Inauguration Day: The View From Obama's So Cal Alma Mater

At the Staples Center, watching the Obama era begin
Ted Soqui

Occidental College is a pleasant campus to walk across at almost any time, but on a beautiful inaugural morning, it is as close to perfect as one could possibly come. As I labor up the steps on my bad knee, making my way to the auditorium to view the live CNN feed of Barack Obama’s swearing-in, I pass the metal sound-sculpture that the new president stood in front of years ago, in 1981, wearing his very cool Hawaiian shirt, looking very handsome and resembling my best friend at the time, also a basketball player and inclined to read philosophy, but not driven to conquer the electoral world. 

I imagine Obama back then, working with the antiapartheid movement on campus, listening to Bob Marley, acclimating to Los Angeles, enjoying Casa Bianca pizza and the good Mexican food near campus. I wonder if he ever got over to the Crenshaw and Jefferson Park neighborhoods where I grew up. It was a bittersweet time then — the black neighborhoods were in the midst of the rock-cocaine epidemic and gang violence was an even-worse drug.  

It’s an odd feeling that so much of our hopes and our country’s future rests on his shoulders, as though he’s Superman — or if not Superman, Spiderman, Obama’s favorite comic. Last week I tried to buy Spiderman 832, the issue with Obama on the cover on which he got top billing over the webslinger. The line snaked out of Pasadena’s Comics Factory, but they had sold out. We talked ourselves out of the need for a riot — the guys who run Comics Factory are salt-of-the-earth dudes of the first order — but we were disappointed. One middle-aged African-American woman who, I suspect, had never set foot in a comic-book store, had smartly phoned in weeks before to reserve the issue, and when she was presented her copy, she ran her fingers delicately across the cover and smiled with a private joy that made me happy she was the lucky one.

Inside the auditorium, I was handed a button that I couldn’t make out in the darkness. But afterward, after the lusty booing of Bush and Cheney every time their faces entered the picture, and the rapturous applause for Obama’s speech, I walked into the sunlight and examined the button — a divided picture of Obama as a young man at Oxy, with his Afro and winning smile, and the other half, a middle-aged man, handsome and with the same generous smile, and the words in a happy script, “Barry was here, 1983.” 

It was a surprise, just like the outcome of the election, and these surprises, along with a beautiful and moving inauguration, gave my cynic’s heart hope for which I am very grateful.

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