Obama.

This isn’t political at all. It’s my “the most famous person I ever met” story.

In 2003, I was on Friendster.
Friendster, for those who don’t remember, came before Myspace and looked strikingly similar to Facebook’s layout and color-scheme, despite being around before Mark Zuckerberg graduated high school.

At the time, there was a successful, state-funded non-profit organization that worked as an intermediary between gangs in Chicago. It had nothing to do with the police, and literally worked with ex-gang members to get current gang leaders in the same room to negotiate their differences with compromise rather than violence. It was controversial to spend tax dollars on “marriage counselling for drug pushers”, but it was also a brilliant way to spare over 200 lives annually from the homicide charts. Having grown up in West Englewood, this was about more than a statistic, obviously.

There were also plans to destroy housing projects and move the inhabitants into Section 8 apartments and homes. This was a disaster waiting to happen, since housing projects are functional gang boundaries. Spreading those boundaries over a 20 mile radius wasn’t going to stop crime, it was going to create conflict.

So back to Friendster. I noticed a new state senator whom I recognized from community activism on the southside, Barack Obama, had an account. I added him, and he added me back. How cute, I thought, that some intern at the state capital had made a Friendster account for a senator.
A few weeks later I read a blurb in the paper that this particular state senator was actually an active Friendster user because it allowed him to communicate with a demographic that typically doesn’t write letters to politicians. So I sent him a message about these programs, his involvement with them, and my concerns. He responded the same day, indicating that I was preaching to the choir, and he was doing everything in his power to save the intermediary programs and stall public housing change until more research is done.

Yay! I talked to a senator! I didn’t bug him after that, after all, he has more important things to do than to chat with some dork on Friendster.

Fast forward a few months. I was doing studio session work on the north side of the city, which meant waiting for and sitting on trains for 2+ hours a day. One day, while standing on a platform downtown waiting to switch train lines, I see none other than Barack Obama standing at the edge of the platform. He was wearing a stylish blue suit and had a lit cigarette in one hand, a briefcase in the other. I was starstruck. Not so much because I saw a recognizable state senator, but that I saw a state senator looking as bored as I was on a subway platform.

I heard a train coming, and, for some reason, being completely socially inept, barked “YO BARACK!”, and walked over to shake his hand and, well, I hadn’t figured out what I was going to say. Probably something equally as stupid. When I got to him, he put down his briefcase, put out his hand, looked at me with a pause, smiled, and said:

“Benn, right?”

Now it was my turn to pause while nodding, as I was incredibly confused. He quickly reminded me: “From Friendster!”. I commented that it was amazing that he remembered me after all those months, and he made a joke that he struggles to remember important names in the capital, yet somehow retains the ones he’ll likely never meet again. As that interaction happened, a train was coming to a stop. The doors opened, it was my train. His likability was strong enough to where I considered not getting on and chatting with him for a while, but that’s awkward. I told him it was a pleasure and away I went.

Of course, this wasn’t THAT big of a deal to me until his speech at the 2004 DNC. If there’s anything to take away from this, it’s that his warm likability certainly played a strong role in his rise from a state senator who rode the subway to POTUS in less than 4 years.

Thanks Obama.