(written in Spring, 2016)
It took me an hour to drive up from Ohio, and then another hour to get into the parking lot. Stressed-looking cops directed traffic into a snowy field across the road from the Convo. It took another twenty minutes to walk to the rear of the line.
Along the way, people in cars honked their horns in support. One guy stopped at the intersection of Huron River Dr. and Hewitt. He rolled his window down.
“What’s going on?” he asked everyone.
“Bernie Sanders!” was the enthusiastic reply.
As I walked to the back of the line I saw the thick queue of people wrapped around the block, all the way down the road.
“Holy crap,” I said to no one.
A guy walking next to me noted the line’s length. I said I should’ve started recording with my phone at the beginning of the line. As if on cue, a guy on a bike rode by with a phone held aloft, documenting the impressive length of the line. Cars drove by, the inhabitants holding up their phones and waving.
“God, does it start in center campus or something?” the guy asked as we walked.
“I don’t know, looks like it might,” I said.
I sped up my pace, getting in front of him. A few steps later, I made it to the back of the line, and started waiting.
The whole line had a positive, genial vibe about it. It felt like a concert; a Simon and Garfunkel concert, maybe.
College kids streamed by, cuddling each other close and discussing politics. They talked about how if everyone in line voted, Bernie would have no difficulty beating Hillary at all.
There was a cute girl in front of me. I kept expecting her boyfriend to come back from parking the car but he never did, so she must’ve been by herself. She had hipster glasses and messy hair and a hoodie and what I thought was an icicle drip of snot hanging off her nose. Upon closer examination it turned out to be a little nose ring. I never got the balls to try to talk to her, but she kept her back to me most of the time and her arms folded across her chest, so it looked like she preferred to be left alone.
In front of her was an old guy with white hair in a grey fleece. Behind me, a dad and his daughter/boyfriend or son/girlfriend discussed the event’s turnout, how Ypsi was a better spot to hold the rally than in Ann Arbor, and how cold it was. They traded a scarf between them and stepped off to the side of the line away from everyone else to have cigarettes. I don’t mind second hand smoke — I almost miss it now that indoor smoking’s been banned in Michigan for six years now — but I thought it was really polite and thoughtful of them to do that.
A mom passed with a little kid in her arms.
“Whehw’s Bew-nie Sanduws?” the kid asked her, still unable to pronounce his ‘r’s properly. Everyone smiled and chuckled to themselves. How cute.
After another hour in the line trying to keep my breath’s moisture from freezing my mustache, we were nearly to the front doors. There was a white guy and two black guys, dressed in African garb despite the bitter cold. They were all thumping on instruments with their palms and thumbs, some strange oblong bongo- looking things. The drum music carried down the line, reverberating off the cold sidewalks.
Up ahead, there were activists with clipboards, pushing petitions to legalize marijuana and ban fracking. The girl in front of me signed the ban fracking petition. I passed on both of them, not wanting to lose my space in the line, which was quickening in pace.
Just outside the front doors, a PA system blared Motown hits.
Just inside, Secret Service agents stood in their Kevlar in front of metal detectors. Everyone emptied their pockets and placed the items on a table where an agent would thumb at their phones and rifle through purses. I made it through the checkpoint and was greeted by a bespectacled volunteer who cheerfully welcomed me to the rally.
As I dodged shoulders on my way into the arena, I got accosted by another clipboard guy who asked me if I’d signed in yet. Before I could realize I didn’t want to put my name on anything, I told him I hadn’t. He handed me the clipboard. I gave my real name but lied on my phone number and email and I wrote so sloppily there’s no way they’d decode it.
I got a seat in a section in the very top row. I was right behind the podium, over what would be Bernie’s right shoulder. The floor was not full, and the stands weren’t either. People trickled in.
The press line across the floor from the podium was full of news cameras standing on risers. Next to them, two long rows of tables were set up, filled with laptops and wires.
The crowd murmured to itself. Chants of “Ber-NIE! Ber-NIE!” would start then die off quickly. Speakers blasted Keep on Rockin in the Free World and On the Road Again and Disco Inferno by the Commodores.
In my section, a teacher-looking lady handed out rolls of circular stickers with “A Future to Believe In” printed on them. I took one.
There were people taking selfies everywhere. One girl attached her sticker to her glasses and snapped a selfie with it. Boyfriends huddled with girlfriends. Lone males sat forward with their hands clasped between their knees, looking serious. I saw no lone females.
Finally, at about 2:40, a woman walked up to the podium. She was short and tremendously fat, wearing a bright red sweater. She looked like a human fire hydrant. She announced that she was from the Michigan Nurses Association. They were endorsing Sanders. The crowd gave wild applause at the news.
The woman paused for the audience’s reaction after literally every sentence. The audience booed and cheered on cue.
Bernie the only candidate without a Superpac? Cheer.
Emergency managers? Boo
Universal health care? Cheer
Rising premiums and less access? Boo
Rick Snyder? Boos and jeers and yells of Recall Rick.
Bernie knows better? Cheer.
Finally, just as the crowd was appearing to lose interest in the nurse, she ceded the stage and Bernie himself emerged from beyond the black curtains down to my right. His wife Jane was behind him. He went directly to the stage, not shaking any hands, waving. The crowd was loud as hell and waving back.
Then, there he was at the podium, in the flesh with that pursed lip look he always has and his snow white hair and that hunched, two-hands-gripping-the-podium posture he has. I couldn’t help but smile.
Bernie spoke for an hour and a half, taking time to mention the water crisis in Flint and saying pretty much everything he says on TV. I don’t remember many specifics that deviated from his usually scripted remarks, other than a somber show of emotion when he discussed the poisoned children in Flint and what it means for the families living there. He told us he’d just met with several people from Flint.
The biggest reaction by far came when the crowd got Bernie to say, “Yuge”.
“The Republicans want us to think small, I want us to think big,” Bernie said during one political rallying cry, probably having to do with universal health care. Before he’d finished the sentence, half the audience had yelled, “Yuuuuuuuugeeeeee!”
“All right, if you want, you can think, ‘yuuuuuge’,” said Bernie.
The place exploded. It took about a minute for the applause to die down.
“I now know the impact of Saturday Night Live,” Bernie said, visibly amused.
After thanking everyone for coming, Bernie stepped down from the podium and made the rounds down at the metal fences, grabbing hands and signing posters. Then he was behind the black curtains and gone again, waving at everyone with Jane at his side. He shook hands all the way, secret service agents clustering around him and regarding the crowd with stern faces.
I left my seat and joined the packed hallways, shuffling shoulder to shoulder with everyone as we filtered out.
“He’s even more adorable in person,” said a girl.
The metal detectors had been removed from the atrium.
I walked to my car and sat there for another hour as the parking lot drained, the February sky grey and my boots damp with slush.