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UPDATE - Thanks for the recs folks!

I haven't had that many "standing around with strangers watching events unfold" moments in my life.  In roughly chronological order, the Challenger explosion, the OJ verdict, 9/11, the Red Sox winning the World Series.  Maybe one or two others scattered through my 33 years.  But not many.  Most events are, I suppose, not big enough, not loud enough, not important enough to make people stop and just watch.  Today was another one of those days.

My morning started uneventfully.  I left my house later than I intended to take my car to a Jeep dealership for some service.  I changed my mind about the route I was going to take, which caused me to backtrack a bit to hop on I-20 towards downtown Atlanta.  At the intersection with I-75/I-85 (the "Midtown Connector"), traffic slowed to a halt, and I saw the damage to Atlanta's buildings from Friday's tornado for the first time.  It was jarring and far worse than I'd expected.  Massive numbers of windows were just gone.  I found myself thinking of all that flying glass (or plastic) and all those basketball fans if the tournament game at Phillips Arena hadn't gone into overtime.  For all the damage, it could have been a lot worse.

But that's not what this diary is about.

I drove up the Midtown Connector and stayed on I-75 into the suburbs, just beyond the Perimeter, I-285, what folks in other cities might call the Beltway or the Loop.  Things change out there.  The area inside the Perimeter, or "ITP", is diverse, racially and otherwise.  There are folks with Obama stickers, Clinton stickers, houses with "Anti-Bellum House" on the white picket fence, Carter Centers and MLK Monuments, Coca-Cola and the Braves, Falcons, Thrashers, and Hawks.  Aside from its remarkable lack of public transportation and bloody-minded sprawl, the area immediately surrounding Downtown and Midtown is easy to call home.  Lots of good folks of all types.  Lots of quirky neighbors.  Few gated communities.  

Outside the Perimeter, "OTP", is a different thing indeed.  Racially, religiously, and politically almost homogeneous.  Passing the Perimeter is like passing into a different world.  Suddenly streets look different, signs look different, Bradford Pears are everywhere.  Lots more W stickers, yellow ribbons, and megachurches.  I've lived a lot of places, and I haven't seen many geographic/cultural divisions quite so stark.

I pulled up to my dealership, just down the street from an Air National Guard base, near the Lockheed plant that builds C-130s and F-22s for the Air Force.  The guy who took my car was friendly.  The salesman inside who showed me a diesel Jeep was friendly.  Everyone's real friendly in the suburbs.  But I kept thinking that I was in the suburbs, not friendly territory for my "Brite Blue Dot" and Obama stickers.  

I'd planned to wait for my car to be worked on, because it was only a minor brake job.  No big deal.  An hour in and out, and the dealership has wifi.  I could work from where I was.  So I sat down in the waiting room.

My backtracking after deciding to take a different route.  The slow traffic through Downtown.  A few minutes spent with a salesman talking about the diesel Jeep.  The strange sums of seconds spent here and there through the morning caused me to sit down almost at the moment Barack Obama walked up to the podium to begin his speech.

Now, I'm not going to talk about the speech itself.  Plenty of folks have done that.  I'll just say that I was watching intently, pleased with what I was hearing.  When, after about 5 minutes, the guy who was working on my car came by to tell me that the car wouldn't be ready until the afternoon, I thanked him and stayed right where I was to watch the rest of the speech.  But something curious happened.  I was snapped out of the moment of the speech by the mechanic's visit, which was fine because Obama was, in a very real sense, giving the speech about race in America that I've wanted to hear my entire life: genuine, personal, intelligent, and direct.  I've watched the speech again since this morning, and it didn't disappoint, but just at that moment I stopped watching it ...

... and started watching the people around me.  The young black man.  The elderly white couple.  The two white women, one college-aged, one in her late-20s.  One middle-aged white woman.  Two white men, one college-aged, one in his late-30s.  One Asian couple.  All of them were watching the speech.  Rapt.  Nodding.  

Gradually, the twentysomething white woman went back to her laptop, but kept smiling when Obama would say something important.  The elderly white couple whispered in their Southern accented way: "He's really good... He's saying good things... He's a good young man..."  The young black man chuckled when Obama said that Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America, but was otherwise simply watching.  And at one point, the middle-aged white woman asked one of the dealership folks, in another thick, thick Southern accent if she wouldn't mind turning up the volume, because she really wanted to hear this speech.

She, this white Southern woman from the suburbs, wanted to hear this speech, delivered by a Black man with a funny name running for President.  And she was nodding.  

But she wasn't the only one.  Folks from the dealership, passing through on their way to and from whatever they do (most of them for not a lot of money) stopped and watch for 3 or 4 minutes.  A young mechanic of ambiguous ethnicity stopped by at least a half-dozen times (hours later he stopped me as I was walking to the cashier to pay and said "That was some speech," then paused awkwardly, and said, hushed, "It's good that folks our age are getting involved, I think, right?").  Two salesmen, white, mid-40s, Southern as sweet tea, stopped and watched.  And nodded.  And I wasn't the only one to stick around to watch the speech after my business at the dealership was done.  

Never seen anything like that.  I bet a lot of folks in that dealership were Republicans.  Most, based on snippets of conversation I heard, were Southerners.  Almost all were white.  And they watched, listened, and agreed with what Barack Obama was saying about race in America.  

I decided today that there are a lot of good people in the world.  I decided that after all the slogans, after all the bumper stickers, and after all the excruciating hours of listening to Bill O'Reilly divide us, most folks don't hate most other folks.  And when someone stands up, and explains the situation clearly, concisely, and directly, they can see that, yeah, we have issues to work through and that, yeah, we need to do something.  

Today's speech wasn't about right or left, black or white, man or woman.  Today Barack Obama gave a speech about basic human dignity, dignity that all of us deserve.  And my brothers and sisters from OTP, many of them folks I would've considered culturally very, very different from me just yesterday, watched, listened, and saw with their hearts and minds what Barack Obama was saying.  

The Challenger, OJ, 9/11, the Red Sox.  Three difficult days and one frivolous but happy one.  And today, difficult but incredibly happy.  Today.  Thank God for today.

UPDATE II - A couple of folks have pointed out that Cobb County is not nearly as homogeneous as I described, and I'm going to expand on one of my responses here a bit.  The Atlanta suburbs have a reputation of being lily white after the "white flight" from the city over the last few decades.  But the suburbs are changing.  They're becoming more diverse both racially, culturally, and otherwise.  I didn't make this point explicitly, but it's a component of the story: Obama's speech and the effect that it had on folks was a challenge to me to examine my own assumptions about the people in my larger community.

Originally posted to socratic on Tue Mar 18, 2008 at 06:09 PM PDT.

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