SECRETARY OF MIRTH
Yes, we can!
And yes, we did.
January 2009. Going on two and a half months now and they haven’t taken it back.
I still don’t trust it. Every morning when I wake up I check and double-check. I need confirmation.
First thing I do is blink a couple of times to make sure I’m not dreaming. I lean over and kiss my wife, Christine, kiss and nuzzle my daughter, Luisa, check myself, see if I’m alive, yep, got all my parts, turn on CNN and NPR at the same time, even flip to Fox News, and yes—confirm—it’s still true.
Barack Obama is president of the United States.
It really happened.
Elected in a landslide, too. Over 69 million people voted for him, poked that chad, popped that cherry. Sixty-nine million people.
Incredible. Amazing. Historic.
And here we are, Christine and I, invited guests to the Purple Ball on Inauguration Day, slammed up against the stage in this hangar-sized ballroom, purple neon strobe light stabbing our eyes, a throng of people mashed up against us, waiting for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle to arrive.
I admit it. I am in awe of this man. Today he will speak and dance at ten inaugural balls. Ten. Tomorrow he’ll be up at 5:00 a.m. to start his presidency. He promises to hit the ground running. Are you serious? I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed for three days.
A black president. Can you get your head around that? We’ve had black presidents before, but only on television and in the movies. And the moment a black guy becomes president, the world is about to end. Like in the movie Deep Impact, President Morgan Freeman doesn’t merely inherit the worst economic crisis in a century. No. That would be too easy. He inherits an asteroid flying through space about to blow up the earth.
In the back of my mind, I worry that Barack Obama’s presidency is doomed to fail. A young guy I spoke to on the street in New York said it best: “It’s obviously a plot. It’s rigged.”
I keep hearing those words: it’s rigged. Meaning that the only way that America elected a black man is because stuff is so fucked up, nobody can solve the problems. They put the brotha in to fail. And when he fails, they’ll say, “See? We told you,” and it’s back to business as usual. We’ll be lucky if a black guy gets elected president of the NAACP.
At the Purple Ball, my attention turns to a commotion from somewhere behind the stage. I hear urgent whispers and voices crackling through walkie-talkies, music suddenly blares, cranked up, and screaming, cheering, and applause from the hundreds of people behind me pound me like a thunderclap, and I gasp, I literally gasp, a lump rises in my throat, and appearing through what seems like the blue light of a camera flash, Barack Obama, the president of the United States of America, our president, walks out from the wings, in the words of Stuart Scott on ESPN, as cool as the other side of the pillow, strolling hand in hand with the First Lady, Michelle Obama, who in person, I’m telling you, is so beautiful she weakens my knees.
They bow slightly, like royalty, and then they clap, for us. They are both smiling. Grinning, really. But these are not triumphant smiles. They are modest smiles, smiles of acceptance, smiles of thanks.
Barack wears a black tuxedo. He looks thin and fit, taller than you’d think, his hoop player’s frame tucked into his tux sharp and taut. He would look cool in anything—tuxedo, sweat suit, bathrobe, toga, it wouldn’t matter.
Now Michelle swirls toward us wearing this off-white, one-shoulder, chiffon-y gown created by a young designer named Jason Wu. She is beaming and clapping and then waving, and she is beyond magnificent. She is radiant. The kind of stunning we’ve seen only once before in a First Lady, that being Jackie Kennedy.
I want to cry, but, frankly, I’m cried out. My tears have been flowing freely over the last months, often at the most unexpected and, yes, embarrassing times. But today, at this moment, while I’m moved and the emotions rise up, I feel strong. And proud. No. That’s not quite it. I feel more than proud. I feel—
I feel that what is happening here, what I am witnessing, what I am experiencing is finally… right.
And I know that the journey I took to get here, the one ending at this inaugural ball, a journey that started before I was born, when my grandparents lived in the segregated South, a journey that took my family through backbreaking work in the fields, and riding in the back of the bus, is a journey that lives inside my soul. That’s why this moment feels right.
His smile widening bright enough to light the entire ballroom, President Barack Obama waves his hand to quiet the crowd. Not going to happen. The crowd roars louder. He laughs, enjoying the love that rushes over him and Michelle like a wave. He dips his head, feeling a little humbled and clearly overwhelmed. He waves again, a parade wave, and opens his mouth to speak, laughs, tries to speak again, and then after maybe thirty seconds, except for a few scattered shouts of untamed joy, the crowd quiets.
“I want to thank all of you not merely for helping me get elected,” Barack says. “But I want to thank each and every one of you for what you do to make this country special—”
Huge applause. Foot stomping. Howling.
“And I want to thank each and every one of you—”
Barack suddenly stops. All eyes are on him. Riveted.
“Oh, my God,” he says. “DAG!”
He grins, cocks and loads a finger pistol, lowers it, takes aim, fires off one shot and—bang!—hits me right between the eyes. He laughs.
“Hey, DAG, I have to bring you up and say hi.”
My wife’s mouth opens and closes like a trapdoor.
“Come on up here,” Barack says.
“No, no, Barack, it’s cool, you’re right in the middle of your speech—”
He waves me away. “This speech is nothing. Give DAG a hand, Michelle. Wait. Let’s get Christine first.”
With applause and cheering building at our backs, Barack and Michelle lean down and pull Christine up onto the stage, then guide me as I climb up next to her. I flash the victory sign to the crowd with both hands. Barack beams, shakes his head, and hugs me.
“We did it, man,” he says.
“Yes, we did, Barack. I mean, Mr. President.”
“Don’t be like that now. All formal. You call me Barack. All the time.”
He slaps my chest. I nod. Around us, music comes up, swells. A soaring violin intro to “At Last.” Michelle smiles, sways, taps my wife on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Christine. Do you mind if I dance with your husband?”
“Not at all,” Christine says.
“In that case, may I have this dance?” the president says, bowing to Christine, who curtsies.
I sweep Michelle into a simple box step. She’s light on her feet, an accomplished dancer.
“I loved the Chocolate News,” she says. “I always thought you were underrated. The industry takes you for granted.”
“Thank you. That’s very kind. I don’t know if I’m taken for granted. Okay, maybe a little—”
“Well, we’re big fans at our house,” she says. “And of course the girls adore Jumanji. Their favorite scene is when you get crushed to death in that giant pod.”
“That is so nice,” I say. “I think.”
Michelle laughs, then pulls back slightly. “Oh, DAG, before I forget and the night gets too crazy, let’s exchange numbers. The girls are dying to babysit Lulu. They’re very responsible. I made them take a babysitting course and CPR so they’re certified.”
The music hits a crescendo, and then, as if we’ve rehearsed, Barack and I twirl Christine and Michelle at exactly the same time. The crowd goes insane. We bow.
“We got to get over to the MTV Ball,” Barack says to me as he links his hand into Michelle’s. “You got my private number?”
“I think I do,” I say.
“Call me,” Barack says. “Or better, text me. The day gets long, I could use a laugh or just a hey.”
“I’m serious,” Barack says.
“I got you,” I say.
“God bless America!” Barack says, his hand and Michelle’s entwined and clasped over his head, waving to the cheering crowd. He leads Michelle away. Turns. Points at me. Then they go.
I don’t want to push it. Don’t want to impose. I feel it’s only fair to give Barack ample time to settle in.
I call him first thing next morning.
“Hey, what’s up, Barack?”
“Hey, what’s up, DAG?”
“You know. This, that. So what you doing, man?”
“Running the country, man. You know how we do. Passing bills, man, passing bills. Trying to get shit through, man.”
“Yeah. I know they on you, man.”
“Yeah. It’s hardball, man. You know what it’s like.”
“Hey, man, I got to go to a meeting. Let me get you back.”
Ten minutes later Christine and I hail a cab, head out to breakfast. A text comes in. Barack. Sending me a smiley face.
Barack is so cool.
An hour later I get the call I’ve been expecting.
“Hey, what’s up, DAG?”
“I’ve been thinking. You should be in my Cabinet, man.”
“Damn right I should be in your motherfucking Cabinet, man. About time you asked me, man.”
“What you want to be? Secretary of what?”
“Secretary of Mirth.”
Barack laughs. “I like it. I have to create a Cabinet position for you. Secretary of Mirth.”
“My job will be spreading mirth throughout the globe.”
“Invest in the new global hilarity,” Barack says, and now we’re both laughing. “I want to get this done today. I’m on it.”
“Good. I want to get to work,” I say.
“Quick question,” Barack says, still chuckling.
“Have you, by any chance, employed any illegal aliens?”
“I’m sure I have,” I say, laughing. “We hired this woman a few years back? She couldn’t speak English. She didn’t have a car. I’m sure she was not correct. I’m positive she had no papers. Illegal as cocaine, dawg.”
“You took care of that, right?”
“Hell, no. Barack, man, everybody I know in L.A. has illegal help. I mean, dude, please.”
The line goes dead.
“Hello? Barack? Don’t hang up on me, man! I was playing! Hello? I’m the Secretary of Mirth! I WANT MY CABINET POSITION! HELLO??? BARACK!!!—”
I blink through the mist that has descended over my eyes.
After a minute of furious REM, I’m able to focus on a frightened flight attendant who’s standing next to me, a cocktail napkin fluttering in her hand.
I sit up in my seat, make out Christine next to me.
“Do you want something to drink?” my wife asks softly, deliberately, as if I’m a child of five.
“Do I—want—no, thank you—yes… a… water, no, a juice… a water and a juice.”
I smile at the flight attendant. She smiles back, fake, plastic, the kind of practiced smile she fastens in place when dealing with passengers who are crazy, obnoxious, or on their way to prison handcuffed to the cop next to them.
“Are you all right?” Christine whispers.
“I fell asleep,” I say. “I had this crazy dream.”
“Apparently,” my wife says. “You were screaming that you wanted a Cabinet position.”
I yawn, get my bearings, glance around the plane. Slowly, it all comes back to me. The insanity of that morning. Bundling up Luisa and bringing her to her grandmother’s. Driving all night from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Packing our bags, showering, and changing in less than an hour. Running late for our flight, scrambling out of the cab, dashing into the terminal. Arriving at our gate and seeing that every single person on our flight is heading to the inauguration. More than half of the passengers are decked out in Obama gear— T-shirts, skirts, hats, pins, ribbons, Barack’s face plastered all over, layered in red, white, and blue. People are snapping pictures of each other, even if they’ve just met. Christine and I join in, taking pictures and posing with total strangers who right now feel like family. We are rejoicing, all of us, documenting this momentous occasion, sharing this once-in-a-lifetime event, starting the party early. The plane, this Virgin Airlines direct flight to D.C., feels like a Las Vegas–bound spring break party bus. We are all basking in the excitement, in the anticipation. And, yes, symbolism, we’re flying Virgin Airlines. Perfect. For we are all on the maiden voyage, the first flight, all of us, en route to celebrating our first black president.
© 2009 David Alan Grier