Orange and purple. Both are strong, passionate colors. Both are derivative of red. Both are said to have no other words that rhyme with them.
But on Inauguration day, those colors couldn't have been more divergent.
If you had a purple ticket to see Barack Obama take the oath of office and give his Inauguration speech, unless you pushed down a barricade and ran past security, you didn't see anything but red. You may have traveled from far away. You may have sold your snowmobile to be there. You may have gotten up at 3 a.m. and stood in line. But it didn't matter. You missed history by just a hair. And you probably have PTSD now.
If you were very randomly on the right side of the fates that day, like I was, with my orange ticket, you saw the world make a continental shift right before your eyes. You saw something you never will see again, something you will talk about until all your kin and chums make the crazy sign and wander away from you.
This is the story of someone whose day went right, when so many others' went wrong.
I had no plans to go to the Inauguration. None.
Oh, I love Obama. Deeply. But I have no capacity for standing out in the cold. I was born in Florida, after all. Plus, what was I going to do with my two year old? All our babysitters either wanted to be home to watch the Inauguration themselves, or to try to go.
And how to get the 10 miles from Falls Church, VA., to D.C., and back again that day? Like every one else, I was absorbing the stories about roads and bridges shutting down and bursting-full Metro trains being the only way to get in to the city, resulting in huge human deadlock. I just couldn't imagine it.
Or rather, I could imagine it. I could imagine trying, and failing, and being stuck on a bridge somewhere devastated and freezing, with a full bladder, and no Jumbotron in sight. In many ways, luck hadn't really been on my side in the last decade. My destination wedding, which I'd been planning for six months, was derailed when, four days prior to it, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Then, during the five years after that, my husband and I spent nearly all our money on fertility treatments trying to have a baby, with no luck. We adopted. Ok, that was lucky; we have a wondrous child. But still, I had long since learned to not count on things randomly working out.
So I wasn't going to the Inauguration. It would require too much luck.
I started planning an Inauguration party instead. I bought Obama trinkets for all my guests.
But then around Thursday the week before, a sinking feeling started creeping into my chest. And my viscera began to feel like they might fall out of my body, pushed downward by pre-regret. What on earth was I doing not trying to be there? After being relatively Obama-obsessed throughout the campaign, and going to all close-by Obama rallies, and feeling compelled to buy and wear three Obama shirts (not at the same time, mind you) and teaching my kid to say, "I love Obama -- not McCain," where did I get off just sitting home? It made no sense.
The inner recriminations were making it hard to focus on anything else, so I started casting about for options, for ways. My husband works in the basement of a building that's just one long block from the Capitol. To be able to get to work at all on Inauguration day, his plan was to stay overnight on the office floor, warmed by a sleeping bag and a space heater. Could I maybe... stay with him?
"No, I don't think so. Building security collected the social security numbers and background info on people staying overnight weeks ago," he said.
"Yeah, but. Can you just. Try?" I practically pleaded.
He sighed. Then he relented. And next thing I know, he's calling me back saying the building's head of security was cool with it. What? What about my social security number and background? No need, oddly. Just get into the building before midnight, stay put for the night, and once I leave, don't even think of coming back in. Oh and also, bomb-sniffing dogs would be coming by at 5 a.m.
I was in.
Next? Find care for little Eve, if possible. My only hope was my husband's parents, who live nearby, but who are Obama fans and very active socially. Surely they'd have rousing Inauguration plans themselves. Surely they'd have to decline. We asked them, and they were free. My jaw dropped open. Sure, they'd take Eve. Sure, they'd keep her overnight.
I was stunned. With each phone call, each attempt, it seemed like some force was clearing a path for me. I wasn't used to that.
I didn't have a ticket to the Inauguration -- hadn't really even been tuned into how people were getting them. But I didn't mind; I'd just go out onto the Mall and be with the people, the faithful. I'd get where I could. And then just be there. And be happy. And watch history happen.
Holy crap. I was going.
Monday, the day before Inauguration, I was dashing around packing my 19 layers of clothes when my husband called. Something in me assumed he was ringing with bad news -- maybe the security people had changed their mind. But it wasn't about security at all.
"It's a long shot, so don't get too excited," he said, "but I have some feelers out. I'm trying to see if I can get you a ticket."
At that point, I didn't think tickets were transferable; I'd stayed so removed from the process, I thought Congresspeople gave them to individuals, with a firm record of their background and height and weight and what'd they'd had for dinner last night and how they'd voted in the last election. Not so, it turned out. I learned there were a certain number of blue, silver, yellow, orange and purple tickets that constituted general admission to certain barricaded sections of the Capitol grounds, some with chairs, some without. And maybe I could get one, if someone didn't need his or hers. Maybe.
Very, very exciting. And yet, worrisome. If a golden (or blue or silver...) ticket did become available, how we'd get it in hand was another story at this point, what with all the blocked off streets. The Mall was becoming more and more restricted by the minute. Could I get to a ticket? Could a ticket get to me?
I really didn't want to think about all that. Instead I wanted to just close my eyes and revel in the mere possibility of a pass to Obama's Inauguration just falling from the sky for me, fluttering down into my hands. Not likely. But couldn't I fantasize? Meantime, I set about looking at maps, trying to figure out where to try to position myself on the unticketed parts of the Mall.
Flash forward six hours. Our golden retriever is at the neighbor's. The two year old is at her grandparents'. I have taken Metro in, and found the trains no more crowded that on any Monday at 5 p.m. I have bought five chemically charged camping-oriented heat packs from a vendor on the street lest tomorrow's conditions become unlivable. I wished that vendor also sold catheters.
I was standing and eating fries at the end of the crowded bar at the Source, on the bottom floor of the Newseum, when my husband got a pivotal e-mail from his coworker. It seemed the coworker's girlfriend's friend no longer needed her ticket for the orange section, immediately to the right of the Capitol. Oh and he, this coworker, would come by in the morning and drop it by the office for me. He'd be there around 7:30.
I got chills. My eyes widened, and surely my pupils dilated. The universe was clearly saying: You are supposed to be here for this. I took a picture of my husband holding up his Blackberry with his coworker's message on it. And I swooned. Hard.
For one last drink, we went to a dive bar on a one-block street close to the Capitol called "My Brother's Place." We sat at the bar. A group of beefy guys at a table behind us was getting really rowdy. But on this day, no rowdiness felt like bad rowdiness or threatening rowdiness. No smirking. No ugh. It felt like there were no them and us. It was just us. Maybe this was only going to last for one day. Or two days. But however long it lasted, it was upon us now.
A guy from the group jumped up on the bar and started dancing to "The Thong Song." Kicking. Dancing. Singing. Rubbing his butt on a pole. Kicking some more. And his table was doubled over screaming.
After the song ended, the exultant guy got down and apologized to us, as his kicking and dancing and pole rubbing was taking place just about on top of us. But there was no need to apologize. The guy just made this 24-hour period even more indelible. We were encased in a very happy bubble.
Back at my husband's office, close to midnight, I sat and watched the cable news channels whipping themselves into an Inauguration froth. Suddenly, apropos of nothing, two other employees who were still there finishing up their work handed us passes to the roof.
We hightailed it up there before the passes somehow vanished in our hands. The view at 11 stories was exactly what you'd expect: to the left, the Capitol, lit up with what seemed like all the filament in the city that night, shone like an otherworldly beacon. To the right, the Washington Monument was also shining like mad. In between: eerily empty streets, cleared of everything save for big white trucks and other official vehicles. Here was the city in suspended animation after its last inhale.
When I lay down in my sleeping bag -- something I hadn't done, indoors or out, in at least a decade -- it hurt. Couldn't get comfortable on my back. Couldn't get comfortable on my side. When did my hips get so bony? Uh-oh, I'm going to be up all night, I thought.
And next thing I knew, it was morning.
"Suz, it's 7," my husband was whispering. People will be coming in to work soon..."
It was dead quiet inside. Sitting in the dark in that still basement, just below the white-hot epicenter of everything, felt akin to being in a submarine below a huge storm gathering at the surface of the ocean. A happy storm. But still, a storm I had to move up and into soon. A storm that would be getting more intense and huge by the minute. This filled my chest with jumpiness, which was both pleasurable and scary. I got up and watched coverage of the already huge crowds. People were screaming and chanting already and it was just 7 a.m. When to get dressed? When to head out? Or in an hour? Or two?
Still in my sweatpants and sweatshirt, I went to the bathroom down the hall and ran into an African-American woman who said she was working on the roof. She had to type up there and her hands were too cold to do so. But she couldn't type with her gloves. Even her heat pack wasn't doing its job. Regardless, she radiated glee. She was so happy to be here, she said, it didn't matter how cold it was. And back up she went.
My husband's coworker suddenly showed up with my ticket. It was a thing of beauty, printed on thick linen paper with an orange border, and an official stamp pushed into it, and it came with a sweet little map, showing where the security checkpoints were for the various sections.
On my body, then, I put:
Lower: Undies; a pair of tights; a pair of silk long underwear; pair of runners tights; a pair of jeans which ripped the instant I pulled them up over all their predecessors. (I vowed to put them in the memorabilia box. Inaugural Jeans.) Then: two pairs of socks, neither very thick lest my boots hurt; then some very comfy black boots. Up top: Bra; tight spandex undershirt; long-sleeved t-shirt; sweatery turtle neck; tight, thick wintry mock turtle spandex runners top; thick fleece with pockets; heavy all-weather guy's jacket. Head: Oh just my corduroy cap. Whoops -- forgot my new earmuffs. But I also stuffed into my jacket pocket: one ski mask and one balaclava, in case.
Into my 16 pockets I jammed: whittled-down keys; cell phone (would I even hear it?); camera (integral!); money; office bathroom paper towels for crying into; two pairs of extra gloves; a few extra maps showing which Metro stations were closed/open; and a salami/turkey/cheese sandwich wrapped in tin foil and stuffed into a Ziploc.
A few minutes later, at 8:30, I floated up to ground level and lingered in the lobby for one last second, knowing that this was it: once I went out, there was no going back in.
And then I pushed through the revolving door.
And into the big day. Immediately: an unforgiving blast of glacial air. But it was no match for me. I was covered with more clothes than I'd ever been in my life, and adrenaline was warming me from the inside.
I noticed then that the sidewalk in front of the building was guarded by an unreasonably tall barricade. What were they trying to keep out, velociraptors? Abominable snowmen? The sidewalk was empty, quiet -- a weird, unnatural, man-made clear. It was the last calm I would experience that day.
I turned left, walking toward the corner, where I'd need to go left again, moving toward the back of the building and then left again, to an underground tunnel, one folks normally drive through -- but not today, as word was that people on foot were using it to get from one side of the Capitol to the other.
As I approached the corner, though, I nearly gasped. There were crowds all right. And they were huge. Endless throngs pushed forward toward the Capitol but were kept back by the velociraptor barricades. Beyond the gates, out of their reach: the security checkpoint for the purple section. These, apparently, were the first people in line for the purple section. It looked like they'd been there for hours. It was a full side street thick with humanity, expectant humanity. They had been wholly unseen from my husband's building, which looked toward the Capitol but didn't afford a view of anything happening on the sides or the back of it. But here they were. Thousands of the faithful, like one undulating organism. They seemed polite, so far, but intense. Tired of waiting and clearly not wanting to be trifled with.
I just stood on the clear barricaded sidewalk for a minute and tried to come up with a plan. I needed to swim upstream in these forceful masses. How was I going to do this? There wasn't an inch of extra room. The bodies and thick coats stretched from building to building on either side of the street. Oh sure, I'd done crowded Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street, and been at concerts that were beyond packed. But this was different. This was bigger. With more at stake. Little did I know that these poor souls would never get to the Capitol grounds, but instead would end up huddling together listening to Obama's speech on cell phones, defeated and stunned, looking at their purple tickets with disdain.
In front of me, suddenly, a cameraman, also on the absurdly people-less sidewalk, was asking a cop how he was supposed to get across the masses. The cop wasn't helping, just telling him to go for it. I decided I'd try to piggyback onto the cameraman, moving in his draft like traffic does when an ambulance zooms past. But then he disappeared across the crowd; I needed to go up the street, completely against the crowd. So much for that.
I just dove in, and headed north, along with, I noticed then, a steady single-file stream of others trying to do the same thing. We clung to the building and tried to slither along. Much of the time, though, we were just stopped. The crowd was unwilling to move to let us pass.
At this point, it hit me: I may not get there, to the other side of the Capitol, to the orange section. I may have left too late.
At times, people among us against-the-flow types would yell, "Please, if you let us pass, there's more room for you!" and then the crowd would shift and widen for us for a second, but only a second. Then it was a huge crush again. Me and the other northbound people moved a few inches at a time, getting elbowed and pushed all the while. But not in a mean way. No one was mean. People just did not want to miss this. It was Inauguration morning and they were doing what they could to be there, had been there for hours already, it looked like. First at the gate among many, many thousands.
While trapped in that human logjam, I was pushed up against a couple here and there going in the same improbable direction as me. They had orange tickets, too, they said, and so also had to get to the other side of the Capitol, which now looked like really a ludicrous proposition. We began to exchange quips and little words of support as we got jostled around, pushed this way and that. And without realizing it, we had begun sticking together.
After about 20 minutes, thankfully, joyfully, the thin string of us was suddenly spit out at the end of the block, where it was relatively clear. Ahhhh, relief -- so maybe it wasn't going to be massive, madding crowds all along my several-block journey to the other side of the Capitol? Newly exonerated, the couple and I stood there stunned for a second.
"Which way now?" he said, sort of out loud, to no one in particular.
I said, "the 3rd Street Tunnel."
"It's right there," said another guy, a 50-something chap in a beige overcoat and wool Irish cap. And together us four set off into the tunnel, an impromptu Inauguration family born.
The tunnel was surreal. Normally a byway for cars moving under the Capitol, it was entirely filled with people. Folks going south, like us, were moving smoothly, at a good clip. Folks going north -- destination: the purple security gates -- were completely stopped in a line that, we soon saw, stretched on forever, through the tunnel and beyond, a huge, hopeless, thickening gridlock. I kept thinking we'd soon hit the same thing, but we didn't.
In the tunnel, moving fast, I suddenly dropped a glove and had to run back, against hurried foot traffic. What I was most worried about, I realized then, was losing my little group that had formed. I'd set out not minding being alone for this momentous day, but now that bonding was happening, I didn't want to lose these people.
Miraculously, I caught back up to them. The chap who'd pointed out the opening to the tunnel introduced himself. He was Mac, a very genial sort, the principal in a tax-lobbying firm, also located very close to the Capitol. The couple were Danielle and Chris, she an employee of the tax-lobbying firm, he a consultant. And in front us were Mac's 20-year-old daughter Nora and her boyfriend, Andrew. Turns out they'd all spent the night in Mac's firm, making S'mores and carrying on. Now they, too, feared they'd set out too late. Mac was really talkative and engaging, and folded me into his group like a mother hen. My ticket was in the same section as them: southwest, standing, orange. What were the chances of that?
And so we walked, and Mac led, and I was grateful for that, because as the masses we faced waxed and waned, and the direction we were to go in came into and out of focus (Where were the signs? Where were the volunteers, the cops?), it felt good to have someone else handle it. Ok, we're going here. Ok, we're going there. Ok, cut over here. Do we have Danielle? Do we have Suz? Where's Andrew? Mac was the troop leader. I was a Boy Scout. And I couldn't have been happier.
Chris kept offering me granola bars. I kept offering the group my coveted heat packs. Mac and I talked most of the way. He revealed that he was a life-long Republican with high hopes that the soon-to-be new president would try to bring the country together. He is an avid runner. He lives in the close-in Virginia suburbs, is married and has two kids, a boy and a girl. He told me that his son got very into Obama during the campaign, and on the night of the election asked his dad if he could get an autograph. Mac knows someone on Obama's staff, but still, he said he thought such a thing could take weeks, if not months, if it happened at all. Instead, it took a day. Mac was floored.
I kept my eye on Danielle's sky-blue cap as we pushed through another really thick crowd and then, on the other side of it, found the line for our security gates, finally. The line was long and very serpentiney, but it was moving fast. All the while, Mac kept me laughing with stories of his family, his work. We bonded over our shared aversion to Lou Dobbs. We opined the loss of Paula Zahn and Soledad O'Brien as CNN anchors. Then I found myself singing for my Inauguration family a song I had just found on YouTube:
(Man) Where'd you get that job?
(Bikini-clad ladies) Obama!
(Man) Where'd you get that health care?
(Man) Where'd you get that education?
After about an hour of talking and giggling and ox-bowing this way and that, squeezing through human mass (but politely, always politely -- everyone was so nice out there, no matter how tight it got), we arrived at the orange security gate. This was at about 10. The lines were short. We passed through smoothly. On the other side: more walking, down sidewalks and streets, moving ever closer to our shared destination, with the crowds around us seeming less anxious, more jazzed.
Finally, we passed under a banner reading "Orange Section" and there we were: right there at the Capitol, just to the right of it if you're looking at it head on.
We walked as deep into the section as we could go, the sitting part, till the view was spectacular. We could see where Obama would soon be taking the oath of office surrounded by former presidents and Congresspeople and dignitaries. We stood and took it all in and I had waves of bliss then, washing first over my head then down through my body. Here I was. For the moment. The big moment. Perhaps the biggest moment. I made it. Obama made it. And it was all about to happen.
Just then, Mac's daughter said she saw Bruce Springsteen walk by. A few minutes later, I saw Al Franken in a big Elmer Fudd hat. Someone else saw Spike Lee. We stood there as long as possible, drinking it all in.
When we moved to the standing section, we could no longer see where Obama would take the oath. The stands that made a C-shape around the podium obstructed our view. But we were ok with that. We were there. We were in attendance. We were on the Capitol grounds, at which the whole world would soon be staring, if they weren't already. We could always tell our grandkids that. And we had a huge Jumbotron to look at. We were very, very lucky.
We six found a spot in the feeble winter sun, toward the back of the orange section. No longer using my energy to move forward and worry about whether or not we'd reach our destination, I took stock of my body, and realized then that I wasn't cold (it was in the low 20s, wind chill in the teens), hungry (it'd been many hours), nor did I have to go to the bathroom (hours, also). I should have been feeling all of those things. Had my body shut down, like someone in a war zone, someone whose body knows, on a cellular level, that basic needs cannot be met at this time? I think it had.
Danielle -- also looking oddly comfortable -- and I got to talking. I learned that she is originally from Lebanon, came to the U.S. 20 years ago, and lives in a townhouse in Alexandria, VA. She had been an Obama fan from early on, but had to keep that quiet at the office, as her boss was a staunch Republican. She had been dating Chris for a long time, but had to keep that hush-hush in the office, too, since there was a no-dating-our-consultants policy (girlfriend was keeping down a lot of love). She was very sweet, looking out for me almost as much as mother hen/troop leader Mac. She and I stood next to each other as things started happening -- as the Jumbotrons began showing former presidents coming down the hallway in the Capitol, then the Clintons, then Sasha and Malia, then Jill Biden and Michelle Obama. The crowds behind us (there were approximately 1.9 million people behind us) would occasionally break out into "O-Bam-AH" chants, or "Yes, we can!" and Danielle and I chanted along with them. I was glad to be standing next to her then.
When Aretha sang, with her big ol' bow, I cried. Then stopped that. Then cried again. Aretha Franklin belting it out for our first African-American president, a bold, brave, brilliant, stand-up guy, a real guy, who has inspired people like no one I'd ever seen. Even me, cynical-ass me, who had never before given two craps about a politician, much less stood around for hours in the extreme heat (summertime rally) or cold (November 3 rally and Inauguration) screaming and shouting and then going home and sending endless emails to my like-minded pals. And here I was. Here we all were, millions of us. We, the people. Here he was. Against all odds, and against the system, he made it. In a few minutes, he'd be our president. Good-bye war and plundering and the tamping down of science and the cavalier treatment of civil liberties and not looking out for the people. Hello and welcome, all that is good and decent again. Aretha with her "America" brought all of that home for me. I just kept saying to Danielle, "We're here. It's happening."
When it was time, and Obama appeared, coming down the hallway to become president, made huge on the Jumbotron and in the hearts of all the people around me (well, most of them), I honestly didn't know whether to stand there and absorb this searingly poignant moment on the Capitol grounds, or to take pictures and video, or to freak out. So I did all four.
"I can't believe it," I kept saying, as if on a loop. And, to Danielle, after the oath, "That's the president. That's our president."
"The first elected president in 12 years," I heard someone say.
When the speech was over, and history was made, it was time to get out of there, fast, lest we get stuck in a human tangle again. I needed to go south. They were headed north. We hugged, my Inauguration family and I. We exchanged cards. We vowed to stay in touch. Chris offered me one last granola bar, and then the five of them disappeared into a sea of strangers. Happy strangers, all very different but with one thing in common: together, we had all seen a fundamental leap that day, in that place.
I had no plan. I was just going to walk, look at the crowds, be in the crowds, walk some more. If the Metro stations looked as impenetrable as predicted, I'd just keep walking. Hell, Falls Church is only around 10 miles away, give or take. And my feet didn't hurt. Nothing hurt. Maybe I'd just walk home.
So I strolled, smiling involuntarily, offering to take pictures of any and all families and couples posing in front of things. I passed one Metro station that had a clump of people 40 deep standing outside of it. There I saw the first food vendor I'd spied all day: a random guy on a random corner crouching down over a random collection of bootleg-looking sandwiches. Outside of another Metro station -- L'Enfant Plaza -- a woman said there was a two-hour wait to get on a train. The crowds there literally filled the streets. It was completely chaotic. But not threatening. No meanies. Among the thousands of people I saw and got thrown around with that day, I could count on one hand the number of pushy people who forced their way through the crowds as if it was very important that they get somewhere three people ahead of you. That almost didn't exist on that day.
I walked the mile or so to the Washington Monument, where I found a rare refreshment stand. I realized then that I hadn't eaten the sandwich in my pocket. I was still going on adrenaline, I supposed. Now wasn't the time to eat it though. Best to keep walking, moving while I was still plugged into this no-pain/no-needs place. I bought coffee and spilled it on my numb hands and sleeves, and felt truly cold for the first time that day. But only till the stains dried.
When the Lincoln Memorial came into view, I knew I had to go there. I couldn't get too close, it turned out; it was barricaded off. But I got as near as I could and stared at it for a long while as wind whipped off the frozen reflecting pool. What must Lincoln be thinking? Only jubilant thoughts. Very jubilant thoughts.
Walking away, I stopped to take a picture of three Army people guarding the southeast side of the memorial. I asked them to move in close to each other, and then I said, "Obama," thinking this would make them smile for a second. Instead, it made them yelp, "OBAMA!" and their smiles were huge.
Walking over the Memorial Bridge, then, marveling at the sheets of ice below in the Potomac, I connected with an older couple from Washington State. She was a very early adopter, having gotten jazzed about Obama before the 2004 Democratic Convention, she reported. She and her husband said they had had many heated discussions with their friends, many of whom were Republicans, and managed to, in the end, bring lots of them over to the other side.
Love those stories.
Loved this day. For some reason -- I will never know why -- I was one of the lucky ones. Randomly orange, I was there. I got to watch the door on a new era creak open. I watched it begin.
Stepping onto Virginia, and down into the Metro at Arlington Cemetery, I found the trains relatively empty. Thirty minutes later, I was walking up my driveway.
My house looked different. The world had changed.
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