It is 2 a.m. and we’re standing on the western edge of 34th Street in Manhattan, a stunned horde of journalists and supporters and volunteers, as the “Fight Song” plays faintly, finally from the crystalline Javits Center behind us. “What now?” asks everyone.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, had said to go home and get some sleep, but that seems improbable in this moment. For one thing, there’s the logistical issue of traveling across town, the bleak fact of Donald Trump’s victory party spattering out from the island’s geographic center. And for another, many of us have been standing without food for sometime. We are hungry and nauseated.
On 11th Avenue, we find Hassan. His hot dogs are $4 tonight—perhaps a sign of the looming economic meltdown. Hassan is in high spirits, grinning at each weary passerby. He tells me he’s sold a lot of Diet Coke in the past hour. When I tell him that Donald Trump will be our next president, he accuses me of lying. “Not true,” he counters, still grinning. “I don’t believe that.” I don’t either, really, and so I shrug in agreement.
I stay with Hassan for a while, watching the defeated throngs move east. He reminds each customer—most of them buying Diet Coke—that Donald Trump will not actually be our president. “No way,” he says. “Not gonna happen.”
At 2:46 a.m., our iPhones buzz with another alert from the New York Times: ‘President-elect Donald Trump is about to give his victory speech.’ One woman sits on the base of a lamp-post and sets up a Wi-Fi hotspot. Someone mentions a nearby diner, rumored to have a television and ample outlets for phone charging, so we begin jogging, zombie-like, toward 9th Avenue.
Inside the Skylight Diner, 50 or so people sit in silence, their eyes fixed on CNN. A waitress turns up the volume as our President-elect appears on screen.
As Trump lays out his plan for the country, his voice is interrupted by the sound of a blender. It is an excessive amount of blending for a single chocolate milkshake, but no one seems to mind. A woman buries her head in her hands. “I can’t,” she says, turning away.
When the speech ends, a handful of reporters cycle through the diner in search of quotes. We apologize with each introduction, for intruding on their meal, among other things. “Do you have a comment on tonight’s results?” Almost no one does. Out of no journalistic impulse but hunger, I begin asking people about their meals. What kind of soup is that? Are the waffle fries better than the regular fries? Would you consider this breakfast?
David and Francesca are kind enough to let me badger them. They are famished, they say, having spent much of the past eleven hours standing in the bleachers behind the Javits Center podium. Both are students at Hunter College, and both have — or at least had — political aspirations. In a few hours, David will return to his job as Community Liaison for NYC Council Member Karen Koslowitz; Francesca to her internship with New York State Assemblyman Dan Quart.
“I’d rather not think about tomorrow,” David says.
“Did tonight’s results influence your food order?” I ask, dimly.
“I wanted comfort food,” says Francesca. “But it’s not working.”
So goes the conversation with Selena and Lauren. Selena had the cheeseburger, which was fine. Lauren’s hash browns are a bit undercooked. She is shaking her head and glaring at them. Selena talks about the importance of watching out for your people, now more than ever. “I think I’m going to be sick,” Lauren says.
I speak with more patrons—Monica about her waffles, Ryan his omelet. It is a dumb line of questioning, but the bar is low right now. As the night goes on, a delirious sort of empathy creeps into the room. I accept a hug from a sobbing stranger. A server walks around with a tray of toast, offering pieces to anyone at all, including those who haven’t even bothered to sit down.
It is nearly 4 a.m., and many of us have been here for the better part of an hour. Each coffee refill feels like an act of defiance, or perhaps denial. At the counter, an older gentleman in a gray suit suggests we form our own society. “We, the people of the diner, united in our opposition to tyranny and support for late night breakfast,” he says. For the first time in awhile, there is laughter.
“Just imagine,” someone mutters, and so we do. For a brief pre-dawn moment, we sit like founding fathers, mulling the fantasy of self-reliance and communal flapjacks. And why not? Who’s to say there aren’t similar diner militias forming across the country at this very moment? “Anything is possible,” someone says. “Trump won!”
And just like that it’s gone, the moment of peace repossessed by the facts of the night, which are absurd, but not at all funny. As the dread begins to take hold, about 600 ancillary realizations move into then out of focus. We stare at our empty plates or our hands or the television’s glowing chyron until we eventually leave, moving out into the early morning, where things are sure to get worse.