Saturday, February 21, 2009
It's only a month too late ...
To blog about my experience going to Washington for President Obama's inauguration. It's a very long post, but I'm writing as much for myself as anyone else, so I'd love if people read it. Photos are down below because I couldn't figure out how to make the formatting look decent any other way.
My wonderful friend Rachel and her boyfriend drove all the way from Virginia to come pick me up in Baltimore at 11:30 Saturday night. I spent the night with them and then got on a Metro to meet my friends Anna, Lila and Andrea for the inauguration concert.
The concert began at 2:30 and we made it to the National Mall around 1:30. We stood by the Washington Monument, quite far away from any of the jumbotrons and a mile away from the Lincoln Memorial, where the concert was. Most people were friendly and everyone was happy to be there. At one point, someone in front of us got on her boyfriend's shoulders, blocking everyone's view of the jumobtron. The guy behind us earned the quote of the day when he yelled, "No you CAN'T" in response to the rude shoulder-rider. She got down immediately.
We spent Monday roaming around DC, taking pictures and being generally touristy. I was amazed at how many vendors were around. Anything it is possible to print on had Obama's face on it. The crowds were getting heavier and it was wonderful to see so many different people. Washington is always diverse, but during inauguration week you saw people representing every race, religion, orientation, nationality, etc. and everyone was smiling. There's nothing to compare to the energy and positivity in the city that day. It was a mixture of anticipation and pure elation that you could see in the faces of everyone there.
On Monday, I broke off from my friends for an hour or so and went to visit the newsroom where I worked in the summer of 2007. It was great to see my old boss and coworker again and I remembered how much I loved working there.
Monday night, Anna and I, who were both staying at Andrea's house, put all of our clothes together -- about six layers -- and got ready for bed. In the morning, we bundled up, picked up Lila at her house, and headed off on foot. Arlington is about three miles from the National Mall, but we'd seen on CNN that morning that the Metro was already completely packed.
It was cold, but the walk warmed us up. Soon, we were watching the sun come up over the frozen Potomac as the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument came into view. When we got to the first row of port-a-potties, we decided it would be a god time to take a bathroom break. Only about 8 a.m., and they were already gross. I think every port-a-potty in the nation must have been in Washington. Everywhere you looked, you could spot another group of the big blue boxes.
About half an hour later, we found a spot near the Washington Monument. We could have gotten a little closer to the jumbotron, but were up on a slope, so we thought we'd have a better chance of being able to see. That turned out to be very wishful thinking. I'm just about 4 inches too short to be able to see past anyone in front of me. It was going to be cold. Very cold. All of our layers helped, but it was definitely chilly. We'd brought along some thermalcare wraps, and I slapped one on, which seemed to help things a bit. Anna and Lila headed off to buy some hot chocolate. At the time, we could see the concessions line and were in a spot that was pretty easy to find. Forty minutes later, what had been a sparse crowd was turning into mosh-pit conditions. Anna called me and asked me to describe where our spot was, so I threw a sweater in the air and she saw it and found me. Ten minutes after that, it was too packed for anyone to be able to find the same spot again.
As I spoke to the people around us, I was struck again by the different types of people represented in the crowd. A small group of people behind me had come from Kenya just for the inauguration. There were college kids and grandmothers and kids too young to truly understand the significance of the day. I spoke to an interracial lesbian couple there with their kid (who, about an hour before the ceremony began, was drawing on a notepad a list of "reasons why this is boring") and then an 18-year-old kid and his mother moved next to me. The kid turned 18 in August and voted for the first time in his life in the November election. He told me about his experience in the voting booth and how his mom (who booed every time Bush's name was mentioned) wanted him to take photos of himself in the voting booth. I told him that because I grew up in Oregon, I've never been in a voting booth or even gone to a polling place. His mom asked me if mail elections have more potential for fraud. I was struck that there were people surrounding us who, at his age, could have been beaten up for even attempting to register to vote, but now we were all there together to watch a black man take the oath of office. You don't have to have voted for Obama to appreciate the significance of that image.
As with the concert, it was hard to judge the size of the crowd. Looking over the sea of people was an overwhelming feeling, and while it felt dense and claustrophobic, it didn't feel as big as it was. There were people as far as you could see, but the human eye can only pick out details for a short distance and I don't think the mind can comprehend that many people in time to translate the information to the optic nerve. What really shocked me was that it did not SOUND like that many people I've left Autzen stadium, which holds close to 60,000 on it's best days, with my ears ringing, but the crowd at the Mall didn't seem loud. Obviously that has to do with the way sound travels on a flat outdoor space, but it was odd.
What I'll remember more than the sound of 2 million people talking, singing, cheering, is the sound of 2 million people being quiet. The moment that Obama raised his hand, you heard a collective "SHHHHHHH" and the crowd held its breath. The closest thing I've felt to the emotion from the crowd in the moment he raised his hand was the feeling of watching a basketball fly through the air in the split second before it swishes through the net for a championship-winning shot, or the time it takes to watch a home run leave the ballpark to win a World Series. The second that Justice Roberts said, "Congratulations Mr. President," the crowd exploded. Everyone hugged and cried. For many in the crowd, the moment was a catharsis and a release of a lifetime of hoping for the moment.
At the time, I didn't think the speech was particularly amazing -- I thought the one he gave at the concert was better -- but the more I think about it, the better I think it was. He said what he needed to say and the tone was right for what is going on in the country.
While we didn't feel like the crowd was that big during the ceremony, that changed when all 2 million people tried to leave at once. While we tried to get off the mall, some people even walked across the tops of the port-a-potties. As we waited, I snapped a picture of the White House. It wasn't until I uploaded it days later that I noticed I'd captured moving trucks in front of the building.
Google Maps says that from the corner of 18th and Constitution, where we exited the Mall after a long shuffle, to the restaurant in Georgetown where we ate is 2.5 miles. It took us nearly 3 hours to get there. For about a mile of that walk, we were shoulder to shoulder with people in every direction. Several times, ambulances moved through the crowd on the street, and a few people chased the ambulance through the break in the crowd. Lila said, "Hey, it's all the lawyers!" I replied that it was probably the journalists, too. Everyone in our part of the crowd was very nice. People in crowds that dense sometimes get irritable and stressed out, but everyone was understanding and relaxed. I heard from people I spoke to later in the week that the crowds were not so positive in other parts of the city, but I felt nothing but positivity from the people around me.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at a delicious Mexican restaurant, watching the parade on television with some of Lila's friends, both of whom were awesome (and who'd been smart enough to make reservations before the inauguration day). It was one of the longest days of my life, but I know that when I'm 90, I'll be telling my great-grandkids about what I think will go down as one of the most significant days of my life. They'll bring their history books (or pocket-sized electronic hologram readers, whatever) to me, and I'll tell them about the time I went to watch President Obama's inauguration and shared the moment not only with my friends, but with 2 million of the happiest people you've ever seen.