Notes from the Perimeter

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Yes, We Did!


January 20, 2009, Washington, DC. I’m cold. I’m wicked cold. It’s freakin’ freezing out here on the Mall where, I hear later, the temperature is in the single digits. That means 25 degrees below freezing. This bears repeating: 25 degrees BELOW freezing. And that’s without the wind, which, with depressing frequency, whips up a merry dance as if Sarah Palin herself were shouting out the weather (hopefully my final Sarah Palin reference).

At five this morning we rose up from our air mattress (a no-cost beneficence from cousins who have lent us their living room floor) and hit the street for our four-plus-mile walk to the Capitol. The sidewalks are already dotted with bundled pedestrians and the crowd grows heavy as we near the I-395 tunnel which has been closed to traffic – it’s our only available route to the Mall. After much herding we arrived at our spot in the Silver standing area. Dawn is history and a weak sun glimmers through the cloud cover. It’s not yet eight and we have hours to go before the ceremonies begin. The space fills in behind us and we hunker down to wait, huddled masses yearning to be warm.

We’re the lucky ones, part of the 250,000 who acquired actual tickets, a process that involved several hours the previous day of standing in line at the Longworth Congressional office building, one of the three – with the Cannon and the Rayburn – where House members are dispensing their tickets. We meet Pam from Greeley, Colorado, who had already gotten tickets from her Senator and is waiting in line to pick up tickets for a friend. (We have been charged to tell Elaine that Pam is an excellent friend who deserves a reward.) Several folks ahead of us are Andre Wooten, the son of Harold Wooten of the venerated Tuskegee Airmen, and his wife. Despite the glacial temperatures and progress, everyone is smiling and chatting, making friends, sharing the moment.

Every now and then a staffer from one of the House members patrols the line, calling out for people waiting for tickets from that particular congressperson. Representative Jim McDermott’s office is especially proactive so we all decide that if we ever have the chance to vote for him we shall. We are getting our tickets from Carol Shea-Porter so we call her office to share the example of Representative McDermott. They consider coming down but by the time we get the call back that they’re ready to meet us outside, tickets in hand, we’re already at the office door. Where it’s warm. The mother of one of Carol’s staff members is helping out for the day so she makes us coffee and we bask in radiant heat for an hour until we begin to thaw. We’re due for a party in Rayburn honoring Barbara Lee of Oakland. We learn a blessed fact: tunnels connect the three office buildings. We don’t have to brave either the lines or the cold to get to the party so we enjoy a reprieve for a few hours of food and fun.

At seven we grab a cab home, only to discover that nearly every street heading into the Capitol area has been closed down. After much backtracking we find an open intersection, finally arriving at our neighborhood more than an hour after we began our four-mile journey. We’ve been in the cab so long the meter has maxed out and the cabbie, from Ethiopia, has concluded that he’ll be celebrating Inauguration day at home. This experience cements our decision to walk so we set the alarm and fall into an excited and expectant sleep.

It’s now 10am on the Mall and I’m colder than I have ever been in my life. This is not an exaggeration – to keep myself from thinking about my feet (which I can no longer feel) or my knees (which seem to be frozen in place) I review my entire life to see if I can recall another time when I was this cold for this long. I even, for a shameful moment, consider giving up but the better angel of my nature reminds me that real adventures are generally uncomfortable in the having. Of course I’m not leaving. At 10:30 the Marine Band begins to play and slowly, grandly, the pageant of our nation unfolds.

The rest has already been reported and viewed: the tears on the faces of elderly African Americans when Obama took the oath; the overwhelming need to hug everyone in the vicinity; the sea of waving flags; the moral heft of Obama’s speech. The greatest moment for me came when I looked at the faces in the crowd – every color, every age, every station – pinched with cold but alight with joy and hope and I realized: This is what it means to be an American.

In the evening we attend the Grits ‘n Granite Ball, co-hosted by South Carolina and New Hampshire. We hook up with our friend Richard Komi, newly minted American from Nigeria who was just elected to the New Hampshire legislature. We schmooze with the King of Togo. Ours is a minor ball, not one of the ten official balls the Obamas are expected to attend. I wished to dance with Obama and yes, we did. This night Barack Obama has three hundred million names on his dance card and he is tripping the light fantastic with every one of us.

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