Biden Valois

The scene at the Valois Cafeteria, 1518 E. 53rd St., as President Joe Biden gives his inaugural address, Jan. 20

Live video of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. taking the presidential oath of office played to a largely dispassionate Valois Cafeteria occupied by employees and customers getting take-out orders — a world away from the first inauguration of President Barack Obama 12 years ago.

So it goes 10 months into a deadly pandemic that has killed 400,000 nationwide and forced the curtailment of indoor dining, to say nothing of the inauguration of a president who is from Delaware, not Kenwood.

But customers hope that things will get better under President Biden, whom neighborhood voters entrusted with around 90% of their ballots last year.

Kayla Ledbetter recalled the insurrection two weeks ago at the Capitol, saying she would not feel comfortable being an African American woman in Washington right now. But getting the administration that she voted for makes her feel safe after four years of former President Donald Trump's administration, with its "irrational decisions" and "untamed" supporters.

A 25-year-old Bronzeville resident, Ledbetter observed that 2020 had seen both the coronavirus pandemic and tremendous looting. "It was something that I had never experienced before," she said. "Even towards the end of his term, him allowing people to riot and protest in a violent manner just made me feel really unsafe."

Biden "is a new start," she said. "We can see where this is going to go, at least. If Trump had another term, we kind of knew where that was going."

Pierre Foucher of South Shore unleashed a string of negative adjectives to describe the former president — divisive, racist, mean-spirited, un-empathetic, pathological, psychopathic and narcissistic — before at least conceding that he was good for the stock market, which, as a retired person, he appreciated. "That's what he did good, but not much else."

But all that is history now, and Biden "has the most tremendous challenges in many years," Foucher said, first among them the racial divide, which he said "is damned-near impossible to do," alongside the economy and the pandemic. Foucher gave kudos to Trump for developing the COVID-19 vaccine but anticipates Biden's efforts to spur greater distribution.

"All I do is come here, to the liquor store and go home," he said, lunch in hand, before letting out a deep sigh. As Biden delivered his address, Foucher said, "Religion gives you a foundation, it gives you a basis for morals and values. Trump didn't have that. Trump didn't have a sense of empathy. So it's good we have Biden in office."

As for whether Biden is up to the monumental tasks ahead of him, Foucher said he doesn't know and prays that he is. But he said he is optimistic, noting that he is an Aquarius, like "many of our best presidents," namely Abraham Lincoln,  Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Richard Steele, the longtime former WBEZ host, believes Biden is sincere, faces unparalleled challenges and knows what he is up against. All of that gives him hope that the new president will do a good job.

"This country has never faced the issue of race seriously," he said. At 79, he worries that America will never truly confront its history — the sheer fact of how awful slavery was and the through-line of White privilege. 

That said, the country has corrected wrongs with monumental legislation and mass movements before. President Lyndon Johnson, in office during the civil rights movement, passed the great civil rights reforms of the 1960s; Steele noted that Johnson was a Southerner and had a keen sense of the history in which he was acting.

Will Biden be able to do the same? "It's going to be tough in four years," Steele said. "He's going to have a very tough time. He's got 75 million people who voted for Donald Trump. There are a lot of people who still believe that Biden didn't win, that it was rigged. And I don't know how you get around that, unless Trump in his retirement at some point says, 'Look I realize I did lose.'"

"A lot depends on Biden being Biden," Steele said. "I mean, people do like him. That's the good news. He's not somebody that racist people hate. He's a guy that, 'OK, he might not be my favorite, but he doesn't make me angry.' That kind of thing."

University of Chicago student Anthony, who voted for Trump, said he was "disappointed, to say the least, in the way that his presidency ended," particularly in relation to his second impeachment by the House of Representatives.

"I feel like he could have ended his presidency in a much better way, which is quite disappointing to me as a supporter," he said, expressing disappointment at Trump's pardoning of individuals "who are not politically relevant."

"I think he should probably just lay low from the media, from public events for now, because his name has been sort of tarnished recently." 

"I just hope that Biden can unify our country, and hopefully Biden can pass on economic policies that would help us with more stimulus with the whole COVID thing. I just hope that we can recover as a country, and hopefully do better to reach the vaccine," Anthony said.

Maurice Howard had been up since 7 a.m. splitting time between his accounting work and watching the inauguration and said he hopes for a course correction from the past four years of divisiveness between parties and people.

Trump "was fearmongering and creating all types of buckets of people who have their own points of view who are radicalized against other points of view," all of which came to a head at the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. "Hopefully this changes things, but we'll see," he said.

That being said, Howard has long been aware that there is such spitefulness and division within the nation, with countryman against countryman. "That typically has been the case my entire life," he said. "Not only from a racial standpoint, from a socioeconomic standpoint."

But looking to the future, Howard wants not only racial, but economic inclusivity. "I grew up in the projects, lived there my whole life. I was one of the people who was seen as 'a statistic,' if you will. Who'd become 'someone of violence,' so on and so forth," he said. "I've steered clear of that path. I got myself into college. Went to DePaul for five years. Got my degree in accounting and been doing accounting work for over 12 years now. I won't necessarily say I've 'made it,' but I progressed in the sense that a lot of people who grew up in the same area and location are not as successful."

"I want something that really does affect everyone from the low socioeconomic standpoint, that helps everyone progress," he said. "People who are working 9-to-5 only getting paid 14 or 15 bucks an hour or less is not conducive to having a standard of living in this day and age, in this point of time. I just want everyone else to have the opportunity to build up their social and economic standing."

"The Democrats do have some structures and some beliefs, that they do want to help and improve a lot of low-income people," he said. "But it takes everyone in that Congress and the White House to push that through, because there's going to be a lot of pushback. A lot of them don't believe that doing that is beneficial to everyone."

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