Tuesday morning. The weather was frigid, the sky dark, as I drove my sub-sub-sub-compact rental into Vienna, Virginia, there to catch the Metro into Washington, DC, for the inauguration of Barack Obama. I hate those little cars. I’m tall and not exactly thin, so the combination of compressed spine and the lubricant necessary to squeeze in make an unpleasant experience. But hey, I saved like 11 cents on gas for the week. I’ve done my part to aid, or halt, global warming (I was too frozen to recall which we are supposed to root for on that score.) In my head I kept running down the list: video cameras, check; still camera, check; batteries, check; t-shirt depicting Obama as Jim Carrey’s character in the movie Liar Liar, check. Ready for battle.
The Vienna station was crushed with people. Parking lot so full of Obama paraphernalia, those obnoxious “Coexist” bumper stickers, and people with hair of unnatural colors that I wasn’t sure if it was the line to the inauguration or some kind of ‘-apalooza’ appended event. Silly me … it was both of course.
The line moved fast. Everyone was polite, excited to be there. There was, among those in line, some sense of being part of a singular event. Not a bunch of different groups in motion to a similar destination, but rather one big group, together. Especially the white people, who were very anxious to be approved of as part of the group by the black families in line. Eventually we all made it to the tellers and paid ten bucks for our souvenir day passes for public transportation. And so we mixed bag of riders hurried together down the steps to board the train. The emo kids, the rich guy, the earnest-faced black families, John Adams, and me.
The train was packed tight, but everyone remained jocular. In particular, the older couple from New York, who had inauguration tickets. They had tickets, you see. Did I mention the tickets? Tickets? He mentioned the tickets. They had tickets, you understand. In my head I could hear nothing but the “I’ve Got A Golden Ticket” refrain from the movie Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory. Speaking of tickets, did I mention the couple from New York had tickets to the inauguration?
Conversation was light, but unsurprisingly talking-points laden. Republicans this, Bush that, Obama loves everyone, I came to Obama on such and such a day … typical democrat discussions. They talk about republicans like some sort of alien species thrust onto this planet for reasons unknown … mysterious, twisted and unwelcome. Obama will bring us all together is the refrain, “even those disgusting troglodytes across the aisle, more’s the pity” is the understood undercurrent.
At each stop, more people pressed in. A couple fresh in from Paris pushed their way in long after I was certain another soul could not fit. I don’t mean that figuratively, I mean I didn’t think an ethereal and mass-less human soul floating unseen among us would fit inside that car. We were all becoming intimate with one another. Still, spontaneous singing broke out in small groups. They didn’t sing Kumbaya, but that was the general idea. Eventually, however, the tightness of the space, the mouthiness of the couple from New York (they had TICKETS!!!!!!) and the constant delays took their toll. We’d been about 6 stops in just over an hour. When we finally made it to Foggy Bottom I led an insurrection and off the train we went to walk into town. As we debarked, I heard the announcer indicate that someone had been hit by a train further up the tracks and to expect further delays. It’s impossible to hear the announcer in the car, what with the spontaneous singing and the endless talk about how someone from New York may have come into his TICKETS!!!!!! so I felt bad for the rest of the sardines. I’d be surprised if they made it to ceremony in time.
Walking through DC was eerie that cold Tuesday morning. Thousands of people walking the streets in one direction, dodging t-shirt sellers and button-hawkers. At every corner there were military vehicles and automatic weapons. We were directed by the camouflaged and frozen … here a young woman with a stoic face and a rifle directs you down one street, there a young man with a medical kit directs you down another, the cold freezing his helpful smile into what looked to my republican eyes like nothing if not a death rictus. A fitting image, I thought. Onward we marched, and each person walking still thinking that it was to history we made our way.
When at last I made my way onto the frozen tundra of the Mall, I found that people were pressed together in incredibly tight groups; huddled, one might assume, for warmth. I have many small stories about those I met as I criss-crossed the garbage-strewn grass that morning, but I’ll save them for another time. As the morning wore on and the moment grew near, the real story was the increasing discontent.
People had gathered in huge numbers in particular areas, areas where they’d been informed they’d find jumbotrons and speakers, or where they’d have a view. As time went by and neither speakers nor television arrived, the discontent grew to worry, or sadness … or anger. The crowds were too thick for everyone to pick up and move to where the televisions actually were. For my part, I had a ticket to the press area down near the stage, but it was clear I’d never be able to navigate there in time. Besides, the word on the street was that lines for the ticketed were far too long to move through in time, and many of the lines inexplicably led to closed gates, or simply to a random spot along uninterrupted fence. Some of the lines were even circular, an infinite loop of traipsing… government organization at it’s finest.
When the great moment arrived, I was down much closer to the front, standing on the street alongside the Mall. From between the giant satellite feed vans there streamed a constant flow of disappointed faces, mostly black families. They were leaving early, unable to see or hear the event. The faces were shell-shocked, their posture devastated. Still, when the moment arrived, the roar from the crowd was shocking, deafeningly loud. The one thrill of the moment that everyone in DC could share.
And then it was over.
I made my way to Starbucks, just beating the crowd that would later form there, and I jumped on the internet. From my seat beside the bathroom lines, I spent the next few hours listening to people discuss their mornings. The reactions, at least there, were almost universally bad. More on that in Part III.
I don’t know the size of the crowd attending the inauguration. I do know, though, that the numbers on the Mall don’t represent the number of people there for the event. It doesn’t account for the thousands of ticket-holders who were kept out, or the thousands of disappointed people and families who left for the coffee shops or train stations in one last desperate attempt to witness the ceremony. I know that to those of us who were on the ground, the crowds were enormous, they were disappointed, and they were largely stuck in town, waiting for the hours-long parade to end.
Perhaps some people expected too much of the event. In fact, I’m certain of that. So many of the people in attendance have nothing but hope for Obama. They believed that he, of all people, would see to it that they could be a part of the moment with him. He told them this, in countless fund-raising emails. But when the moment came, those who could not afford to be a part of the moment were left huddled together amid the trash and icy wind … forgotten. Maybe they shouldn’t have expected more, but they did. It will the first of many crushing returns to reality for Obama voters who seek miracles from the One, and from whom they will receive none.
This week, I packed up a few changes of clothes, crammed myself into the miniature replica of a real car that I rented so I could save on gas, and drove up to northern Virginia, there to spend a few days covering the inauguration of Barack Obama. I’ll be posting my experiences in series titled “Hope, Change! An Inauguration Tale“.