he can. When they were once rivals, The One’s VP was
reamed for calling his current running mate “clean, articulate,” but in this
new era where a president can shoehorn a trick bag of terror, torture and tax
breaks into holy writ without losing 40 winks, clean and articulate is in the
least not dirty and dumb. Irony was supposed to be left behind in the rubble of
9-11, but then came Paris Hilton and we forgot.

 

But not The One. He and his Chicago operatives knew: Amnesia
taps Apathy when it’s time to road trip across America, a funeral procession
always disguised as a July Fourth parade; like tigers spinning round the tree,
the only ending in this eight-year victory lap is the one where everything good
melts into saturated cheese.

 

They’re like babies
sittin’ on a woman’s knee

Tweedle-dee Dum and
Tweedle-dee Dee

 

This time Dylan spins his heels from his keyboard and
saunters to the front like dandy Cary Grant miscast in a western; facing the
audience, his fingers hang off his hip like pistols unhitched from their
holsters.

 

He’s in Milwaukee, Beer Town,
except please don’t tell ma: all the god-honest breweries are owned overseas.
Here’s where teenagers scream The One’s name from a passing car one hour
earlier as concertgoers cross the city river. Forty-eight hours earlier Dylan’s
gunslinger act takes place without him in Phoenix
when Maverick reclaims his swagger, free at last from having to halve his brain
to barker the Big Top starring First Dude, Caribou Barbie, Trig, Track, Average
Joe, Joe Sixpack, Joe The Plumber, The Washed-Up Terrorist, Sarah The Barracuda
and the Hockey Mom in the $150,000 couture.

 

Maverick says he blames himself for losing; but behind his
back, his fingers point to Hockey Mom. She never wanted it in the first place,
just warmer weather and a break from Troopergate, plus all those free duds.
Squeezed between Maverick and First Dude, she has the frozen smile of someone
who just got the pink slip back to Wasilla.

 

Tweedle-dee Dee is a lowdown, sorry old man

Tweedle-dee Dum, he’ll
stab you where you stand

“I’ve had too
much of your company,”

Says, Tweedle-dee Dum
to Tweedle-dee Dee

 

Chicago
police more than locals fill the streets on the South Side, where unlike North
of Madison, Tuesday’s celebration is obviously an indoor thing. Long past
midnight the streets are bare except for cops flanking every gas station waiting
for rioters that never show. Just like Baghdad,
it’s the oil that gets the best protection.

 

Why so serious? The Joker asked this summer while standing in the streets of Gotham,
really just a disguised Chicago Loop. If he really wanted the answer, the
creepy clown would have come down here. The Dark Knight would have gotten lost
in this dark night, no matter what time of day, where rows of empty storefronts
and rubble-strewn lots, fast food crap, cratered side streets and Jesus Saves
ministries offer no reason to either celebrate or riot. Here is the physical
manifestation of the Daley Shrug, a terminal condition of policy.

 

The lights fade and the band plays one song in the dark. A
fiddler weaves in and out of music that moves, then hesitates, then again picks
up the pace. Dylan is a lonely devil wandering the streets of the Apocalypse
– when there’s no one’s left to spook, even Satan shrugs and moves along.

 

Ain’t talkin’, just
walkin’

Through this weary
world of woe

Heart burnin’, still
yearnin’

No one on earth would
ever know

 

The only action is at Ashland
and 76th, a Maxwell
Street walk-up where two in the morning stragglers
wait on dogs and fries. Ain’t talkin’,
just walkin’/Eatin’ hog eyed grease in a hog eyed town.
While watching for
her friend to pick up food, one woman passes time in her mini-van sipping wine
from plastic, honking her horn and shouting The One’s name out her window. But
mostly, everyone looks tired, hungry and not happy to get up for work tomorrow
that’s really today.

 

Where are those pundits and radio hosts that predicted the
flames and broken glass and chaotic masses who do the same no matter if they’re
angry or elated? These gatekeepers of America’s Official Conversation the
kind accompanied by book tours and front row stadium seats, are under
many-threaded linens, behind gates, across states.

 

In the backyard of The One, the only outbursts happen at
stoplights: smiles between drivers, a pumped fist, a slammed horn.

 

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said a 47-year-old man waiting on
food to bring home to his family. The One’s victory “is not based on him being
African-American, because if an African-American was on the Republican ticket,
he wouldn’t have won. He was the most qualified – bottom line.”

 

Even one of South Side’s last remaining soul clubs is
closing shop. At Linda’s Place, on 51st St. in Englewood,
the owners, a married couple, are shutting the lights after their election
party. “It means a lot to have (The One) here,” says the husband – also the
bandleader every Monday night over the last 17 years – “I recall when blacks
couldn’t vote.” He neglects to say that at age 63, that once included him. But
even so, there’s no time for that, it’s late, it’s time to go home.

 

Shrug. The reality of Chicago
is it is a low-key city. Here is a place where the weathermen – the guys
suggesting you remember an umbrella tomorrow, not the revolutionaries – are
major celebrities. Everyone pals around with terrorists here. The mayor shrugs
at the headlines screaming corruption and as long as he keeps planting flowers
downtown, everyone looks away too.

 

Eggheads and street kids file home from the train near The
One’s home. The longest line is of cars backed up at McDonald’s. You try to
drive by his home, but the police stop you – there’s a six-block perimeter and
at the lip of each alley and intersection, is a bored cop leaning against a
barricade.

 

Neighbors now must show IDs to bring groceries home or take
their kid to school. It won’t end unless The One moves to the suburbs or a
ranch in Texas.
This is the reality of electing a world leader from Chicago, where the gated communities are far
in the sticks, a place where zoning laws are designed to somehow make
cornfields regal.

 

Shrug. So far, ID checks are a burden Hyde
Park accepts. This side of town doesn’t suffer from the national
amnesia. Earlier that night you spent time in Chatham, 98% black according to the 2000
census. When Maverick wins the Southern states and Texas, conversation steers to racism, not
the abstract kind reserved for talk shows. People talk about their first time
being called nigger, with the nonchalance of how others talk about their first
concert.

 

A day spa owner from Flossmoor says she was ten when two
boys on their front steps called her nigger when she took a walk through Bridgeport, Daley’s
neighborhood. Her friend the real estate assessor recalls a run-in with
unmasked members of the Klu Klux Klan while visiting relatives in Missouri. Coming from
adults younger than The One, who’s 47, nigger is still not “the N word,” which
is the first lesson in teaching that the colors of the Two Americas are not red
and blue.

 

“People say about this election – does that mean we’re done
[with racism]?'” says their host. “It’s better. You still have subtle forms of
racism in the workplace, but this is better. There’s hope.”

 

Yes we can. Dylan’s former teenage paramour Mavis Staples
lives nearby. The very day The One is elected she releases Hope At the Hideout, a live CD recorded at the Chicago music room, a collection of Civil
Rights-era empowerment classics she made famous with her family’s gospel group
The Staples Singers.

 

In his twiggy days festooned with hair, Dylan tagged behind
the Staples when the group brought the music from Chicago
churches and sang alongside King in Alabama
and on the great mall in Wash. D.C. She is still singing those songs – at the
Hideout last June it included Eyes on the
Prize
and For What It’s Worth, titles alone that sound like snippets of conversation you’ve been overhearing
all night.

 

Tuesday is the night when Devil in a Woodpile, a country
blues trio, is in residence, and this night is no different. Outside the
Hideout, a wall-sized banner of The One is draped over the building and inside
is a dance party that goes on long after closing time thanks to the free
drinks; it’s okay, the Alderman’s there and he’s imbibing too.

 

Except before you arrive to get your share, you’re on South
Chicago Ave., a diagonal street that happens to cross the street named for
Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who made the unfortunate mistake of whistling
at a white woman in 1941 and ended up with his eyes gouged out, a bullet
through his head and his body dressed in barbed wire and dumped in the
Tallahatchie River. An anchor at the local NBC affiliate brings up Till before
you head out the door and minutes later you’re crossing his street in the
neighborhood he grew up.

 

At the stoplight the man in the car next to you waves. This
is the routine of the night and you know what to do. Except this time he points
to the curb and you steer behind. He needs to talk and on the side of the road,
in the night chill of 3 a.m., conversation starts with The One but doesn’t stay
there long.

 

Crippled all his life from exposure to Agent Orange when he
served as a marine in Vietnam,
the man, 65, tells you his life since his service has been a struggle to pay
medical bills, keep a family, satisfy his woman.

 

“I ain’t got nuthin’,” he says.

 

You smell proof on his breath. He laughs, he gets angry, he
trembles – after 40-plus years he’s still seeking strangers to talk this
out.

 

Dylan stands before the audience, his legs in constant
motion. Unlike the hard and fast blues of most of the night, this music gently
rolls. A white, wide-brimmed hat shelters the harmonica he raises to his lips
to play a solo of just one repeating note that sounds like a winded heartbeat
of a long, troubled life.

 

Well, they burned my
barn, they stole my horse

I can’t save a dime

I got to be careful, I
don’t want to be forced

Into a life of
continual crime

I can see for myself
that the sun is sinking

How I wish you were
here to see

Tell me now, am I
wrong in thinking

That you have
forgotten me?

 

“They poisoned me,” your new friend tells you and then
starts crying.

 

He excuses himself to take a curbside leak. A police wagon
hits the brakes slightly and when you tell them everything’s fine, they drive
away.

 

Yes we can. You want him to hear those waves of jubilant
voices from all the way downtown, but by now, the city’s silent; everyone’s
settled, they’re asleep.

 

 

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