When Barack Obama was elected President, I was sitting at a party with a circle of friends, sobbing at the television. I had no words to describe what I was thinking at the time. As a person who rarely shuts up, it was unusual to find myself so inarticulate. All I could think, as I watched the poll numbers roll in, was that Americans had done something right.
It just meant so much.
So a month later, when that feeling hadn’t yet given way to jaded disinterest in my commandant-to-be, I hatched a harebrained scheme. I decided that I would find a way to attend the inauguration, come hell or high water.
It was about as impractical an idea as I’ve ever had. After all, requests for inauguration tickets had been put in months earlier, as had vacation requests from work. The cheapest hotel rooms still available were being offered for no less than $1,000 a night. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had to go. And not just that – I had to drag two of my coworkers into it.
It wasn’t until Jamie, Kim and I were sitting at the airport bar that we discussed how none of us really thought we were going to pull it off. The three of us somehow convinced our amazing, benevolent, politically savvy – did I mention good-looking? – employers to give us simultaneous vacation time. We booked flights to Baltimore because the more convenient flights were full, and I bullied a former co-worker into letting us sleep on her floor. We convinced loved ones to drive us to and from the airport at preposterous hours of the night. We borrowed luggage, blankets and sleeping bags. And while we still didn’t have inauguration tickets, we did have high hopes. We’d already pulled off the impossible, and Obama kept preaching about hope.
We had wanted to attend this inauguration for a variety of reasons. Whatever your politics, it’s impossible to deny that this was a historic election. I wanted to see how people were responding; I wanted to assess the crowd’s energy. I wasn’t disappointed. I saw people behaving with incredible kindness and people demonstrating appalling rudeness. I had assumed that I knew what racial tension felt like, but honestly, I had never seen the subject of race laid so open. I heard a black woman tell a white one, “He’s not your president.” And yet, I also saw more groups of multi-racial companions than I had ever seen before. People of all ethnicities struck up conversations with my friends and I on the Metro. The longer we were in Washington, the more we realized that there was no recipe for this. People were no longer quite sure how to interact with each other. Racism is still a lit fuse in the United States, but one that might someday fizzle out instead of exploding.
The evening before the inauguration, we made our way to the Capitol building. We knew that we would be nowhere near it the following day, and we wanted to see what we could. It was already dark, and set-up was well under way. Hordes of tourists stood gazing at the dome, glowing in the night, watching their breath condense and dissipate. It was well below freezing, but no one was in a hurry to leave.
We headed home relatively early because we knew the next day would be a full one. We wanted to reach the Metro by 4:00 a.m., when it opened, because we knew it was our only hope of getting a decent spot. Around 11:00 p.m., we entered our apartment building, apple-cheeked out of the wind. We climbed into the elevator with a formally dressed older gentleman, and Kim pressed the button for his floor.
“You girls going to the inauguration tomorrow?” he drawled.
“Yeah, that’s the plan,” we replied.
“You girls got tickets?”
This was a question we had been asked countless times since embarking upon this adventure, and our negative response was usually met with looks of pity, and sometimes laughter. We had traveled across the country, and we were going to have a worse view of the jumbotron than we would have had in Arizona. Yes, we understood that. But we wanted to be there anyway. I concluded that people watching was, perhaps, a dying art.
“Sadly, no.” we replied. “We’re heading up to bed so we can get up at 3:00 a.m. to head down to the Mall.”
“Hmmm…” he responded. And pulled out his cell phone. The elevator doors for our floor opened and closed, and not one of us moved.
“You girls missed your floor,” he noted. To which we asked the only question we could.
“Why are you on your cell phone?”
He began speaking into it. “David? Yeah, this is Harry. I’m in my apartment with three beautiful young ladies. Is there any way we can get them tickets? Great, yeah. Just pull the car back around.”
We waited until he was out of earshot before we started screaming and calling everyone we knew.
The next day, at 4:15 a.m., we were waiting at the Metro with the rest of the world. The sun had not yet begun to rise, and already people were shoving in panic and anticipation. Everyone was terrified that they would be denied a spot, and it turned out they were right to be concerned. A record number of people turned out for the festivities, and even people with tickets were eventually turned away. As we were exiting the metro, Kim, Jamie and I became separated, and I was wedged against the escalator and forced to walk sideways. It was easy to see how, later that day, a 68-year-old woman was trampled and knocked onto the tracks. All over the city, people were buzzing about the mobs. Official estimates hold that 1.8 million people thronged the Mall for the inauguration, but that seems impossible. It felt like many, many more.
By 5:15 a.m., we were waiting outside our gate with hundreds of other people. All of us shared tales of ticket requisition. People sang Christmas Carols and replaced a certain name with Obama’s. It was bitterly cold, and accounts kept rolling in of people being hospitalized for hypothermia. The inauguration wasn’t scheduled to begin for nearly seven more hours.
At 8:00 a.m., we were rushed through security, and only 30 minutes later, we were in the third row of our section. We were approximately three feet away from Bruce Springsteen, Spike Lee, Usher, Dikembe Mutombo, Robin Roberts, Mary J. Blige, and countless other celebrities. We knew this because of the response of the crowd. I wish I could say that we saw them. But during those early-morning hours, our view was limited.
As the hours passed, the crowd shifted, and eventually, we could see the stage. We watched as the crowd cheered for Colin Powell and hissed at Clarence Thomas. We watched as George W. Bush was booed. We heard Aretha Franklin sing the National Anthem, and Rick Warren give his prayer. And we watched Barack Obama sworn in as President, and the crowd quieted down for the first time all day, and adults cried as shamelessly as children.
When the entire ceremony was over, everyone began looking at each other as though for the first time. National hopes for Barack Obama are almost comically unrealistic. There is no way that any man could repair the economy overnight, end the war in a way that pleases everyone, end the threat of terrorism, embrace alternative energy solutions, and address every other major issue plaguing America. But in that moment, it didn’t feel that way. I don’t think anything felt impossible to anyone.
On January 20, 2009, Washington, D.C. suspended work and school. Away from the National Mall, the city was deserted. So when there was nothing left to see on the Capitol steps, and everyone turned away, I was surprised that I was just as moved by the scene behind me. The trees were bare of leaves, and shreds of newspaper blew down barricaded streets. Gates hung ajar, windows were darkened, and stores were closed. And all around me, humanity was marching together into a fresh reality.