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Election Night along I-85

Hands on the wheel

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Among those not fortunate enough to live to see Nov. 4, 2008, was Studs Terkel, the 96-year-old oral historian of the common man who fell four days short of seeing an African-American and fellow Chicagoan take the White House.

In the spirit of Terkel, I set off on a rainy night to troll the highways of the Carolina Piedmont in search of people who are going about their ordinary business on this most extraordinary evening.

9 p.m.

At a down-at-the-heels, non-branded mini-mart in Durham, I buy beer for a party I'm visiting. The cashier is a thin, blond woman, rather haggard, and she struggles to replace the paper roll from the credit card machine.

"Are you following the election?" I ask.

"I know Obama's winning," she says with a smile. "I got a friend who's watching, he comes over to keep us posted. He said Obama's winning like 30 to 100-something!" She smiles with disbelief at me and the person behind me, an older African-American who has a 24-ounce Icehouse beer and a happy disposition, who says something I don't catch. The cashier replies under her breath, "Amen, brother."

10 p.m.

I stop at a gas station off Interstate 85 near Hillsborough. I take a can of Red Bull to the counter. The cashier is a young man with bristly blond hair in his early 20s.

"I don't care about it either way," he shrugs when I ask. "It'll be time for a mass exodus to Mexico."

"Can you see yourself going to Mexico?"

"We're gonna have to, the way they'll lead the country the next four years."

I'm not sure if he knows who the likely winner is. Later, I wonder why he said "Mexico" and not "Canada," as liberals did four years ago.

I pull out of the gas station. There are two cars parked outside the massage parlor across the street.

10:10-10:30 p.m.

I remember that I need some ammo for skeet shooting, so I go to the all-night Wal-Mart down the street. At the ammo counter, a white man in his 60s helps me with two kinds of 12-gauge shot shells. "Neither of them are high-brass," he tells me. "You don't want high-brass for skeet. You use that for skeet and your shoulder will be bleeding."

I mention the election. His eyes widen. It doesn't seem that he knew.

"They got all the votes in?" he says, cautiously.

"Well, not yet. But it looks like Obama is winning. And Dole, she lost—she gave her speech already. Kay Hagan beat her."

"I'll be darned," he says.

I walk past rows and rows of televisions. They're all showing promotional reels of NFL football. I watch for a while, wondering what kind of national event—an assassination or terrorist attack?—would allow Wal-Mart managers to change the channel to the news.

At the checkout line, a black teenage girl scans my ammo.

One look and I know this girl is aware of the election. She points to a television about 50 feet away, inside the in-store bank that's next to the optician. The TV is tuned to Bloomberg—as it always is, she says. She's trying to keep up with the election updates on the bottom-screen crawl, but says it's difficult.

11 p.m.

I stop at the Petro truck stop off I-85 in Mebane. A group of black truckers are watching two small televisions in the common area.

They're waiting for Obama to make his speech.

The youngest is from Meridian, Miss. "Taxpayers are running the country now," he says. "After the $700 billion bailout, this shit is ours."

Another trucker lives in Virginia, where he managed to vote while off the road. He's on his way to Indian Trail, S.C. He has to be there in the morning—he'll be driving straight through after he tears himself from the television. In response to an electoral update on the South, he looks at me.

"Georgia, Mississippi, we'll never turn them," he says, shaking his head.

None of the truckers is from North Carolina. One trucker, clearly the political junkie of the bunch, looks up from his laptop—which is open to cnn.com—and reports that North Carolina is still too close to call.

There's a shot on the television of Jesse Jackson.

The kid from Mississippi: "Damn, Jesse Jackson still crying."

Laptop guy: "You will too. Me, I'm going back to my Peterbilt, gonna pull the curtains and bawl like a baby."

The two share a fist bump.

I pop into the gift shop for some more Red Bull. The cashier is a white guy, an old soul of about 30. But he could be 20 or 40. He has a curly ponytail, a bump on his forehead and a neat, short but idiosyncratic beard.

I ask if he's following the news. He nods, with a slight smile. He says it's good to have a change.

He pauses, then looks at me:

"But will he last?"

I say nothing, and he says:

"Somebody's gonna execute him."

He gives me my change and says, "It's a good thing, but are we ready for it?"

11:45 p.m.

I return to the group of truckers gathered at the televisions. The gathering is larger now, black and white. Obama's speech has started, and we're all quiet so we can hear.

It's the answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. ...

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