It is hard to talk about, even now, two days later. Yes, the country has changed. Yes, there is a new energy in the air. Yes, I was in front of the Capitol the day Obama took the oath of office. And yes, I missed the whole thing.
My inauguration experience will be familiar to tens of thousands of other lucky ticket holders in the orange, purple, and blue lines. It is cold, scary, and heart-breaking. It goes like this:
Over the course of Barack Obama's campaign, my girlfriend and I made an effort to donate our time and (a little) money when and where we could. We canvassed in New Hampshire. We made phone calls before the primaries. We made signs and buttons and even snowmen for Obama. Our time spent on the campaign was fun and we have been more than rewarded for our efforts: we were ten feet from Obama in a high school gym, we attended his Oprah/Obama event in Manchester, we even got into the stadium in Denver at the DNC. So by all means, Obama's ascent to the Presidency has provided us with one hell of a great ride over the last year. And we have no regrets.
The icing on the cake, however, came when we were generously given two tickets to the blue section at Obama's inauguration. So--bursting with excitement--on Sunday the 18th, we drove down to DC.
We, like many others I imagine, barely slept the night of the 19th. The alarm was set for pre-dawn and the first trains into DC started at 5:30. We got up, got ready, and boarded the train at 6am. Checking and double-checking the directions that came in our pre-inauguration packets, we planned our route to the Blue Gate. "Exit Metro and Federal Center" it read. Right. Will do--but that required a transfer. So getting off at the transfer station we decided to double check with a Metro guard that we were in fact planning to get on the right train.
"Oh that station's closed."
"...but our packet tells us..."
"No. What you've gotta do is get off on the..."
Long story short: our packets were now wrong and we got off the train on the wrong side of the Mall. Fourteen blocks, a sea of a million people, fifteen-foot chainlink fences, and thousands of soldiers with machine guns were all that now stood in our way. We found the points at which we were allowed to cross the street--there were two intermittent street crossings in those fourteen blocks. There were no signs directing traffic. No uniformed guards or soldiers or cops knew anything about where we should be or how we could get there.
At one point, my girlfriend and I stepped back from an angry mob waiting to cross the street because the crowd had become too urgent and unsettled. We stood in the shrubbery, talking with an elderly woman.
"I should have stayed at home," said the woman eyeing the mob.
"Yeah. We'll just have to come back for Michelle's inauguration in 2017," I said.
The floodgate broke. The soldiers were allowing us to cross. We inserted ourselves into the mob and shuffled through.
The Mall was fairly open at that point. It was still before 7AM, and while it was filling up rapidly, there was still room to move. So, we hustled. We jogged across the grass, and then up the 14 blocks until we found the blue line. We jumped in at the end and breathed a sigh of relief. We made it. With over four hours to spare. We were golden. Cold, anxious, and out of breath. But golden.
The hours passed. We shuffled a few feet every twenty minutes or so. Eight o'clock arrived. The security check point officially opened--or so our packets read. But the line stayed put. Nine o'clock came. We were fifty feet closer. The temperature dropped to sixteen degrees. People began to grow suspicious and tired. Old women sat where they could. Children began to fidget and whine.
At ten o'clock we turned the corner around the building. The Blue Gate was now tantalizingly in the distant view. But under the Blue Gate was a sea of tens of thousands of people. Unorganized. Uncontrolled. Undirected. Our line turned out to be a polite fiction. It ended in a leaderless mob scene.
Eventually our line plunged into the sea. We were surrounded on all sides by frustrated and cold people--each trying to jockey for position. In the distance, we heard faint music...it was now 11 and the event was starting. The urgency in the stagnant crowd grew frenzied.
"LET US IN! LET US IN!" we chanted to the people we assumed were up ahead of us running this operation, but had no evidence of their existence. No one responded. The shoving was forcing us forward, into a smaller and smaller space. People couldn't get out. People couldn't get back. People couldn't raise their hands to scratch their noses. We were stuck and missing the changing of the world.
Through the sea of shoulders and faces, a few old women were crying. Children were asleep or in tantrums. Young men were brazenly pushing forward, convinced of their own importance. We were just trying to remain standing. And then...the cannons. Obama was President of the United States.
The crowd didn't disperse. They pushed harder forward hoping to get in soon enough to witness, at least, the Inaugural Address. Fathers lifted their kids up from the ground to protect them from the crush. Husbands did their best to protect their wives from the push behind. The Blue Gate that had been teasing us long in the distance was now over head. We were thirty feet from the security checkpoint. Obama's address hadn't yet started. A slim chance remained that we'd make it.
Then, people in front of us started falling and jumping. The push from behind had forced us into a metal barrier that was invisible to all but those falling over it. We were forced over as well. The polite folks among us helped elderly husbands lift over their elderly wives who were absolutely mortified to suffer such embarrassment.
We turned to see the entry ten feet in front of us. Still no indication that the Address had begun. At last a man spoke up on a megaphone.
"Go to the Mall!" he said in garbled megaphone-ese. The gates closed and my heart broke open. It was over. We turned, dejected, to look at the sea of people we'd have to cross to get back to where we started four and a half hours ago.
In an effort to maintain some perspective while recounting this event, I should point out that many others in DC that day had far worse a day than described here. Parents were separated from their children. Ted Kennedy went to the hospital. A child was struck by a car. The ground was littered with stepped on cameras, missing gloves, canes. So, while my day was heart breaking and I find my brain agonizingly full of "If only...," it was an experience shared by ten thousand people. And many people had it much worse.
So, to all those folks in the purple tunnel, the orange line, and the lines for the balls in the evening, you're not alone in missing out. You can still say you were there.