Ra ra ra. I run into Vincent Scotti Eirene before the Barack Obama rally at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Eirene, a longtime activist and self-described Yippie, is waiting for friends of his that never show up. Now I’m his sidekick for the day. It is 10am and we are in the shadows of the student union building, hiding in the shade. Eirene is admiring the clay tile sculptures at either side of the doors along the hall. They are very pretty, and with the bright sun already beating down, there isn’t much else to look at anyway. By 10:15 the heat is already working on us; it is going to be an unbearably hot day, but seeing our president seems unbearably important.
“Okay everyone,” some dapper ginger-kid volunteer in a bow tie says, “we’re going to see the president today!”
“So here’s what we’re going to do,” another volunteer shouts, “when I say ‘Ready to go,’ you say ‘Fire it up,’ alright?!?!”
I stay silent. It’s too hot for this. The second volunteer, the really excited one, stares at me. I begin moving my mouth to the words, but I say nothing. Eirene looks at me and smiles. “We’re at the football game,” he smirks, “and we’re the cheerleaders.”
Eriene sits down and we make more small-talk, having not seen each other in nearly a year. Eriene is clearly having a hard time remembering who I am. “Do you write?” he asks me. “You should know,” I say, “you were supposed to review my last book.”
But I can’t be upset with Vince Eirene. Moments after he asks me his question, trying to remember me, he attempts get up from the ground; it requires me and two other people to get Vince to his feet.
To explain why he needs assistance, Vince tells me, “Ten years ago, I was hit by a car. So I’m not happy about these drone attacks in Pakistan, but if it weren’t for Obamacare, I still wouldn’t be able to get therapy for something that happened a decade ago.”
Vince, who just had his 60th birthday, is battered and bruised all over. Pockmarks on his face show decades of protest in the sun; scars on his legs and body reveal the effects of that car crash, and who knows what else. I am surprised he’s even here at CMU. How could a Yippie support Obama? Anyone could see the folly in it. But maybe Vince is like me. From the beginning I felt bad for Obama. Whoever won ‘08 was the king of Shit Hill. And even then Obama’s tried more than I thought he would. Vince, for all of his stories, actually having an entire book of them, seems like a reasonable man. He must realize Obama is the best shot we have.
The doors are set to open at noon. Instead they start letting us in at 11am. Everyone is manic, ready to explode with glee. I am not. Obama isn’t supposed to appear until 2pm, and he’s not going to come out early; we’re going to be stuck in the sun—now hitting 95 degrees—for at least three hours. Ra ra ra.
The line begins to move. Hundreds of people along the outside of the student union hall, backed nearly into Fifth Avenue, start to slowly creep forward. “Make sure you take everything out of your pockets and open up your purses before you reach the metal detectors!” a female volunteer screams. I wonder how this is possible. I don’t have a purse, but I do have an old gas-mask bag with a polaroid camera. How do I open the bag and empty out both of my pockets—holding a bus pass, thirty six cents, a mobile phone, bees wax lip balm, and my apartment keys—plus the back pocket with my wallet? The female volunteer is young, eager. Her eyes are scaring me.
Suddenly I notice she is holding an exterminator’s pump-can, the same type I used to clean the sewer drains out with while I worked Street Gang at the ACJ, and she is spraying everyone in the face with water. There are two reasons for this: it is passing 100 degrees outside, and the event has too many volunteers with nothing to do. “H 2 O-bama,” she chirps, spritzing children in the face until they are dripping wet. In many cases, the kids getting their faces wetted aren’t much older than the volunteers wetting them. The female volunteer in front of us is wildly spraying water in the air, whether any of the people like it or not.
The volunteer loves it. This is it. The big show. She’s smiling, mouth agape with satisfaction. Getting too hot already, Vince takes off his glasses and nods toward the girl, whose eyes glisten in anticipation. She places the nozzle directly in his face and sprays. “H 2 O-bama! Yeeah,” she grins. “That’s good. That’s real good.”
Soaked, either in sweat or volunteer water, Vince and I are close to the doors. The event is outside, but huge aluminum gates with several entrances have been set up. Two secret service men, all wearing dark sunglasses, are stationed at either end of each entrance. Metal detectors stand at each entrance as well, with a third SS man carrying a handheld detector for anyone that goes off.
Before Vince and I reach the gates, we’re accosted by people selling bottled water, ice cream sandwiches, and Italian ice. Another eager volunteer announces, “No open containers may be brought past the gates.” It doesn’t matter. We’re now out of the shadows of the student union; with less than 20 yards to go, it is a slow line and a long wait till the gates. Everyone buys their cool treats. Vince and I do not. I assume he has too much dignity; I have too little money.
We make it through the metal detectors. Everyone throws away their treats and their bottles of water. No more ice cream, but volunteers are running around hurling bottles of water in the air. The bottles are warm, but most of us are pouring them on our heads anyway. Recycling bins are scattered throughout the area, but once all of us get packed together, it’s easier to throw the bottles on the ground and wait for another round of volunteers to bring more. At the metal detectors, Vince noticed my polaroid camera. We discuss it for a while—where I get film from, how much a camera is worth, etc.—and finally he hits me with it: “I have a sign, and when I hold it up, I expect the police to come.” I am confused. “What’s the sign say?” I ask. “I don’t want to take it out right now,” Vince says, “but once I do, I want you to take a picture. If the cops come, I’ll be honored to have it documented with a polaroid.”
Now everything makes sense. Vincent Eirene may have things to like about Obama, but he has things to hate, too. A true Yippie, Vince is commirted to subversive action. Even if the system is trying to fix things, it is his mission to bring attention to the things that are ignored and broken. I’m just here to see the president. I’m technically a volunteer for crissakes. I give my time to the Homestead office (which actually has no office, even though I suggested a store front which cost $300 a month; Obama’s funders would rather give $2400 a month to a Mt. Lebanon office). I’m going to take a polaroid of Vince getting knocked around by CMU cops, probably just before I get knocked right along with him? Yeah, why not.
Nearly 2pm. Vince is sitting on the ground, pouring water down his back. I am trying to stand, my head bent down to let the sun hit my fedora and the back of my neck. A couple next to us gave Vince and I some sun-screen, which has been the biggest blessing of the day. The volunteers are still around, spraying water into the mass and picking up people who have passed out, but they can’t get deep enough into the crowd to hand out water or spritz us individually.
Thousands of people versus the sun. The sun is winning. Some members of the group are beginning to lose it. Many of them are unbuttoning their shirts and taking off their pants. I have rolled up my chinos and the sleeves of my shirt. Vince is still planted in the dirt. His face is zombie white with sun-screen. He looks like a mad tribesman, close to the ground, waiting. We are all baking, but Vince is brewing. I am curious about his sign.
People begin to come out on stage. Before anyone speaks, more volunteers begin rousing the crowd. “Ready to go?” they shout. “Fire it up!” everyone replies. The people here range from 8-80, but they’re mostly in their 20’s. “The great thing about this,” I say to Vince, “is that they thought they brought the people up to their politics, but really they just dumbed down their politics for the people.” Vince nods in agreement. It’s too hot to say much else. Where’s that crazy girl with the exterminator can full of water?
A singer and a pianist come out. I am happy because I’ve heard ELO play over the loudspeakers four times now. The singer proudly reminds us that we’re going to get to see ‘Mr. Obama’. They play a Louis Armstrong song and leave.
Franco Harris comes out and gives us a speech. He drops his papers and everyone claps because he’s a terrible speaker, but he did catch a football thirty years ago, which is cool. Meanwhile, I notice a lone airplane in the sky. Has to be him, I think. He’ll be here in about thirty minutes.
About thirty minutes later, Obama emerges. Everyone is dead silent at first, only to shotgun into a explosion of applause and cheers. Obama waves, smiles. He is wearing a blue collar shirt which, despite only being outside for a minute, is darkening with sweat. Everyone has their mobile phones up, filming. Hands are waving through the air. I help Vince get up. It takes him a while. The speech begins. Some crap about the White Sox and the Pirates. “We can root for each other and help each other out right now, but once we get to the world series it’s every man for himself.” Ha ha ha. It’s funny and warm. Obama’s smile is nice.
Vince waits for everyone to calm down. “Are you ready?” he asks me. “The camera?” I nod an affirmative. Vince reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of paper the size of my fist. The paper is unfolded and Vince holds up his sign:
STOP DRONE ATTACKS
FUND PITTSBURGH TRANSIT
I’m more confused than anything, but okay, I think. I don’t like the Pakistan drones and I ride the bus, too. I take a polaroid and immediately shove it into my pocket to shield it from light while it develops. Vince begins to chant, “Stop the drone attacks,” over and over. People in the crowd grumble. Two men on the rooftops scope us out. Obama grips tightly to his podium and looks right at us. We’re very close to him; I can see his eyes widen. He appears confounded for one and one half seconds, but continues his speech as if nothing had happened.
The police do not come, as Vince thought they might, maybe hoped they might. We are too deep into the crowd for cops to reach us, and anyway, they are not who I fear. I am afraid of the crowd. Vince is still trying to hold his sign up, but people are starting to jab at him and pull at his arms. Someone rips the sign out of Vince’s hands. He recovers the sign, but decides to fold it back up and put it away. “I gotta get outta here,” he says to me. “I’m done.”
I take one more polaroid and we weave through the crowd to leave.
I worry for Vince, but he hasn’t been ousted by a group of rabid Obama fans, he’s just really hot. By the end of the day over a dozen people would end up being taken to the hospital for extreme heat exhaustion. Vince isn’t that bad off, but I do take him to the medical tent, where he’s given ice, a blood pressure check, and two quarts of gatorade.
Obama speaks for thirty minutes and leaves, signing a few books and holding a baby over his head like it might spill candy into his mouth. He’s gone. The ‘Fired Up’ battle-cry whines across the area for twenty more minutes. We leave through the gates. Vince recognizes a cop that’s arrested him a few times. The Italian ices are all melted but people are still buying them on their way out. Vince gets a salad at the CMU student union and feels a little better. I have a headache. I take out my polaroids. They came out, which is rare.
Vincent Eirene and I sit on the curb at Fifth Ave and wait for the 61c bus to take us someplace that makes more sense. After all, it’s important to support public transit.
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