Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Great American Inauguration Road Trip - "ObamaStock '09"

(A Feature Article)

January 19th, 2009 - MLK Day and the Anniversary of My Birth

Woke up – freezing – unusually early, yet took forever to get out of Cousin Nicky’s place in Jersey. Mom calls. Conversation goes as follows:

Mom: Where are you?

Steve: Hi, Madre.

Mom: Are you on the road?

Steve: We’re just leaving now.

Mom: You mean to tell me you haven’t left yet?


Steve: How’s it going, Mom?

Mom: Stephen (*now I know she’s serious*). Do you know how much of a madhouse it is?


Steve: What’s up, Mom?

Mom: I’ve been watching the news (*guarantee she’s been watching Fox*) and they say they’re closing down roads and subways. You can’t get into D.C.


Steve: It’s okay… we got it covered.

Mom: I don’t believe you—

Steve: Did you really call me to do this?

Mom: You can’t get into D.C. from Virginia—

Steve: We’re not staying in Virginia.

Mom: You’re not staying in Virginia? Then where are you…? Aw’right. Okay. You’re not telling me where you’re staying. What you’re doing – (*I feel at this point it’s important to mention that my mother is not Jewish.*)

Steve: We’re staying with a friend of mine from college. She lives in Silver Springs.

Mom: Do you know how faaaaaaar (*her Brooklyn kicks in – more than usual*) Silver Springs is from D.C.?


Steve: Well thanks for calling. We’re heading out in a minute. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Mom: Okay (*the sound of surrender*). I give up. Have a good time – if you ever get there.

Steve: Will do, momma. Love you.

It’s at this point that I feel I need to mention I turned 38 on this day and my cousin is just shy of 50. Our trusty travel companion Gretchen is 24 but possesses the maturity level of a 34 year old (I, on the other hand, possess the maturity level of a 24 year old… on a good day).

We drive through the snow and arrive in Silver Springs around 2 p.m. and settle in at my amazing friend Michelle’s place (*the first thing I notice is that her roommate has the entire box set of every “West Wing” episode known to man, and I start salivating – and this is the exact moment when I realize I probably have a problem that requires some type of counseling).

Michelle could not be a finer hostess and her place is the perfect size to house all three of us. Plus, she’s a close driving distance to the train station (what???? They have TRAINS that go into D.C.???!!!). So far so good. The snow even stops falling and the sun appears… and little birds start chirping: “hope… hope… change… change.” Its magical!

We drive to the train station and find a parking lot with blinking meters. Thank you Martin Luther King, Jr.!!! I love your dream: free parking for every American regardless of the color of their skin! This is where we come face to face with the first “Inauguration Obstacle”: the line at the metro station (dum-dum-dum!!!)

If you’ve never been to D.C., they have – in my opinion as a frequent subway rider – the weirdest ticket dispensing machines in ANY country. They’re similar to the B.A.R.T in San Francisco, which is another pain in the ass system to decipher. But it’s the San Francisco/East Bay area and you expect that kind of insanity out there on the Left Coast. It’s just a tad bit more disturbing in the Nation’s Capitol. HOWEVER, this is also the place where members of Congress and Senate live, work and “play” and the I.R.S is located here. So, in a way, it sort of makes perfect sense for D.C. to have such a pain in the ass metro ticket dispensing machines.

Fortunately, there was a metro worker on hand to assist the masses of out-of-towners in town for the Big Day. It was at this time that I got a taste of what America is probably going to look like if the demographers are correct: that America will be a minority majority country by 2020. At the Silver Springs Maryland metro station, 2020 had already arrived.

During the primaries this summer, I headed up to Lenox Ave in Harlem; the smell of incense burning and Obama paraphernalia all around – those MLK/Obama t-shirts on sale at every corner. Recognizing I was one of a handful of white guys in about a ten block radius (and that’s being conservative), I was well aware of the importance of Obama’s presidency to the predominantly African-American community of Harlem and knew I was witnessing firsthand the historic seismic cultural and political shift happening in our country.

This is important to realize because many of my friends, including my own brother, have had a child within the last five years. So it feels to me like there’s a baby-boom going on – at least in my world. These “youngins” (as I like to call them) are now coming of age during the Age of Obama. A child born on January 20th, 2009 will not know an America in which a son of a black African father cannot grow up to be president of these United States. His or her first president is Barack Hussein Obama. Very few of us ever thought that would be possible in our lifetime.

And yet, here I am being assisted by a no-nonsense female African-American metro worker in a sea of mostly black faces buying a metro ticket (actually two tickets because after seeing that line, it became abundantly clear to buy the ticket for Inauguration Day a day in advance) with Barack Obama’s face printed on it! The mere act of buying a metro ticket on Martin Luther King Day was somehow elevated to the level of poetic justice. It reminded me again how proud I am to be an American when I purchased that metro ticket from that pain in the ass ticket dispenser in Silver Springs, MD, allowing me entry into our Nation’s Capitol.

Subsequently, as the two days unfolded, the ride out of D.C. back to Silver Springs seemed a lot quicker and with ticket already in hand the pathway to the platform almost hassle free. This could not be said for much else. Seriously, between one and four million people from as far away as Africa and Australia descending on an already heavily populated metropolis. Shit’s bound to be crowded.

(Post note: Worth noting - not a single reported incident of violence or arrest attributed to the event. So if we’re celebrating the election of the first mixed race president and the crowds are filled with a majority of black and brown faces streaming onto the Washington Mall… riddle me this, Rush Limbaugh… ahhh, never mind! Moving on.)

When we arrive on the Mall, the sun has already vanished and the night brings a crispness and cascade of lights that make D.C. a truly breathtaking sight to behold. The D.C. Mall is enchanting during the day for those of us history and political junkies. But at night, the lights illuminating the Washington Monument, Capitol building, reflecting pools and Lincoln Memorial add a touch of the mystical to the whole experience.

It’s a given that it’s going to be cold on Inauguration Day and the night before is not much warmer. It’s just that you don’t tend to care as much when you realize you’re about to be a part of History. Because of that, you can’t help feeling like you’re connected to something larger, something communal, something that unites you with every other person you pass along the path to the Lincoln Memorial -- because everyone else out there on this night is there for the same exact reason… just to be there.

There are tons of other tourist destinations that are much warmer or possibly colder (see: Sundance Film Festival Park City, UT – which probably had less the amount of big name stars in attendance on this weekend than in years gone by). But the weight of gravitas associated with the Lincoln Memorial was at maximum capacity on Inauguration Eve and for that reason… the line was out of friggin’ control!!! You don’t expect to see a line snaking all along the outer rim leading up to Lincoln’s statue. But you really don’t expect to have to wait upwards of an hour to get inside that sacred piece of architecture… in the friggin’ cold. I mean, being a part of History and soaking up the “good vibes, man” is one thing. Waiting on a long-ass line to get inside to read the Gettysburg Address one more time for posterities’ sake… yeah, not so much. Sorry Abe, one inauguration speech this weekend will have to do… preferably the most current incarnation. But thanks again for all the good work and the whole Emancipation Proclamation, etc al! Good call… good call!

Cousin Nicky is busy texting away with his good friend, a New York playwright and teacher, Tom Kelly’s younger brother Kevin who is married to a politically connected woman with ties to Madame Secretary Hillary Clinton. Basically, whatever connects Kevin and his wife have is equivalent to the kids in college who knew where to score the really good weed while you’re stuck with that brown, Midwestern skunk that lacks that nice mellow buzz (*or at least I’ve heard from people that do that sort of thing* ;-).

Since Lincoln’s tomb was a bust, Kevin tipped us off to a sage burning to exhume “all the bad vibes.” Oh, if only the burning of sage could erase the worst aspects of the past eight years. I mean, where were the true Liberal Birkenstock wearing, sage burning, good vibes spreading Granolas when we needed them most??? If only…!!!

(Post note: We never found the sage burning and pretty much ended up heading to DuPont Circle and walking for miles and miles trying to find Kevin’s posse and a functional bathroom. By the time frost bite officially set in, we were ready to head back to Silver Springs.)


Around 5 a.m. I awoke to the sound of something that seemed to be not human in nature. If you’ve ever crashed at a friend’s place on an air mattress, floor or couch or stayed at a hostel or slept in a tent or the back of a van with travel companions, you know that at least one member out of the group will inevitably suffer from a sort of sleep apnea that requires immediate medical attention. I won’t say who – in order to save this person from embarrassment – but I will say that I am related to this person and I pray it’s not an affliction we pass on from generation to generation.

Had I had the good sense to capitalize on this early rising, woken the troops and gotten the hell out of Silver Springs, we may have had a fighting chance at securing a spot on the Mall.

HOWEVER, here’s how it all went down:

At approximately three a.m. the masses already began to camp out at the entrances to the Mall. By five a.m. the crowds had already reached critical mass. The gates to the Mall opened around seven a.m. and within an hour the Mall was almost at full capacity. By 10 a.m. the Mall was full, at least from the perspective of whatever officials were in charge of barricading the city. Since other folks had the same idea we had – to crash at a friend or relative (or casual acquaintance renting their place for hundreds, and is some cases thousands, of dollars) out in the ‘burbs – the lines for the Metro started filling up by around 5 a.m. Due to the mass influx of bodies and trains heading into D.C. the system could not handle that level of stress and started breaking down. Trains were delayed, people left stranded at Metro stops… it was, to use a technical term: a “clusterfuck” of epic proportions.

Meanwhile, we lay sleeping. Because why bother dealing with all that nonsense? Surely when we show up at around 10 or 11 a.m., the crowds will have settled down and we’ll just waltz right onto the Mall without any major complications. At least that’s the way we discussed it the night before when trying to decide when to leave. It was yet another thing entirely when we awoke that morning, turned on the news only to realize that we may just be completely screwed!
Undeterred, we took our damn sweet time fueling up with breakfast (which turns out to be the smartest decision we made that morning: eat BEFORE heading to D.C.), deciding if we could get away with parking all day at the blinking meter (we decided we’d take the risk) and finally boarding the train (with ease because of those pre-bought tickets with our soon to be president’s smiling face printed on them). Me and Gretchen were a little crabby, while Cousin Nick was his usual jovial self (looks like HE had a good night’s rest!).

I became that guy who finds the first person who looks like a “local” who’s “in the know” and starts barraging them with annoying questions – not taking into account they’re stuck on the same damn train we’re on. Next to the “locals” was an extremely friendly middle aged woman who talked to everybody. She was from Nebraska. Figures. After a while we realized that pretty much everybody else had a ticket to the actual event. Of course they got on the train at nine a.m. because they weren’t fighting for a place on the Mall.

Word kept circulating around the train that they had already closed the Mall and were locking down city streets and closing down Metro stations. Still, the closer we got to the city, the more people got on board – screaming and hollering and waving American flags and Obama t-shirts. Nobody seemed to mind that our train had been delayed because apparently someone had fallen onto the tracks and closed down a crucial station.

It took us at least an hour to get go D.C., but we finally arrived at Judicial instead of heading into the insanity over at Metro Center – which turned out to be a major miscalculation on our part. Judicial is on the other side of the Mall that, it turns out, we needed to be on.

It was at this point that we realized nobody really knew anything and asking nearby cops (that were blocking a city street that lead directly onto the Mall) the best place to actually see the day’s events on a Jumbotron was hit or miss depending on the officer. I, of course, got the one who didn’t know nuthin’ about nuthin’. Gretchen – who was probably in a crabbier mood than I was on this most joyous of occasions (Cousin Nick still jovial and full of mirth) and posses a knack for finding the pertinent information – of course found the cop who knew where to go and how to get there.

The only problem was, it required walking through a tunnel that took about a half an hour (or at least that’s how long it seemed to take) to emerge on the other side and STILL be nowhere near the coveted piece of real-estate everyone and their mother (and grandmother and aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews…) hoped to enter.

Not even halfway through the tunnel we noticed a large percentage of people heading the opposite direction. We stopped a random passerby to ask her where she was heading: “Home. Watch it on CNN on my couch in my living room. You can’t get onto the Mall. They’ve closed all the entrances.”

Still, we pressed on undaunted! All these other motherfuckers were heading towards the other end of the tunnel, maybe they knew something she didn’t know. Finally, we emerged triumphant – and had no idea where the hell we were, but we knew the Mall was somewhere in the general vicinity.

It was now about 10:35 a.m. and the “show” was set to start at 11:00 a.m. with the swearing in to commence as close to noon as possible. With little precious time to waste, we hauled ass in the direction we thought would lead us somewhere close enough to the Mall that maybe, just maybe, we’d be in earshot of speakers and maybe, just maybe, a Jumbotron!

I had my mind sent on being near the Smithsonian metro station because the MSNBC tent was supposed to be close by and I – a nostalgic creature – was hoping to spend Inauguration Day with the same folks I watched Barack deliver his Invesco Field convention speech when I flew out to Denver hoping to somehow score a ticket. With time running out, we followed the crowd that scurried like fleeing rats in every direction until I heard a noise coming from the direction of… the Smithsonian castle!

I made a mad dash through the pathway around the building, following the sound of an announcers voice (trusty travel companion and mirthful cousin close behind) and out onto the open area that surrounds the entrance to the Mall from the Smithsonian metro station (only yards away from the MSNBC tent and Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann in all their Liberal Media Biased glory).

And there we stood – minutes away from the official commencement of the inauguration of President Barack Obama – with a metallic fence and some sort of military tent between us and the mobs of early morning risers packed in like roaches on a piece of property that stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to our Nation’s Capitol. (Watching it later on CNN, and seeing photos online, it was hard not to gasp at the first initial aerial shot of the huddled masses of humanity cluttered together on that historic Mall.)

We could sort of make out the images on the Jumbotron way off on the opposite side of the Mall, which was blocked by trees and even more obstructed by the people that had climbed onto its branches. But the speaker was right there and the crowd around us was as happy to have found this spot as we were, so it really was a most joyous occasion – with the sun shining and the birds chirping… “hope… hope…” etc.

The events played out and, depending on your political point of view, it was either hysterically funny or utterly disrespectful when the entire crowd of millions collectively booed the sight of former president Bush and vice president Cheney (not to mention some negative feedback I later got from posting a short video of myself playfully chanting the “na-na-na-na” song in honor of our 43 president on my Facebook page) whenever they appeared on camera.

When it was all said and done, my crew of two finally made our way onto the Mall as the crowds immediately started pouring out during the poet laureates big moment (apparently, not a lot of poetry fans in the surrounding area). Once the Civil Rights era preacher finished his set with the lines, “If you’re white, do what’s right” (which later caused a furor on some AM and FM talk radio programs) the inauguration ceremony had concluded and it was on to the parade along Pennsylvania Avenue...
And as the former president's official helicopter transported him back to the heart of Texas, everyone appeared to be from the Bronx as they saluted him with a great Bronx Cheer and one finger salute (*much to the utter disgust of my W. loving mother*).

Since the crowds had mostly cleared out, we had a clear shot at the MSNBC tent and – being the camera whores that we are – rushed over to stand among the mob gathered underneath the swooping camera in hopes that friends watching at home might recognize us! (Gretchen, incidentally, caught sight of her secret crush Keith Olbermann and started swooning like a school girl ;-).

We headed back through that long-ass tunnel and over to my friend from college Meredith’s place in the Chinatown district to unthaw our fingers and toes and refuel on hot chocolate. Meredith works for Texas representative Lamar Smith (R), so she actually had tickets to the event.

HOWEVER, neither she nor her brother and sister-in-law actually made it into their section because the line was so long and the coordinators so unorganized that they eventually just decided to give up and head back to her apartment to watch it streamed live online (Meredith is one of those people I know that doesn’t own a television – not sure how she is able to live… but she seems to manage).

And so it was that the masses of Mall dwellers, along with me and my posse, managed to enjoy the day’s events alongside a nearby speaker and Jumbotron while people that actually had tickets to the event headed home to watch it from their living room. Ah, Democracy in action!

Of course, Cousin Nicky’s friend Kevin – the guy married to a woman who knows Hillary – sat in the good seats (with the people with the good weed); all the while Cousin Nick texting with him back and forth while I received my favorite text of the day. It was from my friend Aaron from high school. He was in a bar watching the event with 100 other people and wanted to let me know he was with me in solidarity…
Aaron lives in Paris.


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