My neighbor is running for president
Barack Obama? Oh sure, he's just a guy from the next block over.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/File
Something had changed in my old neighborhood since the last time I was home. It had changed, in fact, in just the previous week, since the close of the Democratic National Convention.
I drove toward the lake down 51st Street in Chicago, in the home stretch of a 12-hour car trip from Atlanta. The infamous boarded-up boulevards of the city's South Side gave way to the manicured, middle-class neighborhood where I grew up.
Then abruptly on my left emerged a police barricade, stretching for a couple hundred yards. They were the kind of cement roadblocks I'd only seen in photos of Iraq. The corner bus stop had been removed and Chicago Police Department cars lined the street. Plain-clothed, humorless men were milling around everywhere, almost daring pedestrians to linger too long.
All this because the neighbor, around the block from the apartment where my father still lives, is running for president.
Barack Obama has lived in Hyde Park for years, has taught there at the University of Chicago law school where my parents graduated and my father still works, has eaten with his family in the same local dives everyone I know here frequents.
Of course, all of this has only become a big deal in the past year, as "Obama" has become a root word and as this neighborhood has been outed as the cauldron of "Obamamania."
The conservative Weekly Standard earlier this summer raised its eyebrows at the first reports of liberal academics and aging '60s radicals lurking here: "Wow, what kind of neighborhood does Barack live in?"
And any number of media outlets have been through since, as if answering that question would define the man any better than the memoirs he has already written about himself.
For the locals, the thrill isn't the outside attention, but the intimate pride that comes with proximity to celebrity. It's not what does Hyde Park say about Obama, but what does Obama say about us? The possible future president chose to live where we live. He's raising his children where my parents raised me.
I've eaten at the Medici, too – where the servers are now wearing "Obama Eats Here" T-shirts – and so I think I'm one-tenth of my way to the White House. Of course, I would wait until Obama were done with it.
When Michelle Obama cites her favorite restaurant (Calypso Cafe) and bookstore (57th Street Books), I know where those places are, and I love them, too. Michelle and I have never been spotted in any of these establishments at the same time, but it's sort of like we have, because we're not talking about Macy's or Bennigan's – these are local, independent businesses defined by the people who support them.
It feels as if everyone in Hyde Park has an insider's view on a phenomenon most people have only experienced through a television screen or inside a football stadium (and literally, we do: If I could just get past the secret-service detail, I could look in the man's window).
My father likes to tell people that his neighbor Barack calls him all the time, when, what he really means is, someone from the campaign has called again and asked him for just a little more money on Barack's behalf.
And I found myself grasping for my own little piece of the candidate, too, on this recent trip home, over-excitedly asking a few too many friends, "Do you want to see Obama's house?!" Because, you know, I know where it is."
My father, my friend Allison, and I walked over one Sunday afternoon just to see how close we could get and exactly what would happen.
We took the more residential back road, 50th Street, and I was sorry that we hadn't thought to bring a stroller, or a dog, something that would give more credibility to our "we're just out for a walk" cover story.
"Excuse me, can I help you?" The man, in khakis and a burgundy button-down shirt, walked over from a Chicago Police Department car blocking the end of Obama's street.
"Oh, can we not go down here?" we asked. Turned out, Obama was actually home ("in residence," as they say), and this guy was secret service.
"Aren't you supposed to be wearing sunglasses?" my father asked. The agent pulled out a pair of dark shades to humor us and explained that agents usually adopt the wardrobe style of their protectees. I pictured Obama coming out to his porch to get the newspaper in the same khakis and burgundy shirt.
The agent was surprisingly nice, but not nice enough to let us continue on our walk. And so we turned around to go home – "we live just right around the block," we explained, because this distinguished us from the Obama gawkers who aren't from Hyde Park, who aren't his neighbors, just out on a Sunday afternoon stroll down the street where Obama just happens to live.