Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Twenty-four hours later—I’m still exhausted. I’m not the only one. Everyone who I’ve talked to, who was there, all admit fatigue even a day later. Who knew standing still in the cold could be so tiring.
Having moved to the DC area three years ago, my wife, Robin, insisted that we attend the inaugural. I was not thrilled by the prospects of fighting the crowds, or the cold. She cited the many regrets she received from friends throughout the country who lived too far away to witness the event. She was using a variation of the starving Chinese argument made famous by countless mothers of fussy eaters—we should not waste the opportunity. It would be exciting, an adventure. So, we went.
The day began early. My wife and I, and a friend, who drove in and spent the night at our house, were up at five-thirty AM, only to discover we were already late. Rumor held that people arrived on the Mall as early as four in the morning. We had a hearty, hot breakfast of eggs and potatoes and layered-up against the cold. It never usually gets too cold in DC. I was born in Detroit where the wetness of the great lakes can turn twenty degrees into a wind that eats through down coats. I also lived in northern Vermont where temps often stayed around minus twenty-five for a month. In Washington, even in the dead of winter, temperatures remain in the thirties and forties. That morning the little weather widget on my computer announced it was seventeen degrees and there was wind enough to make the flags pretty.
We packed up lunches and bottles of water and set out. Driving was not an option. We rarely drive anywhere. It isn’t so much a green thing as a hatred for traffic. We walked across the creek and through the wood to the Metro where an orderly line funneled people onto the trains. Everyone was friendly and smiling. The train filled right from the start. When we reached the second stop on the line, we squeezed tighter. We squeezed again at the third stop admitting only one or two. The train moved slowly. Congestion along the route pushed a forty-minute trip to two hours. People joked about personal space. One woman threatened to be sick, which prompted several nearby to offer plastic bags. The conductor reminded us every five minutes that he appreciated our cooperation and patience (as if we had a choice) informing us that traffic was heavy due to the inaugural event.
“Oh is that today?” Robin joked and people roared across the car. Despite the long ride, despite the cramped quarters, and the heat from six layers of bulky clothes, everyone was happy.
We exited at Foggy Bottom where we faced the vendor gauntlet. Dozens of merchandise sellers lined either side of the walk starting at the Metro exit. They shouted and waved hats, buttons and t-shirts. Everything had either the name, or the face, of Barak Obama. We left the vendors and followed the line of walkers through the streets.
Washington had been transformed. There were no cars on the roads, only military vehicles with a handful of camouflaged soldiers parked to block streets. One young soldier agreed to take a photo of a pretty girl as she stood with his fellow sentries. In his zeal, he backed up into a street sign ringing the thin metal with his head. His fellow soldiers found this hilarious.
“Good morning! Right this way! Isn’t this wonderful!” As we approached the Mall, we encountered numerous people in red knit caps clapping and greeting us like coked-up Walmart greeters, or off-season cheerleaders suffering withdrawals. They grinned broadly, jumped up and down, and swung high-fives to all who passed. Were they paid? Just really happy people? Or merely trying to keep warm. We didn’t know, but they did infuse the atmosphere with anticipation.
We reached the Lincoln Memorial and came down the steps to the Reflecting Pool. It was a clear day with a thin haze of clouds. Bare trees and brown grass lined the pool, as did port-a-johns and hundreds of bundled people—not nearly as many as we expected. It was ten in the morning and by then we expected the place to be crammed, but there was still plenty of walking room. From huge refrigerator size speakers suspended from metal scaffolding, music blared. We walked down the steps to the tune of “This Land is Your Land.” As we rounded the pool and made our way up the hill toward the Washington Monument, the music turned to an angelic chorus. With the streets closed, all these vast groups of hooded people moving slowly up the hillside, shafts of golden morning sunlight breaking through, and that music coming from everywhere—the mood felt more religious than political. It was as if, we weren’t there to witness a president take the oath of office, but the second coming of Christ. It was on people’s faces, an infection of the same excitement as the greeters, everyone was smiling, everyone expectant.
We reached the top of the mound but hit a wall of people right at the monument. Beyond that lay, a sea of heads and shoulders—people packed tight. We would get no closer. Instead, we opted to retreat to the WWII memorial where we managed a good view of the jumbotrons. We stood like emperors in March Of The Penguins, tucked in tight as much for warmth as the view. We ate our little lunches then waited, shifting our feet, shrugging our shoulders, trying anything to stay warm. While walking it was fine, but after several minutes of just standing, the cold reached in.
The speakers blared names and the jumbotrons displayed faces as dignitaries were introduced. It was then I noticed the make of the crowd. A great deal was made afterwards about how the occasion transcended politics. Those who said that weren’t standing where I was. Bill and Hillary were cheered. Nancy Pelosi, Jimmy Carter and other democrats caused the crowd to erupt into applause. But when Bush senior, Newt Gingrich and other republicans came up—crickets. I began to grow concerned. I was afraid the crowd would turn ugly when George W was introduced. His face flashed briefly on the screen long before he was introduced and large portions of the crowd grumbled, and there were boos. One fella behind me began a loud chorus of “Nah nah nah na, hey, hey, hey…goodbye!” I’m not a Bush supporter, still I felt uncomfortable. He’s still the President of the United States, and beyond that, it was just plain rude. Even if President Bush couldn’t hear us, there were others in the crowd who did, those who were not of a like mind.
A man in front of me turned his head sharply, an irritated expression on his face—the first I’d seen that day. He was one of the few who bowed his head when the prayer was said, and he was the only one to clap when George W was finally introduced. Surprisingly, people didn’t boo much—at least not where I was—there were a few but not that many, nothing like what I expected. Instead, there was a vacuum of silence filled only by the lone clapping of that one man with his vinyl-clad gloves struggling to make as much sound as possible. He clapped for a long agonizing time. No one looked at him. No one made a comment. He clapped until President Bush’s face left the big screen. He clapped just as hard, and as long, when Barak Obama’s face appeared.
The rest of the crowd went insane.
Aretha sang a song. Biden took the oath. Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman played a John William’s variation of Copland. Then Barak stood up and the crowd went silent. Around me, people stood on the tops of walls, on parts of the memorial, (where officials would never normally allow) like men on tanks or students on a wall in Berlin—it had that feel. Everyone leaned a bit forward, listening as the new President took the oath. There was a fumble of words, a few laughs, silence, then the roar. Mittened hands burst into the air. Heads went back. Hats flew. People jumped up and down and everyone shouted and cheered. For at least that moment, everyone forgot they were cold.
The Moment before
Then he spoke and the crowd went silent again and stayed that way, except for the loud man behind me who had so badly mimicked the Steam song. He erupted with glee each time Obama made a comment that appeared to denounce former President Bush.
President Obama concluded his speech and everyone applauded. Then the crowd began to break up. A poet began to recite something, but self-preservation was screaming at us to start moving. With frozen-stiff muscles we staggered away looking a bit too much like those emperor penguins with eggs on our feet. We escaped the Mall just ahead of the surge and when the crowd zigged, we zagged. We left the streets and made for the Kennedy Center crossing a tangle of major freeways. Such a path would normally be suicide, but on that day, not a car was visible. It was eerie, like an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. A gang of skateboarders rolled down the middle of the expressway. We could hear their little wheels on the pavement because there was no sound of rushing traffic. In the distance, we spotted small groups of wandering people in hoods, and on a bridge an army truck. The whole thing was unsettling, but the moment we entered the Kennedy Center a security guard looked at us with a big grin.
“It didn’t snow!” She told us with enthusiasm.
“Not yet,” I replied.
“Doesn’t matter now. Can snow all it wants now.”
The café in the center was closed. We warmed up briefly then went next door to a little coffee shop for hot chocolate before facing the journey home, which was slower than we would have liked. By the time we returned we were exhausted, drained and unable to get warm. We curled up on the couch, drank hot tea and watched the news. Two million people they were saying, and not a single arrest. One woman fell in the Metro tracks but a visiting transit cop saved her. No murders, no fights, no thefts—the news reporters sounded disappointed.
They showed satellite images of the Mall, the crowd looking like dark swarms of gnats. It didn’t look that way when we were there and somehow I imagine the emperor penguins would feel the same way if they saw the movie Morgan Freeman’s narrated. You can’t capture the cold on film, and you certainly can’t capture the absolute silence of two million people standing shoulder to shoulder, just smiling.