Inauguration Day—Freezing Feet

January 24th, 2009 § 0 comments

My strategy for arriving at the national mall from Arlington was not a good one, as it was nonexistent. Hugh stated the night before, “I wish I could tell you what it was like last time, but there is no last time.” Apparently, Lyndon Johnson was the President who drew the last largest crowd toward Washington. As the 20th dawned, the bridges were closed to cars and pedestrians, Metro stops that exited too close to the mall were skipped, and the rumors of “delays”, long lines, and the estimated crowd cap was enough to worry even the bravest of documenters. The slightly hopeful piece of information the morning offered was that no one would be allowed onto the mall before 7.

Living in Gotham has its annoyances and benefits, one of the benefits being—I realized as I walked to work the morning following the inauguration—that it gives you a distorted sense of what a “crowd” is. Living in Manhattan and working in midtown, you adjust to the dodging, pushing, and shoving. D.C. was also, for once, ready for the event. The Metro was slow but it succeeded in dumping trainload after trainload of people as close to the mall as they could be dumped. Embarking, it was not hard to figure which way to head; it was more a matter of joining the rushing, excited mass surging toward the nearest entrance to the mall, blocks and blocks away. It was a surreal and even pleasant way to walk D.C. as the streets, so usually full of cars and tourists, were closed this Tuesday to all but us, with buses, army vehicles, and police cars blocking intersections. Pedestrian cities grant a freedom we are unaccustomed to, being trained to jaywalk so carefully.

It was an undeniably frigid day in Washington, much colder than Monday, with a wind chill that put the temperature somewhere in the teens. It was only around 9 when we set up camp halfway up the hill surrounding the Washington Monument—being on the top of the hill, while it afforded a better view, did not seem entirely prudent this morning. We were directly facing the capital though miles, I would say, away. I could see the crowd stretching out in front of me, and looking behind around 11:30, as the “important” politicians began to arrive, the Monument was completely surrounded. The crowd of millions seemed to wait patiently for hours, slowly becoming colder and colder, the lack of movement freezing my circulation, and I don’t think so many people have ever been so grateful for a noontime sun providing such a small amount of warmth.

wash monument

The inaugural narrator announced everything with a deep-voiced, Oscar-like “Ladies and Gentlemen,” the speakers lining the mall were loud enough so all could hear but created an echo to all that was said, and the jumbotron closest to us acted like a precursor to all that was happening; the digital media mixed strangely with the reality of being there. I could not see Obama but I could see the crowd, watch the waving of their flags, hear their voices, and discern their shouts. Looking away from the pixelated screen, scanning the faces of those around me, I was amused to find others doing the same, and we shared an expression of wonder and disbelief. Like the echo of the speakers there seemed to be a lag time between what we heard and what it meant. Even though Roberts botched the swearing in, the mall erupted more loudly than at any other time that day. It sounded content, like a sigh or wave of relief that took with it most of our excitement; it felt like applause for ourselves. That was the moment we had come to see, and the rest was custom, a tradition, and expendable.


Leaving the mall, it turned out, was a much greater problem than getting in, as we all surged toward an exit that had long since been closed. A friend’s resistance to attending the inauguration was a simple one—“Obama is going to let us down.” It was a point that was hard to argue with, as the truth of it seems inevitable. “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them,” Obama exclaimed in one of his more evocative declarations. I like the idea, I want to believe it, but only the next four or eight years will prove if this is so.


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