The Inauguration: View from a Chicago Diner

At the risk of sounding cliché, hope was in the air as thick as the smell of grilling bacon and the steam from oatmeal and grits in a small diner on Chicago’s west side crowded with customers watching the inauguration festivities on a small T.V.

Luke Bowman, a 36-year-old cook, was bubbling with excitement, shouting out Obama’s name and stepping up to the T.V. between each flip of a pancake or egg thrown on the grill.

“White people better watch out!” he cried, but not in a divisive way, rather in a warm and light-hearted tone that included the joint’s few white customers in the joke.

“I’m not white, I’m Italian,” shot back one of them.

What Bowman meant was he felt the decades of slavery, oppression and marginalization suffered by black people in the U.S. will quickly start to melt away thanks to Obama’s move into the White House and the fact that so many Americans of all races had voted for him.

Herlen Collins, a 55-year-old African American truck repairman, didn’t want to cast the moment in racial terms. “Whether you’re white, black or green, who cares, we just need to come together and make a change,” he said. “Things can’t get any worse, you can’t get a loan, you can’t get a car, I’m working harder and making less money. Everything needs to change. That needs to change,” he says pointing to an ancient pay phone on the wall, “and that needs to change,” he says pointing to the stained Formica counter.

Amid the rowdy celebration Fred Holloway, a quiet 74-year-old cook born in Tennessee who came to Chicago in 1953, leans against the back wall savoring the moment. “I like it, baby,” he says softly. “I never thought this would happen in my lifetime. I knew it would happen but I didn’t think I would live to see it.”

Barber Terrance Howard, 30, hopes Obama will be an inspiration for his teenage brothers and will restore international good will toward the U.S. “He won’t do all the things Bush did like going around the world looking for oil and secret weapons that aren’t really there, with soldiers dying for no reason.”

Truck driver Charles Strickland, 55, and his friend Alfredo Gale, 68, are highly cynical about politics. “When I was a teenager going down to City Hall all the hustling was out in the open, that’s the Chicago style, crooked politicians,” said Gale, who came to Chicago from New Orleans at age 14. “You’d be going down the street and if you were the wrong color (police officers) would stop you and you’d have to give them some money.”

He has hope Obama’s team will be different. “They can’t do all the things they’re saying they’ll do, but I hope they help people who need it, stop jobs from leaving town and get people back to work.”

The diner — Moon’s Sandwich Shop on the gritty, loud Western Avenue — is frequented by auto repairmen, truck drivers, deliverymen and out-of-work people — the ones who are suffering most in this economic crisis and who especially on a frigid snowy day like Tuesday need a reason to believe in a better future. As they stood next to the beef shredder or perched on the diner stools watching Obama’s speech, transfixed and nodding quietly or cheering, they clearly had one.

Kari Lydersen
Kari Lydersen is a staff writer out of The Washington Post midwest bureau and also freelances for publications including The Chicago Reporter and The Progressive. She is the author of three books, including “Revolt on Goose Island” (Melville House Press) released in June 2009. She also teaches Community News at Columbia College and teaches youth journalism in a non-profit program. www.karilydersen.com.

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