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Chicago: Obama's Whirl-Windy City

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2008-11-24

Reporting from Chicago, FRANCE 24's Leela Jacinto takes a look at the behind-the-scenes drama in Barack Obama's hometown.

 

Click here to read special correspondent Leela Jacinto's article 'Obama's not-so-sweet home, Chicago.'

 

 

Click here to read special correspondent Leela Jacinto's article 'Obama's journey from Hyde to Grant Park'

 

 Watch our report: 'Great expectations in Chicago'

 

Click here to read Leela Jacinto's latest report: Barack Obama makes History as first black US president


 

Obama’s barbershop

 

Friday, Oct. 31, 2008

 

Electric clippers in hand, Ishael Alamin looks up impassively as I enter his hair salon. His clientele, encased in black overalls and in various stages of being shorn, mirror his nonchalance.

 

Hyde Park Hair Salon would not be my first choice for a haircut. In the highly specialized niche marketing landscape that is the USA, salons like Hyde Park are simply called "black hair salons".

 

 

 

 

Their shelves are stocked with products aimed at a black market and their staff specializes in the very specific needs of their African-American clientele. Typically, they are large salons where several staff barbers clip, straighten, braid, bead, shampoo and style together in an atmosphere of relaxed camaraderie.

 

The impassiveness that greets my entry, I realize, is because they know just what I’m here for.

 

There aren’t too many barbershops whose client list includes a potential future US president.

 

Yes, Hyde Park Hair Salon is where Barack Obama has his regular haircuts. It’s located across the road from the Presbyterian Church in Hyde Park, Obama’s historic neighborhood.

 

 

 

 

And it’s not long before curious reporters from across the world, nosing around Obama’s historic neighborhood, land up at this barbershop just off 53rd street.

 

The routine here is set. Nobody talks until a reporter hands out his or her business card to each staffer. Handing just one business card to the store owner is not good enough. It’s like each staff barber is building his personal stash of journalist business cards during the peak media season to last him through the bleak months.

 

Once the interview is done, the photo-op routine begins. Not the journalist taking shots of Hyde Park’s now famous barbershop. But of staffers taking photographs with the journalist. Every barber here seems to have brought his personal camera to work. That’s probably for the personal albums back home.

 

In “Obama’s barbershop,” as it’s proudly called in this neighborhood, Zariff is the undisputed star. That’s because he’s the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate’s personal barber.

 

Every eight or nine days for the past 13 years, he tells me, Obama troops in to get his haircut.

 

Zariff, who only goes by one name – like Madonna, Prince and other mono-named stars – talks about Obama’s “look” with all the esoteric seriousness of a media image stylist.

 

“The look that you see, that’s my choice,” he says of his most famous client. “Everything’s right, every night. You can tell, sometimes it’s a bit longer, but it’s the look. I’ve got a pretty good feel of it. It’s been successful. He looks good. Your hairstyle is the most important thing, it’s one of the first things you see when you look at a person. That’s my job for Obama and I have a pretty good feel of it.”

 

The last time Obama was here, on Monday, Alamin, the owner tells me, it was a virtual circus. Security guards stood outside the glass doors of the salon. A crowd slowly gathered on the sidewalk. Everyone was furiously texting on their cell phones.

 

Inside the salon, Zariff asked the client he was serving if he could leave him to attend to the likely future president on the USA.

 

But Obama was having none of it. “He just said, ‘no, no, carry on, I’ll just wait here.’ And he sat and waited and chatted to everyone,” said Alamin.

 

“He’s very humble,” says Zariff, as he clips a client’s locks. “He engages in any conversation with anyone here. He’s always been that way. We talk about the community, our families, sports, whatever comes up. We rarely discuss politics though. That’s his job and I don’t want to get him into that.”

 

So what happens if Obama gets elected president? Zariff firmly believes he will, but he’s evasive about his post-Nov 4 plans. “I’m sure he won’t be coming here so often. I could go to Washington,” he mutters, before stopping any further questions with a, “But Obama said very clearly that we should not put the cart before the horse. So we’ll just wait and see what happens.”

 

The church where Obama once worshipped

 

Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008

 

Dressed in resplendent red and cream robes, the 70-odd strong choir is singing, grooving, thumping out their love of the Lord. The congregation in turn, claps, stomps, sways, occasionally shrieks, and gives back the love. Even the pastor’s sermon is a sheer delight, an interweaving of a complex theological theme delivered with gut-splitting humour.

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday morning service at the Trinity United Church of Christ, deep in Chicago’s South Side, has got to be one of the best shows in town.

 

You may be a believer, an agnostic, an atheist, or somewhere in-between. It does not matter, the sheer energy of Sunday service here is guaranteed to get even the dourest skeptic’s blood racing.

 

I almost begin to feel sorry that Barack Obama and his family are missing this weekly ritual.

 

The Democratic presidential candidate of course was forced to quit the church back in June, following the controversial sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

In a letter to Wright’s successor, Rev. Otis Moss, Obama and his wife, Michelle, acknowledged that the controversies had put Moss “in an untenable position as you establish your own ministry under very difficult circumstances.”

 

At the Trinity Church, there’s a consensus about who’s to blame for this regrettable chapter. It’s the media.

 

If Obama’s barber is happy to entertain the media, Obama’s former church views the press with about the same fondness a death row inmate reserves for the electric chair.

 

I try to sneak into the church lobby and blend unobtrusively into the crowd. No chance of that in a black church. The members, dressed in their spectacular Sunday finery, recognize an outsider at once, welcome me to their church very warmly and very firmly deposit me at the visitors’ registration desk.

 

I ‘fess up, produce my business card and jot my name and news organization on the virtually empty press list.

 

Now it’s bag check time. No cell phones, cameras or recording devices allowed for media members. This, I did not know. I have a cell phone, camera and dictaphone in my bag. Impasse.

 

Can I leave my devices with the security volunteer until the end of the service? No, they do not take on that responsibility. Going back to hotel to drop the stuff is not an option. Trinity is so deep in the South Side, no taxis come here and public transportation involves a long, complex bus-train-subway transfer process.

 

Desperate, I fib. “Please, I have come all the way from India,” I lie, hoping he doesn’t check with the registration desk. As a journalist of Indian origin, I use this little white lie only in the most desperate cases – like when I’m interviewing jihadists or Taliban commanders and I feel my US citizenship will endanger me. I never dreamed I would have to use the “Indian card” in Chicago’s South Side.

 

It seems to work. “India,” says the security guy with all the wonder of a man trying to locate a waterhole on Mars. He’s softening and I seize the opportunity. Grabbing the dictaphone, I take out the cheap battery cells and push it into his surprised palm. I’m in.

 

The service lasts almost three hours. Interestingly, barely two days before a historic election that could see the first black US president, there is no explicit mention of Obama during the service.

 

But there are myriad Obama pins on jackets, shirts and blouses across the church. And the message is clear. The litany, titled, “We Vote” goes: “we must…get our feet on the ground until we run the course and win the race.” Invoking the Civil Rights struggle, it goes on, “We cannot turn back and be silent about the 1.4 million Black men denied the right to vote because of time served in prison.”

 

There was a time, early in his political career, when some members of the black community argued that Obama is “not really black”. This, they argued, was not only because Obama has a white mother, but also because his father was Kenyan and he does not share the heritage of the descendants of slavery.

 

But that’s history now. The South Side black community seems to have overwhelmingly rallied behind Obama.

 

Standing outside the church after the service, 70-year-old Ted Sanders admits that in the 2000 Democratic primaries for the House of Representatives, he voted for Obama’s opponent, Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther.

 

“I didn’t know then that Obama was the man that could handle it, that he could get into the White House,” says Sanders.

 

Is he upset with Obama for quitting the church? Not at all. Like everyone I speak to here, Sanders believes Obama had to make a pragmatic move. “He did what he had to do,” says the longtime South Side resident.

 

“But,” adds Sanders, “if he gets to the White House, he will return. Because he’s our brother and we love him. And Rev. Jeremiah Wright is our brother too – and we love him too.”

 

Security and a smoke

Tuesday, Nov. 4 – 4.30 AM

 

Bolted out of bed at 4AM – way earlier than planned – with a corny loop of the words, “History could be made today,” ringing through my mind. It was like my subconscious had gone to bed with Walter Cronkite, “America’s most trusted” news anchorman.

 

Last night was probably the noisiest in Chicago in recent years. Helicopters whirred in the skies, sirens screeched on the roads and horns blared. What sounds like excitement by day, appears to be paranoia at night. Who can blame me for sprinting out of bed like that?

 

This place is crawling with security men and women of different, sometimes dubious, stripes. Our hotel is just opposite Grant Park, where Obama will end his wildly exciting campaign later tonight.

 

On the sidewalk, where I was taking a last midnight smoke, a woman approached me and offered me a light, which I accepted even though I had my own. This being the US, this being good ol’ Midwestern Chicago in particular, she was a chatty soul.

 

But when I asked her what she did for a living, she turned crimson, sputtering that she could not tell me, please understand, she didn’t want me to think she was affected or rude, far from it…

 

I put her out of her misery with a, “Don’t worry darling, we all have jobs to do and we have to obey the rules.”

 

Relieved she said, “Yeah, I mean, my company signed a contract.” By that, I took it to mean a non-disclosure contract.

 

Obviously, she’s a low-level cog in a local Chicago private security firm. The city has had to rope in all the security services available – I can understand that. What I can’t understand, though, is why don’t they just give these sweet little things a proper cover-up story?

 

Oooh-la at Beulah’s 

 

Tuesday, Nov. 4 – 9 AM

 

It’s a mad house here at the Beulah Shoe Smith Elementary School. Obama voted here, with his wife Michelle, and the international media circus is in full swing.

 

“Three, two, one…This is Beulah Shoe Smith Elementary School, sorry I screwed it up,” says a reporter from New Zealand’s TV One. “This is Beulah Shoe Smith Elementary School. Barack Obama voted here, shit, sorry, start again.” The cameraman looks disgusted. “You tell me when you’re ready,” he says, trying, but not succeeding, in hiding his exasperation.

 

The female TV reporters, as always, seem in a bad mood. It’s probably all that makeup – they can’t seem to crack a smile. “Ex-CUSE me,” says one particularly spruced up version as she stomps into my frame just as I’m snapping a picture of the voting line. Somehow she’s managed to make it sound like it’s my fault. I flash her a freeze-smile and hope she stumbles – live – on her stilettos.

 

A Spanish TV crew is on a roll. Their reporter is walking across the voting hall, jabbering in rapid-fire Spanish, as his crew runs along. Sometimes, he bumps into the line of people waiting to vote.

 

But everyone here seems to be in a forgiving mood. There’s a festive spirit here and the folks are being very patient about the media madness. I guess if you live in the same neighborhood as a presidential candidate – a wildly popular one at that – you come prepared.

 

Even the numerous security and secret service guys posted outside Obama’s home are polite. My taxi driver, a Nigerian-born American who has lived in Chicago’s South Side since he arrived in the US 31 years ago, agrees to drive up and down, past Obama’s home.

 

I had imagined that driving up and down past his home would earn us a bullet from an armed, security-crazed man, but that’s not the case.

 

This part of Hyde Park, called the Kenwood area, is decidedly upscale. Obama’s house, a large brick-walled affair, peeks behind ivy and Maplewood trees dressed in an appealing autumnal range of red, yellow, orange and burgundy leaves.

 

On my way back from the polling station though, I have to cross the Obama residence by foot. That’s when they stop me and politely ask me to take a detour around the street.

 

I’m joined by a woman who lives on the next block, down from his street.

 

‘This must be a nightmare,’ I cluck sympathetically. “Oh no, it’s not like this everyday,” she says. “But I understand why it’s this way. It’s a small price to pay for his safety.”

 

My god, they should shoot an episode of Neighbours in this place.

 

Friday, Nov. 7 – 7.45 AM

 

Hulking white media trucks sprouting satellite dishes line South Michigan Avenue outside Chicago’s Hilton Hotel and snake around the corner down East 8th street. Sniffer dogs from the Chicago Police Department bark and strain on their leashes as they make their way past the trucks. Even the canines are excited by all this action. In the hotel lobby, secret service officials stalk the room, their walkie-talkies emitting robotic voices as they survey everyone walking into the hotel.

 

Once again, downtown Chicago is at the heart of the country’s – the world’s – attention. At around 1.30 PM Chicago time, US president-elect Barack Obama will be addressing a press conference here at the Hilton.

 

More than four hours to go and there’s a crush outside the hotel’s Continental Ballroom, where Obama will host his first press conference since he was elected America’s first black president.

 

News camera teams, sagging under the weight of cameras and tripods rush down the hallway to the foyer outside the ballroom. Here, they join a winding line of other camera teams waiting to enter the room and set up their equipment. Press entrance opens at 8AM and already there’s a pile-up of tired, exasperated journalists.

 

Obama has set up his transitional team to vet candidates for posts in his cabinet as well as his team of aides and advisors. This time, the transition process, called Washington’s favourite parlour game  has moved to Chicago, Obama’s hometown  in downtown Chicago’s Kluczynski Federal Building.

 

This morning, Obama and Vice president-elect Joe Biden are meeting with the Transition Economic Advisory Board. And at a time when all eyes are on the economy, the focus is on his future economic team and the man who will be charged with getting the US out of its current economic mess.

 

“The thing to watch is the Treasury Secretary, okay? The Treasury Secretary - that’s the big one – you got it?” a correspondent tells her cameraman.

 

Down the line, another team is going through the list of Obama’s economic advisory board members. “Okay, Warren Buffet, I can recognise of course. Podesta, sure. Laura Tyson…know what she looks like?”

 

Tyson is the former head of the US presidential council of economic advisers during the Clinton years.

 

Back outside the hotel, a couple of European tourists are getting out of their taxi. The woman gazes wonderingly at the madness around the hotel as her partner pays the cabbie. I can’t resist. ‘You know Barack Obama will be in a few hours? He has a press conference in your hotel.’

 

 

“Oh my god,” shrieks the woman – she’s just arrived from Copenhagen, she tells me. Her partner joins her to find out what’s the matter. When he is informed, his jaw drops. “I am so excited,” he says deliberately, sounding definitely unexcited. He’s the only one I’ve met this morning who’s managed to keep his cool.

 

 

 

 

Date created : 2008-11-07

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