Washington, D.C. Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Have you ever seen two million joyous people together in celebration?
What an amazing and unusual sight to see! The District was closed for the day. The Metro trains were packed to capacity. The streets had become seas of people. Major roads were completely closed to vehicular traffic. The tone of the crowd was positive and patient. They were all here to celebrate America.
No need for Metro tickets today. The trains ran free. Too many people! Without a single incident, the crowds continually poured into the National Mall starting right after midnight. My family was honored to be some of the very few who secured reserved invitations. Our goal was to reach The Purple Gate and take our stand with a thousand other people off to the left of the capital steps. Away we went!
Today was a day for walking. You simply had no choice! In a most organized fashion, people arrived en masse from all over the world. Every street corner featured hawkers selling commemorative t-shirts, pins, hats, and calendars. The most popular vendors of all were selling life-saving packets: hand warmers! It was much colder than expected - in the low 20s with brisk wind included. The sky was clear. The sun warmed the steps of The Capitol and the crowd.
The gates around The Capitol were scheduled to open at 9:30 am. We arrived about half an hour earlier and found our place in a crush of people on Louisiana Avenue. Shoulder-to-shoulder we became friends with out new neighbors quickly: A couple who had come from Greensboro, North Carolina, friends who worked on the Obama campaign in Alaska, an excited young lady from Brooklyn. It was a cornucopia of America united in glee.
The civility of the crowd was admirable. If emergency personnel or an official needed to get through the crush, room was promptly made. We all thought the situation was unique, unusual and unordinary, yet everyone played their part with care and calm.
When the gates finally opened, at about a quarter to ten, all went through a security check with a long line of metal detectors. Oh, did we enjoy the freedom of leaving the crush of people! It was short-lived. It appeared that a couple of thousand people had been invited to stand in the small triangle of space allocated to us. Shorter and younger people simply couldn't see over the taller members of the crowd. Not being satisfied by our fate, we decided to move around to find a place with a better view.
We almost found it: A tiny wedge of space by a makeshift staircase separating sections bordered by a large bush. After standing there for a few minutes, we saw a few people go into the large bush and never come out. Our curiosity got the better of us, so we followed into the bush. Inside the green, nothing could be seen. Someone asked "What's on the other side of the bush?" and the immediate reply was "Narnia!" We all laughed aloud.
What actually was past the bush was Nirvana! It was a wide-open section set aside for a more elite group of invitees with room to spare. We enjoyed a beautifully centered view of The Capitol steps with all its flags, buntings and adornments. Some of the people were quite clever. The floor was covered with wood chips, not grass. I'm not quite sure how they did it, but many people created mounds of the chips to provide an extra six inches of height to see the event. We shared the boost with others and it made a big difference in our view.
Looking back on the crowd was a sight to behold. Although our view was somewhat blocked by fences and partitions, we could see an endless sea of people reaching far beyond the Washington Monument about a mile away. People who could not manage to squeeze into the mall pressed into adjoining streets hoping to get a glimpse of a Jumbotron screen or just hear the words being spoken. District was on pause. The inaugural was all that mattered.
Just before the ceremony began, the huge Jumbotron screens showed all the dignitaries and honored guests arriving. President Bush's image brought loud boos quickly retorted by a nearby woman yelling "Hey, we're all Americans today!" which drew applause. Of course, any images of the Obamas brought thunderous cheers.
The crowd had a good sense of humor. The inaugural began with formal introductions of all the attendees as they emerged from the main archway decorated with a stately red velvet bunting. As President Bush was announced the crowd began to loudly sing the old pop song "Na-na-na-na-hey-hey-hey-goodbye!" Laughter abounded! Wasn't it symbolic that Vice President Cheney was attending in a wheelchair? Also funny were chairlady Dianne Feinstein's calls for us to stand or be seated. For a grand majority of us, sitting was simply not an option! So few had seats!
The pacing of the inaugural was thoughtful. Periods of spoken word were blended with song like chorus and verse. Aretha Franklin magnificently sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee." Yo-Yo Ma and other gifted musicians performed an Aaron Copeland melody. The military band sounded sweet with fine pomp and circumstance.
The ceremony had a serious tone. It is time to get back to work. It is time to stop decay. It is time to reclaim our freedoms. It is time to make the government once more ours. "You will be judged by what you can build, not what you destroy." All I could think was: "It's about time this happened. Why wasn't it sooner?" What a thunderous sound was heard when Obama ended his speech!
As the ceremony ended with a benediction, the crowd was overcome with joy. As we all began to leave, we were startled by the unexpected appearance of a single presidential helicopter rising above the left side of The Capitol. Many yelled "Goodbye, Bush" and some impolite epithets. A new time had officially begun.
As the crowd began to dissipate, it evoked images of the end of the world. Few vehicles, if any, were moving about. Throngs of people jammed the streets. Legions of police and troops aided the masses homeward. Interstate 95, and many other major roads, was devoid of all traffic replaced by seas of people. It was an once-in-a-lifetime event that continued for hours.
The crowd left quite a mess. The entire city was dotted with overflowing garbage pails, rows and rows of endless porta-potties and debris rolling across the Mall and the streets like tumbleweeds. Vendors prices had suddenly halved and they were eager to unload their remaining goods. I even saw one character selling Obama condoms!
The stress and length of this momentous day did not deter the crowd from being polite, orderly and conservative. Everyone was smiling and cheering. Chants of "O-bam-a! O-bam-a!" rose at any occasion. We walked by L'Enfant Plaza to see an enthusiastic bazaar and party going on with many vendors selling souvenirs, food and nearly everything the day called for. People were walking and walking and walking for hours after. It seemed to go on forever. The Metro stations that remained open were jammed with police allowing metered groups of riders down slowly as room allowed. Long lines were everywhere! Eventually, at long last, we all arrived home. What a day it was!
We were not just celebrating the freedom this country has enjoyed for over 200 years. We were celebrating our new-found freedom and our new hope. We have reaffirmed everything that our country stands for. Now, finally, again we are free to proceed and further our precious country into the future. Will we succeed? Two million people gathered to exclaim: Yes we can.