Tuesday, January 20, 2009

In D.C. on Inauguration Day

Posted on Tue, Jan 20, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Paul Gerald, a former Memphian and Flyer staffer was in Washington, D.C., to witness the inauguration.

So this is what it was like today, January 20, 2009, from the perspective of one little drop in the sea of humanity that was right where it wanted to be.

I was up at 6 a.m. and out the door at 7 a.m., the equivalent of a springlet on a hillside miles from the ocean. I found my way to the local Metro station, where I joined a larger flow, first a few others on the street, then a wall of people on the train. On a normal day, it would have been the fullest subway train you ever saw, and when I wedged my way into a person-sized hole near the door. there were a lot of jokes made about how in Japan they employ people to push more in, and how even if I lose my balance, I won't fall.

At each station along the way, there was another throng, and each time we on the train said we couldn't possibly make room for anybody on the platform. At one station, things were so packed on the train that it was getting nervous, and when we gasped at the mob on the platform, somebody cracked us all up by booming out "Yes We Can!"

I got off at Farragut North about 8 and immediately joined a river of people, flowing south and down the hill. We filled six-lane avenues, flowed down sidewalks, and whenever we rounded a corner and looked down the next stretch of road, we gasped at what we were becoming. Crossing the street was like swimming a river, and if you wanted to take a picture, or stop for any reason, you had to get in the leeway of a street sign or vendor truck.

The numbers, the scope, and the flow were amazing, but even more so was the energy! It was happy, joyful, confident, even giddy. We were doing the "Gimme an O ... gimme a B" and then all yelling together, OBAMA! We were waving flags, sporting glitter, taking pictures, strutting our collective stuff as we rounded the corner to the grounds around the great pillar. People were selling bumper stickers, shirts, buttons, posters, hot chocolate, and food. One group was giving away a truckload, quite literally, of free pretzels. Everybody was smiling.

I made for the hill at the base of the monument, to have a look, and the greatest gasp of them all was being let out by everyone who gained that crest. Between us and the Capital Building, which was a mile or more away, was nothing but people. It was a landscape of people. Our springs and creeks of humanity had flowed to the sea, and it was a beautiful sight to behold, with the sun coming up over the monuments and everyone reaching for cameras.

Still flowing, looking for the right place, I made for the south side of the mall, to see if I could get closer. Like water, I sought out the easiest place to go, with no particular thought of a destination. We backed up against tight spots and street crossings, eddied up behind buildings, streamed across the landscape ... and soon realized that nothing we weren't getting past 14th Street. It's hard to put this in perspective, but 14th Street to the Capital is a mile or so, and the mall in that distance is fully 200 yards wide -- and all of that was filled with people. By this point, the crowd felt like a single living thing, and it was saying "No more room up here."

So I made my way back to the Washington Monument, up on the hill. If you were watching on television, this meant I was off on the horizon, a little to your left, and by the time 11 a.m. rolled around, it was so crowded where I was that I couldn't have moved if I wanted to. And while I will probably slip into stereotype, the simple truth is that every sort of person was out there in that crowd. It was like everybody was there, young and old and every color and attitude. Whenever I looked around, or panned across with my camera, others were doing the same, and all of our faces wore the same expression of pure, happy awe. Two million people! All in one place for the same reason.

Up on the jumbotrons, as the ceremony got started, we began to see various political celebs, who got various responses. Clinton, Carter, Gore, and Kerry: big cheers. Cheney not so much, and I got some laughs by saying he was in a wheelchair because he doesn't usually expose himself to sunlight. Bush, of course, got the biggest boos, loud enough to be heard on TV I understand-- and it treats the fucker right, I say. How much damage did little prick do, anyway? Acting nice and showing respect is for the elected, back-scratching fools, but this was our last chance to give him our opinion straight. When he was officially introduced, the folks around me -- and many others, apparently --serenaded him with "Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, Goodbye!" A proud American moment, I say.

The ceremony itself is something of a blur, and I look forward to reliving it on TV. I was a long way from a jumbotron, and there was a delay of a couple seconds between the video and the audio. But I remember that Aretha was amazing, though the sound was poor. I remember that when Biden finished his oath, somebody yelled out "That's it for Cheney!"

When it came for Obama, I would imagine something like 500,000 cameras were hoisted into the air. It seemed like there was a screw-up with the oath, but we didn't care. Eight years we waited for somebody else to take that oath, and since November 4th we've been even more excited that Obama would be that man, and we didn't care who said what.

We all were poised like a slingshot, waiting for the release of "So help me God," and when he said that, the cheer started down by the capital and came to us like a wave, and it swept us into pandemonium. It all happened so fast, but I remember hopping and clapping all around me, and trying to hold my camera steady, and I remember looking out towards the mall and seeing all those flags, all those thousands and thousands of little flags, whipping back and forth so fast that it looked like a red-white-and-blue sheen on a gigantic lake.

Somehow I feel, simultaneously, that I almost missed it and that I will always have it with me. I was there, with all these other people, in the precise moment when Barack Obama became the 44th president, and George Bush and his party were officially swept out of power. It felt for all the world like everybody's favorite team had just scored a touchdown.

What I remember of his speech was the rolling applause that would sweep through the crowd, which made us miss some of his big lines, but we didn't care. I remember a few time thinking that he had stopped just short of turning around to Bush and Cheney and giving both of them a whack on the head. He talked about putting childish things behind us, about not trading liberties for security, about our military might not giving us the right to do whatever we want. This felt like the second half of his convention speech. That night, he said "Enough!" and today he said, "Now, this is where we must go together." I actually gasped again, at some of the things he said. To stand there and hear an American president talking about building roads and bridges, about how we can no longer use energy without regard for the effect, and how we want to help farms prosper and fresh water flow made me remember all over again that this guy is actually going to be the president! He can, like, do stuff now. And I found myself thinking, Go get it, Barack.

When he was done, the crowded started dispersing, and the poor poet and closing prayer got lost -- except that the preacher got some cheers, and laughs from Obama, with the lines about the yellow man being mellow, the red man being the head man, and white doing what's right. He was good, and the other guy got a few mean yells and a bunch of laughs for sounding like a fool, not to mention a hypocrite.

The crowd broke up in all directions, and I started getting texts and calls from folks back home. "Wow" and "surreal" and "moving" were coming in, and "amen' and "we did it!" were going out. I joined the lines taking pictures from the top of the hill, looking toward the Capital, and then made my down there as far as I could. That means I spent an hour walking through the masses, finding room where I could, following others upstream, and got down as far as 4th Street, down the dusty, completely trashed Mall. I went past the MSNBC booth and saw Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, which didn't impress me nearly as much as the native Alaskas I saw gearing up for the parade; they did a dance and chant for a couple dozen of us, and we all remarked at how comfortable they looked in the sunny, breezy, 28-degree weather.

From that point on, it was all about gathering souvenirs and getting home. I walked all the way back to the Washington Monument, then up into the neighborhoods, where stragglers were showing signs of fatigue, and the once mighty crowd was thinning back into streams. I got a latte in an overwhelmed coffee shop, sat at a sidewalk table for a bit, and a half hour later was on the Metro, headed back here to where I stayed last night. The TV idiots are out in full force, telling us what it all meant, and I can see that the parade crowd has thinned out considerably, with the temperature dropping into the low 20s. I'll be dining tonight with an inside-the-Beltway crowd which, I am sure, will go out of their way to show how above all this they are and how glad they weren't down there with the masses.

Well, I am damn glad I was down there. I was glad and proud to be among the million of Americans cheering the new and jeering the old. I felt a genuine national pride today, and I was part of one of the greatest gatherings in the history of our country. That doesn't make me special or accomplished, just lucky. And no matter what happens the next four years, at least we can all say we remember when Barack Obama gathered us all together and said, "Let's do better."

by Paul Gerald

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