Where I was When

by Garnett Kilberg Cohen

I was there. In 2008 when Barrack Obama won the presidency, I stood right there in Grant Park in Chicago at his election night party, packed into the forest of cheering people, behind thousands of swaying figures, their torsos silhouetted in the brilliant stadium lighting like children’s drawings of tree’s with lollipop heads. I’m not much over five feet, so I couldn’t see everything, but it was enough to be part of the crowd that erupted whenever a state turned blue on the giant screen of CNN.

I was there, standing on my tiptoes, when the crowd broke into the final loud and ceaseless roar, louder than those that preceded it, though it took me a moment to grasp the significance.

“What happened?” I asked, tapping the shoulder of the leaping woman beside me, her red hair ribbon bobbing. She turned and looked down into my face—when had everyone grown so tall?—and screamed.

“We won! We won!”

The helicopters hovering above seemed to drop lower in the sky, moving their surveillance closer with the news. I could imagine the pilots in their glass bubbles, serious and stiff, their lips barely moving as they spoke into their mouthpieces: we have a president. We have a president. Most of what I saw on the stage, I saw on the tiny screens of the thousands of cell phone screens that people held above our heads, like flickering lighters once used to toast musicians at concerts. Thousands of miniature images of our future, of our new president. After weeks of stress, it happened so fast. Waiting longer wouldn’t have bothered me. The bad views and the tightness of the crowd didn’t bother me—I needed to be there.

 

As I rode down in the cab to meet my husband and friends at Miller’s Pub before walking to the park, I wondered what prompted the need. What was wrong with sitting five miles north of the event and watching in the comfort of my home? I wondered why it was important to be in the place the event was occurring, and what the connection was between time, place, and memory.

“I’ll drop you as close as I can,” said the cabbie. “But it’s all blocked off down there.”

“Wabash isn’t blocked,” I said.

“We’ll see,” he said.

Originally from Ecuador, he had lived in the states thirty years and was eligible to vote, but hadn’t.

“I was for Hillary,” he said. “Obama should have been her vice president, gotten people used to him, used to a minority in office before being president. They are going to assassinate him.”

“I can understand your concern,” I ventured. “But I don’t see that as a reason not to vote for him; he was the best person for the job.”

I know it is a mistake to argue too vehemently with cabbies.

“Ten families run this country and they aren’t going to take orders from a minority. He needed them to get used to him first.”

“Well, maybe, if they don’t like him, he’ll be more independent and won’t have to be involved with them”

I didn’t bother arguing the power of these families—or think to ask their names. The Bushes were one I figured, the Clintons—who were the others?

“No, they just won’t let him get anything done. I’ve seen it in Ecuador. I hope he doesn’t, but I think they’ll assassinate him.” He pulled the cab to the curb. “This is as close as I can get.”

The streets were clear ahead, not blocked, just a few cars. He easily could have taken me closer to my destination. I didn’t argue. I gave him a big tip. He wasn’t going to sour my mood.

I walked west, joining the swarms of pedestrians on the sidewalks, all headed in the same direction. There had been one presidential assassination in my lifetime. As with everyone who was alive that day, I remembered where I was at the moment I heard; I would always remember. I was sitting in my fifth grade classroom when a teacher came in and told my teacher, Mrs. Reinhart, that Kennedy had been shot. As the two ashen-faced teachers stood whispering, Billy H made a joke about Lincoln’s assassination. Smiling, he slumped from the chair attached to his desk as if he had just taken a bullet to the temple. I remember the grin on his chubby face and the titters of nervous laughter; we knew it was inappropriate to laugh, but we didn’t know what else to do. I remember Billy’s crew-cut, his pale taupe-colored cheeks puffed out from his smile like the crests of muffin tops. I remember the light fixtures where our cut-outs of brown construction-paper turkeys dangled by strings, each one decorated with pasted magazines pictures of things for which we were thankful. I hadn’t been happy with my turkey. The cuttings were neater than most of the other children’s, still a little of the paste had seeped out, darkening the paper. More important, my turkey hadn’t captured the spirit I wanted. Once again, I had tried too hard. My neatness was marred with paste, and the magazines I had used for clippings hadn’t yielded the images I wanted. I don’t remember Billy being scolded—and those were the days when boys were frequently pulled by their shirt collars into the cloak (an anachronism if ever there was one) room for whippings—I think Mrs. Reinhart was too stunned.

We were dismissed early. Most mothers didn’t work outside the home in those days, so they didn’t think our parents needed to be warned. I remember children running down the tree-lined streets from Oviatt Elementary in Hudson, Ohio, shouting “the president has been shot! The president has been shot!” Their tones couldn’t be described as gleeful or mean-spirited, yet the excitement in their voices was undeniable. No one my age comprehended what the death meant. We had only heard the word assassination in connection with Lincoln (thus, Billy’s dramatic illustration). We simply knew that we had been released early from school—unprecedented on a sunny autumn day—and that something very big had happened. We knew that for a moment we had been pulled from our ordinary lives into an event that had stopped the world as we knew it.

 

A line snaked down the sidewalk from the entrance to Miller’s Pub. My husband didn’t own a cell phone so I had no way to change the meeting place. I joined the end of the line, practicing my lecture on the arrogant inconsideration of those who refused to buy cell phones (the same one a friend had used to convince me to purchase mine) when I saw him through the window, seated at a two-top, enjoying a beer and a pork chop. I sallied to the front of the line where the burly doorman let me inside after I explained I had a table waiting. The restaurant atmosphere felt festive. CNN flickered from corners of the ceiling. Every bit of good news elicited yelps and applause from the diners.

This was going to be one of those times in my life when I would always remember where I was when I heard the news. We all have them. When I look back now, it seems that most of them were tragic events. Deaths. The historic ones, like Kennedy’s death, are remembered by everyone who was alive that day and old enough to understand. The question—“where were you when?”—has become synonymous with such events. But each life contains many personal moments of connecting news with a time and place—the surrounding seared in memories as indelibly as the news itself.

My first personal moment of remembering “where I was when” occurred when Betsy Schreiber died. She was about seven-years old and I was about eight. She was my best friend, the girl down the block. Our parents were friends, too, though my mother made it clear that some of their practices that I envied—like Twinkie and potato chip snacks and their silver foil Christmas tree, sprayed with color from revolving floor lights—were tacky. Betsy’s older sister and my older sister were friends. I had a crush on her older brother, Ricky, who reminded me of Ricky Nelson on Ozzie and Harriet. Betsy had a blonde pixie haircut, and she gave out hair wreaths made of miniature roses as party favors at her last birthday party. Her wreath clasped her head like a floral halo; mine pinched my head and kept creeping up, trying to pop off. Betsy squatted and crossed her legs when she had to pee and was not near a bathroom, a habit I viewed as weak, unladylike, and the product of poor planning. They were from New York so her parents had funny accents. Her father was a salesman and, like all the fathers who were salesmen, he talked and smiled a lot, a practiced storyteller. He and his wife, Irene, were wonderful dancers. They seemed older than the other parents on our street. They were also Catholics, which meant lots of rituals to envy, and little knowing smiles from my mother that suggested condescension toward these rituals though she wasn’t quite as forthcoming about them as she was about the silver Christmas tree and the Twinkies.

When I heard about Betsy, I was sitting in the rocking chair, watching an old black and white cowboy movie (it was before I had even seen a color television) on the big old four-legged set that squatted in our living room. My mother had painted the mock wood of the enormous box green to match the bookcases. My mother walked in the front door and said, “Betsy’s dead.”

I kept rocking. A glamorous cowgirl on a horse trotted into a close-up on the screen. Her wide-brimmed hat was tilted coquettishly over her perfectly coiffed hair. I remember her name was Garnett, the same as mine, but I don‘t think that can be right. Somehow the woman on the horse and my name must have become conflated in my memory. I continued rocking back and forth, neither increasing nor decreasing my speed. That is always what happens now, when I hear news that I will come to remember in association with a time and place. Time does not stand still; it moves in place like a swaying hammock or a rocker: movement that is paradoxical, motion without progress or advancement.

Some of the moments that have stayed etched in my mind fall somewhere between the personal and the historical. They have nothing to do with my life and, though newsworthy, I doubt they registered in the universal consciousness the way Kennedy’s assignation did. Still, they affected me profoundly:

 

I was in a Dairy Queen when Patty Hearst was arrested. The radio station playing in the cool air-conditioned little dining room interrupted the music in progress to make the announcement. I had followed her travails obsessively, fascinated with the fact that her life had changed so profoundly, so quickly.

 

I was trapped in the tiny Ohio country cottage I shared with my son, trying to push the front door outward into a snowdrift that had blown against it, when Gary Gilmore was shot by firing squad. I could not believe our country had returned to the barbarism of capital punishment.

 

I was in the kitchen of my house in St. Joseph, Michigan, when I learned from a transistor radio sitting on the kitchen counter that John Lennon had been killed. I couldn’t get it out of my head that John Lennon was alive one minute and gone the next.

 

I wasn’t there for any of these events but they were somehow there for me. They symbolized times—or more aptly, ends of times.

 

I had a gin and tonic and a spinach pie appetizer in Miller’s Pub. It was warm for November so the fresh lime tasted right, and I knew that the gin, unlike beer and wine, would actually energize me—not that anyone needed it that night. When we emerged on the street, Sandi and Linc, our friends with the tickets, came walking toward us: perfect timing. The four of us joined the throngs walking in the direction of Grant Park. A carnival-like atmosphere prevailed; cops on horseback, peddlers selling Obama t-shirts and souvenirs, and, as we got closer, the carless streets filled with people. Everyone was happy. I knew that could easily turn if Obama lost. Some people said it was too dangerous to go downtown. (Later, one person told me he had already picked out the stores he planned to loot if the election had been stolen.). A huge perimeter had been created around the party area. From above, it must have resembled a giant donut, with Hutchinson’s field, where 70,000 people would congregate, becoming the central hole. At one point as we were funneled toward the entrance for ticket holders, the bodies were so tightly packed that I was moved along with the crowd almost as forcefully as when I had fallen out of a canoe on Belize river and was carried away by the current. I remembered reports of people being trampled at concerts and soccer matches. I reminded myself that this crowd was happy and that we would soon be poured into a large section of the park shaped like the scoop of a shovel, a curved hill with a slope down to the flat ground with the stage and screen erected at the far end. We spread out as soon as we got beyond the first of the three entrance check points.

In 1970, I was a high school student among the 30,000 present in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia for the first Earth Day. Though my family had not lived in Philadelphia long and I only had a couple friends, I managed to find a few people to skip school with me. I loved being part of the crowd, hearing the speeches, feeling the sun on my face, and seeing all the hippie regalia (I had been just a little too young to fully partake of the sixties.) I was there and I tried to feel my there-ness, but time did not sway; it moved as it usually did. No single image stands out from that day. I don’t even remember the people with me. Was it because it wasn’t tragic?

On September 11, 2001, I was lounging late in bed when the first tower was struck. The phone rang. Vicky was on the other end.

“Are you watching this?”

“What?”

“It’s on all the news. A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center,” and here my memory stops. I can’t remember whether only the first tower had been hit or if both had been struck before she called. I clicked on the television at the end of the bed and watched the plane (a re-run of the first or live footage of the second?). I told my husband, a born New Yorker who made Betsy Schreiber’s father’s accent sound mild, when he returned from the shower to dress for work.

“Thank God it wasn’t the Chrysler Building,” he said. It hadn’t really sunk in yet that it wasn’t just a building; it was people inside the building. And it wasn’t clear yet whether collision was an accident or an attack. Yet I knew it was big. I felt time being altered.

“Maybe you shouldn’t go in today?”

He looked at me as if I was crazy. Why would an event in New York stop him from going into work in Chicago? Accidents happened every day.

When I called my office, the second tower had definitely been struck; I was told nothing was cancelled, classes were proceeding normally. I got up, dressed, made coffee, and wondered what to do. I didn’t teach that day but I had a long list of administrative duties. The phone rang. It was my office telling me not to come in; everything was shutting down. I called my friend, Elizabeth, in California. We had known each other from the time we were about ten. For a few years of our childhood we lived next door to one another in Ohio. She was the one who had preached to me about the inconsideration in not owning a cell phone.

“Have you heard?”

Her sister, Tori, had just called from Ohio to tell her.

Elizabeth and I stayed on the phone most of the day. We weren’t always talking; sometime we just watched television together–me curled up on a couch in Chicago with coffee, her in Los Angeles. It was comforting to have a line open that cut across the United States. What if all communication ceased? If we hung up, would we be able to reach each other again? When one of us found a station that appeared to have new information, we directed the other to it. I got up when I heard jets roaring overhead in the dead air space above my three flat. Preparing for an attack in Chicago? Elizabeth and I conjectured about the events. I said they should check flying schools to find the culprits. She said it was easy to fly and crash a plane; anyone could do it. She had steered a plane when she was a child because her father had been an amateur pilot. We debated the point, pausing whenever more developments occurred on television. By the time we hung up, my right ear felt waxy and warm. Before dinner, I walked to a small neighborhood park a few blocks away. No one walked the streets. The quietness felt eerie. Crayoned drawings of flags were taped inside many windows. A spontaneous gesture, the hand-drawn flags touched me (later, when displaying a flag became a litmus test for one’s patriotism, the proliferation of them would repel me).

I wasn’t there, I wasn’t in New York, but the moment in time was there for me and I suspect will remain there as long as I have memory.

Obviously there is a connection between shock and memory. Shock can stimulate or wipe out memory. Online I found some very preliminary data that suggested the possibility that electric shock might restore memory in some Alzheimer’s patients. Even before any significant scientific investigation on memory, we instinctively believed in the connection between shock and memory. In the movies of my youth, amnesia was often shown to be induced by a bang to the head; the primitive cure for the movie character was usually a similar unexpected whack. Large events, good or bad, often extort memory. So, it follows that a part of wanting to be there is the urge to invigorate memory. What is life besides the very moment in which we exist and our memories of all the moments prior to that current moment? So for me, the daughter and granddaughter of Alzheimer’s sufferers, the desire to create and preserve memory is essential. And what could be more eventful, shocking, and, from my perspective, good, than seeing Barack Obama, the first African American to run for president, be elected—to actually share the patch of grass in the universe where he made his acceptance speech? He was the predicted winner, yet after the previous two presidential elections, it seemed likely that the election could be stolen. That was why so many of us went door to door asking people to vote early and another reason why I wanted to be there.

The night offered a moment that would resonate and echo through the latter years of my life . To see his win seemed worth the risk of the frenzy of an angry crowd if he lost. To risk and to remember is to live. We are our memories of where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and what we’ve seen and heard.

 

Along with the heads that blocked my view in Grant Park rippled, a large, waving, hand-held American flag rippled across the CNN screen at key moments. A few of us grumbled, but not much. For the first time in a very long time (perhaps since junior high for me), the flag belonged to all of us again, not just the arch conservatives. It was no longer a symbol to be used (or not used) to tout one’s patriotism. It was a symbol of a country where not only people from with money could be elected president, but anyone who was smart and good and worked hard.

Two large African American men stood in front of me in the crowd; whenever a state turned blue, their fists rose above their heads in the black power salutes given at the 1968 Olympics. Watching them, I remembered being puzzled by the outraged reactions to the Olympic salutes. (Even at that time, the gestures looked grave and respectable to me.) I don’t remember what the men in front of me did when Obama was announced president. I only remember the frenzy, tapping the shoulder of the woman with the bobbing red hair ribbon, the dip of the helicopters, and I remember crying and hugging a stranger. One gay man near me dropped to his knees, sobbing, “It’s over, it’s over.” I wonder if he would have believed it then that before the end of Obama’s term in office, gay men would have the right to legally marry. A little later, while Obama spoke, one of the black men in front of me turned, placed his heavy hands on my shoulders and walked me in front of him. He did something similar with Sandi.

“Here, stand in front of me,” he said, smiling. “You can’t see from back there.”

Later, I didn’t feel the need to be there, in Washington, for the inauguration. Although the seventy thousand people in Grant Park didn’t bother me, I thought the million plus in D.C. might. Besides, I believed—barring any tragic surprises—I knew what would happen. He would be sworn-in. In Grant Park, I had not known for certain. I was in a retina clinic with my mother at the moment Barrack Obama took the oath. (In addition to Alzheimer’s, she has glaucoma and macular generation. I took her for monthly injection in her eyes with a hair-thin needles.) The office had temporarily installed a small television with fuzzy reception in the waiting room. When the moment arrived, the doctors, nurses, patients, and technicians all came out from the examination room to crowd around the tiny television. No one spoke while he took the oath. Afterwards, there was a burst of applause. Co-workers hugged. I think I will always remember that moment, partly for the normalcy of the setting. There is an otherworldliness about hearing amazing things–Betsy’s death, President Kennedy’ assassination, Patty Hearst’s capture, 9-11—in ordinary settings.

Afterward the election night party in Grant Park, Sandi and Linc rode their bikes home. My husband and I headed for the El. The streets, empty of cars, streamed with packs of people. It looked and felt the way I imagined a revolution should feel, a peaceful revolution. We all felt we had done our part; we were tired, but pleasantly so. The rickety wooden El station platforms were so crowded that they trembled; no one seemed to mind having to wait for another train after the first one, then the second one, filled to bursting. In the morning I received an e-mail from my aunt in Connecticut. Her first sentence read: “Were you there?”

 

Eight years later, my husband and I are on our couch in our den as we watch states on our television screen turn red. I go to bed before it is over. The next day, I need to go downtown (the college where I teach is in the loop, near the heart of the city, across from Grant Park) to observe another teacher. The streets are eerily quiet, the way they were on the evening of September 11, 2001. They feel less crowded than usual. On my way to catch the bus home, I see two young women, barefoot, dressed in black, cradling clumps of white feathers, some of which escape and float around them as they walk. I follow them into traffic. A friend of theirs films them. She tells me that they are performance artists in mourning. They look sad and lovely.

Later protests will break out in Chicago, in New York, in cities all over the country. For the first time in my life, we have a president with no governing experience, no record of public service, and worse, a history of statements and actions that range from insensitivity and disrespect of women, African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, the disabled, and other marginalized groups, to downright hatred. After the election, schools and colleges send out notices that people of all creeds, ethnicities and races are welcome. When before has this happened—needed to happen—after a presidential election?

Facebook turns ugly. People blaming each other or telling each other to get over it. Nude posts of Trump’s wife. Angry women. Frightened members of the groups that Trump or his followers have targeted. I have never seen the word “fuck” used as freely on Facebook.

I understand the protesters but do not join them. Given the man was just legally elected, protests at this time feel futile. I also know how angry I felt when Trump said he would not accept the election results if he lost. As much as I dislike it, he is the president-elect. I want to follow Michelle Obama’s advice of “when they go low, we go high.”

 

One week after the election, I see a student of mine who was so anxious on the day of the election that she announced she couldn’t think or sit still. I tell her that I have been thinking about her and wondering how she is handling the result. She tells me she hasn’t been thinking about it. The day after the election, she took a bus to Minnesota to take activist and organizational training. She seemed excited to get started. I think that’s when things really began to turn around for me. That night on Facebook, I noticed that instead of all the orange-hair idiot posts, people were starting to post actions we can take–numbers to call (senators and congressmen to oppose non-elected decisions, like Bannon), places to give money (ACLU, Southern Poverty Law, Habitat for Humanity), working for the mid-term elections, getting people to the polls—and pledging to continue to post positive steps we can take.

I think I might be ready to attend the Million Women March in January.

That is where I am now.

***

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Garnett Kilberg Cohen has published three collections of short stories, most recently Swarm to Glory (2014). Her fiction has won the Crazyhorse National Fiction Prize, the Lawrence Foundation Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review, and a Special Mention from the Pushcart. Her nonfiction has appeared i many journals, including The Gettysburg review, Brevity, The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, and twice received Notable Essay Citations from Best American Essays (2011 and 2015). A professor at Columbia College Chicago, Garnett is the editor of Punctuate, a nonfiction journal.

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