Sunday, May 17, 2009

No Time Like the Present: Barack Obama's Inauguration

About thirty seconds after the outcome of the 2008 Presidential election became clear, my friend, bridesmaid and former college roommate Ashley texted me and said "we're going, right?" Thus began a frantic run of organization in preparation for a trip to the Inauguration. I was to stay with Ashley's sister and generally have a glorious time. So on January 15th, I got in my car and headed south with my Obama Riding A Unicorn Shirt and some good sturdy boots.

Just as I got out of Connecticut, Ash texted me to tell me that she'd had a family emergency and the whole family - including Ashley and the sister we were going to stay with - were headed to where her parents were staying in Florida. My first thought was "oh, I'll just call that nice Courtyard Marriott in Dupont that I liked," followed closely by a realization of just how freaking nuts that idea was. I drove on to my planned visit with my sister in Philly, planning to regroup there. I had a great time with her and her friends, and while I was in Philadelphia, I got in touch with my Dad's business partner, Mary, who had an apartment in Arlington. I decided to stay over night with Sarah and get going again in the morning. This is how it went:
I keed, I keed. Well, it's how part of it went, but the other parts involved great hangout time with Sarah, a kicky haircut and a pedicure. Sarah lent me her GPS (thanks Sarie!) so I could redirect to Mary's and off I went. It took forever, frankly, and by the time I got to Arlington, I had to run back out the door to meet Avi, Shubes, Kiersten, Miguel and all the Sri Lankans at Old Glory in Georgetown to celebrate Avi's birthday. I did a lot of wandering and happy grinning in Georgetown before everyone got there, then had a total blast with everyone at Old Glory and then Mr. Smith's down the street.

I did a lot of wandering and people watching...I'm going to comment on things I found interesting, and you should assume that any time I wasn't doing something specific, I was just watching the humanity and taking all the pictures I should have taken when I lived there. Here's a selection of shots.

There was a lot of interesting "Welcome to Washington, Mr. President!" stuff around, like this Metro poster and this sign on the American Red Cross building downtown.
Also, lots of flags, like these on the Willard Intercontinental...I just loved how this looked!

On Saturday, I spent some hangout time on the Mall just absorbing the scenery and getting in some people watching. While I was skulking around the White House, Marine One came in.
I was standing near a very nice Parks Service dude who was keeping people out of a random patch of grass and I asked him if having Marine One fly over was still cool for him. He said it definitely was and then we had a nice conversation about how he's lived in DC for three years but he still makes a point of going past the White House every morning on his run just because he can and that's cool. I like talking to strangers when I'm on vacation.
This was the view looking away from where I was hanging out with my new Parks Service friend. There were lots of people milling around and exploring. I was very impressed with the crowd management throughout...there were a LOT of people in DC all weekend, and I didn't see one crowd freakout incident. There were lines, but even the lines weren't bad. Metro employees were helping at the farecard machines by watching for confused people and swooping in to assist them, or by helping them with what train they needed to catch to where. There were just enough police on hand to keep things in check and moving slowly, but not enough to quash the general good mood. Well done, DC!

On Saturday night, Kiersten, Shubin and I had the brilliant idea to go to Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. Unfortunately, pretty much everyone else on the planet had the same idea. It was like a street fair down on U Street, and it was a complete blast. I particularly liked that exactly none of it made any sense. The one connective thread was Obama-thusiasm, but you had everything from seemingly homeless people skipping down the streets to people in full on fur coats walking along down the sidewalk. It was fucking cool. For those of you who may not be familiar, U Street has long been a cultural center for the black community in DC, so it wasn't a huge surprise that there would be such intense joy in the neighborhood. We wound up going to the Ulah Bistro, which I thought was called the Utah Bistro until literally about thirty seconds ago when I googled for a link to it. It was a wonderful surprise...the decor was comfy but chic, and we sat on the second floor, which had lovely big windows in it. I took the above picture out of one of said windows. The food was great, too.

The We Are One concert was the next day and I got down there early to peoplewatch some more and take pictures. One of my greatest regrets about this trip was that I didn't buy more offensively tacky junk. This day featured some of the most hardcore tackiness, thanks to the ever industrious street vendors. There were buttons the size of dinner plates, you guys. I am also confident that I can declare this the sparkliest Inauguration ever. Every other thing was covered in rhinestones or fake rhinestones or...some kind of sparkly glue. It was magnificent. So anyway, here are a lot of people, glistening in the sun outside of the Corcoran Gallery of Art on their way to the Mall (which you're looking towards in this picture).
I finally decided to take the plunge and head in to the viewing area, and when I got there, this is what it looked like.
Obviously, I can't see shit, but on the upside, I wound up in front of this trio of amazingly flametastic gay men, who reacted with outright glee to everyone who came on the stage and/or loudspeaker and to any mention of Obama. Now, because there were so many people and the program kept changing, there were no programs or anything, so everything that came on was a surprise. This was very exciting in the company of my cohorts. Whoever came out would either get trash-talked ("Look like Martin Luther King the third, fourth AND fifth, damn") or welcomed wholeheartedly ("OH MAH GOOOOOD I LOVE DENZEL!") and sometimes both trash-talked AND welcomed ("That outfit looks drug through hell backwards, but I love you anyway girl!"). The attendance was unbelievable and at one point one of my neighbors turned around and said "it's only Sunday, guys." True story...there were TONS of people and the ostensible big event hadn't even started.
I was between the Washington Monument grounds and the World War Two Memorial, which is about a third of a mile. From the Monument all the way to the Lincoln Memorial is about a mile, and it was completely packed, as you can see below.
Here's an interesting thing. I complain sometimes about how people up north here just aren't as well dressed as people were in DC (NB: This is separate from my "Americans do not dress as well as Europeans" issue.), but I guess I hadn't really actualized this knowledge. I have this houndstooth coat which sticks out like crazy up here, and I don't usually see people with similar outerwear. Apparently I'd been banking on this as a unique item a little too hard, because I kept explaining the whole "I will be the one in the houndstooth coat" concept to people and then finding myself surrounded by other houndstooth coat wearers. Damn you, DC, and your stylish inhabitants! Naturally, I wound up right next to one of them at the concert.
Her companion was apparently not that impressed by the proceedings. You can't please everyone.

I can't remember what day this was, but I'm pretty sure it was on Sunday. I was wandering around the Mall and was confronted with this as I tried to cross the street.

Anyone who saw that and thought "I'm trapped in a glass case of emotion," raise your hands. Thank you. Put 'em down. Just checking. Anyway, some nice gentleman who watches more (read: any) MSNBC than I do informed me that it was Andrea Mitchell in the glass case of emotion. I thought it was kind of a fun, if deranged and inconveniently located mobile studio project.

I managed to get the Inauguration Ticket Hook Up from Jim McGovern. His office called me the day before I left for DC to tell me the good news. The guy who called me asked if I could come down on Monday to the Cannon House Office Building, so I said sure, thinking that this was the day that disorganized losers like myself could come down and pick up tickets. I was wrong. Monday was when ANYONE who got a ticket from Congress came to pick them up. I had been thinking I'd be able to get out at Cap South (a block below Cannon), grab my ticket and then breeze on to my care-package-stuffing volunteer event at RFK. I was incorrect.

I resigned myself to walking around to the end of the line, but as luck would have it, I ran in to Jim outside, and he pulled me ahead of the line and into the HOB to get my ticket. He had been outside trying to find his people and ferry their tickets out to them. He is the best. For those that may be curious, this is what the tickets looked like.
This got me right up to the Capitol Reflecting Pool on the day. This was all I needed to bring with me. It travelled stuck in a copy of The Master and Margarita because like a crazy person I expected to read while I was waiting. More on that later.

Here's the formal invite, wherein we all pretend that the President, Vice President and the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies know who I am and want me to attend.

There were also two pictures, one of Obama and one of Biden. I didn't include those because you know what they look like, but I will note that there were signatures under each picture and those were very cool. I like Obama's because it's very loopy and I am weird.
Schedule of events...there were also preliminary things while we were all waiting, so every time there was noise, basically, we'd all start getting all "IS THAT ARETHA? I THINK IT'S ARETHA" because after a certain amount of time in the cold, it turns out you get a little loopy and weird and can start confusing childrens' choirs with Aretha Franklin?
Lincoln EVERYWHERE. Nice little story about Lincoln and why he was awesome.
Story continued...
...and finally complete.

On the actual day of, I got up at 3am. I called a taxi, then hopped in the shower...said taxi did not arrive until 4am, but once he was there, he was extremely helpful and managed to wheedle his way in a little closer than he was supposed to get to the Mall. I wound up getting about half a mile behind the Lincoln Memorial by 4:20 or so. By that time, people were streaming onto the Mall...not as in "there was this one other dude," but as in actual streams of people. I made my first set of Inauguration Buddies on the way in, and they were very impressed that I had come down by myself and was nuts enough to walk in the cold alone at 4am. We broke off just before the Washington Monument grounds, where I took this picture.

I walked up to the general vicinity of where the Silver Ticket Gates were supposed to be. There were so many damn people you really couldn't figure out who was in line and who wasn't. This is the only time I had an issue with crowd control...there were lots of out-of-state cops to help, but they didn't know much beyond "you can go in here but absolutely not there" so when I asked where the hell the line was, they had no idea and told me to find Secret Service and ask them. I will note that they were very courteous and it wasn't really their fault. One nice policewoman from Philly was VERY concerned about letting me go out into the main crowd on Independence Ave. (it was pretty insane), but she did in the end. Everyone was looking out for everyone else, even if no one knew what the hell was going on.

I finally just decided to head towards the line and see what happened. This was when I met up with Inauguration Buddies v2.0, Rhonda and Ebony. We jumped the line together and stuck together all the way through, finding stuff to stand on and kind of wiggling together to try and maintain some semblance of body heat. It was unbelievably cold. When I was walking, it was tolerable, but once you stopped it was just awful. Still, people took care of each other. Some people were sharing coffee or making coffee runs, and others were letting each other hop on their backs to get their feet off the ground. We found out fast that as cold as the air was, it was standing on the cold concrete that really did you in.

Finally, we saw a horde of TSA officials coming in to start security, which elicited a big cheer of the type you only get from really cold, really bored people. Once the line started moving, you basically walked up to the TSA people with your arms in the air, holding your ticket, and they patted you down as you passed through to...another area where you had to stand around for a while. There was a little bit of scary big crowd action at this point, because people REALLY wanted to get good vantage points. I could have picked my feet up off the ground at one point and still gotten wherever the crowd was going. Once we got to the Silver area, though, this is the sight that met us. Ebony, Rhonda and I went and sat under a tree. Somehow we figured out that the ground was warmer near the tree, so we parked there and refused to move.
In retrospect I'm not really sure how I came to this conclusion, but apparently I decided that the best possible way to dress for this event was to wrap my head like a particularly colorful HAMAS militant. I probably decided this around the same time I decided I'd be able to get in a little Bulgakov before the ceremony started.

After a while, people got antsy. At some point the plastic snow-fence-like-thing fell down, and this allowed us all to get right up to the Reflecting Pool. People were being kind of amazingly dumb about this, climbing on porta potties and onto the FROZEN POND and all this crazy shit. Good times. Rhonda, Ebony and I decided that we would take the path less crazy and stayed put. We spent some time dancing and goofing around, which helped us all stay warm(er).
Finally, the show started. There's nothing I can really say to explain why I cried so much or why I was so happy, or even how good it felt to be amidst so much positive energy. Most of the emotion had less to do with political affiliation and more to do with who we are as a country. I know there are some that would say how you feel about Obama's Inauguration is inextricably tied to politics, but I disagree. That we can peacefully change power in this country is so goddamn cool. That we've come far enough that color no longer bars you from the highest office in the land is goddamn cool.

I've said many times since I returned from DC that what I hope will come of this Presidency is a sort of contagion of happiness. While I was there, people were just straight up happy, not about Obama necessarily, but about the idea that we - not the government, not some external entity - can make our own differences and kick ass all on our own. But more than just feeling empowered, people were friendly. Riding the Metro, walking around downtown...people were talking to strangers, holding doors, complimenting each other on outfits, just being open and engaged with the community around them. It might sound hokey, but I think that kind of friendliness can be the start of a new era in American life, and one we desperately need. Friendliness doesn't need to be paired with oblivion or naivite and I don't think we can afford to go back to the blindness we had before September 11th, but being friends to one another is the start of a cooperative project to rebuild and strengthen America in a way that can endure and face the new world unafraid and with confidence.

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