Monday, February 9, 2009

On Being American, Part 2

I wanted to attend the 2009 presidential inauguration, not just because of the historical significance of inaugurating the first African American man to our nation's highest office, but because I felt that this was an incredible opportunity to witness the United States at its very best. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be in Washington, D.C. with two million Americans who were coming together--unified--over something (anything!).

Not that this event was just anything. It was profound, and the seriousness of it was not lost on a soul in the massive crowd. Not the young white family with a six-year-old girl on Dad's shoulders and an infant carried by Mom in a BabyBjorn. Not the elderly black couple who trained in from Philadelphia to witness something they thought they would never see. Not the women wearing shirts with Barack Obama's face on them and hats with his name written in jewels. Not parents in the over-crowded metro station who guided their children through hordes of people so that, someday, when the next generation takes for granted that anyone, black or white, can become president, these grown children will be able to say that they were there the day that promise came true.

The Sunday before the inauguration, I set out to watch the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. I must have underestimated how many others had the same idea, because by the time I got there, I was routed to the Washington Monument. I stood among thousands gathered around only one Jumbotron in the area broadcasting the concert.

I was able to get this picture because the family standing in front of me brought a fold-up camping stool that they planned to sit on. It was more aptly used for the day as a foot stool to get a peek at the surrounding masses. Before I got my turn on the stool, I had no idea how huge the crowd was.

The concert was not easy to watch from where I stood, but hours of standing on our toes to get a glimpse of the screen proved to be a good bonding experience among strangers. We danced and sang along with Stevie Wonder, U2 and Garth Brooks and waited in anticipation for Obama's speech. I captured just the beginning of it on my camera:

Finally, the morning of the inauguration arrived. Our group left our Arlington hotel at 4:30 a.m. to take the metro into the city. It was not as crowded as we expected when we got on, but when the train's doors opened a few stops away at Metro Center, the huge transit hub, there was a wall of people like I have never seen before, all trying to get onto our train. When we got off, the crowd was so large, there was not enough room on the platform and some people were forced to stay on the train for one more stop.

There was a lot of excitement in the crowd. For all the discomfort of being packed so closely to the person next to you, people were incredibly friendly. After all, we were all there for the same reason. As we ascended the escalator, people chanted and cheered until they disappeared into the dark and frigid pre-dawn air above.

And when I say dark, I mean pitch black.

Only the Capitol building was lit at 5:30 a.m. Getting around wasn't easy. My group had to get to the opposite side of the Mall from where we got off the metro. Crossing the Mall was impossible with all the barriers and crowds that were in place. We ended up hiking all the way around the back side of the Capitol building and back down Constitution Avenue.

We had been invited to watch the inauguration from a party at 101 Constitution Avenue, a sleek, modern-looking building adjacent to the Capitol. At one point, I was afraid that we would never find the building, which appeared to be behind security at the infamous Purple Gate. Luckily, because we were at the gate so early (by this time it was about 6:30 a.m.), the massive crowd was only beginning to form. I asked three different police officers how we should get to our building, and each gave different directions, each leading to a different blocked road. Finally, when it looked like we would have to weasel our way through the Purple Gate without purple tickets (which would have been impossible, considering even people who had tickets couldn't get in), a monstrously tall man in a khaki military uniform and enormous park-ranger hat overheard my plea for directions to 101 Constitution Avenue.

"I know where that is," he barked, before he bellowed into his radio "I'm escorting a group of girls through security." Music to my ears. We all grabbed hands and followed him right through The Gate to the other side, and there was 101 Constitution Avenue. It was 7:00 a.m., there was still no sign of the sun and we had three solid hours to kill with nowhere to go before the party started at 10.

You can imagine, then, how relieved we were all those hours later when we found ourselves on the roof, overlooking the Capitol, the Mall and frozen-over reflecting pools that people decided to walk on, slipping and sliding all over.

The highlight of the ceremony for me was Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem, "Praise Song for the Day." The piece did not escape criticism, but I believe it captured exactly what I went to the inauguration to find: the intersection between the individual and the collective, and the meeting of ordinary and extraordinary.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.