Some students and I left our hostel before 4:30 this morning to join the masses on the National Mall for the Presidential Inauguration. After quite a bit of walking, and getting conflicting information from two police officers (believing the second, who told us more what we hoped to hear–and who turned out to be wrong), we joined a large and rapidly growing crowd of people waiting to get into the mall at Third Street.
After an hour of standing in bitter cold, my lower back was already cursing me, and we knew we had at least another hour before the gates opened to (we hoped) let us go stand for another five hours or so before and during the Inauguration.
I quickly decided on an alternate plan, and as a result had pretty close to a perfect Inauguration Day. I gave the students some advice on how to protect themselves in case of a crowd surge (take up as much space as you can, keep your feet wide, hold onto one another) and fought my way to the back of the crowd.
I walked to 18th street, on the far side of the Washington Monument from the Capitol, where I knew that people without tickets could enter the mall. I also thought I’d make a detour to the Lincoln Memorial, since my brother had once recommended it as a great spot to take in a quiet sunrise.
I didn’t quite make it by sunrise, walking past the Vietnam Memorial in appropriately gray light. Hunched against the cold in my leather jacket, hat and hood, I noticed a woman taking photos of me as I walked past the monument. Perhaps she figured I was a vet (which I’m not), or just someone paying a bit of tribute to those who died in an earlier senseless war (which I was).
From there I went to the Lincoln Memorial, unfortunately still fronted by most of the massive stage that had held the performers for Sunday’s concert. Perhaps a hundred people already sat on the steps. I climbed past them into the Memorial, taking a couple of photos of the impressive seated Lincoln statue, then a couple of shots of the mall from the top of the steps.
I went next to the Korean War Memorial, my favorite of the three in the area that honor war dead. Next was the World War II Memorial, my least favorite of the three, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is as grandiose as the American memories of that war.
I turned into the mall itself, joining throngs of people headed forward–not to anywhere other than to a spot as close as they could get to the Capitol stage on which the Inauguration would take place. By now that was probably three-quarters of a mile away.
I stopped near an area where an NPR reporter was interviewing people about why they were there. I took her picture, and when glancing up toward the jumbotrons I noticed the portable watchtowers. Tinted windows made it impossible to tell whether they held snipers or just watchers. A helicopter flew overhead, and two armed men stood on a nearby roof. The ceremony itself was still more than two hours away.
The space had quickly filled around me, and I realized that I no longer had any reason to be there. I had already experienced the crowd, and now realized that if I was going to wanted to watch it on television, I would rather do it with my wife (who had decided not to brave the cold and crowds).
After a brief stop at the Washington Monument to watch the area in front of me fill up, I hiked back toward the hostel. For my entire walk back, the streets were filled with an endless sea of people going the opposite direction. I also noted some irony in the fact that K Street–famous for lobbying abuses that helped Republicans lose Congress–was now filled with venders hawking Barack Obama-related merchandise.
After six miles or so of walking, and about five hours after I had rolled out of bed, I grabbed breakfast and plopped in front of the big-screen TV. My wife and I quickly were joined by others, and by the time the ceremony began more than two dozen people filled the room (which has 20 chairs).
At least three countries and several states were represented in the small room. About a third of them were black, and having lived in the South for a couple of years, I wasn’t at all surprised that some of them kept talking to the screen.
The youngest person in the room was a small energetic African American boy who blurted out “Barack Obama!” every time Obama’s image appeared on the screen, making the rest of us chuckle. The oldest may have been “Manny,” who immigrated from Iran 19 years ago and who couldn’t relax until he finally reached his daughter by cell phone to find that she was safe on the mall and hadn’t been crushed by the crowd.
We all watched the Inauguration intently, and several of us cried at various times (when Aretha sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” among others). When the National Anthem began, Manny began softly singing along. My wife and I joined in. And when the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery said, “Let all those who do justice and love mercy, say Amen,” most of us said, “Amen.”