Thursday, January 22, 2009
I was there! I drove up all the way from the ATL a few days before to beat the crowds and get myself acclimatized to the DC cold. Things seemed pretty calm until Monday; I was not sufficiently arctic blast-proof to brave the weather for the Sunday inauguration opening concert.
My inaugural experience was hiked up a notch on the day before the actual inauguration, however, when I decided to make a trip of reconnaissance to the Mall and the Capitol to scout out the terrain, identify warming-up stations within easy reach, and map out a ‘Dan Plan’ for the big day. I also had the presence of mind to secure newspapers with last minute maps and instructions about street closings, where to go and not go, what and who to bring and not bring etc. I knew that I had to get photos of the Capitol and the staging area there and then because with an invitation, but no color-coded ticket, I would not stand a snowball's chance in hell to get within shouting distance of the presidential party on the following day. I used that day, too, to secure my Obama Metro smart card as well as all my Inauguration paraphernalia (largely for the sake of posterity) like any red-blooded historian would. Armed with my “I was there!” and “Camelot II” buttons, and my “Dream Realized” Tee-shirt, I discovered I could also combine the need for warmth with the desire to capture pieces of history for history, so I grabbed an Obama/Biden fleece jacket and a “44th President OBAMA” toque, but for the sake of maintaining the semblance of belt-tightening sanity which these economic times demand, I had to refuse the “First Family” gloves.
It was a vendor's paradise, trust me! Every soi-disant itinerant retailer and his or her momma from every imaginable corner of the USA was out there peddling a hustle, complete with accompanying jingle, for example, "Target sold out, but I didn't!" Every conceivable assortment of trinket on sale was emblazoned with something pertaining to the President-elect, the First Lady to-be, the beautifully well-behaved kids and bearing the date 01-20-09. Have you ever seen what the ‘Unite the Nation’ bipartisan mascot looks like? Let’s just coin a name for it: either “Eledonk” or “Donkephant” will do, whichever you prefer, but, let me tell you, it was most present on outsized star-spangled buttons that were selling like hot bread. Imagine if you will the peddlers out-hawking each other with cries of “Presidential water-bottles anyone?” “Get your Obama Key chains over here?” “Miniature Barack dolls!” “President Obama coins here!” “Discount Inauguration Posters!” “Obama 2009 Calendars!” “Fist-Bump Fridge Magnets” “First Lady coffee mugs for the lady you left at home!” or (my favorite) “Inaugural long-sleeved Tees $15 here!” competing with “ $20 over here! Mine come with gloves!” So what to do? Well, how about trying a Statue of Liberty crown, or Uncle Sam tall top hat, a stars-and-stripes ski-mask or a ‘Got Hope’ fake tattoo? And even if all you ever wanted was to get a photo of yourself with your arm carelessly flung across the shoulder of the President-elect, or standing between him and Lincoln, you could pose with a cardboard cut-out for a fee. By the time I returned home that night, given the degree of feeling (or lack thereof) in my fingers and toes, I knew Inauguration Day, which was expected to be even colder, would be no picnic. Nothing short of death, not even serious contagion, was going to stop me from showing up, however.
So, I was up long before the alarm the following morning. Well prepared with toe and hand warmers, three pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, thermal underwear, wig for head warmth, meniscal-reinforcement kneebands, sandwiches as per good advice, smelling salts from the Caribbean foodstore– just in case, Obama adornments, hand-sanitizer and other essentials to stave off port-a-potty blues, I sallied forth like an ancient warrior decorated all down my front with “war medals” prepared to do battle with nature and the elements. A common air of unbridled excitement bonded strangers together as we rode the Metro packed in like sardines. A virtual tropical rainforest of people, we emerged at Metro Center and were immediately directed to make our way to 19th and H. “WTF! ¡No me digas! Good thing I discarded the fashion boots!” But don’t worry! Whether you were dressed strictly for display or if you merely felt AARP-qualified, you could pay a few dollars to share a buggy or get a make-shift tandem bicycle ride to the destination. Entrepreneurial creativity and resourcefulness were certainly not in short supply out there that day. But not me, with comfy arch-support walking shoes, I opted for a brisk stride and much-needed, long-overdue exercise.
After walking several blocks together with waves upon waves of fellow celebrants, I was virtually propelled onto The Mall at the westernmost end. I walked past the solidly frozen pond, gave high-fives to someone waving a Trini flag here and another a joint US/Kenyan flag there, and immediately sought a good viewing vantage point. With wind chill considered, it was 17F or about -8C and I was out there on The Mall for 8 full hours, dancing constantly, long after they stopped airing footage from the Sunday concert, only to keep hypothermia of the extremities at bay. Beastly penguin and polar bear temperatures, let me tell you! But who cared? It was a time to soak in the excitement, meet new and not-quite-so-new people, greet long-time-no-see friends, or hope your boss didn’t spot you on camera while reporting sick again or killing your grandmother for the third time already this year. It was a time to ask fellow Inaugural enthusiasts the Numero Uno question on the ‘Top Ten’ list, "Where you from?" and to gleefully receive responses geographically splayed across the globe and with a whole lot of TMI thrown in for good measure.
I positioned myself strategically directly under a Jumbotron, although all the way down by the Washington Memorial. Oblivious of the tens of thousands left out after they closed The Mall gates, or the hundreds of thousands who were in there but too far from vantage points to either see or hear anything, I witnessed the whole sheebang from the first abeng to the last note – all clearly on that Jumbotron -- and was immersed in the excitement of the 2million plus on the mall. Don't let them you 1.8 million. They lie! It was a wall-to-wall mass of squished-up, squirming, teeming humanity, so much so that if you were fainting, the sheer press of bodies would have kept you afloat). I witnessed the exhilaration, the tears, the joy, the laughter, the pride, the camaraderie, in its entirety, and all the while I was beastly cold and dog-tired of standing, but supremely happy.
Only those who were there could have experienced some of the things that the TV cameras definitely could not pick up: the people waving nation flags from every conceivable rinconcito del mundo, those bearing signs of “CANADIANS (or whoever else) for OBAMA,” those with faces painted in red ,white and blue or with a big ‘O,’ those handing out real pink ‘Pink Slips for Bush,’ those distributing 'ARREST BUSH' cards complete with website URLs, the ones all the way from Boston giving out free bags of pretzels in the interest of 'Snacks for Change,' those groups of K-12 school children all wearing bright yellow backpacks or red toques for easy identification – they had come from far-off places like Selma AL, ATL, LA and NOLA. Then there were the inevitable US flag, hand-warmer, and cotton candy vendors unflappably weaving their way to quick prosperity through the dense crowd. And you couldn’t miss the man dressed in the Bill Clinton mask bearing the sign ‘Make Out Not War’? Seriously, not kidding! I will always remember the pre-ceremony long periods of restless impatience evenly punctuated by 2mile-long equally enthusiastic chants of “NO MORE BUSH!” and “O-BAMA!” And who can forget the unabashed, scandalous peals of laughter from the standing 2million when the emcee said, “You may please take your seats now!” and the boisterous boos for George W, his momma and his poppa (Only in America! LOL!) And last, but far from least, the religious zealots there for the sole purpose of prophesying “brimstone and damnation in that place where the worm dieth not and the fire is unquenchable” for those who would dare make the mistake of equating Obama to the Messiah. But no one took umbrage; these few were simply like a couple hawks of spittle in a sea of joy and an ocean of tears flowing both from youthful eyes shining hopeful in the expectation of change and from eyes grown dim with age and the anguish of a lifetime of second-class citizenship, those who had lived through the time when there was white water and black water and lived to tell the tale. Those were the ones who brought their many generations to catch a glimpse of history being turned on its head. There were those who begged, stole and/or borrowed to get there, those who rode in, drove in, railed in, sailed in, biked in, hiked in, flew in or grew in, $20-Chinese-bussed it in or literally just in, those who weren't even sure how they got there or were getting back home and didn't care whether or not they did. “Hmm! Amazing how this DC place could grow on a body!”
Yes, I survived over-extended, death-defying, daredevil exposure to subzero temperatures and witnessed history. And, as a result of careful management of food and drink intake and temporary postponement of my daily dose of diuretic HBP medication, I am elated to report that I have no first-hand, eye witness, insider update on the port-a-potty situation for you. All I can say for certain is that nothing stopped the party!
Finally out of The Mall, we found all streets closed to both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The limbs of the law kept directing us farther and farther westward. ¿Por qué? ¡No sé! What I do know is that panic almost struck when I began seeing signs announcing 22nd. . . 23rd. . .24th.. . . 25th Streets and counting. Damn near ended up in Virginia before we were allowed to tack North, then backtrack East to Farragut West or Metro Center. But first, a pause or two for a cause -- Subway for restroom not food (for their own good, they ought to give serious consideration to selling hot drinks in winter), then Starbucks for some to-die-for coffee, and we were lucky to make it in through the door before freezing our behinds off in the sidewalk queue that snaked its way up from the end of the block and around the corner. The only seats we could find were outside, so we warmed up, so to speak, in the frigid air and laughed at the audacity (pun intended) of the emcee who had urged us to return to the self-same Mall to watch the rest of it on the self-same Jumbotrons, the parade route being packed to capacity, he said, and closed off long before the inauguration ceremony even began. Well I just had a few choice words to say aout that, “ L-M-B-A-O!” I mean, let’s face it, even for the most faithful of troopers and the best of historians, somewhere in the downward slide of the mercury, there comes a point in time at which common sense and the natural drive to self-preservation must take over and ultimately prevail.
Well past that point, I had no choice but to return to the sheltered coziness of home to strip off some layers and watch the parade on TV with a glass (not cup) of liquid warmth in my hand. And while we are on the subject of inaugural parades and fiery sustenance, let me take this opportunity to say, Dear President and First Lady Obama, please know that we would not have loved you any less or been less jubilant if you had opted for the plush warmth of the limo, preferably with a sip or two of some steaming hot chocolate, instead of braving that bone-chilling wintry walk down Pennsylvania Avenue with far less than Eskimo gear. Yet another good reason why I could never be President!
In the final analysis, though, no one can deny that, like a good soldier, I stayed the course in the trenches well beyond the call of duty or reason, in fact, well beyond what would normally be deemed humanly possible for anyone with my tropical blood. And so it came to pass, that later on that said midwinter inaugural day, with a clear conscience and fully satisfied heart, I knew I could afford to rest easy and become a parade onlooker and ball attendee from a comfy couch, or even die happy now that the world had been turned upside down.
Original version 01.22.09.