Monday, November 3, 2008

In Herald Square

November 2, 2008

In Herald Square, the air is thick with sound. Yellow taxis hoot, sirens wail, engines rumble. Thumping music spills from the open windows of passing cars. Street vendors shout: Buy bottled water! Shish kebabs! Silk scarves! Hot dogs! Bus tours, T-shirts, jewellry! A grey-bearded black man plays the trumpet beside an iron fence. Blue smoke from the barbecue carts drifts through the air, challenging the watery sunlight. Rivers of people flow over the crosswalks, shouting, arguing, bellowing into cell phones, gesticulating, laughing, snapping digital photos, eating, smoking, fiddling with the earbuds of their iPods.

It's the last Sunday in October, but the leaves are green, the air is warm, and some of the people crowding the sidewalks wear shorts and T-shirts. Pigeons, self-possessed as policemen, peck at food scraps between the metal chairs. Here's a table of young Asians, there's a table of young black tour guides. A ragged old man shuffles along, clutching a greasy backpack of sad small treasures. Here comes a Muslim couple, he in a suit, she in a head scarf. Crossing in front of them are a couple of Orthodox Jews, bearded, black-suited, topped by broad black hats. What languages am I hearing? Yiddish, Farsi, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Urdu?

“It's overwhelming,” says Marjorie. She's never really been to Manhattan before, and the sheer energy of the place astounds her. With a few hours to spare before our plane to Halifax, we've taken the train from JFK airport into Penn Station. There's Madison Square Garden. That's the Empire State Building. Images from television, vivified by sounds, smells and sunlight. It's electrifying. I once spent a lot of time here, and I love it. There are lots of other cities, but there's only one New York.

We go into a tacky T-shirt shop. The olive-skinned proprietor wears baggy pants, a smock, a full grey beard, a skull-cap. A Turk? A Kurd? An Afghan? I can't guess, and I don't ask. He has six or eight Obama T-shirts, but nothing showing McCain. Why not? He shrugs. Can't get them. If he could, he'd sell them.

McCain is missing, but Obama surrounds us. Change we can believe in! Change we need! A black guy with a tiny curbside table is selling Obama publicity materials – bumper stickers, lapel buttons, window signs, ribbons. Amazing. Where I come from, you don't buy that stuff. Politicians give it away.

We buy some quesedillas in a Latin-American cafe. After we eat, Marjorie goes into Macy's, the original store, six floors of temptation fronting on the square. I settle down on a chair under the trees with a mocha coffee. At the next table, a young Indian woman taps intently on her laptop. A couple of bald, tattooed young men are playing chess.

It occurs to me that this is Barack Obama's America, this humming multicultural bazaar, and it's evidently thrilled at the prospect of an Obama presidency. If Obama walked through Herald Square – brown, hip, lean, cool – he'd fit right in. If John McCain walked through it, he'd look like a time-traveller.

If Obama wins – and, given that the last two presidential elections were stolen, I wouldn't be overconfident about that – he'll be the first world leader who truly inhabits the 21st century. He's out-pointing McCain because he's a better thinker, a better speaker, a more stylish media presence – and he's a full generation younger. He's outspending McCain not because he's wealthy – he's not – but because he and his supporters are masters of cyber-organizing and online fundraising. McCain, on the other hand, really is wealthy. He thinks he owns 13 homes – he can't really remember – and he has a net worth of $100 million. But he can't find the “enter” key on a computer. Won't do. Not in 2008.

Like Jack Kennedy, Barack Obama represents an intergenerational power shift, and a new suite of values. After facing the race issue head-on with a brilliant speech last March, Obama has campaigned as though race didn't matter. To his generation, it doesn't. They revel in diversity, change, creativity, communication. Here they are in Herald Square, people of the rainbow, cyber-folk in a flickering world, and the future belongs to them.

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