I figure this is the closest I'll ever get to a person who'll probably be president. It's orderly chaos, and people are happy to be here.
Once we've been through security (please take a sip of your water) the lines jostle aimlessly, and everyone follows everyone else. When it looks like we're headed to the high stands behind the stage, scores of people buck the current. It's a minor rebellion. We haven't worked this hard, some of us, to be put on the top shelf. "First come, first served!" we all shout, until the already-weary campaign staff have mercy, and we're in where we want to be. Already I feel efficacious, a word I learned in seventh-grade civics class: able to accomplish something, powerful as an individual. Yes, we can.
We have two hours of increasingly brutal morning sun ahead. I've got a hat (and water), but three neighbors to my right have to improvise. One, Delaine, uses a bobby pin to attach a postcard to the tight curls above her forehead. Another, Katrina, uses a hair band to secure a folded newspaper. Her mother, Toni, borrows bobby pins and gets two cards above her eyes. We establish that they're from Valrico, and I'm from Ruskin, and we lapse into amiable silence. We can't be more than 20 yards away from the podium.
Toni spots a friend down on the field. How did she get there? How can we get there? Look! Down at the gate — see those people going in? Toni notices Katrina getting emotional, so close to history, and says, "Save my seat." She maneuvers herself to the gate, to the official-looking young woman in the gray wool skirt and polka-dot blouse with the earpiece, radio and BlackBerry. She affixes dots to the back of some hands, and Toni gets one, a fat yellow bindi on her coffee-and-cream skin.
We've been watching, and when Toni peers up at us, we wave, we scramble down, she claims us (even me, the pushy little white girl she has just met), and the official-looking woman informs her that we'll have to wait. Big men with wires twisting from their ears to their collars brush past. Men and women wearing volunteer badges stand around kibitzing. We look in vain for our benefactor. She never comes back. One of the volunteers takes pity after 40 minutes and lets us in.
He'll probably walk by right here. Here — you're short, you can come up. Si, se puede! Si, se puede! Helicopters. Well-dressed, beautifully coiffed women and their casually rich husbands. Campaign buttons in Hebrew. People who look famous, like for football or local politics. Kids. A T-shirt that might be in Portuguese. I stand with my new friends, but after we say a few churchy code words about prayers and grace, we don't exchange life stories. We may not have anything in common beyond the candidate. Or perhaps we're afraid we won't.
I have mixed feelings about pep rallies. High school bleacher-stomping was exciting, but also a little scary: the mob in an irrational frenzy. Finally the candidate appears. I had expected to be brought to some pitch of excitement, to feel the momentous march of history, to fall in love. But instead, he looks like he does on TV, and from where I am, about 20 feet away in my own personal air shaft among the hundreds, I catch a small headshot when the tall guy leans left. The candidate lays out the problems and his solutions, one by one, casting aspersions on his opponent from time to time. I cheer and boo on cue, but I'm not overcome. The guy is neither a demagogue nor a demigod. He's sort of a dull, likable wonk.
But then he works the crowd, shaking hands, lifting a baby for scores of upheld cell phone cameras, nodding, making his way out. We all crush after him. At first I want to get closer than 6 feet away, but I give up quickly, only to find myself trapped. Pressing the flesh takes on new meaning. Only the most densely packed subway cars can compare. One woman keeps repeating, "That's enough, people! That's enough, people!" I look her in the eye: She isn't in a full-blown panic, and she calms herself, as if in response to my gaze. But we want out. Somebody steps on my foot. If I took both feet off the ground, I'd be carried with the next surge. Everyone, I notice, smells fine, and despite the crush, it's not a stampede. After a while the crowd sighs apart.
I spot my new friends in a three-way hug. Katrina, the 19-year-old daughter, is sobbing into her mother's arms. "What happened? What's wrong?" I am thinking she got hurt. Her mother looks up. "He hugged her."
Melanie Hubbard is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal.