Friday, January 23, 2009

Inauguration Day 2009

I was there. It was a pain in the ass, physically brutal, and not entirely fun, but I was there. When the tide turned, when America took that great leap forward, when we once again became a model for other countries to follow, rather than a subject of derision and disgust. I was there.

They say that two million people were on the mall yesterday. I don’t think I ever contemplated how big a number that was until I saw it firsthand. It was exciting, and overwhelming, and a bit scary. It was Historic.

The Trip

I got up at 5:30 Tuesday morning, but I had been awake since 3:00. I was sure I was getting a stomach flu, but in retrospect I think it was just been nerves. I had been planning on a more leisurely morning, but as soon as I turned on the news I started freaking out. “Holy shit,” was how I greeted J when he stumbled out of bed at 6:00 (having driven home from Philly the night before), “we’ve got to get the fuck out of here.” The crowds bobbing in the dark on the TV screen were eerie, and I was babbling with nervous excitement. We had a big breakfast, piled on the layers, and headed out.

The train was surprisingly uncrowded when we got on, but by the time we got downtown there was barely room to breathe.

Around the corner of my office building is the onramp to I-395, which runs under Pennsylvania Avenue (about 1 block in front of the Capitol). As Pennsylvania Ave is the parade route, the only way to get to the Mall from the Red Line was either to walk around the Capitol (probably a mile or more) or take the 3rd Street Tunnel.

This was the entrance to the tunnel. To the far right is the line to get into one of the ticketed areas. The crowd to the middle and left are all heading down to the interstate, which was shut down to all vehicular traffic.

By the time we got to the tunnel entrance the crowd was even thicker behind us.

I took a lot of photos of the tunnel. I thought it was awesome, and apparently I wasn’t alone in this sentiment. Hundreds of people were taking pictures, and there were random moments when everyone in the tunnel would just start cheering, or chanting “Obama.”

Once we got out of the tunnel we walked. And walked. And walked some more. Mind you, it wasn’t that far to the Mall from the other side, but the crowd kept getting shuttled further down, so we were walking parallel to the Mall. every time we wanted to turn toward the Mall we were told that area was closed. “It’s too full,” they would tell us.

In some places, we would hit a complete bottleneck. But the mood was celebratory, not scary at all. Everyone was pumped.

The Mall

Finally, we broke away from most of the crowd and turned toward the mall. (It was strange to ignore the cops, but what were they going to do?) The Mall was surrounded by Jersey barriers, followed by a chest-high fence; the only way we could get on the Mall was to go over. I climbed on top of a barrier and paused, stunned by the sight before me. Here is what I saw:

When I dropped to the ground on the other side of the fence, I felt a surge of energy. We had made it. We were on the Mall.

We didn’t go far from there—there wasn’t anywhere to go. I thought I was going to amuse myself for a few hours on the mall by taking a million photos. But although the sight was amazing, there weren’t many pictures to take. There was only a neverending, neverchanging sea of people, all facing the same direction, standing quietly, patiently, freezing, waiting.

I could see the “jumbo”-tron from where I stood, if I leaned a certain way or stood on my tiptoes. 

We stood there for two hours. We didn’t move. I’d brought food and water, but I didn’t dare eat or drink. My bladder had been complaining since long before we hit the Mall, and I knew there was no chance I’d make it to one of the five thousand port-a-potties lining the mall. It wasn’t even the question of how long the line-to-pee was; I couldn’t imagine even getting to the line, or distinguishing the line from the rest of the crowd once I got there.

At first there was some movement where we were standing. One person would try to pass in front of us, then everyone “with” that person would squeeze through, followed by an endless stream of people, all muttering “excuse me” and trying to squeeze in front of us. It was annoying as hell, because there was nowhere for them to go. So finally, after everything had settled down and this 20-something guy behind me nudged his shoulder in between me and J with an “excuse me,” I simply said “no.”

He was pissed. He stood there behind me, radiating rage, then said loudly, “Americans are such assholes.” I couldn’t help it. I cracked up. I mean, where did this guy think he was? And why was he here? He added, “If this were Europe it would be handled so much better.” Right, I thought silently, like Europe’s ever seen anything like this.”

Eventually J let him pass, commenting to me that he “didn’t need any of his negative energy.” The funny thing was, that was the only nasty moment I had with anyone the entire day.

A big guy standing right behind us then declared our area “closed”: “I don’t care where you think you’re going, or who you’re trying to meet. You’re not gonna find your friends, and you’re not getting through.” We were all in agreement.

The crowd was mostly quiet. Did I mention it was cold? You’d think that having that many people around you would keep you warm, but the wind was blowing hard and after awhile it wore us down. I had planned entertainment. I was going to take pictures, but after taking about 5 shots of the monument crowd I was done. Besides, taking pictures meant taking off my gloves. I was going to make phone calls, but there was no cell service. We had brought i-pod entertainment, but it seemed odd and kind of rude (and maybe unsafe) to tune out the world with so many people pressed so close around us.

They kept the road in front of the monument open for the parade buses. Every 15 minutes or so a caravan of 20 buses would come by, filled with high school or college kids in their band uniforms or cheerleading outfits, openly gawking at us. Thousands of us would wave at the bus while they took pictures.

The Ceremony

It’s hard to find the right words to describe the ceremony. Like much of that day, it was surreal. There on the big screen was this formal event, full of pomp and protocol. It was an event that was about “Washington,” but the masses were watching from “the District.” It’s a good metaphor for DC. Washington politics largely ignore the city in which they’re housed, even going to far as to deny its citizens a vote in Congress. But this was a vivid reminder of the disconnect between the federal government and the general population. Two million of us were out there on the Mall, freezing our asses off, wishing our feet would give up and go blessedly numb, wondering if we would ever get to pee again, worrying about how we were going to make it home. At the same time, on a big screen in front of us was this fancy procession of dignitaries—most of whom we’ve never heard of—playing politics to this small audience of well-rested, ticketed, seated visitors. It was just … strange.

When familiar faces started to show up on the Jumbotron, the crowd started to stir. There was a healthy chorus of boos when George H.W. appeared on the scene, a cheer for Jimmy Carter, and a wild frenzy for Beloved Bill. The crowd started buzzing, waiting for the moment Obama would arrive.

Then we saw George W. I wonder what it’s like to be booed so loudly by two million people? Has that ever happened before in the course of human history? Did we set a new world record? All around us the crowd erupted with a spontaneous song: “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye.” (Apparently this was happening all over the Mall, according to friends who watched from other areas.) One guy waved his shoe in his air, much to our delight.

(By the way, NBC censored the booing. They cut the crowd mikes for both the introduction of HW and W. Is that acceptable journalism?)

And then they introduced the man we all came to see. And the crowd went wild. There wasn’t much flag-waving where we were standing (I felt like it would be rude to pull out the flags I brought and wave them around, because we were standing so tight and I didn’t want to cut out anyone’s view), but the noise was awesome.

Most of the pre-swearing-in part of the ceremony was just a matter of endurance. Our feet hurt, our faces were frozen, and even Aretha and Yo Yo Ma weren’t going to help. There was only one thing we had come to see.

I thought I would cry when Obama was sworn in, like I did the night they called the election. But my reaction—and the reaction of the crowd—was much more subtle than that. I had thought we were coming out to the Mall to celebrate, to welcome Obama, to revel in our jubilation. And yes, that was a part of it. But when the ceremony started I realized that our real purpose was deeper, more profound: we were there to stand as witnesses to the moment.

The crowd cheered like crazy when Obama became President (though some would argue that technically occurred while Yo Yo Ma was playing). And then they fell silent again. Two million people stood still and sober while Obama addressed the world. It wasn’t a rally speech with soaring rhetoric, but a serious message about what we are facing and what we must do to survive. I think much of the crowd would have liked to cheer at some points in the speech, and there were some sporadic moments like that, but there seemed to be a silent agreement among the crowd that it was more important to hear the speech than to make our own noise.

And then the speech was over, and I turned with the crowd to start the long trek home. But before I had gone two feet J spun me around and kissed me, hard. We kissed for a long time, and that’s when I cried, just a little. Surrounded by thousands of strangers, and sitting in the lap of history itself, there was a moment where it was just the two of us. Live hasn’t given us everything we’ve wanted, and god knows we’ve had it hard the last few years. But we are a unit, a team. And like everything important in life, this was something we witnessed together. As I told him in a very cheesy e-mail the next day (he had to drive back to Philly Tuesday night), I’ll remember that kiss till the day I die.

Getting Home

Getting out of the Mall was a nightmare. Those Jersey barriers (and the fence lining them on the inside) were blocking everyone’s way out. By the time we got to the fences there had to be a hundred thousand people pushing from behind. All along the wall stronger guys were hauling kids and older people over.

We headed for L’Enfant Plaza, the only Metro station on that side of the Mall. And that’s where things got hairy. We got caught up in the worst human gridlock I have ever seen. At one point as we were squeezing our way past an FBI agent, I heard him say that L’Enfant was closed down entirely, due to the crowd. Which doesn’t make much sense to me.

So we decided to head back to the 3rd Street tunnel, the way we came in. But we couldn’t get out of the crowd, no matter which way we tried to go. We just couldn’t move. It took us a half hour to cross a street—that’s how bad it was. At one point the entire crowd just stopped moving, stopped pushing, stopped talking. We just stood there, for at least a minute, doing nothing. No one knew what to do. And there wasn’t a cop in sight. All we needed was someone with authority to stand on a car with a bullhorn and tell us what to do. I knew objectively that it was scary while it was happening, but it wasn’t until later that I acknowledged to myself how dangerous it really was.

Eventually we got free of the crowd and hiked back to my office building, where the security guard (forever an angel in my mind) let us come in and pee. Then we headed back out to fight our way onto a train.

But there was no fighting, no crowd on the Red Line. It wasn’t even as busy as rush hour. Basically, the entire crowd got stuck on the other side of the Mall, and we got off easy.

It’s a terrible way to end the story, isn’t it? It’s like the story just drops off a cliff; it’s a total let-down. Oddly, that’s how it felt at the time, too. We were all geared up for battle. Bladders freshly emptied, we were prepared to act like the city-dwellers and experienced Metro-riders we are, fighting and clawing our way onto a train after hours of effort, victorious in our arrival home after a long struggle. Instead, we walked out of my building, hopped on a train, and were at the McDonalds drive-through near our house less than 20 minutes later. It was like the ending of No Country for Old Men, where you find yourself sitting in a half-lit theatre with the credits rolling saying “What? It’s over? That’s it?”


luna said...

I love this story. what a great post! I love the moment you realize you were there to witness that historic moment, to share that energy. and that kiss certainly seemed special. thanks for sharing!

what a fabulous picture of you two!

Peeveme said...

I am so glad you went even though list of it really sucked. I love the pics. Thanks for sharing this. I don't "know" anyone who was there so it's cool to hear your story.

kate said...

Man. The claustrophobic in me just puked from the stress of it all! You are so brave!

I keep thinking that if I was closer to DC, I would have been so torn, because I would have wanted to be a part of that historic day, but I would have also wanted to escape crowds about 10 seconds into that experience.

I also would have been much more hostile to the asshole that thinks Europe handles crowds so much better, esp. as I am married to a European and know for a fact that in Europe, there would be no jackass trying to squeeze his way in front of other people so there would be no need to try to argue with said jackass in the first place. So.

Anyway, it was so cool to read your first-hand account from a safe distance- and you two look so dang happy! What an awesome pictures!

The Steadfast Warrior said...

I agree, great post! I think it's very interesting to hear the perspective of someone who was actually there. I watched the I from thousands of kilometers away but your desciption captured it so wonderfully.

I love the moment where you guys kissed. So incredible spontaneous and romantic.

Me said...

Wow. So awesome that you were there. I admit I got a little teary seeing the pics. What a momentous occasion in history!

Good Egg Hatched said...

Thank you for sharing your experience of this incredible day. I am so happy for you that you had the opportunity to experience it firsthand. Your description of that kiss made me cry -- I know that feeling of thinking that it's just the two of you, living and fighting on despite everything you've gone through together. You two are so brave!

Kristin said...

Wow...I love this post. You really captured the emotions and feelings of the day.

Nikki said...

Thanks for this post! It felt like I was there too!!

Lovely pictures and lovely description! And can you believe this - 2 million people, and not a single arrest!!! Amazing!

GINA and KEV said...

I like hearing about what the day was like for the visitors rather than just what the news reported on. Thanks for the story and pics.


Emmy said...

Wow! That sure sounds like quite a day! Thanks for sharing!

Michelle said...

Great post. That is awesome you were there. Thank you for sharing with us!

Rebeccah said...

Fabulous post! Thank you so much for writing it and for being one of the witnesses on the Mall. It felt like all of you were representing the rest of us, in a way. We were watching here in the PNW (in a room full of people wearing Obama gear) and were simply awestruck by how many of you out there braving the freezing cold -- and so so wishing we could be there with you.

N said...

Amazing. I really wish I had gone, seeing everybody talking about it now.


Nicole said...

Looks like an amazing experience. Certainly something you'll be able to share for a long time to come!


Anita said...

It is a pretty cool experience to be in a crowd like that~I've only experienced it once or twice, but I can definitely say that it was never 2 million people (maybe a couple hundred thousand). I can only imagine what that was like.


Bella said...

Thanks for sharing! It was so cool to hear your perspective!!


April said...

i think it's an awesome story. :) we lived in DC for awhile and i really wished that we could have been there for this!

Soralis said...

Wow that is A LOT of people! I am not sure I could deal with that!

It must have been nice to have such an easy ride home!

Thanks for sharing!


Liddy said...

Great post, thanks for sharing. I so wish I could have been there.

Thanks for stopping by my blog for ICLW...
No. 3: The Unfair Struggle (male-factor IF, friendship, life on the ice)

Darya said...

It sounds like you guys had a truly amazing experience! Thanks so much for sharing it. I am sure it felt great to be a part of an amazing historical moment. I feel like I got a piece of the action without freezing to death. Oh, and kudos to you for not peeing your pants!

Barb said...

Sweet photo - GREAT post. Beautiful writing. You captured a lot of what I felt just even watching it on TV. I miss DC SO MUCH.

I had wondered about the booing. I was surprised when I didn't hear any on TV. Now I know..

My friend who lives in the area also went and said much the same about it that you did. She said it was amazing to be surrounded by that much good will and awe.

I'm so glad you got to go. :) And I'm so glad that the sun is rising for us again.