By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009
CHICAGO, Jan. 3 When he was just a Chicago politician, Barack Obama would walk to breakfast at Valois Cafeteria, a classic eatery in his Hyde Park neighborhood. Now that he's a president-in-waiting, he sends someone to Valois to pick up his plate of scrambled egg whites, sausage patties, hash browns and wheat toast.
But when Obama jets to Washington on Sunday, his regular orders will be suspended. "He calls me brother, and I call him cousin. To lose a cousin?" asked John Lathouris, a cook and manager at Valois since the 1970s. "How do you feel when your family leaves town? They were our people."
Obama is leaving behind not only the city that gave birth to his political ascension but also the friends and neighbors, shopkeepers and waiters who have sustained him for most of his adult life. In his final days here, Obama got his hair cut, visited his downtown transition office and continued his morning workouts at a friend's high-rise along Lake Michigan. The president-elect spent hours at home over the weekend, aides said, packing for the move to Washington.
Though they are uprooting their family from Hyde Park, Obama and his wife, Michelle, are striving to build a cocoon of normalcy around their new life -- at least as normal as possible for the residents of the White House. Michelle's mother, Marian Robinson, is leaving her lifelong home on Chicago's South Side to accompany the family to D.C., where she will continue to support them during the presidency. Robinson is very close with her grandchildren, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, who flew with their mother Saturday night to Washington. The family will stay at the Hay-Adams Hotel before moving into Blair House.
Barack Obama's half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, is considering moving from Honolulu to Washington, and some of Obama's closest friends in the Windy City are relocating to the nation's capital to be close by. The Obamas are keeping their Hyde Park home, and the president-elect has said he hopes to return there about every six weeks, although that may be an ambitious pledge, considering the weighty issues demanding his attention in Washington.
"Both Obamas do an amazing job of sticking close to their friends," said Valerie Jarrett, a close confidant of the couple who herself is busy packing for Washington, where she will be a senior adviser in the White House. "Whether it is a vacation trip, a casual backyard barbecue or phone calls to catch up, they both work hard to stay connected to their friends, and they will help their daughters do the same."
Yet during their last weekend in Chicago, there were no parties for the Obamas, no bon voyage celebrations or goodbye dinners. Of course, the partying will commence in a few weeks' time during the inaugural celebrations. But it is not lost on friends that Obama is bidding adieu quietly.
"Chicago will always be home," Jarrett said. "The White House will be a home away from home. It is really not goodbye. Rather, Chicago will say, 'See you soon.' "
Marty Nesbitt, another close friend here who along with Jarrett accompanied the Obamas on their pre-inaugural vacation in Hawaii, said Barack Obama "loves Chicago, and his move to Washington is bittersweet. Chicago will always have a special place in his life, and he will make it back to the city to visit from time to time during his term."
That Obama would remain rooted in his home town is in keeping with historical tradition. President Harry S. Truman stayed connected to Independence, Mo., President Jimmy Carter to Plains, Ga., and President George H.W. Bush to Houston. A notable exception is President Bill Clinton, whose itinerary took him from Little Rock to Washington to New York.
The Obamas "have to think of Washington less as a move than as a transfer," said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. "Cities are psychological, and I think the Obama family will still be from Chicago, even when they're in Washington, D.C. . . . Chicago is putting these people on loan."
Chicago seems to have no intention of ceding its claim to the Obamas -- especially now that a cloud of political scandal hangs over the city with the federal investigation into Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), a fellow Chicagoan.
"There is an enormous sense of proprietorship here in anybody who hits it nationally, and no one more so than the president-elect," said Scott Turow, a best-selling novelist and essayist who was born in Chicago and still lives here. "As Chicagoans see it, the Obamas will be the first citizens of this city forever."
In Obama's Hyde Park stomping grounds, Chicagoans said they feel proud that one of their own is moving to the White House and confident that he will never lose touch with the city. At 57th Street Books, a cooperative store that has counted the Obamas as co-owners since the 1980s, manager Laura Prail said she is sad that they may stop coming in.
"They're a great book family," she said, adding that Barack Obama would spend hours looking for mystery thrillers and nonfiction titles in the wood-shelved nooks and crannies of her cozy, brick-walled basement shop. "Early in the campaign, there was a picture in the New York Times of him standing on a tarmac with a book in his hand, Fareed Zakaria's 'The Post-American World.' I looked it up, and he bought it here."
Prail said she hopes the president-elect calls with orders to ship to the White House. But she added, only half-joking, "I'm a little jealous of Politics and Prose," the independent Washington bookstore.
A few doors down at Medici on 57th, an intimate neighborhood cafe famous for its lemonade and burgers, longtime waitress Denise Hall, who has served Obama brunch many weekends, said he will be back. "He's not really leaving," Hall said, wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with "Obama Eats Here." "And I'm not saying this because they're great tippers, which they are. I like the Obamas."
The Walgreens down the street has become a veritable Obama merchandise headquarters: Obama hats, T-shirts and hoodies, Obama commemorative plates, framed posters and pennants, Obama key chains and mugs, Obama books and magazines. "This is big-time excitement," said longtime manager Kevin Crowley, who first met Obama 12 years ago when he was shopping in the pharmacy section.
Even Chicagoans who have never met Obama feel ownership of his story. At Valois, regular customer Duke Faulere, a retired musician, said, "I never knew the man, but I know his calling in life."
"He's only going to work in another location," Faulere added. "He is never saying goodbye."