OBAMARAMA: Fear, loathing, kindness and brunch in Barack Obama’s Chicago

“No,” the Secret Service agent tells me, his eyes as cold and harsh as this late-November day. Oddly, it’s no a secret he’s a Secret Service agent – two-inch high yellow letters scream it across his chest. But he isn’t the kind of guy who’d appreciate that irony.

“I have a press card.”


I’m standing in front of a concrete barricade across South Greenwood Ave. in Chicago. A few city cop cars are pulled up alongside the barrier for good measure, their occupants clustered outside. The Obama family house is just down the street, but there’s no way I’m going to get a closer look; the entire block is locked down. Time for a different tactic.

“Is that a tour bus?” I point to a vehicle double-parked nearby on 50th St. with a placard that says, “Tours.”


“Is it the press bus?”


“Is it a mirage?” (I get a laugh from the Chicago cops.)


“Can we at least take some pictures from here?” my husband interrupts, fearful the guy is about to have me shipped off to Guantánamo.


We give up and climb into my mother-in-law Alice’s car. “I gotta tell you,” Alice says from the front seat, “all this security makes me feel very good.” I have to agree. But it’s also making it nearly impossible for me to answer that question Sarah Palin repeatedly demanded: “Who IS Barack Obama?”

I’d like to know, too – now that he’s our next president – but I’ve taken a bit more initiative than Sarah. I’ve set out to actually visit some of the new First Family’s favorite haunts, and coerced my in-laws – lifelong Chicagoans – to schlep around the city with me.

Alice, a staunch Hillary supporter, is a reluctant participant. Her husband, Hal, is our wheel man and expert on all things Jewish (Michelle Obama has a cousin who’s a rabbi – who knew?).

Three inches of snow are predicted, and an icy rain has been dogging us since we left the northern suburbs. So far today, we’ve followed Obama’s trail from a swanky restaurant, down to Hyde Park on Chicago’s predominately black south side.

We started with brunch at Sepia, a trendy spot in the West Loop, where the crowd was young, well-heeled and diverse. Occupying an 1890-era printing house, with décor that artfully intertwines the historic (old Chicago photos) and the modern (chandeliers encased in huge, cylindrical shades), Sepia is said to be Michelle Obama’s favorite restaurant. And its chef, Kendal Duque, is reportedly top contender to cook for the Obamas at the White House.

So, here’s a tip. If you breakfast at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the next administration, you may be noshing on Duque’s spectacular update of eggs benedict, made with grilled Berkshire pork belly set on warm biscuits and topped by honey-mustard hollandaise sauce.

As we stepped out of the restaurant, I darted down the block to the Maria Pinto Boutique, in hopes of getting a clue to the future First Lady’s inauguration gown. Pinto is one of Michelle Obama’s go-to designers. The shimmery, slinky number in the front window was as gray as the skies – not the best color for celebrating.

A few blocks away, we found the offices of Sidley & Austin, the law firm where Barack and Michelle first met – when she was an associate and he was a lowly summer associate. Those looking for Lincoln-Obama connections might find it intriguing that the firm once represented Mary Todd Lincoln.

I gazed up at the 39 floors of glass and steel, pondering how dexterous Obama must be to shift from community organizing at one of the country’s oldest public housing projects to working at one of the country’s oldest law firms.

I dashed back to the car and Hal piloted us south, to Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen. Obama dines there often with new chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. In fact, he’d visited just a few days before we did.

When asked what he ordered that day, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Obama replied, “We got the corned beef.” Asked what he thought about the troubled auto industry, Obama smiled and repeated, “We got the corned beef.”

Peering around the drab, no-nonsense décor, I noticed an old-fashioned penny scale that might help a certain politician maintain his svelte figure in the face of Manny’s monster sandwiches.

“Welcome to the glamorous world of travel writing,” I muttered to my in-laws as I dove back into the car, hair matted with melting sleet. Obama must have a strong constitution, I thought, to survive in Chicago after growing up in balmy locals like Hawaii and Indonesia.

We headed further south along Wabash, through a neighborhood in transition, where the L’Oreal USA offices snuggle up to a check cashing business and a White Castle. Around the corner, new townhouses are going up, not far from dreary projects.

We swung by U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox – the 2005 World Champion White Sox, Paul reminds me. Obama is a self-declared fan of the southside team. In fact, he had the guts to proclaim his love in Boston, where the crowd distinctly favors a different color of Sox.

Driving toward Lake Michigan on 43rd St., we passed the Negro League Café, just down the street from a doggy day spa, which sits (and probably stays) on the corner of Muddy Waters Drive. A bit further, there are vacant lots, tumbledown buildings and the Rain or Shine Baptist Church. Then more new townhouses. Two worlds are coming together here, as they seem to in Obama’s life.

Case in point: our next stop, Valois Cafeteria, which is no Sepia. Its sign proclaims, “See Your Food,” something that might appeal to a thoughtful commander-in-chief. I wondered how many unseen “dishes” Obama’s going go have to choke down once he takes over.

At the door, a panhandler asks, “Can you help a brother out?” Inside, servers slice beef and ham behind the cafeteria line. Patrons – many of them African-Americans – carry trays of hearty portions to their tables. It’s a favorite Obama breakfast spot, though now an aide comes to pick up his standard order of egg whites, bacon and hash browns. Egg whites and bacon? Healthy and indulgent? This guy is becoming even more of a mystery to me.

Even I didn’t get out to face the elements at Promontory Point, where the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau claims the Obamas used to take their daughters to enjoy the waterfront breezes during more carefree, anonymous days. I thought about how the First Family will never be able to hang out here without a gaggle of secret service guardians. Outside, the murky lake churned and chopped like the uncertain economy. Nobody strolled the grassy park or shot hoops at the basketball courts.

The ambiance was warmer at the Hyde Park Hair Salon & Barber Shop, just a few blocks from where the Obamas live. Owner Ishmael Alamin worked on a customer in the first of eight chairs, while a group of young men chatted further back in the shop, where the walls were decorated with framed Chicago Bears jerseys and a bigger-than-life photo of Mohamed Ali.

“Lots of people come and ask for the Obama cut,” Alamin said, as he crafted a style that looked similar to the President-elect’s cropped do. “All day long, they just stop and take pictures or come by to see where he sits.”

Obama has been a customer for 14 years, getting a cut every week, but you won’t see him in his usual chair any more. Now Zariff, his stylist, goes to him, barbering at a nearby friend’s home.

After Alamin’s hospitable welcome – you think he might be tired of getting pestered, but it doesn’t show – the lockdown at the Obama abode seems even more harsh.

Failing to crack security at the barricade, we settle for a driving tour of the surrounding streets. The area, known as Kenwood, is the kind of neighborhood real estate agents call “stately.” In the late 1800s it was one of the city’s poshest sectors, home to ambassadors and tycoons. Today, noted residents include Louis Farrakhan and Bill Ayers. Hal informs us that Obama’s house is located across from a synagogue – and we can spy its domed roof.

There are Tudor, Prairie, Queen Anne and modern houses, set on substantial lawns. You’ll also see quite a few Georgian Revival homes, similar to the Obamas’ historic 1910 red-brick residence with four fireplaces, purchased for $1.65 million in 2005. The current asking price for a nearby Georgian house is $2.7 million.

We pass a Secret Service agent with a German Shepard, patrolling a nearby street. Not far away, a bag lady pushes a packed shopping cart. She seems out of place. “Nothing in this neighborhood is what it appears to be,” Paul claims, “It’s all his security detail.”

Time for a snack. We head to Medici, a nearby restaurant and bakery. “You might want to write this down,” Hal says along the way, “That historic spot right there” – he points at a curb – “is where we once parked for the 57th Street Art Fair.”

Medici bakery workers wear t-shirts saying, “OBAMA EATS HERE.” It’s really the first blatant case I’ve noticed of a business capitalizing on the Obamas. Sure, there are banners on city lamp posts proclaiming, “Congratulations Chicago’s Own Barack Obama” – signed by the mayor, in true Chicago style. But here at Medici, you can even buy a wooden cutting board made by the owner, announcing your support for Obama (or for those still fixated on the current president, there’s an “Impeach Bush” version).

“He hasn’t been in since February,” a cashier confesses, “but Michelle still brings the kids in; they sit upstairs.” And amid the restaurant’s brick wall filled with customer graffiti, you’ll find Malia Obama’s signature in green crayon.

Even if you’re not stalking Obama sites, just down the block, 57th Street Books would be a great place to while away a stormy afternoon. Deep in the cozy warren of five rooms, there’s even a table with punch and cookies. A small bookshelf by the entry is filled with Obama-related books, topped by a sign that simply announces them as the store’s best sellers.

“Have you seen Barack Obama?” I ask a clerk.

“I checked him out,” the clerk, Irami Osei-Frimpong, tells me.

“What was he like?”

“Tall and good-looking.”

“What did he buy?”

“I can’t really say.”

“Oh, come on! He bought that Lincoln book, didn’t he?” I press, blanking on the title (A Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns-Goodwin) that Obama has reportedly been perusing.

Osei-Frimpong cracks. “OK, OK. He bought The Presidency for Dummies and The Idiot’s Guide to the White House. You pried it out of me.”

Maybe late-night comedians struggling to come up with Obama jokes should spend a day hanging out in his neighborhood, picking up some riffs from this guy with a name even more “exotic” than the president elect’s.

Onward, to visit Obama’s first Chicago apartment, a modest three-storey, U-shaped red brick building just a mile away from his current home. “Did he carve his initials anywhere?” Hal asks as we jump back in the car after a quick inspection, “That’d be a find!”

“He’s got terrible initials,” Alice pipes up, “B.O.” Clearly, she still isn’t over Hillary.

Our last stop is the University of Chicago Law School, a mile and a half due south of the family house. Obama kept an office here, starting when he had a fellowship while writing his first book and continuing through his 12 years as a lecturer on constitutional law.

Through huge plate-glass windows, we spy students bent over their books in the law library. We dash across a frozen courtyard and yank on the handles of several locked doors. About to turn back, we notice a man inside at a guard desk motioning to us.

After my Secret Service episode, I figure we’re going to get stonewalled once we gain entrance. But no. The guard, Michael Cephus, doesn’t object to Paul snapping a few photos in the library. I ask him if this was where Obama’s office was located.

“Yes, it was right upstairs here,” he answers, smiling.

“Did you know him then?”

“I sure did,” Cephus replies, “He was a real open-door policy kind of guy. Sometimes he’d come in and I was reading a newspaper and he’d strike up a conversation.” I like the idea of a president who can chat up a campus policeman and Larry Summers with equal grace.

“I used to play pick-up basketball with him over at the gym,” Cephus continues, “He’s got a better shot than I have – and his wind was a little longer than mine, too.” More encouraging news. Fixing the economy could certainly knock the breath out of a lesser athlete.

So, could Cephus see the presidential gleam in Barack’s eye back then? “I never thought he’d become president with a name like Obama,” Cephus confesses, “I never thought he’d run.”

In my few minutes of conversation with this kind, soft-spoken guard, I’ve come closer to Obama than I’d ever expected. Michael Cephus reveals more about our next president than visits to restaurants or domiciles or barber shops. Through Cephus, I’m beginning to truly sense the quality of Obama’s character.

“Were you excited when he won?” I ask.

“My feet are just starting to touch the ground,” Cephus answers, beaming, “Just starting to touch the ground.”