By Kieran Loughney
On November 7th the flash came late in the morning, not from a cable network or a feed on the cellphone, but as news has travelled for centuries, directly from the street. From windows open wide on that warm morning, the sound of cheers, whoops and honking horns reached up to our fifth floor flat. Message received. Victory for Joe Biden.
In a spontaneous outburst of joy, West Village residents crowded Abingdon Square. Villagers gathered on that bright day to celebrate as a community. The crowd erupted with glee as a cab driver passed, fist in air, leaning on his car horn. I waded into the wave of revelers and shouted one word, “Scranton,” and to my astonishment the crowd’s cheers erupted anew.
As a Scrantonian for half a century I felt gratified that morning, and as a New Yorker I was excited to join the celebration in my adopted neighborhood. I knew that for president-elect Biden Scranton was never a political prop or photo op. For all the characterizations of Scranton, Pennsylvania as a dysfunctional rust belt city depicted in TV’s The Office, I understood it to be so much more. Scrantonians have always valued each other and have struggled to make their city a better place. Urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs, who once led the Village in its effort to stop the car-centered approach to urban planning and is credited with keeping this part of New York so vital, came from the same turf in Scranton. Now the lessons Biden learned there growing up, about the dignity of hard work and the power of community and possibility, would play out on the world stage.
Joe Biden’s Scranton childhood looms large in his memory. He may have travelled the world, but Scranton never left his heart. Take his visits to Scranton’s Hank’s Hoagies, for example. For Scrantonians, Hank’s Hoagies, has become the new center of the universe. It is located on a steep street, its stucco exterior covered with ivy; a Biden bobblehead is on display in the front window. The tiny shop is in the Green Ridge section of the city. As a child, Joe Biden walked here from his home nearby for a bottle of soda or a candy bar. His many trips back to his childhood home nearly always include a stop at this hole-in-the-wall. He has been joined in recent years by news crews, secret service agents, and adoring locals vying for selfies and handshakes.
It was no surprise then, that on election day, after visiting the graves of his late wife Neilia, infant daughter Naomi, and son Beau in Greenville, Delaware, Biden returned to Green Ridge. Biden’s former home, a 10-minute walk from my own Scranton residence, sits on a street lined with mature trees and grand houses, some of which are a century-old. Joe’s was among the more modest houses in this part of town. While visiting the place that morning, he inscribed a message on the wall with a sharpie, “From this house to the White House, with the grace of God.” As he stepped off the small front porch he was asked what was on his mind; Joe replied, “My mother.” Around lunchtime he emerged from Hank’s Hoagies carrying a sandwich and waving to the crowd.
Four days later the West Village marked the scrappy Scranton boy’s victory. A couple walking on Bank Street banged a tambourine and chanted “Nah Nah…, Hey Hey, Hey Goodbye,” an elderly man on Hudson Street wore a red, white and blue cap and a button reading “ByeDon.” In the midst of this outpouring of joy and relief I felt an almost cosmic connection to Joe Biden. We shared a hometown. We had walked the same streets, paused under the same trees, and had in common an ethnic, working class and religious heritage. And we both carry that with us. For me, that commonality reverberated in the cosmopolitan city of New York.
On that fateful Saturday, at the new president-elect’s ancestral home, crowds gathered and posed for selfies with the house as a backdrop. Senator Bob Casey, son of the former Pennsylvania governor, his own family homestead just a few blocks away, joined the throng. Scranton’s Mayor Paige Cognetti, the mother of a newborn child, spoke from Joe’s old porch. “To know that a kid who grew up in Scranton is now elected president means every kid from Scranton, every baby born in Scranton, can be whatever they want to be.”
In the West Village, cheers and hoots and cars beeping continued all day and well into the evening. A group of musicians played “Don’t Stop Believing” on the corner of West 12th and West 4th Streets. A small crowd gathered and quickly swelled, filling the intersection. With hands in the air, the partiers bounced up and down, belting out the chorus. (An NYPD cruiser passed slowly and continued on its way.)
On this day, hope was restored. Love, it seemed, had won. In the West Village, in Green Ridge, and in so many other neighborhoods across the country and around the world, the election of a Catholic schoolboy with a stutter from Scranton to the exalted position of “leader of the free world” brought light to one of the darkest times in modern history. I felt the promise of that brighter day ahead and, yes, I felt proud to hail from Scranton, our next commander-in-chief’s hometown.
That night in Ireland, its citizens proud to claim the Biden bloodline (Joe’s 20 percent Irish), RTE Television ended their news broadcast with Biden’s final 2020 campaign ad in which the former vice president recites a Seamus Heany poem—The Cure of Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. It reads, in part:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history can rhyme.
Kieran Loughney lives in the West Village and Scranton PA. His 40-year career in human services informs much of his writing.