Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Greatest Day in American History - Part 2

9:05 - We skirted the mall and walked toward the Capitol along Constitution Avenue. Entry to the center of the mall was blocked except for certain entry points, other areas were filled in with restrooms and vendors. At the area just beyond the Smithsonian Castle, the road was blocked off and we were diverted inward, toward the mall. Crowds were dense, and we could barely move. Some couples held hands to keep from being pulled apart by the crowd; my associate grabbed onto my bag so as to accomplish the same thing in a more platonic way. We eventually realized that we couldn't get to the mall at all via this path, and yet people still continued to fight their way as close to the center as possible. People in the crowd were reluctant to let anyone in. Some families pleaded with others in the crowd to let them through, others simply tried to bully their way in. We made our way closer to the center in hopes of getting a clearer view of the Capitol, but after roughly ten more feet we reached the point of total immobility. Seemingly invisible forces pushed people left and right. A woman nearby remarked that at least this would help her trim her waistline. The whole experience was unpleasant, and since we couldn't see the capitol anyway, we decided to move back. We slowly threaded our way out of the central crowd, and eventually we made it to a place where it was possible to walk normally again. As we were leaving, a children's choir began to sing, and a large group of medical officials begged people in the crowd to let them in to help a sick man I found a small American flag on the ground and picked it up.

10:15 - We walked back toward the Washington Monument on Constitution Ave, and entered at the next closest portal to the mall. Amazingly, the central mall wasn't nearly as dense at this point and we were able to move toward the capitol, reaching a point almost as close as where we had been. Everyone was standing, and even though we had a clearer view of the capitol, we were far enough away that it was difficult to see much of anything. But spirits still ran high. People periodically waved their flags in response to the marine band now playing, and a group of small children traced "Obama" in the dirt. A photographer from the Chicago Sun-Times saw this and excitedly snapped dozens of pictures of them.

10:30 - Recognizable senators began to arrive, as shown on the jumbotrons and announced over the loudspeakers. We saw Ted Kennedy, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman, who didn't get a particularly favorable reaction from the crowd. Then, members of the president's cabinet began to file in, followed by all the former vice presidents and former presidents. Carter got a cheer, Bush Sr. didn't get much of a reaction, and the Clintons drew huge roar from the crowd. I asked my associate what he thought the crowd's reaction to George W. Bush would be, a man in front of me overheard and said that he would "get his boo on". Eventually Bush did arrive, and while the gentleman in front of us made good on his promise, other people made an effort to applaud the president despite their opposition to him. Eventually the booing converted to chants of "Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye".

11:00 - Diane Feinstein took the podium and announced the beginning of the inaugural ceremony. Rick Warren was called forward to bless the event, and while I was expecting to see signs of discomfort from some people in the crowd, no one seemed upset. Perhaps they were so happy to be done waiting that they forgot Warren's previous history. Aretha sang, Biden was sworn in, and a quartet played John Williams's rendition of the hyper-Americana melody "Simple Gifts". The crowd went wild when Biden was sworn in, and the mood became pensive as music played, at least until Anthony McGill's impassioned clarinet performance began midway through the piece. It was then time for John Roberts to administer the oath to Obama. From the mall, it seemed as if Obama balked a bit at saying his middle name, but as it turned out he was actually just reacting to the way Roberts had read the oath. The crowd didn't seem to notice Roberts's mistakes during the oath, and after he finished the crowd erupted in cheers. Strangers hugged and gave high fives and some even cried. After a moment of celebration, Obama gave his address. It was one that would later be described as harsh, but to the Washington audience it seemed to convey the same gleam of hope that had been prevalent throughout his whole campaign. Obama sat down as the crowd continued to cheer. Eventually, people began to leave, but my associate and I stayed to listen to Elizabeth Alexander's poem, and Joseph Lowery's benediction. While he expressed his hope that "white would do what was right", I was convinced more than ever that we had all done what was right by electing a capable leader.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Greatest Day in American History - Part 1

5:18 - We woke up, a bit later than we had hoped. Some friends were kind enough to take us in at their farm in Pennsylvania, and it was a bit closer to Washington than Richmond although it was still pretty far away. We left at 5:45 and listened to news reports as the sun rose. We heard news of parking lots filling up at Orange and Green Line stations and were worried that Shady Grove, the parking lot where we were headed, would fill up as well. Fortunately, there was no traffic on the way, although we had a bit of trouble finding the station.

7:15 - We arrived and paid for parking. The woman selling parking tickets was thrilled that we had a $5 bill; some people had tried to get change from $50 or $100 bills. Parking was still plentiful and we walked to the platform. A few representatives from liberty tax services were promoting their organization, dressed in Statue of Liberty garb. Others hawked Obama shirts and calendars, and copies of the Washington Post. Ticket lines were long but not unmanageable, fortunately we didn't have to wait in them at all and went straight to the platform. Security forces were ample, and Metro workers guided passengers onto train cars. We were instructed to board the front car which was less crowded. The train ride was relatively quick, despite reports of delays on the red line. A group of black women complained about how white people always told them they liiked like Tyra, Beyonce, or whichever black woman was most famous at that time. A man from Maine chatted with a local businessman, who was traveling in to work but relishing the opportunity to play the expert to a largely out-of-town crowd. We left the train at Farragut North; the station was crowded but people moved out quickly.

8:15 - The crowd was escorted toward the mall via a roundabout route due to parade closures. Streets were closed to regular cars, but police cars and ambulances periodically cut through the crowds. Vendors were everywhere, and lines for the bathroom were long. We made it to the mall, which was relatively empty west of the Washington Monument. As we crested the hill, we saw the crowds, which by then had filled the mall between there and the capitol.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Right Side of History

The words echoed, from the Capitol to the Potomac, from Washington DC to my home in LA, and around the world: America will not choose security over liberty. We are on the right side of history once more, and once more can we stand tall and call ourselves Americans. Our founding fathers created this nation more than two centuries ago, yet today we take a bold step away from the tyranny and oppression that have no place in this great land, and America is born anew. A new and capable leader has been elected in America, but let's not forget who the real power rests with: the people.

Up To the Minute

Obamathon man will be posting all day tomorrow. Check back here for inauguration coverage, as well as at photobucket and youtube for more. Click on these oversized links to see for yourself:

Inauguration Live Telecast

Here is a live telecast of the Inauguration. Obamathon Man will also be adding his own pictures via cell phone, so make sure to keep refreshing the page for picture updates. Enjoy!

Monday, January 19, 2009


We went to DC today. It was relatively exciting, and there were vendors and tour groups everywhere. News crews had set up on the mall, including an older reporter from Germany. Traffic on the way out has left me with precious little time to sleep. But having seen Washington on the inaugural eve, I'm excited.

Apathy in Richmond

Yesterday, we went to a coffee shop in Henrico County, west of Richmond. We asked the barista if there were any copies of the Washington Post, and she said they had sold out. I told her we were heading to Washington, and she didn't say anything. I waited a bit, then asked if people in Richmond were close enough to Washington that political events were boring here. She said that she had to go to classes Tuesday, so going to DC was not really an option. Besides, she said, the weather would be so could that she wouldn't want to deal with the whole thing. We told her that we had so much invested in the whole thing that we were going to show up no matter what. She said she hoped at least the crowds would be packed so that we'd all be less cold. Of course, she was busy, and the whole time she was probably thinking more about coffee cups than the inauguration. But as she served us our coffee she fitted our cups with Ann Coulter insulators, a subtle hint that our Yankee political leanings (Californians count as Yankees down here) weren't particularly welcome in her coffee shop.


Yesterday, Obama addressed the nation on the Lincoln Memorial, referring to Dr. King's dream. Obama events have uncannily coincided with landmarks for Dr. King, with his acceptance happening on the anniversary of the "I have a dream" speech, and his inauguration happening the day after MLK Day. Yet today, as the administration urges us to celebrate with quiet service, the lack of deeper connections between MLK and Obama becomes more noticeable. Obama's role model for the transition period has been Lincoln, who ironically had some nasty things to say about black people. And while Obama may owe his oratory style to Lincoln, he is generally considered a moderate while King was something of a radical. Some have observed that "Obama is a viable African American candidate because he has steadfastly refused to deal with the issues Dr. King was dealing with at the end of his life, even though they are just as relevant today as they were forty years ago." While the election of a black man is certainly a good thing, we must remember that it isn't some magic wand that makes racism disappear. And while it's foolish to suggest that Obama become a King-style radical, there will be times when he must take actions which stray from his moderate tendencies. As Obama said in his speech last night, "never forget that the true character of our nation is revealed not during times of comfort and ease, but by the right we do when the moment is hard."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Photo Updates

I'm heading in tomorrow, and I have no way to add my cell phone photos anywhere besides photobucket without the upload malfunctioning horribly. So, without further ado, here's the new up-to-the-minute Obamathon Man Inaugural photo update page! Yay! I promise to take plenty of awesome pics during the proceedings.

Winter Streets: The Inauguration as Pedestrian Utopia

Last summer, New York City launched its "Summer Streets" program, closing seven miles of streets to all traffic except pedestrians and bicycles for a day. At first this may sound nonsensical. Why would people want to close off the primary arteries? wouldn't this cripple the economy? However, the response to the street closures was generally positive, people became aware of how much space roadways occupy in cities, and the economy seemed to continue unabated.

During the inauguration, a roughly 3 square mile area will be closed to emergency and law enforcement vehicles only, and I-395 will be closed to all vehicles except pedestrians. So far, the reaction here in Richmond has just been to grumble about how much traffic this will generate. But what if we take the approach that closing these streets will make he environment that much better for a day - especially for an inauguration day?

The I-395/third street tunnel will be closed for a 24 hour period beginning at midnight Jan 19/20, as will many of the bridges. Instead of griping about the traffic, try taking a stroll over the deserted streets - maybe wait a while after the swearing in has happened so they're not too packed. It just might change the way you think about streets.

Highballin' On the Obama Express

We didn't get a chance to see the Obama Express blow through town; had they chosen to start 200 miles away on the other side of Washington, things might have been different. Our late Grandpa used to work for CSX railways, so had the train passed through Richmond, it would have been nice to carry on his tradition (mechanically if not politically).

Obama is now the first president-elect to travel by train since Eisenhower. While some may deride the train trip as unnecessary pomp, there's something to the idea that traveling in by train is more inclusive. In the 19th century, train traveling was the only way to campaign, and the only way candidates could connect with people; William Jennings Bryan gave 500 speeches in 100 days from the back of his train car. While Obama didn't do that yesterday, it was certainly constructive for more of the populace to see their president.

It's too bad we didn't get to see Obama's train go by. But we plan to make up for it two days from now.

The Final Countdown

We're less than two days away from the inauguration, and spirits are high. TV and radio stations are abuzz with information about the inauguration, especially here in Richmond. You can hardly walk down the street without overhearing speculation about what's going to happen in DC, and more importantly, what the traffic will be like. My young relatives are having a special class session on Tuesday at their elementary school about the inauguration; hopefully they'll remember it later on in their lives. An older relative boasted about how he saw two V22 Ospreys - military aircraft that he suspected were searching the areas near Washington (including Richmond) for nuclear weapons, due to the inauguration.

The most surprising thing is how bipartisan the mood is here. None of my family here are outspoken fans of Obama, but for the inauguration they all seem to have set aside their political views and are excited just to be nearby during such a big event. My grandma, who is almost the epitome of Southern-ness, went so far as to say that she thinks Obama will make things better for black people in America. She hastened to add that some of her friends and former coworkers while she was an elementary school teacher were black.

Of course, some people aren't happy, including a columnist from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who grumbles that the University of Virginia's suspension of classes on Jan 20 is further evidence of liberal bias in academia. But fortunately, most people are choosing to celebrate instead of gripe, even many who aren't Obama supporters. Maybe Obama's efforts at the top to run an inclusive presidency are taking effect at the level of ordinary people.

Obama and the Boss

Unfortunately, Obamathon Man is spending time with his family in Richmond and won't be able to attend the massive free concert at the Lincoln Memorial. For those of you in town, the fun begins at 2:30, and if I'm not mistaken, Obama will be there to start things off, followed by performances by Bruce Springsteen, Mary J Blige, Stevie Wonder, and others. Maybe if the Boss can get Obama to sing backup on "Born in the USA", all those rumors about him being born in Indonesia will be put to rest. Those of you outside Washington can also catch the festivities live on HBO. Or if you're like me, you'll watch them later on youtube.

We'll be in DC Tomorrow, though! There's plenty of cool service projects in the DC area. No word as to which service events Obama and Biden will be at, at least no news that I could find on google. It has been revealed that the Obamas are going to a number of exclusive dinners in the evening, none of which normal people can attend. You can always opt to see the free Jonas Bros. Concert though. Me, I'd rather go swim in the Potomac.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Road to Change 1/14: Peach Trees and Pesto Pizza

We woke up close to Atlanta, and spent most of the day in town. Driving in was a somewhat unique experience; the forests obscured everything except office towers.

After riding back from central Atlanta on the MARTA train line, we sat through a bit of traffic before clearing the metro area. We eventually made it to Athens, home of the University of Georgia, and stopped for some delicious pesto pizza. The cook bellowed out the order numbers as they came up, and boasted to me as picked up out pizza that he wasn't even yelling his loudest.

We drove on through the lonely night, passing by freight trains and abandoned grain silos. We crossed a large lake into South Carolina, and the moon shone across the surface. Eventually we made it to Greenwood, and after having trouble finding a hotel, spotted an Econo Lodge and stopped for the night.

Obamorabilia: Dirty South Edition

Barack Obama will go down in history for, among other things, being the president who lent his image to the most merchandise. If his economic stimulus doesn't work, hopefully at least Americans will buy enough Obama-themed objects to put the economy back on track. Obamathon Man chronicles the popular trends, the quirky deviations and the utterly tasteless byproducts of Obama mania in a series known as Obamorabilia.

We got gas near our hotel this morning, and in the adjacent convenience store we saw the most improbable of product displays: Obama merchandise! My associate had previously spotted pez dispensers urging people to "Vote Republican" in a rural Illinois gas station, so it was particularly surprising to see Obama stuff in Georgia of all places. This probably just goes to show that those who like Obama like him enough to shell out for him. Obama's popularity will probably wane at some point, and the merchandise will disappear as well. But the republican pez dispensers will still be there.

Zeus, Superman, and the American Way

On Tuesday, we visited the giant superman statue in Metropolis, IL. Later that day, we visited Nashville's replica of the Greek Parthenon. While this is a noteworthy pair in part because the two are both shining examples of cheesy middle-American pop architecture, it speaks to something deeper within the American Psyche. Both Superman the Greek Gods celebrated in a roundabout way by Nashville's Parthenon derive significance from their superior abilities. But why do Americans see the worship of these super-figures as desirable?

The term "Superman" can be traced back to Friedrich Nietzsche (incidentally, an admirer of Emerson) who advocated that the worship of the "Übermensch" was man's end in life: "I love those... who sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth may one day belong to the übermensch". In the early 20th century, English editions of Nietzsche's writing translated übermensch into English as "Superman". By the time Nietzsche wrote this, the United States had already built a culture around what would later be termed "rugged individualism", celebrating their anti-authoritarian government and praising individualist writers like Horatio Alger. While Nietzsche's pronouncement that "God is dead" didn't sit well with American's tendency toward religion, his message of individualism resonated here, first exerting an influence on playwright Eugene O'Neill, then figuring more heavily into the writings of Russian immigrant Ayn Rand. Though it was later argued that "overman" was a better translation of "übermensch", the Superman comics were created while "superman" was still the most current translation of the term. Whether or not the creation of the "Man of Steel" was in fact influenced by Nietzsche is debatable, however, Metropolis's shrine to him is an eerie fulfillment of superman worship.

But this shrine, along with its Tennessee companion which celebrates superhuman Greek Gods, raises a problem. The two monuments aim to incite worship to individuality, the highest American ideal. But on further reflection, the very act of worship is contradictory to individuality. It's true that Zeus or Superman have superior strength, and the logic goes that as paragons of individuality, we are sworn not to make laws or create societies which would restrict their awesome power. As the "untermench" - the subhumans - we must emulate these figures, for there is no other path in life than to follow in the footsteps of Superman, which is especially difficult since Superman flies everywhere.

As someone who has flirted with Libertarianism in the past, the idea of individualism is something I take seriously. Hero worship degrades our individualism by imposing orthodoxy and discouraging diversity of thought. It creates an implied collective, in this case, those who would be just like Superman if they could. Real individualism is doing what you want with due respect to others in society, not accepting an ideal as dictated to you by an external source. Real world "heroes" may exist, and they deserve our respect, not our worship.

But as I witnessed today, the Superman ideal (or the Zeus ideal) is alive and well in the American heartland. While I hope Middle America can be weaned off the worship of Supermen, I do appreciate the fact that Superman and Zeus have great entertainment value. Maybe we should give these shrines the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they are merely recognitions of the fact that those who created these fictional characters know how to tell a good story.

And yet, the superman

The American Barbershop Harmony Society, Nashville, TN

We stopped briefly at the Barbershop Harmony Society, whose headquarters are in Nashville, before we left. The receptionist was quite friendly and talked a bit about what they do: organize concerts, distribute sheet music to singing groups, and beginning next year, run week-long courses in barbershop singing. I asked a bit about Nashville and how it became the "Music City", she said that there are all kinds of music here, including a renowned orchestra and active musical theater companies. I had told her I was interested in jazz, she said she wasnt as familiar with the jazz clubs in Nashville but that they did exist; a few times they had actually booked concerts at some of the venues.

As I found out, the Barbershop Harmony Society used to have its headquarters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. But business was slower there, and their new downtown location in Nashville afforded them new business and a vibrant local music scene, and they were happy to get out of the cold as well.

I told her we were from the West Coast, and she was impressed that we had made it that far. I didn't really say much about our trip to the inauguration, but I did bring it up and she wished me the highest degree of safety.

It was difficult to gauge the political climate in Nashville. Obama bumper stickers did seem to be in the majority, but McCain and Palin stickers were well represented as well. But if our receptionist is any indication, people here are at least excited to see the inauguration. After all, Nashville loves a good show.

When in Nashville, Don't Be Bashful

Obamathon Man and his associate strolled through Nashville this afternoon. We had heard that Nashville was a mecca for country music, but as it turns out the city is home to fine musical traditions in many different genres. We ate lunch in a sandwich shop near the capitol, I ordered whatever looked the most southern. As we were about to leave, one of the cooks yelled out to me, asking if I liked the sandwich. I told her it was great and asked if I could steal the recipe.

We then took a walk through the Tennessee State Museum, which was free. There were intricate exhibits about the prehistory and early history of Tennessee, as well as lots of exhibits about the Civil War. The museum didn't get much further than 1865 though, but there was a small art display featuring ornate paintings of Nashville Diners. In the gift shop, there was a book called 100 Reasons We're Proud to Be From Tennessee. One of the reasons listed was, "We founded Texas". Which kind of made me glad we didn't actually go through Texas.

We then continued to stroll through the streets of Nashville. Civic leaders have done an excellent job of putting up guitar pick-shaped signposts showing where the live music venues are. We stopped for coffee at a shop that wasn't actually a Starbucks, but "proudly" serves Starbucks coffee. Then we headed back to the car. On the way, we saw a car with a Harold Ford Jr. sticker on the back. Fortunately, the tactics that had been used to defeat Mr. Ford in the 2006 election didn't work on Obama.

The Road to Change 1/13: Gettin' Lucky in Kentucky

Though we spent the night on the edge of Kentucky, we briefly ducked back into Illinois to see the giant Superman statue in Metropolis, IL, and to admire the Ohio River. It was really friggin cold, so we got moving soon after.

We made it all the way to Nashville without stopping. The farms in Kentucky were prettier than many of the farms we had seen earlier in Kansas and Illinois, some even looked like the picturesque barns that people who romanticize farm life think of. But we passed through Kentucky quickly, and soon the buildings of Nashville loomed on the horizon.

We spent a few hours in Nashville, then left in the dark. Nashville is known as "Music City", and we were able to listen to music from Nashville on the radio for miles away, but we eventually lost the signal as we climbed up and over the southern Appalachian Mountains. We made it to Chattanooga for dinner, then headed further south into Georgia, stopping just far enough out of Atlanta to avoid paying too much for a motel.

The Great Wall of Y'all

We crossed into Tennessee, and while people generally don't have heavy Southern accents, there's a definite twang in the talk here. The biggest difference is, nearly everyone says y'all here, and if you don't say y'all too, they'll treat you differently. Not rudely; most people here are very polite. But they minute you walk in somewhere and say "Do you guys have..." instead of "Do y'all have...", a wall of formality goes up. Y'all deficiency signals that, at the end of the day, you neither understand nor really care about Southerners. I eventually became tempted to try throwing out a few y'alls, but on further reflection that seemed as ridiculous as going to England and trying to speak in a British accent. I'll steadfastly stick to my Californian dialect and weather whatever unnecessary formalities it may bring, though hopefully I can still get to know a few of the people here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Meet the New South

Same as the Old South? Maybe not, but these guys definitely aren't Northerners. This is the area that many of us out west think of as home to racist, Confederate flag-waving, protester-spraying, Bush-loving, backward thinking hicks. I can tell you first hand that all of that is mostly incorrect. I haven't seen a single confederate flag here, nor have I seen any blatant acts of racism. And as far as I can tell, they dislike Bush here almost as much as they do in the rest of the country - though many Southerners would still prefer to have McCain as president. Today's South meshes much better with the rest of the country than it ever has, although you still feel a big difference when you drive in from Illinois. It just goes to show what a difference a new generation can make; the George Wallaces have grayed out without being replaced by fresh ranks of bigots. Hopefully these trends can continue.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Obamathon Man Goes Lincolnizing in Springfield, IL

Today, Obamathon Man and his associate spent a good deal of time (and money) in the former place of business of Barack Obama: Springfield, IL. However, Springfield is far more interested in honoring another of its famous residents, Abraham Lincoln. Everything to do with Lincoln can be found in Springfield: His former house and office, his presidential library, his official museum, several sculptures of him, and his tomb. All they need to do is airlift the Lincoln Memorial over to Springfield and their Lincoln monopoly would be complete. Obama must have absorbed so much Lincoln during his tenure here in the Illinois Senate that by now he can't help but emulate the guy.

We set out to go see the Lincoln Library, but couldn't find it. However, this gave us the perfect pretense to strike up a conversation with local merchants about Obama. We went into a small souvenir shop, whose owners maintained a strict 1:1 ratio between Lincoln and Obama Merchandise. My associate had to use the bathroom, so I chatted up the two cashiers. They gave me directions to the Library, then they talked a bit about Obama. Apparently, he had kept an office in one of the buildings next to the store here. One of the cashiers used to be a waitress, and she had waited on Obama a couple of times. He was very polite, she said. I asked if he was popular in Springfield, and of course that was an understatement. I joked that he was probably a bit more popular than Illinois's governor, and they chuckled.

We walked to the main square, near the old capitol. There was a statue of Lincoln, a recreation of his law office, and several informational placards which read "looking for Lincoln". In Springfield, you can look for Lincoln but he isn't hard to find.

We walked a block north, past another statue of Lincoln, to the Lincoln Library. We were happy to go in since the weather was frigid, but we weren't exactly thrilled to find that admission was $10. We decieded just to browse the gift store instead. There were plenty of Lincoln books, mugs, shirts, and other items of questionable utility with pictures of Lincoln on them. There was also a shelf devoted to Obama merchandise.

We took a stroll through some of Springfield's neighborhoods on our way to see the capitol. Being from the west coast, buildings that would otherwise be considered dilapidated are viewed by us as "historic". We noticed many stores that were Lincoln-themed, including the Lincoln-Douglas Hamburger-Hot Dog Restaurant. The quality of their fare is debatable.

We made it to the state capitol, without any sightings of Blago. Maybe he was just afriad we'd uncover another of his less-than-brilliant schemes. Bored, we decided to go back to the old capitol. By the time we arrived there, we were freezing so we stopped inside a bookstore. The owner was somewhere between polite and rude, but he was at least cooperative when we asked a bit about Obama. His store was directly adjacent to where Obama had announced his candidacy. To him, the announcement was something of a nuisance since it kept people from coming in. But he did appear to like Obama, and was happy to have him as a president, if not as an infrequent neighbor.

We hastened back to the car since a cold wind was beginning to blow. But on the way back, I did find time to stop and take a picture of a Lincoln statue which came out rather well.

The Road to Change 1/12: Rust Belt Roaming

We spent the morning chatting and touring St. Louis with Steve Patterson. We had a great time and learned a lot, much more than we would have on our own. We left town at about 12:30 PM, and headed for Springfield, the capital of Illinois. Appropriately enough, we passed by the source of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's ethics on the way. See below.

The drive to Springfield was dull, and the fact that the sky was overcast didn't make things much better. Fortunately, radio signals carry much farther on the open plains, and we were able to pick up stations from St. Louis 80 miles away. We listened in on an interesting debate about whether or not Bush should be tried for war crimes. As we entered Springfield, it began to snow, which worried us a bit until the snow stopped. We walked around Springfield for a bit and chatted with some of the locals, then left.

Afterward, we drove to Champaign-Urbana, home of the University of Illinois, and former home to our great-aunt (as in our grandmother's sister, not just an aunt that was great). CU, as its commonly referred to, is unusual as college towns go. It's not as well manicured as other places, but we were able to find a hip coffee shop whose baristas discussed the nuances of Battlestar Galactica while solo cello music played in the background. A few of the shop's patrons were excited over a trip to Chicago they were about to take. We wished we could go to Chicago too and spend just a few hours in Obama's adopted home to get us fired up for the inauguration. But in a way, CU was like a miniature Chicago; the people were sophisticated but extremely polite, the buildings were old and made of brick, and the weather was cold. There was no lake, there were no El-trains or skyscrapers. But as we sipped our coffee we could easily imagine we were sitting in that broad-shouldered city, that modest Manhattan 150 miles to the north, that had so profoundly shaped the life and character of our president elect. Fortunately, as we walked out the wind picked up, and we became less reluctant to turn southward to warmer climates.

We drove on into the night, breezing through Southern Illinois towns made more anonymous through lack of daylight. We crossed the border into Kentucky at midnight, and decided we had done enough driving for one evening, checking into a nearby motel in the riverside town of Paducah and bracing ourselves to enter the South the next day.

Ws: A Hello, and A Goodbye

Today, Bush gave his last press conference. It wasn't much different from his other press conferences, he supplied little of substance and made a lot of funny faces. He is scheduled to give a farewell to the nation, but for all intents and purposes this was his last chance to surprise us all and say something meaningful. He didn't, but he succeeded in remembering all the reporters' names.

Bush is like Terry Malloy, Marlon Brando's character in On the Waterfront, a dim but lovable accomplice to a group of thugs whose designs he doesn't completely understand. However, in this case the thugs needed him to be the front man, the most charming voice one could assign to the ugliest administration this country has ever seen. As this press conference indicates, Bush still thinks all the world's problems can be ascribed to a pack of evildoers. All we have to do is smoke 'em out, and everything will be OK. Like Malloy, Bush's charming mannerisms almost make us forget that he was the enabler of unmatched carnage. But unlike Malloy, Bush is still a contenda... for worst president ever.

So we're loosing a W, and I'm pretty happy. For My associate and I, we're also gaining Radio stations that start with W, and White Castle hamburgers. Schweet!

Steve Patterson, Man of Urban Influence - Part 2

Steve didn’t have any engagements immediately after this, so he agreed to show us around St. Louis. Naturally, he showed us the Arch and the Old St. Louis Courthouse. Apparently, a park used to extend 20 blocks west from the arch, but some of the land had been converted into office buildings, which Steve described as “hideous”.

To the south, we saw the outline of Busch Stadium. We asked if it was more convenient to have the stadium close to downtown, he told us it was actually kind of a nuisance since the stadium put in as much parking as it would in the ‘burbs, and it created congestion without contributing much to the neighborhood. We turned northward, passing a group of back to back parking lots. Steve was concerned about how bland the exteriors of the parking lots were, and talked about how St. Louis’s zoning was stuck in the 1940s.

One block to the north was 1920s era building with an elegant façade, which Steve praised. We passed an abandoned shopping mall, which Steve told us was St. Louis’s great hope of downtown revival in the 1980s. It was only partially new at the time; abandoned skyscrapers nearby had been built in an older style, and were converted into department stores and linked to the newer mall building with glass-encased overhead walkways. The whole complex was closed now, except for a Macy’s in one of the older buildings and the parking structure across the street. Apparently, there had been a Rite-Aid in the ground floor of the structure, but that had closed and had since been converted into more parking.

We turned left onto Washington St., and Steve told us a bit about the history of each of the buildings we passed. There was an office complex which had demolished and old theater to build an open plaza which eventually became more parking, and a newly built entry to St. Louis’s convention center. He then took us by the American Institute of Architects, whose headquarters were in a hotel nearby. He knew everyone who worked there, and introduced us. When they heard we were going to the inauguration, they were excited for us, and also worried for our safety. We assured them we’d be okay. The lobby was filled with books about the St. Louis area, and since Anheuser-Busch was headquartered in St. Louis (prior to its acquisition by InBev), there were pictures of the Budweiser Clydesdales in one of the books I was browsing through. The woman behind the desk assured me that they were enormous, and scary to stand next to.

We left and continued west with Steve; he showed us a building with gargoyles that sprayed steam, which we all found fascinating. We walked into the former garment district, although there wasn’t as much in the way of garment production happening nearby anymore. Instead, many of the old factories had been converted into lofts, and there were stores and restaurants on the ground floors. The street had actually been made narrower; a lane was subtracted in each direction and the sidewalk was widened. Since this was the garment district, the double-yellow divider in the street was replaced by tiles placed to resemble a closed zipper. Steve was generally happy with these changes, but he was unhappy that some of the side streets had also been closed. Most of the lofts appeared to be doing well, but some of the loft conversions had unceremoniously been scrapped. One of the loft companies had gone out of business right before a conversion was scheduled to happen, and signs advertising loft living had been left up in a still abandoned building.

Steve took us past the St. Louis City Museum, which he said was a must see. It was certainly unique; it looked as if Rube Goldberg was left to make a machine using only materials he found in a junkyard. Slides connected the heads of life size dinosaurs, and school buses teetered from the top of a nearby building. We didn’t really have time to go in, but it was certainly interesting to look at.

Steve was kind enough to take us to the rooftop of his own loft building. The clouds had lifted somewhat, and the view was great in both directions. We took a few pictures of the skyline, as well as a few with him in the foreground (see previous post). He had to get going at that point, so we parted ways. He said he would be looking to our blog for more on the inauguration. We'll do our best to keep you posted, Steve.

We walked back, stopping by the St. Louis Library on the way. St. Louis ain't half bad, and we'll do our best to go back soon.

Steve Patterson, Man of Urban Influence - Part 1

Steven Patterson is a realtor in central St. Louis. He is also an influential blogger, writing at Urban Review STL. He agreed to meet with us at a Panera in Downtown St. Louis. We were a bit late, but Steve was understanding. My associate and I both ordered bacon sandwiches, which were tasty.

Obamathon Man: Thanks for agreeing to meet. First, tell us about real estate in St. Louis. Do you have clients in both Missouri and Illinois, or do you need a separate license for that?

Steve Patterson: I only handle clients in Missouri. There are a few agents who handle both states, but in my case getting the extra license wouldn’t have been worth it. St. Louis is divided into St. Louis City and St. Louis County, which is actually a separate county. Most of my work is within the city of St. Louis, but I do leave the city sometimes.

OM: Do you handle mostly condos, or other properties as well?

SP: Yeah, mostly condos. The city of St. Louis used to have a lot more people than it does now; in 1950, the population was around 800,000. It shrunk to 300,000 by 2000, but there are indications now that it’s leveled off.

OM: But did the St. Louis metro area gain population during that time?

SP: Yeah, many of the people in St. Louis just moved out of the city and into the county.

OM: Are people moving back in now?

SP: Well, more than they have in the past. I’ve been seeing better sales in recent years.

OM: Have you seen less business because of the bad economy?

SP: I actually couldn’t do much work this fall, on account of my stroke. From what I heard, sales did go down. But sales are generally less during the holidays anyway, since no one wants to have to deal with moving in the middle of Christmas. But, actually, sales do seem to be rebounding.

OM: Oh really? That’s good news.

SP: Yeah, I hope the trend continues.

OM: So tell us about politics in St. Louis.

SP: Well, of course it’s very different than the rest of the state. If you go down to places like Springfield, it’s very Republican. But in the last election, we were almost able to push this state into the Obama column. And we actually did elect a Democratic governor, which I was very happy about. Of course that was partly because the incumbent Republican was involved in an email scandal. But it was pretty satisfying, since in previous elections the former governor was dismissive of people from St. Louis.

OM: Did you go to Obama’s big speech under the arch?

SP: I couldn’t make it, but may of my friends did. Obama didn’t really have to give that speech, since it only really reached the people of St. Louis who were going to vote for him anyway. But the symbolic value of him standing under the arch was priceless. I think Obama will be good for the country, because for the first time in many years we’ll have an urban president who understands issues that affect cities.

OM: Is there anything you’re hoping Obama will do for St. Louis?

SP: Well, there’s something I’m really hoping will happen in downtown St. Louis, and perhaps Obama’s proposed stimulus might help get it done. The roadway between the arch and the rest of St. Louis carries both a surface level access road and a below ground freeway, and it’s a drain on life in downtown. Some people have proposed covering the open areas with parks, but that would require all kinds of ventilation retrofitting without yielding much park space. What I’m really hoping will happen is for the interstate to be rerouted over the Mississippi, and the road to be narrowed and converted to a street similar to Market St. in San Francisco, with trolleys and buses.

OM: Would that be part of the current train system in St. Louis?

SP: The MetroLink actually provides good service to the outlying areas, but in the city it’s problematic because the train runs entirely underground. No one sees trains underground, and many people won’t ever consider taking the train if they don’t see them at street level and know that they exist.

OM: Are there currently any plans to expand the MetroLink?

SP: Unfortunately, no. There was a ballot measure in November which would have extended the MetroLink, but it didn’t pass since it needed votes from St. Louis County, and people out there didn’t feel they would get their money’s worth from the measure. Since it failed, now train service will have to be cut off at 8 PM. Some people are hoping to create a special transit district, so that people farther out in the county don’t have to pay taxes on something that isn’t useful to them.

OM: Do you ride the train often?

SP: I was actually car free, until I had a stroke and not having a car became a bit too difficult.

OM: Yeah, I actually have a book about being car free, written by someone from St. Louis.

SP: You’re talking about Living Well without a Car? I know the author. He actually moved out to LA recently for some kind of film deal.

OM: Tell us a bit about your blog.

SP: I started blogging in October 2004, and I mostly cover urban planning issues. Of course, I couldn’t write immediately after my stroke. But the blog’s been pretty successful. Recently, St. Louis Magazine named me the 50th most powerful person in the city.

OM: Impressive. What did you do to earn such a rating?

SP: Well, for instance, I reported on a curbside ramp that had been poorly designed. It was intended to help people in wheelchairs or in carts. But the area in front of the ramp had been marked to allow parking directly in front of the ramp. I did a write up on it, and the city actually fixed it in a matter of days.

OM: Do they always respond that fast?

SP: No, but it’s nice when they do.

OM: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

Continued, click here.

American Brandenburg

At the end of a bustling thoroughfare near a city park in Berlin lies the Brandenburg Gate. Completed in 1791, it stands as a stylistic testament to its own era, and originally functioned as a gate to the center of town. But through the course of history, the gate assumed a greater significance. As the cold war enveloped Berlin, the gate came to symbolize the boundary between the East and the West, in Europe and the rest of the world. At that time, the gate became the site of some of the most memorable speeches of American presidents, including Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, and Reagan's "Tear down this wall" speech. Last year, Obama notably and somewhat controversially gave a campaign speech in the nearby Tiergarten park, in which he echoed the call to tear down walls, this time metaphorical ones.

Here in St. Louis, we rode to the center of town to look at the famous Gateway Arch. Aesthetically, the arch bears little similarity to the Brandenburg; it's simplistic rather than ornate. And in true American style, it's larger than life, and bears a striking resemblance to a recognizable corporate logo. It's loud in a quiet way, while Brandenburg is quiet in a loud way, a fitting summation of the contrast between our two continents. But the two gates, the Brandenburg Gate and the Gateway Arch, both compel their visitors to reflect on the differences between life on either sides of them. The Brandenburg represents more of a cultural divide; the continent spans dozens of languages and disparate traditions. The arch represents the vast geographical disparity between eastern and western North America, an acknowledgment that even though English is spoken from the Pacific to the Atlantic, people's lives are dramatically different from city to city or state to state. Yet, with the demise of the Berlin wall, and numerous bridges spanning the Mississippi, the two gates serve the opposite function of traditional gates. They don't divide, they unite.

As my associate and I cross over from West to East, we reflected on this. And we both are hopeful that our next president will make good on the pledge made hypocritically by our last president; that he will be a uniter, not a divider.

A Chat With Some Friendly Columbians

I made contact with a few people at the Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, MO by email earlier in the week, and they were gracious enough to invite me over for a chat. At the ticket booth Sunday afternoon were Michael Lefevbre and Amanda Shea, both of whom were willing to talk a bit about Ragtag, Columbia, and Missouri between selling movie tickets to actual customers. While we were talking, a guy with messy hair walked in and asked if I wanted to attend a "Bye Bye Bush" bash. I told him I couldn't since I was from California, and he thought I meant California, Missouri.

Obamathon Man: Hi, are you Amanda?

Amanda Shea: Yeah, and this is Michael.

Michael Lefevbre: Good to meet you. Would you like to see Milk or Slumdog Millionaire?

AS: No, these guys are just here to ask some questions. Hey, I'll be right back, I haven't eaten lunch and I was just about to snag some food. Why don't you guys have a chat while I'm gone?

OM: Sounds good to me.

ML: So you're a reporter?

OM: Actually I'm a blogger. It's like being a reporter except you make less money. So, this is the premiere independent movie theater in Columbia?

ML: We're the only independent movie theater in Columbia.

OM: So that would make you the premiere independent movie theater by default.

ML: I guess so.

OM: Does Ragtag attract students from the University's film Department?

ML: The University of Missouri doesn't really have a film program, although there are classes. Stephens College is also in town, and they offer a degree in film. It's an all girls school up the street. But in general our audiences tend to be people who are just interested in watching movies and maybe having dessert or a drink afterward, not hardcore film buffs.

OM: Driving into town, Columbia looks very historic. Do you like it here?

ML: Yes I do. I like it because there's more to it than just the typical college stuff. It's got a different vibe than many college towns. But UM does put on some good events sometimes.

OM: Tell me a bit about Missouri in general.

ML: Well, it depends where you are. The cities will obviously be different than the rural areas. Missouri is basically a southern state, but there are also holdouts like Columbia that have a completely different feel.

OM: We talked with someone from Kansas City, and she told us that Missouri has strong ties to Thomas Jefferson. Is this true?

ML: Well, sort of. As far as day to day life here, we're not exactly thing about Thomas Jefferson all the time. But, actually, the UM campus a few blocks away has the original tombstone of Jefferson. And our capital city is named after Jefferson as well. Ironically, the people of Jefferson City wouldn't like Jefferson if he was still around.

OM: Pretty conservative town?

ML: Yeah. It wasn't always the capital though. The capital used to be in St. Charles, just west of St. Louis.

OM: Really? When'd they move it over?

ML: Dunno, but I'll look it up here.

OM: Nice to live in an age when cash registers have access to Wikipedia.

ML: Yeah, pretty astounding. Ah, here it is. The capital moved to Jefferson City in 1826. Fun fact.

OM: I'm looking at your calendar here, and it says that ragtag is hosting an inaugural party.

ML: Well, we're a nonprofit organization, so in order to keep our tax status we need to be non-partisan. We are hosting a get together of sorts where we screen the inauguration and the festivities that follow on the big screen of our theaters, but this is purely in the interest of informing the populace in national affairs. Drinks may or may not be served afterward.

OM: What was it like in Columbia on election day?

ML: Even though this theater is non-partisan, the crowd we attract aren't regulated in their political beliefs, and we do attract a generally pro-Obama crowd. For election day, we got cable for the theater just so we could screen the election results. It was pretty festive, and of course when the results were announced the crowd went wild. Hey look! Amanda's back. Why don't you talk with her for a bit? I have some cleaning up to do at the bar.

OM: Do what you gotta do. But first, do you mind if I take a picture of you and your box office? This has to be one of the most unique box offices I've ever seen, by the way.

ML: Yeah, it's actually a model of a Soviet sculpture, "The Rise of the Third Reich". No wait, "The Rise of the Third Estate". The Soviets hated the Third Reich. Nice talking with you. Amanda, would you mind talking over the box office now?

AS: Sure.

OM: Hey there Amanda, how were the sandwiches?

AS: Not too bad.

OM: Unfortunately, I don't have time to see a movie here. But I heard both Milk and Slumdog Millionaire are really good.

AS: Yeah, you should watch them both. We also screened The Times of Harvey Milk a few weeks ago as a double feature with Milk.

OM: I'll have to rent them both, I probably won't have time to see them for a few weeks though. But that brings up an interesting question. We were in California during the lead-up to Prop. 8, and unfortunately our votes couldn't help overturn it. But there was definitely a feeling in California that everyone in the country was watching the results of that proposition. Were people here in Missouri generally opinionated on the issue?

AS: Well I certainly had some strong opinions on Prop. 8, and so did many of the people here. I really was hoping the election would go the other way, since California seems to set the trend on issues like this. I kind of felt helpless since I couldn't vote, but I wrote all kinds of letters to people in California hoping to change their minds.

OM: Yeah, that's how we in California feel during presidential elections, when people in Ohio get to choose who our president will be. I hope that what comes out of this election is tighter restrictions on out-of-state money spent on state-specific elections, it was just horrifying to see our elections shaped by money coming from Utah. But we all have our fingers crossed that the supreme court will rule it as unconstitutional in March.

AS: Yeah, me too. I'm getting updates about it through the Facebook group, but nothing seems to be happening until then.

OM: It just goes to show that there really aren't red or blue states, just red and blue regions. I mean, here we are in a supposedly red state, but as you're telling me, most of the people here in Columbia support gay marriage. On the other hand, California is generally considered a very "blue" state, but if you go to San Bernadino it looks and feels exactly like the South. However, after spending an entire day in Kansas yesterday, I think it's pretty safe to call the whole state red.

AS: Yeah, Kansas is special. Did you stop to see the giant prairie dog?

OM: Nah, but I'll always cherish my memory of driving by.

AS: Well I hate to spoil things for you, but it's not real.

OM: Dammit! I was so hopping it was. Michael was telling me a bit about Columbia. Would you say there's more to it than just the college?

AS: Definitely. What happens is, many people from around the state come here for college and just stay. I went to a few different colleges before coming here, but I like it here.

OM: And you've got a pretty good job here too. Are you associated with the video rental place next door?

AS: Nah, we're just friendly neighbors. But check them out, they've got a great selection, and they're one of the few video rental places to have hand-drawn caricatures of great directors.

OM: Well thanks for taking time out to talk, and enjoy the inauguration party here on the 20th.

AS: You know it.