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My Sister’s Inaugural Story, Part 1

My sister Maia phoned last Sunday to say she was on the way to the inauguration, having found a place to stay for several days (she was already going to be in DC anyway for a meeting later this week). Here is part 1 of her amazing inaugural story!

Hello, Here is installment one (of two) of my inaugural diary. I wrote this around midnight last night and edited it this morning. Enjoy or toss – I make no apologies for my political leanings but feel this event was larger than parties or politics and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share. Feel free to pass along!

A Day in DC

Or, The Most Beautiful Event I Will Ever Witness

Act One:

My planned wake-up time of 5:00 AM was not to be. The hotel room alarm didn’t work and I awoke with a start at 5:41 AM. The word on the street the night before was that folks would start arriving at the Capitol Mall around 4:00 AM, and security would close the Mall when the crowd reached 350,000…not a good sign since the estimated number of visitors in DC for the inauguration of Barack Obama was over 3 million. I flung myself into the shower and somehow got out the door at 6:02 AM. I felt prepared for the weather; I had worn lots of layers and taken Mike’s many emphatic admonishments about keeping my feet warm seriously.

Act Two: Union station

I took the Metro to Union Station first because Michael had purchased an event ticket for me that needed to be picked up that day (more on that ticket later). My Metro experience was the first indication of the day to come: no matter how crowded each train was, people moved away from the doors to allow more people on. Everyone was covered with Obama buttons and pins and flags and the festive mood was palpable. You could discern dialects from all across the states in the many happy conversations humming through the trains.

Union Station was more of the same. As I wandered the station trying to locate the Great Tickets outlet, every brief conversation in the huge crowd was conducted with an emotion that’s hard to describe – but let’s call it Christmas meets a baby’s healthy birth plus winning the lottery. Every single human being there was in this amazing time and place to witness and share in this piece of history that will become an important piece of our country’s fabric. The election of our nation’s first African-American President was being shared by people from all walks of life, from many nations.

Many people were electing to stay in the warmth of Union Station until the mast minute. I had to assume they were operating under the official information that as long as they got to the Mall by 8:00 AM they would be able to get in…not believing that myself, I pushed on as soon as I could and joined the crowds walking towards the Capitol Mall.

Act Three: 6:40 AM Arrival at the Mall

The areas reserved for ticketed guests were well-signed and identified. Purple – go left! Silver – straight through! The rest of us relied on the many, many volunteers in red caps to direct us. The volunteers were cheery – well, in truth, they were about the happiest people you have ever met – and they knew just how to direct the streams of tens of thousands of people already at the Mall. I joined a splinter crowd headed into the Third Street tunnel to walk under the Mall and come out on the south end. (Splinter = thousands of people)

Having been to a ba-zillion rock concerts in my younger days, I was prepared for the crowds. But you cannot make an accurate comparison of this crowd to any crowd you’ve ever been in. The air was electric; there was a shared mixture of gratitude, relief, and happy release that’s indescribable. The crowd’s mood was festive yet constrained. The weight and import of the day was not lost on the attendees.

Act Four: First Stop light-post

So, let’s call that about 2 miles of walking so far. There were no short-cuts; for security reasons everyone was herded onto specific controlled streets that seemed to go 4 or 5 city blocks further than the direct routes would have been. Still, walking was in itself a form of entertainment. I either engaged in direct conversations with strangers or eavesdropped onto theirs; the long walk and time went past quickly. At this point it was much colder than it had been at 6:00 AM. With the wind chill factored in, the weather was about 15*. Once at the Mall, I crossed to the North side and found a light pole that I could lean against and take advantage of the pedestal for increased height.

On either side of the Mall, from the Capitol to the Lincoln memorial, event coordinators had installed very large jumbotron screens with huge speakers. Later, we would witness the inaugural events on those screens, but now the crowd was entertained by a re-run of the Sunday concert. Bruce Springsteen! Bono! John Mellencamp! And on and on. But few were paying attention to the electronic entertainment. We were happy, by the hundreds of thousands, to strike up conversations with the people standing next to us and learn their stories. The family I was nearest to was from the San Diego area and had brought their early-teen children with them. All around, small blankets were spread, buttons, badges and t-shirts were being bought, and cameras were clicking away furiously.

Act Five: On A Pedestal

It wasn’t long after I staked out my light post territory that I felt I could upgrade. I made my way east towards the Capitol and saw that Madison Ave., bordering the Mall on the north, was open. I hopped up the stairs to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, climbed onto a pedestal on the east end of the stairs, and split my time standing (hopping, dancing) next to, or sitting on a large piece of petrified wood that sat atop the pedestal. I was soon joined by Beth from Alexandria and her college-aged daughter, and for a time by a group of 5 college kids. Other short-term visitors to the perch included a French journalist, 5 French college students, 2 guys from Alabama…

(There were a LOT of French people at the Inauguration. Apparently we’ve been forgiven our “freedom fries” gaff.)

Have I mentioned the clothes? I have NEVER seen so many fur coats in my life. At times I was sorely tempted to beg entry into some older woman’s arms just to warm up…lynx, minks, fox – it was as though the stuffed animals inside the museum had been let loose on the Mall. Still, there were times I cursed myself for not dragging Ruth Frishman’s lynx with me to DC. Those women looked COZY. Did I mention the 15* weather? Yes? Well, let me just say again it was freaking COLD! When the sun popped out it was better, but when the wind blew…OMG, I have never been that cold, even on a stalled chair lift in a storm at Alpine Meadows.

My hat’s off to the Smithsonian. Most if not all of their museums were open during the event, allowing the crowds access to the classiest “warming huts” I’ve ever seen. The museum cafes and restroom were open so hot chocolate and coffee were available to anyone braving the hour-long lines. But back to the inauguration…

Act Six: In Which Barack Obama is Sworn In

The actual inaugural ceremonies were mercifully quick. I am certain anyone reading this will have witnessed the ceremony on CNN or elsewhere. But the applause you heard on the TV did not correspond with the crowd’s applause at all. Reader, you were treated to the applause of those closest to the actual ceremony, so the polite and politically correct VIPs applauded everyone that appeared. In the crowd, though, the story was different. When Bush (W) appeared, the crowd went so quiet that for a moment I thought my ear drums had finally frozen and I simply had gone deaf. But then a low murmur of boos could be heard…no large crescendo of anger, no significant outcry, just the sort of noise my cat makes when she’s unhappy but not really about to strike. In the main, I guess everyone wanted to rise above it and get on to the next administration as quickly as possible. But Bush was not to be applauded on January 20.

IMHO observations: I was very proud of my homegirl Dianne Feinstein. She represented! She spoke eloquently and was not self-indulgent. The invocation was not delivered by a person of faith I would have selected but when all was said and done, I thought he did a good job and set a fair and inclusionary tone. Yeah, I cried and sang and danced when Aretha sang.

How do I explain what happened when Obama took the stage to take the oath of office? I am struggling a mere 24 hours later to capture in words the feelings we were experiencing. I grew up in San Francisco in the 60’s. I rode on my dad’s shoulders in the Vietnam S.F. Peace March. I watched my father and mother spend a lifetime in politics and I share my family’s values of inclusion for all Americans, non-violent resolutions, informed and intelligent decision-making, participation in the process, supporting the nation’s social structure…this inauguration meant that a hurdle once thought insurmountable in my lifetime had been overcome. I was sharing that moment live with hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom had a common experience to mine, many more whose experience as black Americans had just seen a significant shift and all of whom whose lives would be forever lifted by this moment. Hope and change have been central themes throughout Obama’s candidacy and election, but here, on the Mall at this moment, hope and change were real, tangible, and a promise we all believed in.

Beth, my petrified-wood-on-a-pedestal mate, is about my same age. We cried together during the oath of office along with most everyone on the Mall. When Obama said “so help me God” the crowd erupted into the most joyous applause you can imagine. A sea of red, white and blue rippled across the top of the crowd as everyone waved their small American flags and chanted “Obama, Obama…”

(I am seeing on the news now that Obama missed or stumbled on a line during the oath. From the audience’s perspective it was a non-event – we simply didn’t notice and I doubt anyone there would have cared)

Act Seven: Departure, or You Can’t Get There from Here

I was surprised at the number of people streaming out of the Mall after the oath of office and during Obama’s first speech as President. But then again, it was very cold, we had been on the Mall and on our feet for 6 – 8 hours, and most everyone was cold, tired from the emotional expenditure and hungry too. I stayed through his speech, crying and applauding with my new friend Beth.

The logistical information available to visitors before the inauguration was copious. You had to choose to avoid the information if you didn’t want to know how to access the Metro, which streets would be closed, what the security protocol was, which areas would be cordoned off, where first aid was, and more. The level of detail in the planning was extraordinary. We didn’t anticipate the many spontaneous decisions and changes that would occur at the event:

The event maps all showed several exits on the north and south sides of the mall. The crowds, cold and tired but still happy, easily followed instructions towards the exit streets. But while the entry to the Mall that morning of hundreds of thousands of people over a few hours was well-organized and orderly, the exit was not. Seemingly at random and arbitrarily, DC police and other law enforcement closed or never opened various exits on the north. The crowds on the north side of the mall found that no matter which direction they went, there were no exits on their side of the Mall. The volunteers had all evaporated and the police that remained gave conflicting direction and information, sending tens of thousands first in one direction, then another. Finally it became clear the only way out was on the south side, away from the parade and onto Independence Ave.

Act Eight: A Clusterf#@&k of Epic Proportions

Once on Independence Ave we had a few choices, or at least that was the plan. South was easy, though few people were headed that way. You could walk west past the Lincoln Memorial and cut back up to the north to see the parade or into N/W DC if that’s where you were heading. You could walk east along Independence towards the Capitol and do the same, or you could hop onto the Metro. Of course, anyone with half a brain would anticipate that the L’Enfants Plaza Metro, the first station the crowds would come to, would be packed. Apparently, the DC Police don’t have half a brain.

I have spent 47 years in awe and respectful of law enforcement. I believe anyone who puts their life on the line for the rest of us deserves to be cut some major slack. So, when I say that the DC police need to be dismissed en masse, from the Chief on down to the newest recruit, then I believe there has to be something terribly wrong with the system.

Act Nine: T-shirts, $20. Oxygen, Priceless.

By then end of Obama’s speech, everyone on the mall (how many people were there? 500,000?) had to exit on the south side only. This funneled a huge crowd of people onto one street, Independence Ave. At first, everyone was walking along smoothly and there were no problems. But very suddenly, as though I had fallen into it, I was in a crowd of people standing still and tens of thousands of people pushing in from three sides towards the epicenter – ground zero – of a major catastrophe in the making. This was the place where the Metro station at L’Enfants plaza met Independence Street. Of course, the Metro station closed right away when it was overwhelmed by the crowds, so the intersection was being filled by attendees from four directions (south from their failed attempt to get onto the Metro, east, west and North from the Mall) all colliding into the center.

When the crowd stopped I was alongside a tour bus parked on Independence. I could see a DC police officer standing in the doorway of the bus, and many more officers inside the bus so I squeezed my way alongside the bus to get closer to the cops and, I thought, safety. Boy was I ever wrong. As I got closer to the door of the bus I was pushed past the door and towards the front of the bus. I pressed my back to the front of the bus windshield as the crowd grew denser. People were shouting at the police to do something, anything, to break the crowd. The officers all said “we can’t do anything, there’s too many of you.” The crowd, now concerned for their lives and safety, were begging the police to get on top of the bus and see what was happening. They implored the cops to get on their radios and ask for help or use their bullhorns to direct people to safety. They shouted to the officers that there were injuries in the crowd and to please get help. There were three or four officers off the bus and in the crowd (but staying close to the bus door), each of whom gave a completely lame response like “my sergeant isn’t here and I can’t do anything” or “there’s three million of you and only 20 of us…” Not one officer on the bus or off did anything to assess the situation and direct the crowd.

At 4’10”, I am usually the last person to see what’s happening in a crowd. Now, all I could see was the fibers of the coat of the person smashed into me, and I was hoping it wasn’t wool because the last thing I wanted was to have an asthmatic allergic reaction at that moment. Then a few feet away from me a woman fainted. She didn’t fall, though, because the crowd was so pressed in that she had nowhere to fall. Screams to the police finally encouraged two officers to make their way to her. However, this meant that two police officers with their backs towards me (and mine against the bus) now smashed against me in an effort to get to her. With a 200lb, 6 foot man wearing a bullet proof vest crushing against me, the windshield wiper of the bus pressing into the back of my head, I could not breathe. Up, I told myself, get UP. I grabbed the windshield wiper behind me and pulled and as I did, I lifted myself up onto the (very flat and slippery) bumper. Finally, I rose slightly above the crowd and got air. It was then that I could see that about 100 yards ahead, the crowd was less dense and that if everyone just moved east towards the capitol we could break the logjam and move. Just as I saw this, I heard pounding from inside the bus. Yes, the police on the bus were yelling at me to get off the bus bumper and back on the ground. I tried to tell them I couldn’t; I had nowhere to go, but they persisted. Still, I disobeyed and held my tenuous purchase on the windshield wiper because it was clear that 1) I could not survive on the asphalt and 2) even if any of those police wanted to get off the bus and remove me, they couldn’t. There simply was no way for them to make the 5 foot trip from the door of the bus to the front of the bus.

My take-charge gene kicked in with a fury. I was fearful for my safety, angry with the impotent police, and I knew this crowd needed to disperse before something really ugly or tragic, or both, happened. From my perch on the bumper, just slightly above the tallest mens’ heads, I started yelling at the crowd to move towards the Capitol, to move east, that it was the only way out. At first I had a hard time getting heard but a few tall men closest to me heard me and started yelling with me. Soon we had a small wave of people pointing above their heads towards the east and saying “GO EAST” or “WALK TOWARDS THE CAPITOL”.

It took a few minutes for the wave of yelling to synchronize into a consistent message. But soon enough, the entire crowd was pointing east above their heads and relaying the message to move east. It was at that moment I became aware of a gentle arm holding my leg against the bus to help me stay on the bumper. I looked down and saw a pretty young woman defending my post and helping me. It occurred to me at that moment that there really are angels on earth.

The crowd was going to take a long time to break up. My hold on the windshield was failing and just as I slipped towards the pavement my angel, who stands a good foot taller than me, asked “Do you want to push our way through?” Choosing between dangers, I nodded yes, she took my hand and somehow she blazed a trail through the crowd towards the Capitol. We broke through into free air and it was at that moment of relief that I realized our lives had truly been in danger.

Act Ten: Walking with Amanda

It turns out my savior is a journalism student named Amanda. She and I struck up an easy conversation as we tried to find our way out of the event perimeter. This was to be no easy task; we covered the length of the Mall to the east in vain then turned back and walked west back to the Lincoln Memorial after a few failed attempts at going south. By this time, the crowds were breaking and we could move freely. But we were also very cold and tired, with a mutual hankering for a cup of hot cocoa.

It’s worth noting that for the many miles we walked, we were always in the company of other Inauguration guests. The great vibe of the morning was not diminished by the lack of organized exit, and everyone on the street shared greetings from a happy “hello” to “what a great day!”

Because of the difficulty in egress, Amanda and I ended up walking together for several hours. Our conversation was easy and delightful; she is a bright gal with a huge curiosity and a good sense of humor. It was probably three hours into our walk that I realized she was still holding my hand! We share a love for chocolate and she spoke in passionate words about her favorite place for hot cocoa, explaining in vivid detail the “Marilyn Monroe” hot cocoa with berries and whipped cream. It wasn’t until we were nearly at the cocoa place that I realized it was the same fabulous chocolate place Mike’s nephew Sean and his wife Amy took us on our last trip to DC.

Amanda and I had our hot chocolates and traded email addresses and promises to stay in touch. I will always remember her as the woman who saved my life – I don’t believe I’m being overly dramatic – and I am happy that I will remember the best parts of the day with greater clarity than the worst.

Next: The Ball!

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