Forevermore, I will be able to say "I was there!" Monday afternoon, Sheil and I headed to Greenbelt, MD where we took the Metro to Union Station and hightailed to the Andretta's house (a mere six blocks away from the Capitol). We came prepared - thermal underwear, hand and toe warmers, winter clothes, and sleeping bags for the night. I couldn't stop singing "Its A New Day" by Will.I.Am (who did the excellent "Yes We Can" video) and smiling broadly. It took us 45 minutes just to get our Metro pass, and even though the crowd was unorganized, people were excited and super friendly. We met folks from LA, Texas, and Atlanta, plus several neighboring states. When we stepped out at Union Station it was like greeting a super-capitalistic society, which under almost any other circumstance would make me cringe. This time however, the multitude of vendors selling their Obama buttons, T-shirts, calendars, commemorative plates, mugs, and cardboard cutouts just seemed to add to the festivities.
We arrived at the Andrettas (childhood friends) at 6:30 and were told that almost everyone was taking in the festivities at the Capitol, so we headed back out for a saunter and reconnaissance mission to determine where they would be letting people in to the Mall the next morning. The Mall was fairly packed, laughter was plentiful, and so was the picture taking. We took photos of the Capitol (for the mere purpose of being able to say that "This is what it looked like the night before"), located the nearby Porta-Potties, and walked our way down to 4th street. Security was tight, armed guards visible from every crevice. After about an hour, we headed back to our "bunker," a mere six blocks away from the Capitol.
At the Andrettas we met up with David's folks and widow Mel and partook of some fantastic lasagna. We were entertained by a myriad of folks, in particular one of Mel's colleagues from Canada and a friend from London, both of whom had flown in to see the Inauguration. Politics was on everyone's mind and we speculated on what the next few months will hold as we munched on HOPE cookies while wearing our festive beads and hats. Sheil and I were the only ones who went to bed with the plan of waking up at 4 the next morning. I was nearly afraid that we would snooze the morning away.
But we didn't. At four in the morning we awoke, took nearly thirty minutes to get ready (a reflection of how long it takes to put on five layers of clothing and fit all necessary accessories and food into our jacket pockets!). We headed out the door at 4:35. The night before it had taken us about 20 minutes to reach the Capitol; with the blockades in place we expected to be on the Mall around 5:15. We arrived at the 3rd Street entrance and were told that it was closed and that we should try the 7th Street entrance. We walked briskly down the street, hand in hand, trying to weave ourselves through the thousands of people who were already lining up along the way and to avoid the buses that were driving up towards the Capitol. When we arrived at 7th street and were told that we had to go further to 12th street, we nearly panicked. We had expected that there would be some people there ahead of us, but definitely not so many. While many folks kept walking, we found the side gate next to the Smithsonian Castle opened, walked through their garden and spilled onto the Mall. The fairly empty (by comparison to what we were expecting) Mall was a wonderful relief. We jogged, walked, sung, shouted "Obama!" back to those who were doing the same, all the way to the first section available for folks without tickets. In the pitch blackness, we could see the Capitol and not much else. It turns out that we ended up in the first section for people without tickets. If you click on the image below, the red arrows show you the general area where we were.
We were disappointed that we were nowhere near a Jumbotron (giant TV), but decided that proximity was better than actually seeing the event. While we were going through the introductions with the people around us whom we were planning on spending the next six hours with, piles upon piles of flags were passed overheard - enough for everyone present to have one. Singing broke out in random parts of the crowd, along with food sharing, and tons of laughter. It is rare to be buoyed by so much good spirit of people whom you don't know. Around 6:30, as the sun was starting to light the skies, we heard people shouting and as we turned around, we realized that we were aligned perfectly to see the first Jumbotron on the Mall. We high-fived and jumped up and down in excitement. We were as close as we could get to the Capitol! We would see the Inauguration! We weren't too cold!
The next few hours were a blur. Though our toes were cold and my face got wind burned, overall we managed to brave the frigid (20 degree!) weather fairly well. We talked a lot with the folks around us, shared some hopes about the coming administration, and generally tried hard not to look at our watches. Around 10am the concert that was held at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday night was broadcast on the Jumbotrons and we had fun grooving to the music.
By 10:30 or so, we were privy to pretty much what everyone else saw at home - the arrival of the government officials and celebrities to the front of the Capitol. There was a collective gasp at the appearance of the elder Bush toddling towards his seat and of the VP who arrived in a wheelchair. Carter got a rousing round of applause (greater than Al Gore), and the crowd was pretty excited when the Clintons arrived. The current president Bush got boos from the crowd, though Sheil and I and a handful of other spectators tried to urge those around us to play nice. While there is no love lost between me and the current administration, I really didn't care for that particular display of emotion.
But what got the flags waving in the air more than anything? It was the approaching motorcade with the up and coming bigwigs. The Obama family got rousing cheers and people started to get very, very, (did I mention very?) excited. The emotions were palpable in the air and everyone was hugging their friends, waiting with baited breath for the arrival of our next president. When Barrack Obama walked down the hall everyone erupted with cheers, chants, and much flag waving, that didn't abate until the oath of office began.
I felt many times throughout the day like crying, but figured that if I was going to freeze my face with tears, I would wait until Obama's speech. As it turned out, I was listening too intently to allow those emotions to reach the surface. Sheil and I were the only ones who whooped when he talked about the resurgence of science in the public light, but we were joined by a chorus of voices regarding renewable energy, better healthcare, better schools. The phrase that drew the biggest response was "know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." I don't think that at the time I realized that that particular sentiment was directed towards Muslim leaders; I merely thought that it was true for leaders the world over. But perhaps my favorite part of his speech, the words that spoke the most to me and reminded me that what has made me support Obama has not been solely who he is, but rather what he reminds me that I should be, was the following: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."
As the crowds cleared out, Sheil and I held our ground and stayed for the entirety of the festivities, picking up trash on the Mall, saving extra flags to take home, and looking at what would have been our view had we been about two feet taller:
When faced with the decision of trying to go back to the Andrettas or going to stand along the parade route, we decided for the former. It took us two hours to make our ways through the crowds leaving the Mall. Only after we had reached high ground, could we look back to see the masses from which we had emerged. Pretty impressive, no?
We enjoyed seeing folks dressed up in their finest Obama garb, catching a glimpse of the motorcade that awaited Obama for the parade, and chatting it up with more fellow adventurers. On our way back to several bowls of chili that awaited us, we caught up with a young artist who was selling prints of a sketch he made of Obama. For 7 bucks, we got a signed and dated print (mine came with an inscription for Katrina) and we both felt that we got one of the more unique Obama souvenirs available. We waited out the traffic and masses by watching the beginning of the parade with Mel and her friends (for comparison's sake, they left the house at 8am, landed at the Washington monument two hours later as it was the only place left to watch the Inauguration, and were rerouted to Dupont Circle - for those of you unfamiliar with DC, that is A LOT of walking!), and then headed back home. We arrived in Baltimore at 9:30 and were in bed within an hour and a half.
At the end of the day, I am thrilled that I went. It was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life - the turning of a page in history, the handing off of the baton - for those reasons I wish every American could witness an Inaugural event in person. To be there when the first president to inspire me got sworn in, when the first person of color took the oath? Pretty damn cool. The best way to make the euphoria last? Roll up our collective sleeves and get busy. There's a lot of fixing that needs to get done.