It was the best of days, and the worst of them, too.
• 9:59 a.m., Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport: With one shoe on and one shoe off, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann was making his way through airport security, headed to Washington.
“Got to get back to work,” he said.
He unlooped his belt, passed his bag toward the X-ray machine. Airport security, the great equalizer.
“The president and I have fundamental differences about how to approach fixing the economy,” he said.
As President Barack Obama prepared to fly into Chattanooga, Fleischmann was flying out.
• 10:25, gravel parking lot, Lee Highway: Ben Cunningham, president of the Nashville Tea Party, drove in with a bullhorn in his backseat as big as a tuba.
“Takes 10 batteries,” he said.
His friend Mark West, head of our local Tea Party, had called; Cunningham came to add one more body to the Obama protest.
“Public displays of citizen protest are very, very important,” he said.
Around him, cars and trucks — one with a back-windshield message written in what seemed like soap and calling for impeachment — crunched into the lot. American flags and signs — “I believe in the Constitution, the right to life, privacy, freedom and Jesus” — flew in the air. One T-shirt: the coiled “Don’t Tread On Me” snake.
Would Obama even notice?
“This is not for Obama,” said West. “This message is for the community of Americans who are disillusioned, frustrated and feeling hopeless after hope and change.”
Across the lot, a Goodwill trailer stood in its usual spot. Everyone was protesting; no one was dropping off or donating goods.
“That would be nice,” said the man inside.
A half mile away: “God loves Obama,” a sign read.
Children danced. Folks settling their chairs and homemade signs into whatever shade they could find, hoping the motorcade would soon pass by. Some stood and clapped.
Brittany Johnson, 24, took her 2-year-old son, Braedyn, out of day care to see the motorcade. We spoke in the hot sun about politics, division and the economy.
“Yeah, it’s hurting your pockets,” she said, “but look at the big picture. This is America. We are here for each other. People on the streets who can’t pay for flu shots now can.”
A woman walked by, headed toward Lee Highway.
“We’re going to aggravate the Tea Party,” she said.
• 11:14, outside the Amazon distribution center: It felt like an SEC game day. Combined with a tent revival. With a dose of rock concert.
Thousands of people, fanning themselves with their speech tickets, stood in a line that began forming not long after sunrise.
Everywhere was security: state troopers, K-9 teams from Virginia Beach, local cops, blacked-out vehicles, wildlife officers on 4x4s, and men, the shape of their guns outlined in their suits, who spoke into their wrists and walked with a pace that said: we know far more about things than you do.
In a parked car, former Congressman Zach Wamp was calling local talk radio: earlier, they’d wondered on-air whether Wamp would have stayed in town had then-president Bill Clinton come visiting.
“Absolutely,” said his son, Weston, who said he and his dad had come to “respect the fact that the president is highlighting Chattanooga.”
(In 2007, then-Rep. Wamp wrote legislation for Emancipation Hall, part of the Capitol Building named in honor of slaves who helped construct it. The senator who co-sponsored the legislation with him?)
“Barack Obama,” Weston said.
High noon, inside Amazon: It’s 28 football fields long. So many boxes and conveyor belts, like some fantasy warehouse scene from Pixar.
They poured in. Wearing Ramones T-shirts and El Oso Blanco jerseys, with hats turned backward and tattoos, they stood alongside those in suit and ties, wearing lapel pins. Couples embraced. Someone fainted.
Swing music, followed by bluegrass, played over the loudspeakers. We pledged, then sang.
Then, he came.
• 1:59 p.m.: “Hello Chattanooga!” President Obama, sleeves rolled up on his white shirt, began.
On their tiptoes and holding up cell phones, the crowd cheered.
“This is something here,” he said.
For the next 30 minutes, he stood alongside boxes and boxes of American materialism — blenders next to wine glasses next to carbon monoxide alarms next to DeWalt drills — and spoke about the middle class, jobs, our future. They were such good words; if only someone knew how to make them come true.
Cut corporate tax rates in return for job growth and worker benefits? Man, let’s spit and shake. Let’s start tomorrow.
“We can do it if we work together Chattanooga,” the president said.
Somewhere off in the corner, like a haint or ghost, weariness and pessimism waited their turn.
• 2:56 p.m., still inside Amazon: Most everyone has gone. The microphones are down; the presidential seal taken off the podium. Security, gone elsewhere.
Moments ago, the most powerful man on earth had walked through the room. Such electricity. The seduction of it all.
“I shook his hand,” someone in the media said.
Then Washington leaves, and real life returns. It felt like a hangover, like something was missing.
An hour or so before rush hour, a lifting Air Force One could be seen from Interstate 75.
And the rest of us? Back to work and bedtime stories and nearly paid bills. We keep trying to make our way forward, one shoe one and one shoe off, hopeful we can finally find a good road that holds us.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...