I greeted the day armed with maps, snacks, cameras, pre-paid Metro card and, yes, a paperback book, just in case. I woke up around 5 am and proceeded, for the next hour, to pester my Mom like a 5 year old at Christmas. "Mom, the Post is reporting that tens of thousands of people spent the night on the mall....Mom, do you have any Advil...Mom...Mom..."
We left the house around 6:30 and swung by to pick up my Mom's friend who was also braving the insanity to go down. My Mom chose the wiser course of valor and opted out of joining us.
A key question on any one's mind who was venturing down was where to get off of the Metro once it got down into DC. The challenge, for those of you unfamiliar with DC geography was this. The National Mall runs east/west about 2 miles from the steps of the Capital Building to the Lincoln Memorial. If you wanted to see the swearing in, this is where you needed to be.
Most of the Metro stations in DC are located north of the Mall, with a scant few (two, to be exact) located to the south. The catch is that the Inaugural Parade, which starts in the afternoon after the swearing in, runs from the Capital Building to the White House along Pennsylvania avenue, a major thoroughfare which runs parallel/diagonally (I don't know if it's possible to be both parallel and diagonal to a straight line but whatever) north of the National Mall.
Essentially giving up on trying secure any but the locations closest to the Capital Building along the mall, police and security forces focused their efforts on securing the parade route. Anyone who wanted to stand along the parade route had to go through security, and the secure corridor was set up in the days before the inauguration. Pennsylvania Ave was completely shut down. You could not cross it in a car. You could not cross it on your feet. You could not cross it on a Segue. You could not cross Pennsylvania Avenue, Sam I Am.
So, if you wanted to see the Inauguration on the Mall, you had to make darn sure that you didn't get off at a Metro station (most of them) which would require you to cross Pennsylvania.
Adding to the excitement, they also had rolling street closures in effect. So, even though I had a map which ostensively showed what streets were open and closed, in fact, when I got down there, Constitution, a major thoroughfare connecting to the Mall, was also completely cordoned off, along with lots of other random places.
The mood on the train was pretty upbeat, except for the poor girl sitting near me who had apparently already had trauma catching the Metro and now, stuck on the Metro, desperately had to pee. Initially, I had thought I would try to get off at L'Enfant Plaza, the major Metro station south of the Mall, but as we made our way into DC, the waits in the tunnels got longer and longer, and we began to get reports that some Metro stations were spontaneously closing because there were too many people in them.
I really didn't want to risk spending the day in Maryland because the train wasn't allowed to stop, so I got off at Federal Triangle which is magically located north of the Mall, but south of Pennsylvania Ave. This ended up being the ideal choice. It let me out right at the middle of the Mall area with easy walking distance to the Washington Monument, which is where I decided to make my final stand. I found out later that the streets around L'Enfant Plaza were so crowded and congested, many people found themselves trapped on side streets and unable to access the Mall at all.
How can I explain the mood and the experience of being in that crowd? It was joyous. It was also a little bit scary. Everyone was happy and kind and there was certainly a lot of excessive politeness, a distinct awareness that we were all in this together and there was no sense pushing or scrambling. But I think it's human nature to be completely freaked out to be standing amongst 1.2 million people. One's flight or fight mechanism fights to kick in, and one must soothe it, gently reminding it that it's ok. We've chosen to be here.
Nearby there was a man wearing an elaborate costume that involved tree branches on his head. I never did figure out why. Several feet away in front of me, the parent of a baby decided to settle him down by lifting him up and down over their head. Seeing the baby flying up and down, the crowd began making sound effects: Whooooosh....Whooosh...Whooosh, and the baby became so excited it hardly knew what to do. Every time his parent lifted him in the air, he could see a sea of a thousand faces smiling at him and going: Whooooosh! I think his parents may have a hard time settling him down from now on.
The Event itself began and I was so glad that I had decided to do this nutty thing. The crowd definitely had a mood: cheering like crazy when the Obama girls and Michelle appeared (I LOVE YOU MICHELLE!!! was hollered out by more than one young gentleman.) There was subdued booing when Dick and George made their appearances, some snickering at Cheney in his wheelchair, but mostly it was polite applause. There was lots of cheering for Jimmy Carter, and cheers and befuddlement at the tottering old man who was, yes, George Bush senior. Wow, is he really that old? Bill and Hillary got cheers although it too seemed reserved, as if the crowd was unsure...are we happy to see them?
Rick Warren was also met with a kind of subdued applause, a far cry from the enthusiastic cheer I heard at the concert for Gene Robinson. In the midst of his Invocation, a voice from behind me rang out "Gay Rights Now!", which was met with applause. I listened to what he said, and thought it was ok. I found myself wondering how closely he listens to his own words, and how much guidance he might take from them. Faith means believing that people can always change, evolve and grow. One thing I did know for certain, standing in that crowd of every creed, color, nation and gender, is that our country is evolving, and growing, and those who don't keep up will be left behind.
The moment itself? The Swearing In? The Inaugural Address? It was wonderful and overwhelming. It was beautiful, and I cried. I'm tearing up now. It was worth it. It was worth going down, and it was worth what came after trying to get the Hell out of DC. We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, gathered in the cold, gathered around tv sets, gathered in the streets, gathered together, across the nation and said Yes We Can. Yes We Did. Yes We Will.
Leaving DC was when the rolling street closures and Pennsylvania security corridor really began to take their toll. I actually had an idea of trying to catch a bus, instead of trying to venture into a Metro station, the idea of which frankly scared me with that many people trying to pack in underground. The bus stop I needed though, was located in a nice tight little triangle surrounded by Pennsylvania and Constitution. I didn't know how to get there without going across the latter.
My Mom's friend called me to say that she and her friend had managed to score a table in the food court at the Air and Space Museum. Since I could see the Smithsonian from where I was standing, I thought what the hell. I'll go sit inside in the warm for a few hours and let this jumble sort itself out. The shock came when I tried to get down Independence Avenue, along with many thousands of other people. It took me an hour to go three blocks. Although the crowd remained peaceful and civil, by this time the cold, and the fatigue was wearing on everyone. Some people were collapsing, and ambulances fought to drive through the crowds.
Rumors would tear through the crowds like wildfire...they've blocked the intersection up there...somebody's dead up there...there's a lost child...all the Metro stations are closed. Most of the rumors were completely untrue, but they added to a general feeling of Holy Shit.
I gave up the heated indoor lunch plan, and, now having walked 2 miles in the wrong direction, decided to resume my original plan. As I walked now in the opposite direction, trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get to that bus stop, I stopped to ask a volunteer guide, standing patiently and kindly on the mall with a stack of tear away maps. Looking at the map I could see a metro station, Arlington, which is located in Arlington National Cemetery across the bridge from DC. I asked the guide if he thought it would be easier for me to go there and he said most definitely yes. Those streets between me and the bus stop that aren't cordoned off, he told me, are completely mobbed with people.
So a day that began amongst a mad throng of people ended with a long, quiet walk: past the World War II monument, along the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial. Although I thought I'd run into barricades at the Memorial, a friendly park ranger told me to follow the fence to the end, where I could make a right turn not immediately visible from where I was standing. I walked by the Korean War Memorial, possibly the most powerful war memorial in DC. Statues of soldiers stand in a field, weighed down with their packs, their images reflected in a shiny black marble wall, engraved with still more images of our fallen soldiers.
Walking across the bridge I felt almost alone. There were maybe a dozen people, instead of thousands, wandering in the same direction. A troop of soldiers were stationed along the bridge in order to, occasionally, run out and move the traffic barricades to let in the Marine Corps Band buses, or let out a dignitary. The ice on the Potomac looked like broken green bottle glass, dangerous and beautiful. It was so quiet.
It felt like the perfect end to my day for as I took this walk, truly, how could I not be "mindful of the sacrifices born by our ancestors"? With every fiber of my being, I felt Obama's words around me:
"America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."