Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Inauguration Nation

I'd been wanting to attend the inauguration since missing out any number of Obama-centric events, including his speech in Grant Park on November 4th. But I let myself fall under the naysayers' spell: the crowds will be so massive you’ll be crushed, the city will be impossible to get into or out of, you won’t be able to see anything at all. But on Monday morning, January 19th, I knew I had to try. I could feel that sting of regret creeping up, the sort that clings to you, embeds itself like a nasty mole you should really get removed. The true insanity of this decision was making it at noon the day before millions of people were supposed to descend on the city. And I was still a twelve hour drive away. And I don’t own a car.

But I’d made my mind up to get this to work if at all possible. Flights were ridiculously beyond my means, and airports would be bedlam anyway. Car rental was an option, but would take time to arrange and pick up. So I got on the phone to my sister, offered her the measly amount I had in my emaciated account to borrow her car for a couple days and drive it southward. She, being the stalwart little sister who happens to know how much the campaign and Obama’s election have meant to me, graciously agreed. I called my older sister in Maryland and told her I wanted to make the trek. Could she get me a train ticket? She knew a friend that had an extra one, leaving from another town. Great. I told her to buy it from her friend. I’d be there in twelve hours. I could almost hear her shaking her head as I hung up.

Mary, the aforementioned car owner and little sister extraordinaire, came by with the car. I'd finished packing in fifteen minutes, kissed my girlfriend goodbye, and jumped in the driver’s seat. I dropped my sister off back in her neighborhood and was on the highway.

I should thank the highway patrolmen of the Midwest for looking the other way. I ran the entire length of all highways at around eighty to eighty-five miles per hour. At times I sped directly past troopers. Either their radar guns weren’t working or they were enjoying a donut, because no one pulled me over.

The drive down passed by in a blink. Purpose-oriented long distance driving is the only way to go. The Midwest was slathered with soft white snow and I felt exceptionally thankful to be around to do anything I was doing at the moment. The sun set, the headlights came out, and in less than eleven hours I was pulling into my older sister’s driveway. I woke up her dog temporarily and then collapsed on the couch to catch three hours of sleep.

The next day, inauguration day, jumped into gear immediately. On fear of there being nothing but overcrowded portable toilets, my sister, mother and father, and I all consumed as little as possible for breakfast. Then I hopped in the car and drove to Halethorpe (which is a beautiful town to get lost in, as I did for a full twenty minutes), where I had been assured the parking lot would be full and insanity would be in full swing.

The lot was almost completely empty when I arrived at 7:30 for my 9:50 train.

Everyone was buzzing and chatty in the small mobile home ticket office. People were taking pictures and utilizing the last opportunity at a functioning toilet. Then the station cleared, as everyone there had tickets for a 7:58 train. I talked briefly with the few people left. One man had a proper ticket for the inauguration, as he knew someone on the transition team. One woman, a senior auditor for the Defense Contract Audit Agency, had flown in from California, by herself, unable to convince any friends to come along. Everyone had a story. Everyone was stopping just short hugging, there was such a feeling of camaraderie.

A train attendant burst into the station and asked, “Anybody want to go early?” I turned to the woman seated across from me. “You go ahead.” But the train attendant looked at me with confusion.

“How many people can go?” I asked.

“You can all go, come on,” he said, waving us out of the station. We shrugged at our good luck and how this was flying in the face of what we’d heard about ticketed seats on trains being sold out. We were on the train and in seats within a minute. The train took off less than a minute after that. And it was then, pulling away from the station on that bitter cold inauguration morning, seated next to the auditor from California, that I realized I'd forgotten my hat and gloves in the car.

I’d intended to go back to the car and grab them, seeing how I (originally) had a full two hours at my disposal, but in the rush to board the train early, I’d forgotten them entirely. And I really couldn’t have cared less. I didn’t much care if I made it to the mall or saw the inauguration. I just wanted to swim around in things. And this all seemed a perfect chaotic part of it.

My train rides into and out of the city were perfect bookends to the experience as a whole. On the way to Washington, I sat across from an elderly black woman who had been bringing student groups to inaugurations for decades. This was her first inauguration alone. “People are annoying," she said. "They said it’s too cold. They said it’s too far. But I’m not missing this one. This one I’m going to no matter how cold or far.” She said this with a low, gravely voice that assured me that none of her students ever got away with the slightest bit of mischief. She talked about waiting in line for six hours to view Kennedy lying in state. She said, “I waited six hours in that line, just to be there for a few seconds before they pushed us on. But you know, it was worth waiting in line six hours.” She looked down at her scarf. I didn’t care if I saw anything else that day. She had made the twelve hour drive well worth it.

Soon we were in the station and on exiting the train I started to get a hint of the crowd’s size. This was just a couple trains worth of people funneling into the station, but seas of people extending before us, well into the station, past the point of perception.

After searching everywhere in the mall-ish station, I managed to find and purchase some horribly overpriced (and clearly designed for a woman) gloves and a hat in a shoe store. Then it was out into the insanity.

I walked past the first row of portable toilets, past the first islands of street vendors hocking Obamerchandise. I walked past Forest Whitaker. All the elements were in place.

The first lesson this behemoth crowd had to teach me was not to get caught. Lines were everywhere, and were so swelled and amorphous that you could easily find yourself tightly lodged in one without realizing you were there to begin with. So I took to zipping in and out of masses, moving farther and farther away from the mall just to be able to move. Not that I missed out on any of the crowds or the mood of the moment. In fact, this is where the mood was most palpable. At the mall, it was just waiting and cold. Here it was motion, dancing, yelling, selling, laughing, and more selling. Here it was America, cranked up and wearing funny hats.

(My apologies for the shakiness of the quality of the videos here, but this was all taken with a rather petite digital camera).

After zigzagging down the length of most of the mall (though six blocks to the north of the mall proper), there seemed to be some give in a southward direction around 18th. So I bolted in that direction as unobtrusively as possible. It had already passed 10 o’clock (the slotted time for music and festivities to start) at this point. It had taken me almost an hour and a half to get this far.

Eventually, there was green. I could see it. I could see the Washington Monument (which was the moment I appreciated just how far I had walked from the station, realizing I had already walked beyond the Monument). A volunteer greeted me as if a spokesperson for Democracy Land at some patriot-themed amusement park. “Welcome! Welcome to the National Mall.”

Being only one person, it was simple enough for me to move through the crowd to get closer to the jumbotron, but eventually it was simply too compressed to navigate without being one of those jerks everyone wants to punch at the music festival. You know the type. Still, my first surrounding crowd was too sedate, too hip, and – let’s to be honest – too painfully white. This was sure to be a bit on the boring side. So I moved around a bit more until I landed in the middle of a young black family, a young pair of middle eastern girls, a seemingly psychotic elderly white man, and a stately elderly black couple. This was my crew. I stuck there.

The event itself was massive and thoroughly reported, so there’s no point recounting too many specifics. I just soaked up the crowd and bits of conversation. Cheney was booed, Bush was booed, though the loudest boos of all were surprisingly for Lieberman. Kerry was cheered, Gore received thunderous applause, and even the slightest glimpse of the Obama’s ran in close competition with the American appearance of the Beatles. Fashion critiques were made, catty remarks cast. Everything was good fun.

Then Biden was sworn in.

The elderly black man behind me said, “Dick Cheney isn’t Vice President any more.” It really did need to said aloud, it was so unbelievably relieving.

“It feels good doesn’t it?” I said back to him.

“One more to go,” he smiled in response.

Obama took to front stage, placed his hand on the Lincoln bible, and deferred to Chief Justice Roberts' mangling of the oath, one of the most clear cut demonstrations of Obama’s solidity as a statesman. Even in that moment, with all its history and weight, he listened to the person he was facing and refused to undercut another simply to serve himself.

Obama uttered the words, “So help me God.” The crowd erupted into screams, embraces. The elderly black woman behind me simply smiled and bowed her head. Her husband raised his voice, “It is done!” Then he looked to me and repeated, “It is done.” I just smiled and nodded, too choked up and too empty of worthy words to respond.

Some people started to leave, having witnessed what was inarguably the moment, but I – having hungered for a leader of our country who could actually speak and foster a love for language – wasn’t leaving before I heard the speech. And for all the criticism I heard afterward about the lack of lofty rhetoric, I have to say I think it was an amazing and perfectly crafted speech. Obama set precisely the right tone and did precisely what he needed to do. He is an empathetic pragmatist, and this came through abundantly.

After the speech, the crowds began the mass dispersal, clogging themselves into themselves, dancing, cheering, taking pictures, playing the music of one long exhalation of relief. It’s about time, the collective voice seemed to say, that we all breathed again.

It took me another hour and a half to get back to the train station, weaving through the celebrating crowds and street after closed street of feverishly squawking street vendors. (My favorite instances of city shut down were closed highways housing impromptu interviews and people walking dogs on exit ramps.)

When I arrived at the station, there was no movement. Everything was backed up. People were crushing in on the doors. People were chanting, yelling, screaming to be heard by the police on bullhorns. I was standing next to a woman in a wheel chair who was being jostled by overly agitated would-be travelers, and though the crowd was minuscule in comparison to that of the streets or the mall, this was the single occasion where I feared someone would be crushed or trampled. Given the joy of what seemed only seconds before, this had an ugly impatience to it.

The problem, as I learned from speaking with a police chief, was that there were so many people inside the station (many of whom had arrived hours before their trains were scheduled to leave and thus were simply sitting around the station) and around the doors, that the people coming off the arriving trains couldn’t get out of the building. So there was no one going in because no one could get out.

Eventually the police managed to convince the charged throng that they were simply trying to redirect the flow of people, to get those out that needed out, and those in that needed in. Once sufficient numbers of people took the lead, things began to flow and I miraculously made it on to the train I was supposed to be on, heading back to the Halethorpe station and my original gloves and hat. Mass hysteria, as usual, is an overrated sport.

I said that my train rides were perfect bookends: The second of these two bookends was six and a half (the half being of very serious importance at that age) year-old Theresia. With gaps from newly lost teeth, Theresia sat next to me and we talked the whole way. We talked about her love of Writing Workshop in her class, about her neighborhood near Queens in New York, about her dad (who is both goofy and silly, by her estimate), and about little dogs that don’t bite. We drew together in my sketchbook. I started a cat head, and she drew a rose. Her favorite color is pink, but all I had was a red pen. Red’s a nice color too, Theresia assured me. We both signed our last names, which we agreed had an awful lot of letters.

I began the trip into the city with an elderly black woman who spoke of viewing Kennedy’s slain body, and ended the trip seated by a child of mixed race (Theresia’s father is white, her mother is black) talking about roses that were nice regardless of the pen color. It was difficult not to read into this, about the transfer of power we’d all just witnessed, about the slow turning of painful pages in race and acceptance.

I thought of Theresia, of the street vendors, of the family from Chicago moving into a new home in Washington. I thought of them during my long drive back up to the north, through the snow and salt-washed roads of the Midwest.

I thought about all of us singing the national anthem on that public plot of grass.

For once, I sang along.


Tim said...

Great post, Paul. What an incredible experience!

It's amazing for me to think about how US politics - elections in particular - differ from what we have over here in the UK. Everything seems so much grander and more passionate over there; we just don't have massive cheering crowds here … just a general collective sigh that hopefully the incoming lot will be better than the outgoing!

And in Obama I think you've got a good one. I was listening to his speech while driving home from work and I was struck by how powerful and rousing his words were - and how, unlike most other politicians, you truly get the impression that he is someone you can trust, and someone who is fighting to make a difference. I can only imagine what it was like to be in Washington to hear him.

Jason H. said...

Great essay, Paul. I especially liked the last few paragraphs. Very moving.

I'm still kicking myself for not going.

Marian said...

Ah, I totally cried while reading/watching this post! I listened to the radio, the day of, cause I didn't have internet or t.v. in my new apartment yet! It's nice to have visuals to retrofit my experience, and to read a human "I was there" story(ies).

Jacob Covey said...

I admire you fighting off the cynical part at the last minute and actually going to this kind of trouble to be there, Paul. I could not fight that off and my wife and I made do with the TV. I don't regret it but I do lament that I wasn't there to be a small part of the millions just to know (and send the worldwide message) that we all cared about better intentions. Just to feel all that relief, hope, and joy from a crowd of Americans right now would be a great experience. Thanks for posting this.

Paul Hornschemeier said...

Thanks, Tim, Jason, Marian, and Jacob. I really appreciate all the kind words.

Tim, it's worth noting that it's not the typical inauguration that brings millions to Washington (and I know I wasn't the only one who drove through the night at the last minute to be part of this). I think Jacob hit it exactly: this was a sort of renewal for America, and in many ways had nothing to do with Obama (though the merchandise vendors would say differently). This was not just a rejection of the past eight years, but of the incessant sale of fear over hope, of the knee-jerk in lieu of reason. Obviously those things don't dissipate with one event or even one presidential term. They'll always be lurking. But this was an affirmation that millions of people, apathetic or inactive for too long, are still around to say that things can be better.

Jacob, in all fairness to you: as far fighting off the cynical forces, you did also have the small factor of living on the west coast. That's one hell of a last minute drive.

Grapple00 said...

Well done Paul.

(I will now pause to stew in my own jealousies)
(Ok...I'm finished now)
I watched it with my son in the living room...amazing.

Brian said...

Hmm, not sure if my post worked there. It said there was an error.

Anyway, I found your blog from Heidi MacDonald's blog (The Beat). I was there too, and I think I stood very near to where you were. I took pictures, which are here:

I actually scored an invitation, but when we got there, they blocked the streets off and we couldn't get through.

The main thing I agree with your post is that it was an amazing speech by Obama. That was highly underrated. I loved it!!

Paul Hornschemeier said...

Thanks, Brian. And thanks for the photo set. Those are some amazing shots. The shot of the Capitol Building at night is fantastic, as is the crowd shot at the Washington monument.

WEBBFM said...
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Brandon Webb said...

That was amazing, better than any other reporting or whatnot that I've come across for the Inaugural events. Incredibly moving and very very well written. Thank you for that... it brought back a lot of the emotions I felt that day, and will be bookmarked and shared with others. Again, thank you.

Paul Hornschemeier said...

Thanks, Brandon. That means a lot. Digital high five.