Notes from the Perimeter

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Walks of Life

It’s Saturday night, September 26, at the Washington Convention Center and my feet hurt. I’ve been standing for two hours, first in a motley group, then up against a wall, then in a straggly line of folks waiting desperately to find out if we’ll actually gain admission as press to the Congressional Black Caucus awards dinner, the highlight of the annual Legislative Conference. It’s a big deal since President Obama is scheduled to speak and that dinner is the party to attend, certainly in DC if not in the entire world. One woman is so anxious that when a fellow reporter taps her on the shoulder to inquire where she got her glitzy handbag on wheels, she screams, “Don’t touch me! I need to get through this!” Oh yeah, collectively we’re on tenterhooks and my personal feet are on fire.

This is my first time being vetted by the Secret Service and it’s an eye-opener. Earlier in the day we emailed our names, DOBs and social security numbers for initial clearance. Those of us who leapt that hurdle presented ID, submitted to body searches and allowed dogs to sniff our equipment. Now we’re marched in a pod to the hall where the gala is getting underway. Every attendee must pass through one of the numerous security checkpoints set up to streamline the process. Since the President will be in the house there is no latitude for latecomers: doors will be locked at 7:00 precisely and even ticketed stragglers will be out in the cold.

As we troop through the glittering masses, I envision being escorted to one of the softly lit, flower-strewn tables, where a comfy chair and nice big glass of wine await but we’re told sternly that the party is for guests only, not for us working stiffs: even resting momentarily at a verboten table is cause for ejection. It’s not easy being us.

The press area is a row of chairs along the far wall where we park our equipment, move in groups to take photographs, and compose our stories. One woman has brought a sandwich. Most of my fellows are in casual clothes; however, I’m dressed to the nines in my black silk Vera Wang and torturous neon purple stilettos. The reason? I have a secret weapon in my purse: a ticket to the gala, which I bought as insurance in case I didn’t make the press corps cut. Now that I know how nonexistent the press amenities are, I plan to use it. My heels might be excruciating but they’re purposeful: I get to walk in the shoes of both reporter and guest. (I also get to find out what kind of dinner $750 buys.)

President Obama gives an eloquent speech about the need for health care reform and reminds this audience with its collective history of oppression, marginalization and defiance that we all must rise together to demand, as a human right, access to affordable care. Patrick Kennedy, accepting an award in his father’s honor, suddenly channels Teddy in an impassioned, thrilling plea for civil discourse about the issues that most divide us.

The night is filled with stars: movie icons and political luminaries, generals and ambassadors, heads of state and kings of commerce. But for me, the most impressive of all are the women, especially the elderly women, who have come in their jeweled, feathered hats and sequined jackets, whose feet have carried them through lifetimes of hatred, struggle, and survival to arrive, finally, at this night, where one of their own stands at the presidential podium.

Earlier in the weekend, during a party to support the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, I couldn’t bear it any longer. In the middle of the dance floor I took off my shoes. All around me, women young and old smiled and nodded: the sisterhood of throbbing bunions and abused arches.

But my feet have not suffered the journey that these elderly women had to take, those marches of freedom and endurance. Tonight they walk into this hall of privilege, to seats at the table they have bought with the currency of courage, in sensible shoes as befits the durable feet of old women. No, they don’t need high heels to stand tall.


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