So, a lot of friends have asked me to describe what DC was like, and I’ve had a really hard time doing it. Granted, part of the difficulty is my complete inability to write anything (blog post, email, grocery list) without a healthy dose of sarcasm; I just don’t have much that is snaky or tongue-in-cheek to say about what I saw. Beyond an inherent inability to be anything resembling earnest or serious, it is incredibly difficult to put an experience of that magnitude in to words.
What strikes me the most, I think, is how significant everything was – how much every moment of it meant to me. So it seems like the best thing to do might be a play-by-play, there are a thousand things I could say about the trip, a thousand kinds of moments and images I wish I could capture and share and replay in my mind every time someone jostles me on the subway or cuts me off on the Garden State Parkway, but its getting late and I’m tired and I’m sure that you don’t want to read a 39,359,283 page blog post, and my memory has never been that good anyway, so…
Our epic journey began, as any proper adventure would, in Jersey…in a snowstorm. I should back up a second and say that I really didn’t want to go. I mean, I wanted to go and I was really excited about it. At least, I was excited until my friend Darren called me last week to firm up plans. It wasn’t really Darren’s fault, he had no way of knowing that when he called I would be standing at a bus stop in single digit weather with a broken butt (don’t even ask, that’s a whole other story). He had no way of knowing that to answer his call I would have to remove my hand from the pocket of a coat that isn’t really warm enough, take off my gloves and hat, curse his name, and think to myself ‘well crap, I must be out of mind if I think I can stand outside for twelve hours in January’.
For those of you who know Darren, no further explanation is needed to understand how I went from name cursing to navigator. If you don’t know Darren – suffice it to say that the words “historic” and “incredible” were used liberally (no pun intended. okay, in all honesty I do sort of intend it – sue me) as were the words “awesome” and “roadtrip”. Darren shares none of my trouble with earnestness (he also still manages to hold his own in the sarcasm division) and has some sort of twisted power to convince people to do crazy things (just ask the musicians, dancers, actors and singer involved in last Sunday’s concert). And so, on Monday night I found myself in a car, with Darren and his friend Charles, in a snowstorm and heading south.
After a late dinner and an hour nap at Darren’s dad’s place in Philly we set off for Maryland around 3am. By 5:30 we were in a parking lot at a metro stop in Maryland, pulling on hats and gloves (and wondering if we hadn’t been better off with the name cursing). Okay, that last snark was a total lie- yes, it was freezing and yes, there are few people who can manage to be less pleasant than I am before 9am, but even a chilly pre-dawn parking lot felt incredibly exciting and historic – and that was only the beginning. We entered the station with a huge crowd of people (or rather, it felt like a huge crowd of people – we would shortly have to relearn the definitions of words like “huge” and “crowd”), we were able to buy tickets and board the first train that came with no trouble.
From that early morning train ride and straight through the rest of the day we talked to everyone – locals and visitors, young and old – everyone was happy to share strategy, talk hope, or just say hello. There was an incredible sense of camaraderie in the city. The hundreds and probably thousand of volunteers, restaurant and store staff, and police and military personnel that kept the city running (and the people fed!) were consistently friendly, patient, and incredible at hiding the fact that must’ve been at least as frozen and exhausted as the rest of us. Standing on the mall was like standing in a group of friends and family, jokes were tossed around, theories and excitement were shouted across the crowd, and a sense of shared purpose and uninhibited joy was palpable…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was still dark when we boarded the metro and descended underground, toward Washington. As we left the metro and clmimbed toward the city, we saw the sun rising over a sea of people and the capitol building, glowing in the morning light, in the distance. Humanity is the only word to describe what the streets were like. It was a city devoid of cars and completely awash in people and excitement and energy. We literally dove into the stream and joined the crowd winding its way toward the mall. Winding is actually an understatement because we wound up walking a gigantic loop around the middle of the city in order to reach our final destination (there is nothing like a brisk multiple-mile walk with 50,000 of your closest friends at 6am to start a day right….except maybe coffee, coffee works too).
The walk included a brief jaunt through a closed car tunnel (although for the entire descent into the tunnel we pretty much had to take it on faith that we weren’t trapping ourselves beneath the mall to drink the underground kool-aid). As we passed the midpoint of the tunnel Charles turned around to check out the crowd, literally a tunnel full of people moving together. He told me to take a picture as he provided some tunnel-related color commentary. Don’t believe me? Ask the Washington Post:
8 a.m., in the Third Street Tunnel
Hustling with the stream of humanity through the Third Street Tunnel, Charles Bergell wondered whether the inauguration’s planners intentionally funneled people through the tunnel to symbolize the nation’s rebirth. Bergell, a 43-year-old West Orange, N.J., actor, then turned toward the thousands of people behind them. “Look at that scene,” he said excitedly, holding up his hands like a director plotting an important moment in a play. “That’s the picture.”
Well, Mr. Del Quentin Wilber, you had better get your watch checked ‘cause this was closer to 6:30 am and the party was just getting started! Also…that isn’t really what theatre directors do…but hey, I appreciate the effort!
By the time Mr. Wilber got around to phoning this quote in to his editor, we were arriving on the mall. We wound up in what (I think, at least) was probably the best non-ticketed spot on the mall. Standing on a hill just in front of the Washington and dead center on the mall, our whole field of view was hundreds of thousands of people with the capitol building as a backdrop. I’m sure that a lot of you watched the whole thing on TV so I won’t give you the play-by-play of the ceremony except to say that when the replay of Sunday’s concert ended and the live-feed across the mall began, the crowd seemed like one single enormous whole, and waves of excitement, cheers, and jeers flew back and forth and up and down the length of the mall. More than anything else, this is the part that it is literally impossible for me to describe and I just can’t do justice to the magnitude of what happened or the spirit of the crowd that I was a part of, but suffice it to say that watching the history of a nation change for the better, live and in person, was easily the most amazing thing I have ever done. Monument
Once the ceremony ended and the final (awesome) benediction was given, the crowd began to disperse. Obama’s new era of responsibility was already in the air as Darren and I joined many other people helping to pick up trash from the lawn on their way toward the street. It was a really simple thing and it was incredibly inspiring. A man thanked me for helping as I reached for a discarded paper cup, he said “imagine how easy it would be if everyone picked up just one piece”. Imagine how easy it would be if everyone did just one little thing, you can’t get a much clearer example of Obama’s vision of hope and change than that!
By the time the ceremony (and garbage collecting) were over, we had been standing in the cold for at least six hours and it was time to escape. We sought refuge in the local restaurants (and bathrooms!) with approximately 1.2 million other cold, hungry people. The atmosphere stayed collegial and excited throughout the afternoon, even though we were all sleep-deprived, starving and just starting to thaw. We ate some food and managed to walk outside in time to catch a good portion of the parade (including the Cadets and some awesome Alaskan dancers) at the crowdless tail end of the route. From there it was pretty much a long slow trek home, or at least that’s what they tell me. Thanks to Charles’ extreme generosity in driving a large portion of the way home, I spent most of the car ride happily passed out on my coat.
I guess this was kind of long and rambling, and it certainly didn’t do justice to the enormity of the experience or the historical significance of the event we were privileged enough to witness. I guess if this says anything it says that I saw, first-hand, a country that is ready for change. I saw people of different races, religions and sexual orientations. I saw young and old, northern, southern, eastern, western. I saw locals and travelers, groups and individuals. I saw a great sea of people who heard a call to action, thought “yes we can”, and were so moved by those words that they traveled great distances and endured the crowds and the cold to see history made. I saw a great man stand before his nation and promise not only to preserve and protect, but to change things for the better. I saw one million people make their presence a promise, a pledge to help him get there, to take responsibility, to continue to be there every day for the next four years. I saw history being made, to be sure, but I also saw new futures created – and standing in Washington, in support of those futures, I was, more than I have ever been before, being the change I want to see in the world.