OK, I presume that I’m not “giving away the ending” by celebrating Obama’s win right here at the top of this post. If this is news to you at this point, you probably aren’t reading anything on the internet, anyway.
Anyway, my daytime activities were surprisingly busy, but of little consequence for our story today. The only thing worth noting is that I was a nervous, twitchy, anxious mess the whole day long. It didn’t help that I skipped lunch and drank coffee non-stop, which made things even worse.
After finishing my English class around 19h00, I headed home and got ready to head back out again. Breakfast in America was staying open for the election results, so I thought it would be good to meet up with friends for dinner there, then move on to another, more massive party for the election results. While I was near home, I went to a Monoprix and picked up a bottle of champagne. I suspected that I would probably find champagne wherever I went tonight, but I felt like I needed a “backup” champagne bottle. In the case that the election is announced while I’m standing on a street somewhere, I was gonna crack that shit open and guzzle it in the street, possibly pouring it over myself and dancing in the puddle.
My main goal for the evening was to find myself in a big crowd of people, preferably ex-pat left-leaning Americans or some other group that would be likely to go into hysterics if/when Obama won. I desperately wanted to be part of the hyperventilating crowd that later appeared in Grant Park in Chicago, and so finding a similar mob of affect here in Paris was my consolation.
There was going to be an official Democrats Abroad / Republicans Abroad election party, but it was a gala event that would cost a lot of money. Thankfully, the Paris chapter of the Americans Abroad for Obama were also having a party at the Palais M. conference hall / club at Porte Maillot. It promised to charge only a 5€ cover, and it was supposed to involve mostly young American ex-pats.
When I finally got to Breakfast in America, champagne in hand, there was a line all the way down the block, filled unsurprisingly by Frenchy people. I took a look inside the small restaurant and saw that every table was taken, and nobody was hurrying up to leave their table. We were likely to spend the whole night there, waiting for a nonexistent table.
I got in line and then called two of my friends that were supposed to be meeting me there. In the 15 minutes it took to catch up with me there, the lineup had moved about 1 metre. We took stock of our situation, decided that we were too hungry (and grumpy) and headed over to The Moose, instead. The Moose, as you might recall from my blog posts from last year, is a Canadian bar that serves Unibroue beers and poutine. Can’t ask for more. We made our way over there, waited about 10 minutes for a table, and then finally ordered up some delicious, delicious poutine. Mmmm.
The Moose, however, is primarily a sports bar, so they didn’t have CNN playing on any of the screens. When we asked the bar staff, they told us that they would change the channel around midnight. It was barely 23h00, we had already eaten, and the bar staff had pointedly taken away our dishes and put the bill on the table. We decided to head to my place for a while, to watch the first results as they rolled in. I was still going to go to Porte Maillot for the party there, but since that party wasn’t going to start until midnight, we decided to hang out at my place. If I had known then how crowded and chaotic it would be over there, I would’ve gone there right away.
Anyway, on the way over to my place, one of my friends got a call from two of his friends, whom he invited to join us at my place. My fears that this was going to turn from pit-stop to house-party intensified as we swung by a late-night shop to buy beer and wine. When we got to my place, my friends and the other two guests settled in and looked like they weren’t going anywhere soon. I wasn’t planning on having guests that night, so my place was a mess; I spent the next hour or so puttering around the apartment, cleaning up around my guests as they watched the election coverage.
Of the two friends-of-friends that had been invited along, one was very nice and the other was insufferable. He demanded translations of the news coverage and explanations of the US voting system, and then endlessly feigned outrage at the perceived flaws in the system. Continually comparing US electoral processes to French ones, he went so far as to claim that the US was “like a third-world country.” He was especially scandalized by the fact that there were long lines to vote, pointing out that there were never any of these problems in France. Well, duh; the US has a population of 303 million, while France has 62 million, including its overseas territories, AND each state has the right to make its own voting laws. There are a lot of things that are wrong about the way elections are done in the US, but the smug superiority of this guy was both exasperatingly stereotypical and completely unnecessary on a night when the US was about to make a historical presidential choice. (I’m also willing to believe that I was a bit biased against him because he looked like a younger, gayer Sarkozy.)
Anyway, all of this was grating on me and I was watching the clock ticking away my chances to catch the last train to Porte Maillot. At around 0h45, I finally suggested to them that I would leave a spare key with them and they could lock up afterwards. I was totally serious about the offer, but nonetheless the gesture seemed to make them feel awkward enough to leave with me. Fine, I just wanted to get to Porte Maillot.
We parted ways in front of my place and I, champagne bottle in hand, headed for the subway. I was lucky enough to make the transfer at Reaumur-Sebastopol to the 4 line and then get to Châtelet, but I missed the connection to the 1 line. While trying to figure out if the garbled announcements in the station confirmed the termination of service, I was approached by a guy with an Anglophone accent asking the same thing. We got talking and it turns out he was heading to the same election party and was Canadian from Toronto. Small world.
We scrambled up to the surface and looked for the night-bus stops. We eventually found the right one (after a bit of confusion) and a little while later we were on our way. The bus ride was long, dropping us off in front of Porte Maillot just before 2h00.
What met us at the Palais M. conference hall / club was madness. From a distance, it was a cluster of young people pushing and yelling, and a few confused-looking older folks caught up in the crowd. Oddly enough, it seemed like almost half of the young folks were French; there was supposed to be a special election party at one of the Paris universities for them, but apparently it was already beyond capacity, so I think they spilled over to this event. In any case, the place looked like an exceptionally disorganized version of a nightclub lineup. There were two besieged-looking staffers from Americans Abroad for Obama checking people’s names off of a list while a few of the security guards were pushing people back.
My fellow canuck, smart man that he is, had a plan. He said, “One sec, I’m working on it,” and then positioned himself in the throng so that he could look over the shoulder of one of the staffers. He got a look at the list and eventually picked out a name that had been already crossed off. Then, he got the attention of a passing security guard and said, “Hey, I’m an American and my friend XXXX is already in there. Could me and my friend go join him?” He checked the list for the name, nodded and then pulled us through the crowd. Yay! I had never tried pulling a move like that at a club, by I filed that tactic away in my mental rolodex for later use.
Palais M. is apparently a club that is often used on the weekends for super-glamorous balls for the young and wealthy in the 16th and 17th arrondissements. This made for an odd and amusing scene inside: two gigantic chandeliers, modern-looking décor, the entire staff wearing 3-piece suits or cocktail dresses, 10€ drinks, but also a decidedly non-glamorous (and multi-racial) throng of people in Obama t-shirts, projection screens hanging in several places around the room showing CNN coverage, layers of Obama posters hanging from the walls. Here’s a few pics and a snippet of video from the event (you can find more photos in my Facebook album):
I stayed there until the end, around 6h30, so there’s no use in trying to recount the whole thing in narrative detail. Instead, here are some interesting anecdotes, in no particular order:
1. During Obama’s acceptance speech, just as he make an applause-producing remark, an older female voice rose up from the other end of the crowd, “You tell him, boy!” After a moment of stunned silence, a younger male voice from the back of the room yelled, “He’s not a boy, motherfucker!” Everyone else in the rooms studiously ignored the exchange and listened to Obama’s speech (awkwardly).
2. There was a DJ working at the club, who was obviously under instructions to play music during commercial breaks. This created some hilarious unintended synchronies between the music he was playing and the commercials passing silently on the screens. For example: while Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” was playing, The London School of Business was airing a commercial that involved a blonde woman with long hair in a slate-grey pantsuit walking around a lawn and speaking in a business-like manner into the camera, as if to say, “Hi! I may have a vagina, but I can frown and slice my hand through the air just like any other asshole manager you’ve met.” There were many other amusing moments like this.
3. Once Obama’s victory had been called by CNN, the DJ seemed to be under instructions to just keep playing music over the broadcast, as if the commentary that would come afterward was unimportant. This annoyed me, since I could see that they were interviewing ecstatic crowds in various places in the US, making comments on the significance of the event and even breaking down and crying. Dammit, I’m a specialist on affect and publics; this is part of what I came here to see. When coverage switched over to a reporter located in Ebenezer Baptist Church (MLK’s church), the crowd mutinied, yelling at the DJ and making various hand-signals to him to cut the music. At first he resisted, clearly confused as to why the crowd would suddenly be interested in the coverage, but he eventually relented and we got to hear a CNN correspondent try to yell into her microphone over the din of people screaming and crying and singing.
4. When the election was finally called for Obama, there was a whole range of reactions. Some people clapped and smiled peaceably—almost with relief—some people screamed and cried and looked like they were going to faint, some people made out, some people exchanged high-fives. I made as much noise as I could, and then got to dancing as the DJ cut the TV audio and put on some music.
5. While I was definitely elated to hear of Obama’s victory, I think the strongest feeling I had were when the CNN coverage switched to Grant Park, Chicago, to cover Obama’s speech. It nearly killed me to know that I could’ve been there if I hadn’t gone to Paris, that I couldn’t be part of the collective effervescence going on over there, that I couldn’t be with my American friends. On the other hand, it finally hit me that this event was a real thing, that I and millions of others could finally feel relief and—for a moment, least—allow ourselves to relax. The mixture of happiness, relief, anguish and longing was really hard on me.
6. Throughout the entirety of Obama’s speech, I kept on having near-hallucinations of a bullet passing through his head in mid-speech. The terror was enough to set my affect-systems on fire, like the adrenaline rush you get when a friend sneaks up from behind you. After the speech, someone pointed out that he had been surrounded on-stage by a wall of bullet-proof glass. WHY DIDN’T SOMEONE TELL ME THAT EARLIER? Jeezus.
7. Throughout the event, light-fingered folks started taking “souvenirs” from the event’s décor. It started with some of the smaller posters here and there, and by the height of the event kids were pulling down some of the large-format glossy (and clearly expensive) posters and rolling them up. The security folks were clearly uninterested in preventing the theft, and the organizers didn’t seem to notice until it was too late. As we left the event that morning, two students in front of us reached up and pulled down a string of plastic American flags. One of the organizers was nearby and he grabbed the other end of the string, yelling, “NO! Stop!! You can’t steal this, too! Motherfucker…” I felt his frustration, although swearing at guests wasn’t particularly classy.
8. There was a sort of V.I.P. section at the party reserved for volunteers of the Obama campaign. My canuck party-companion pointed out that they looked a bit ambivalent about the crowd, eyeing them with apprehension that said, “Where were you when we were canvassing?”
9. As we headed for the subway, my fellow canuck said, “You know, it feels like the crowd didn’t really gel tonight.” He was right. I don’t know if it was the unpleasantness at the door, the separation of volunteers from other attendees, the overcrowding in the club, the odd contrast between the mixed-class crowd and the snobby surroundings or what. Regardless, the crowd never quite felt like it came together as an assemblage of sorts, pulsating with a shared energy. I had kinda hoped for that. That’s why I felt so conflicted when I saw the crowds in Chicago. That was the kind of ecstatic throng I had wanted to immerse myself in.
10. For the record, McCain’s acceptance speech was far more classy than anything he’s said since last spring. There were lots of people during this election cycle expressing disappointment at how McCain’s campaign tactics slid from the decency he had promised to the sort of fearmongering and ad hominem distortions that went on during the summer and fall.
11. When I saw Sarah Palin tearing up onstage during McCain’s concession speech, I was completely unable to feel compassion for her. I didn’t really feel any sort of sadistic pleasure at her defeat (just relief). I consciously tried to muster some pity / sympathy, but I kept on flashing to scenes of her “palling around with terrorists” attack on Obama and the consequent spike in hate speech and assassination threats at her campaign rallies.