The menu of Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C. starts off: “Our chili will make a dog bark.” And then: “Black owned and operated since 1958.”
When I sat down with my chili-slathered sausage the afternoon after Election Day, the energy in the place was subdued, much more so than the last time I was in town, when the restaurant felt like someone’s summertime cookout. Cooks and servers were working with a casual air, their Obama buttons, keychains, and trinkets still pinned and dangling. Tourists bought t-shirts, and an enormous man named Moe encouraged them to inspect the celebrity photos on the wall, faded to pale blues the way all celebrity photos in all places that feature celebrity photos are faded.
A booth’s-worth of young hipsters walked in wearing Obama t-shirts and placid faces. I refocused on my lunch, the chili pleasantly murky, almost chocolaty, paired with tart mustard and the oozy richness of the sausage. It’s the kind of sandwich that makes things around it taste better, or so I thought as I kept stuffing myself with potato chips.
The man next to me was also a fan of those sandwiches; he had two and then followed up with a chili dog. Encouraged by his example I thought about doing the same, even though I was meeting a friend for dinner in an hour. Then, as if to justify himself and warn me off, he turned to me and said, “Now I’m ready to go drinking. I needed those dogs to cushion my belly.”
Just like he did the night before. He described to me the scene here as word came that the 44th President of the United States of America would be a man with the unlikely name of Barack Hussein Obama. “It was insane. First you could hear screams and yelling, and then you came out of the bars and everyone was going crazy. People just left their cars in the street and just started dancing. Strangers were hugging and kissing strangers.” I tried to imagine this man—middle aged, mild mannered, and dressed neatly in a sweater vest—as one of those people. I looked around and imagined all these people, too, as those people, and I understood why everyone seemed so chill: They were still coming down from last night.
“Oh yeah, it was crazy,” the man said again, smiling at his memory of the party. He paused thoughtfully, and then said, “It was beautiful. But you know what? It must have felt the best for all the older black people last night, who lived through all that stuff…”
I nodded, and thought about all the times the past few weeks I choked up seeing pictures of black folks crying while listening to Obama. It occurred to me that the election of this man was, for me, a step in a path towards the realization of my political ideals. It’s a path that can feel long and frustrating, but the goal is something that I could always hope for. But for many people, last night was the realization of something bigger, something they have learned to believe, in all honesty, was impossible. And so they cried, and I cried with them, at the sight of the return of their hope.
The jukebox switched from a mellow rendition of U2’s “One” to a hot jam, and the staff all sparked. “You can’t say,” Moe sang out, his massive frame swaying to the music, “I don’t love you just because I cheat on you.”
“So what?” another man called out in time while flipping a burger. And so they went on, Moe singing the verses, the guy at the grilling calling out, and a waitress in an “Arrest Cheney First” shirt singing the choruses while making sandwiches. Their voices, the music, filled the room, and it felt like everyone danced with them in their seats. It was time to party again.