Better Late than Never: My First-hand Account of Barack Obama’s Inauguration

I apologize if I’m overreaching and sending to some who are not so interested in politics, my life, or the intersection of the two.  But I thought it might be time again to send an update on what’s been happening.  So I wrote a long-winded (honestly, when am I not) essay on the recent Inauguration.  I’d love to hear from you all — keeping in touch, what’s popping with you, and any comments you have for me or my writing.  It’s mighty long, but I promise it’s an accurate account of such a historic day.  And I know it’s somewhat delayed.  As I told my friend Eugene, I write like an artist: no deadlines.  It comes when it comes.

I’m almost reluctant to send something like this because it seems rather personal, and I feel like a giant softy.  It feels squishy and foreign.  But you know what?  I’m going to send it because I need to be bolder with my work.  When I become truly bold, there won’t even be this sorry ass disclaimer.  I hope you enjoy it.  And again, I’d love to hear back from you.  Without further ado (and there’s already been too much ado)…
It’s 5:20 am and the hyper-melodic chimes of my cell phone indicate I’ve received a text message.  Who in the hell texts at five in the morning?
“Are you up?” it reads, from my coworker Lynn.
“Up but not in motion,” I reply.  I suppose it’s true at this point.
“OMG, you’re screwed.”  I find this response very unhelpful.  Not only is it tauntingly pessimistic, but it also fails to give any contextual details.  I’m screwed because my house is on fire?  Because the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse draw nigh?
Given the circumstances of today, however, I begin to connect the dots.  I realize it’s time to get up and hustle down to the Mall.
No, it’s not Black Friday.  It’s Tuesday January 20, 2009.
On a blow-up mattress next to my bed is Paul, my roommate Lizzie’s brother.  He, too, is texting his friends.  We decide that since we’re both awake, it’s fair to turn on the light and get moving.  With only 90 minutes of sleep under our eyelids, this is no simple feat.  Paul is the first to dispatch; he’s out the door before the little hand points sleepily at six.
The lights and sounds jar my very good friend David awake, who was sleeping in the room adjacent to mine.  “You want to get going?” I ask him as he pokes his head in my room.  We had planned to depart by 7:30am, but Lynn’s text messages practiced the politics of fear, and I feel a paranoid urgency.  He agrees we might as well.  If we’re awake, there’s no reason not to mobilize.
I brush my teeth; he decides not to, citing the fact that he did so not even two hours ago.  Valid point.
We each get dressed in a strategically prepared outfit.  It has not been warmer than the frost point all week, and today seems no different.  I pile jeans on top of spandex pants.  I layer Under Armour insulation beneath a matching fleece, with a second, hooded fleece atop that.  I tuck my ears beneath a fleece headband and complement it with a wool hat.
Add a wool coat, long socks, sneakers, and gloves.
All this and I’m not even out the door yet.
I’m already hungry and know myself well enough to understand that if I don’t eat now and pack enough for later, that I will likely pass out, or at the very least, be completely miserable.  So David and I pack fruit, granola, bagels, and carrots.  No beverages though.  We can’t risk compulsive bathroom breaks.  At 6:30am, we walk past what appear to be four lifeless bodies in my living room and are jealous of the Zzzs they continue to catch.  But today is too important to risk missing this opportunity.  We have to go now.
Cameras in-hand, David and I open my front door.  There, excitement has been perched, waiting like mischievous children with snowballs.  We are immediately pelted by the cold fwap! of energy surrounding The District.  I’ll tell you: that will surely wake you up.
We walk down 14th Street, and already there is significant foot traffic.   “Good morning!” everyone says, with hope piquing in his voice.  Our pace is swift and deliberate as we head south, toward the National Mall.  By the time we hit K Street, the sun is beginning to yawn and stretch above the horizon.  So, too, are the tourists.  But today, we’re all tourists, spectators.  This is no ordinary day in the neighborhood.
Lines have already begun to form, confusion the only distinguishable negative sentiment in the air.
“Is this for the parade or the Mall?”
“I’m not sure, ma’am, but you can’t stand here.”
“Does this line cross Pennsylvania Ave?  No?  Then how do I get to the Capitol?”
“I’m not sure, ma’am, but you can’t stand here.”
The police and military personnel have also come from out-of-town, and they are unsure of anything but how to keep order, which does not necessarily include knowing what is going on or where.   Still, it’s remarkable: two million people and not a single arrest.   If it was not so cold, I’d say hats off to them.  But I’m keeping mine on until “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
By G Street, David and I are beginning to realize we’ll have to rethink our planned route to the Mall.  For security reasons, Pennsylvania Avenue has been shut down, even to foot traffic, until after the parade has rolled back to 1600.  This is something I had not considered before now.
On days like this, it’s important to improvise and walk quickly.  We divert east, dancing through swarms of more indecisive people.  On days like this, I’m glad I know my city.
David and I join a nation on pause at 3rd and D Streets by 7:30am.  Why did the chicken wait for over an hour?  To get to the other side, of course.  We’re so close to the Capitol, the Mall, and The Moment, we can feel the Red, White, and Blue breeze across our faces.  But here, we wait until an interstate tunnel opens access beneath the Capitol, so we can cross from the North to the South of DC, a dichotomy so proudly planned by L’Enfant.
David and I, friendly ambassadors of the DC-Metro area, begin to chat it up with our standing neighbors.  “Where are you from?” David asks a smiling, young teacher.  She turns her poster around to reveal her origin: “Baltimore City Teachers for Obama,” it reads.  She had come in via Greenbelt Metro.  “Is that a USC hat?” I ask a twenty-something female in front of me.  “Yes it is,” replies her father.  “You went to USC?  We’re from Englewood!” he continues, excited to have met a former neighbor.  And so continues the discourse among proximate comrades.
By 8:30am, the I-395 tunnel becomes a portal to another dimension.  Once access has been granted, David and I lace up our rocket boots and zip quickly toward daylight.  We pass streams of giggling middle schoolers.  We pass families spanning three and four generations, walking slowly to accommodate both the very old and the very young legs that can’t keep pace.  We are slalom skiing through thousands, literally, thousands of people vying for the same endpoint.
As I’ve mentioned, on days like this, it’s important to improvise and walk quickly.
Once through the tunnel, we turn right, walking counterintuitively away from the Capitol.  Already, hundreds of thousands have packed the Mall, and we have little choice but to go with the torrent heading west.  From 3rd Street, we pass 7th.  We pass 12th Street.  We pass 14th Street, which strikes me as comical, seeing as it is the street from whence we began our journey, just on the other side of the Mall.  Finally, as we pass the Holocaust Museum, our opportunity arrives to join the millions already waiting for history.
David and I tuck below the thin chain that lines the sidewalk around the Washington Monument and lumber to the Porta-Johns for a “just in case” effort.  In line, we make friends with a mom and dad from Florida, whose son is marching in the parade.  They are so proud.  They wouldn’t miss this for the world.  Neither would we.
David leads the way through a coalescing crowd, and we move up a hill, closer to the nearest jumbotron, joining a growing swarm of eager observers.  We are surrounded on all sides by African-Americans.  To our right, a boisterous group of two former military men and one thick, jolly woman.  To our left, a demure but chilly twenty-something, trying to soak up sunlight to stay warm.  In front of us, two sixty year-old couples, simply spilling with history – past, present, and future.
David and I stand in the center of this Oreo, knowing we can’t fully understand how this moment feels to them.   We, too, rejoice with thoughts of, “At last!” but there’s a distinct, palpable difference.  As David and I wait here on the Mall, we are not waiting for our own disillusions to crumble.  We wait for something quite different.
And soon it arrives, announced by trumpets of the Marine Band.  Droves of white-haired men pour down the Capitol stairs onto a dais that is so alive, it almost looks like it’s breathing.  Many are announced by name, the crowd alternating between supportive cheers and lulls of utter indifference.  Living Presidents garner the most attention.  President Carter smuggling some approval, President Clinton corralling a wave of enthusiasm from a bunch of Democrats who never could forget his charm.
Sadly, decorum slips as onlookers boo both Presidents George H. and George W. Bush.  No matter your opinion of the 43rd President, partisan loathing just doesn’t fit today.  It’s snug in the waist, and the sleeves are too short.  Today is bigger than booing.
Soon after, the Biden and Obama families exit the Capitol and saunter onto the stage.  The jumbotron shows off inaugural plumage: bold ties, bright coats, brilliant smiles.  I know I don’t have to tell you how wonderful they all look.  The crowd on the Mall gasps and whispers, building to a steady hoorah.  It seems no one wants to waste the good yells before the moment.  We all know it’s coming.
After the cheers and jeers subside, a tension hangs impatiently.  Although, tension seems entirely nondescript.  We wait for a change, a new direction, a turn.  Indeed, it is torque that hangs among us.  Justice Stevens makes a willful attempt to placate the crowd as he swears Joe Biden into his new term as Vice President.  The crowd, myself included, lets out a yelp of relief and joy, but it’s apparent that this is merely the warm-up act.
Millions signal they are ready for the headliner.  They chant an odd cadence: OH-bah-MUH! OH-bah-MUH!  The staccato sounds awkward to me; its emphasis falls on beats one and three, ignoring the natural emphasis on syllable two, as in oh-BAH-muh.  Surely I’m the only neurotic thinking such a thing at a time like this.  It helps the downtime pass more quickly.
And it is now after noon.  Chief Justice John Roberts stands to administer the oath of office while Michelle Obama holds the Bible that once belonged to President Lincoln.  It feels like forever, but the moment is finally here.  Left hand on the Bible, right hand to God, eyes fixed, smile irrepressible.
Beneath layers of warm clothes and a relentlessly blue sky, we listen.  Almost two million people, nearly hushed.
The transfer of power is widely regarded as among the most elegant and graceful moments in a democratically-elected government.  Think about it.  The most powerful man in the world willfully steps down, often passing authority to a person with whom he disagrees.  It’s a moment that would put Hobbes on his tip-toes, snorting, “Hey!  Down in front!  I want to see!”
Given the magnitude of the times and the historical nature of the election, this promises to be one for the ages.  A big moment.  It builds.  I stand on my own tip-toes.  Cameras reach for the sky.  The crowd holds its breath, waiting to exhale.
Did it happen?  Was that it?  Wasn’t I supposed to be moved to tears?
It may be ceremonial, but the world listens for the words, the simple words (emphasis mine):
“I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
But it didn’t come out that way, did it?  In fact, it was fairly bush league.  No pun intended.  One might even say it was the biggest folly of the Presidential transition.  But I just don’t care.  Even as someone who fixates on words, word order, and sentence construction, I still don’t care where you place the word “faithfully” in that oath.
Perhaps it’s my optimistic nature, but I think both men were so eager, so excited that they just couldn’t wait.  Yes, even Chief Justice John Roberts.   Perhaps it’s my fondness for levity, but I think it cut the tension, broke us from hypnosis.  I promise you, there will be bigger mistakes than word order.  Perhaps it’s my penchant for the nonchalant, but I think a Presidential oath Mulligan is not that big of a deal.  So what?  He’s still the President.
Oh my God.  He’s the President.
It’s that odd moment of realization after you turn the tassel on your graduation cap.  Time is still a steadfast continuum, ticking onward without noticing the collective “moment.”  We try to capture the precise tipping point when past becomes present, and in so doing, we often miss it.
Did America just have its Bar Mitzvah?
“Congratulations, Mr. President.”  When Chief Justice Roberts says these words, I forgive him.  It turns out that this is the moment I’ve been waiting for.
You can keep your faithfullys; I prefer Congratulations.  When conferred upon a deserving recipient, congratulations carries authority, class, regard.  Congratulations is intrinsically modest but outwardly impressive.  Congratulations wears gold jewelry, but nothing flashy.  The mix of vowels and consonants sounds sturdy, with its hard ‘c,’ complex ‘gr’owl, and punctual ‘t.’  And, my, does Congratulations look good in print.
The crowd roars in a somewhat muted reverence resembling low tide, as the new President stands at the podium in front of the Capitol.  He speaks of a strong and perilous undertow: war, economic crises, failing healthcare and schools.  These are somber times, and it will take much resolve to restore America to its rightful place at the helm of prosperity.  The world is vastly different from a decade ago, though we have spent valuable energy and resources fighting that current.
The ascendance of Barack Obama indicates a realization that any beach-goer knows: no matter how strong a swimmer, there are forces of nature stronger than you are.  It is futile to fight an undertow. Change course: swim parallel to shore.  Perhaps our new President says it best: “For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”
The new President concludes his speech with “God Bless America,” words I have heard, said, and sung thousands of times.  I am moved by his inaugural address, not solely in emotion, but also by a groundswell.  I feel a call to action, which is propagated and reinforced by the immediate dispatch of 1.8 million listeners edging toward home.  Gone is the intimacy of faithful supporters: it is now an untidy free-for-all.  My feet keep an uneasy rhythm of short steps, and I am pressed against strangers.
From above, I imagine the dispersion resembles a weather pattern, an erratic hurricane.  Again, David and I are walking counterintuitively away from home – we have no choice but to rewind our path.  It is a ragtag, no-huddle offense.
We get to 3rd Street Southeast, the tunnel from whence we came, and realize that pedestrian traffic has been prohibited.  Our only option is to circle the Capitol building, adding an additional half-mile to our sojourn.  At this point, steps are negligible.  We are more drowsy than physically exhausted.  In fact, the pace of our walk is invigorating; it pumps energy and warmth into our stationary, wintry toes.  I have absolutely no doubt that David and I are the fastest walkers in the District right now.
We pass the Capitol, where our new President dines with Congress at the traditional celebratory luncheon.  We pass Union Station and continue on Massachusetts Ave., pressing on home.  After a seemingly endless Odyssey, David and I finally admit we are tired.  Until now, it has been inappropriate to express anything other than excited nods to the momentous occasion.
In my living room, the lifeless bodies from this morning have rejuvenated.  As we prepare hot tea and hot dogs, a catharsis floats over the room, softening the edges of a long day.  We watch television coverage of the Inaugural Parade, a dotted line of Cadillacs and broad-shouldered men, inching down Pennsylvania Ave.  Before the Obamas have even arrived at their new home, at least two of my friends fall prey to a nap.  We are all helpless against the lullaby offered by the couches, the blankets, the mellifluous white noise of multiple conversations.
Several hours pass, and the District is now swarming with black ties and gowns.  The evening’s socialites, including the new President, put on their dancing shoes to trip the night fantastic.  Somehow, I don’t feel like dancing.  I’m feeling an intrinsic joy, one I can’t express outwardly.  Not now.  I want to hold onto it, stow it safely.  I can’t let it out.  It isn’t ready yet.  I have to protect it.
My evening plans reflect my mood: peaceable, subdued, reticent, but still celebratory.  Reservations at Tabaq, a Middle Eastern mezze (tapas) restaurant on U Street, with a crop of great friends.  The fare could not have been better, nor could the atmosphere.  Sitting on the fourth floor, atop a hill, looking out to see my city dressed in her best sparkling lights, donning that same Red, White, and Blue perfume.
Today has been noted as “history,” but it seems to be the start of a new verse, rather than a mere stroke on a timeline.   I am not ashamed to say how important this day is for me, what it means to me.  And some may say it’s naiveté, that expectations are impossibly high.  I am well aware of the risks, thank you.  I am just so happy to finally have something to look forward to, not merely to reflect upon or to mourn.  I recall smaller moments that built to this, where a freshman Senator warned me of the naysayers,
“…We have been told we cannot do this by chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant… We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.  But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”
I am so hopeful. So ready for change.  So unabashedly excited.  Even in these solemn times, I feel that success is within sight, though I may have to stand on my tiptoes.  I sincerely feel a call to action, a reason to engage, to believe.  And tonight, as I quietly retire my tender feet and droopy eyelids, I grow giddy.  I’m still trying to hold my elation, to let it percolate.  But it’s clanging around inside my chest cavity, beating like a bass drum.
For the first time, I say the words “President Obama,” and a smile marches across my face.  I still can hardly believe it.  I turn down the volume on my television, still beaming images of the President and First Lady, and wonder when I started dreaming again.

One thought on “Better Late than Never: My First-hand Account of Barack Obama’s Inauguration

  1. I just read this again for the first time in a while (but probably my 10th time reading overall). Each read is an emotional rollercoaster. My feet grow tired, my nose and ears grow cold, and I long to be back in that moment on the mall.

    One of the best pieces of writing I have come across to date.

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