We bundled up and set forth into the frigid day. There were happy, friendly people everywhere, decked out in a variety of Obama paraphernalia, some with little American flags sticking out of their hats or pockets or boots. Our hotel was at 12th & G Street, but security was tight along the parade route, so we had to walk up to K Street, then cut over on 18th. Most streets were closed, buses cleverly parked at the intersections to allow only pedestrian traffic; there was the constant whoop-whoop of sirens. Occasionally, police and army guys in camouflage stopped the crowd at an intersection to let motorcades or long lines of buses through. We waved, they waved.
A guy stood on the steps of a church holding two signs: “MLK is Smiling Today” and “One Nation Under the Groove.” Two very respectable looking ladies posed with a sign that said, “Arrest Bush.” Of course, there had to be some hate signs—the usual religious nuts with bullhorns, railing sin and salvation. People swarmed around them as if they weren’t even there.
The Washington Monument looked magnificent rising into the American sky. The Jumbotrons were replaying parts of Sunday’s concert. Gulls swooped and squawked, adding to the festive atmosphere. Kate had somehow managed to get five inauguration tickets, which she nobly gave to me, Steve, Jim, Heidi & Jake, and when we came to our first big crunch, at 15th Street, we assumed it was a check-point and parted company. But it wasn’t a checkpoint. We got through the crunch only to find out that 14th Street was closed. Period. The mall was full, and there was no way we were going to get any closer. By the time we figured this out, they’d closed 15th Street, too, so we couldn’t go back to where we’d been. We couldn’t even have gotten out to go back to the hotel, if that’s what we’d wanted to do. And there was no Jumbotron in sight.
But we were there, breathing it all in—and that seemed enough to me. Nonetheless, I was very glad when, after an hour or so, they opened 15th Street again and we were able to cross back and get close enough to one of the Jumbotrons to see what was happening. By this time it was about 11, and dignitaries were arriving. There was a collective “Awwww,” when Malia and Sasha appeared in their beautiful, colorful outfits. There were hearty “Boos” for W. and for the Vice, along with murmurs of satisfaction to see him in a wheelchair. (He hurt his back moving boxes in his office, someone said. Yeah, probably carrying out incriminating stuff he didn’t let anyone see, said someone else.)
Then—whoa! There was Aretha Franklin in a hat that made her look like she was wrapped up as a gift, singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” which I remembered singing myself every morning in elementary school. The prayer by evangelist Rick Warren was predictably non-inclusive, but balanced a bit by the humor at the end of Reverend Joseph E. Lowery's benediction. (“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”)
Anyway, finally, the moment came. First, Cheney vanquished with Biden’s oath. Then Barack Hussein Obama became President. People cried, screamed, hugged, danced, and prayed when it was over. Some stood silent, their eyes closed. The black woman beside me held up her and I gave her a high-five. I felt like crying myself. I thought of growing up in the Fifties, watching the TV news and seeing the hateful people screaming at the first black children enter formerly white-only schools. It seemed incomprehensible to me then (and now). I was eight years old, and I suddenly understood that “liberty and justice for all” really meant “liberty and justice for some.” The disconnect between what I’d been taught about my country and what my country actually was grew over the years—Vietnam, Watergate, the greed of the Reagan years, the growing gap between the richest and poorest Americans, Iraq, Guantanamo—until I had zero trust in any politician and no hope that our country could be anything close to what we claimed we were. My fist real glimmer of hope was when Michelle Obama said, “Finally, I can be proud of my country.” I knew exactly what she meant. And because she thought it and had to guts to say it, I began to think maybe I could feel the same way.
Tuesday, watching Barack Obama take the oath of office on the Jumbotron, for the first time in my life, I felt proud to be an American. I was flooded with hope that we might, finally, redeem the promise of real freedom, real equality, real democracy.
“Yes,” I kept saying, during the inaugural address. “Yes.”
It was, to say the least, a challenge getting back to our hotel afterwards. It was long gridlock, followed by moments of movement. I held Heidi’s hand tightly; Steve stayed in front to buffer the press of the crowd. Jim followed, Jake on his shoulders. At some point a kid got hoisted onto one of the Port-a-Johns and called out that it wasn’t moving anywhere. Memorial. People were mostly cheerful, though—especially when the helicopter carrying W. to Andrews Air Force base went over. Heidi, Steve, and I got separated from Jim and Jake, but kept going forward—there was no other option. I’ve got to say, Heidi was a trooper! We walked and walked and walked. It was freezing.
The police at 18th Street told us we could cross over at 20th Street, well beyond any parade barriers. Then when we got there, army guys (who looked about twelve-years-old) blocked it, arms out. We had to go to 23rd, they said. Which was,pardon me, bullshit. There were people walking on 20th Street. It was all about keeping things clear for the empty buses that lined the street. The mood of the day was power-to-the-people-mood of the crowd, so we—and whole bunch of others-broke the line and crossed.
Heidi, the school-lover, disapproved. “Bepo,” she said afterwards, “I only say this because I care about you. Do not break the freaking rules.”
We walked on, stopping to do a little souvenir-shopping before we got back to the hotel. Buttons with the First Family on them, a blue and red heart made of “diamonds” with Obama written across it, a tee-shirt. Then, finally, warmth and a place to collapse, share our inauguration day stories, and watch President Obama and First Lady, Michelle, enjoy their parade.