Obama Visits Cereal City

cerealcity.jpg On a sweltering Sunday evening, hope came to a baseball field in Battle Creek, Michigan. Once a prosperous “Cereal City,” home to both Post and Kellogg, Battle Creek has fallen upon hard times. The city has become one of Michigan’s post-industrial ghost towns due to the gradual shuttering of the cereal production plants since the 1970s. Racial tensions have risen as demographics have changed, and the crime rate is disproportionately high. On the bright side, depending on one’s personal tastes, Battle Creek is a boom-town for the manufacture of crack cocaine. As I drove into town, my young traveling companion joked that there was now “crackle, but no snap or pop.”

Last Sunday night, though, Battle Creek’s C.O. Brown Stadium held at least 16,000 people willing to stand in the sun for hours to see Barack Obama and Joe Biden as they made the third stop on their post-Convention tour. I was there as part of the entourage accompanying my boss, Democratic Congressional candidate Bob Alexander, and after waiting in line for nearly an hour, I found myself on the infield, near the diamond. I struck up a conversation with Daniele and Lauren, (both 11) who were sitting at my feet with assorted little brothers and cousins, making fun of Lauren’s dad for wearing white ankle socks. I asked them why they liked Obama, and Lauren informed me, with a certain gravitas, that it was because he could “relate to children,” and was “a cool man.” I asked Daniele what she, as an African American, thought a black President might do that was special. “It might change the way people think about themselves,” she replied. Six-year-old brother Mataly had no comment regarding Obama; he wanted only for me to remove my foot from the two of pigs required for an ongoing game of Barnyard War.

mataly-1.jpg Daniele’s mother, Kathleen, joined me on the grass to supervise the card game. A teacher in the Battle Creek Public Schools, Kathleen said that the first thing Obama should address as President was “the economy.” She described students unable to afford school supplies and unable to perform well on the standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind because they had transient living arrangements and often didn’t get enough to eat. Hearing a reference to food, Mataly asked for a hot dog. His father told him that they would get hot dogs after Mr. Obama spoke. “He’s bringing hot dogs?!” Mataly asked.

Behind me in the crowd was 19-year old Candace, entering her sophomore year at Harvard. Candace, beautiful in big dark glasses and surrounded by an entourage of younger brothers, informed me that her mother was Obama’s “biggest fan,” that Obama’s greatest strength was that he “was not Bush,” and that John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin was “a cheap shot.” She added that many of her friends had changed their status on Facebook to read “Sarah Palin is no Hillary Clinton.”

The P.A. system blared “Living in America,” a group of National Guard cadets were cheered as they moved through the crowd, and we made makeshift fans and hats out of everything from legal pads to empty cookie boxes. People fainted, and were taken out by medics. A young woman behind me was discussing the deference shown to McCain because he had served the United States as a soldier, and mused that maybe we could also have elected Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, because he had also served in the military. The crowd did The Wave, and I listened to snippets of conversation. “The Republicans are really canceling their Convention because they have nothing to say.” “Does McCain really think women are that stupid? Does he think we’re all interchangeable?”

bilde.jpg Finally, at 7:30, after we had been waiting for three hours, the speakers began. The Chair of the county’s Democratic Party, the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer led by a local pastor, and State Senator Debbie Stabenow. The sun had gone down, but it was still hot. Despite our collective dedication to the cause, people began to get antsy, craning their necks for any signs that Someone Important had arrived. Two Michigan Obama field organizers, nerdy but energetic boys named Alex and Tito, attempted to engage the crowd in cheers. A local Democratic Congressional candidate spoke, and held up a specially made box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes with a picture of Obama and Biden and said “they’re grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreat!” We laughed politely, but between the heat, the impossibility of leaving to find a bathroom, and sheer fatigue, the crowd was palpably impatient.

The announcer named someone none of us had ever heard of, and there was a collective groan. A man in jeans who resembled Willie Nelson appeared at the microphone, and told the story of how he was a house painter, had injured his back, and had no health insurance. We listened politely, and at the end of his story we expected the P.A. system to resume its steady blare, and to be entertained by further well-intended filler. Instead, the Willie Nelson guy beamed, and said he had the pleasure of introducing “the next President and Vice President of the United States, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.” Behind me, Candace’s mother whooped loud enough to puncture my left eardrum, cameras were held above the crowd, and then there they were, Joe and Barack, 20 feet away from me.

bilde-1.jpg I absently wondered if the stone-faced Secret Service guy standing between us and the stage was a Republican, then I wondered why I would assume such a thing, but soon I was swept up in Biden’s speech about how his friend John “didn’t get it” about the economy and the extent to which working class Americans were suffering. As Biden spoke, Obama sat in his black dress pants and immaculate white shirt, sleeves rolled up, smiling and nodding in agreement. “He’s looking right at me!” Candace’s mom said, grabbing my arm.

Obama’s speech was nothing new in terms of content, but he held us spellbound (well, if you can simultaneously be spellbound and extremely loud) as he addressed the creation of jobs, the reduction of taxes, the availability of good healthcare for all Americans, and the strong work ethic of the Michigan workforce. We were bound together, the 16,000 of us, black, white, Hispanic, hippie, soccer mom, Teamster, on a baseball field in a place where it used to be possible to smell baking grains on a day when the factories were producing. We were bound together by hope, not by rock star hysteria or blind party allegiance. We wanted to believe, in our collective souls, that the promised change could really happen, and that this man could lead the way, and for that 35 minutes we believed.


Ann Graham Nichols cooks and writes the Forest Street Kitchen blog in East Lansing, Michigan where she lives in a 1912 house with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals.