After agonizing over whether or not to go to the inauguration, I settled on a compromise-- the pre-inaugural celebration at the Lincoln memorial. In the event, it didn't feel like a compromise: I ended up feeling that I had chosen the right event to attend.
Since I was able to find very few and very incomplete descriptions of the event prior to going, I didn't really know what to expect. Was it just going to be a rock concert? A huge party? Would Obama speak? The issue was clouded even more when my son, "Egbert," woke up vomiting several times in the middle of the night. When I called my friend in the morning to tell her I wanted to delay our start so Egbert could take a shower and eat breakfast and then see if he was holding things down and feeling okay enough to brave the weather, travel and crowds, she thought we just shouldn't bother: we were getting too late a start, it wouldn't be worth it, there would be too much traffic, she couldn't find anything saying Obama would even be there. We decided to get off the phone and go online (yeah, we both still have dial up) to see if we could find out more. I found an item on the official website that said Obama would kick things off. I called her back and talked her into it.
We picked her up and drove up to the first metro station, at Vienna. There was no place to park in the lot, and there were lines in the metro station, but this was the first indication that there would be any real crowds (Rt. 66 was clear, and while signs announced that it would be closed ahead, we were getting off the road well before that). We found a space easily in the parking garage, though, and were able to bypass the lines (which were for the farecards as it turned out). We got into DC with a minimum of hassle. Once on the mall, we began to get a sense of the occasion, as thousands of people were streaming toward the memorial. My friend hadn't dressed warmly enough, so we tried to buy her a sweatshirt from a vendor, but most had only tshirts (we did find one later). We moseyed along, as we had plenty of time before things got underway, but when we got to the secure perimeter, it had just closed (they closed it early because of the crowds--it looked as if there was still plenty of room inside, but I think they felt they couldn't handle the swarms of people wanting to get in). The closing of the perimeter was itself confusing, because people kept going out, and we'd see more people going in, but military guards kept telling us it was closed, so we gave up. (The only nastiness of anyone that day that I saw, was a couple who began loudly complaining about this). We walked around for a little while, trying to see where we could get a good view of the memorial, but as things got underway we ended up at a jumbotron near the WWII memorial--the closest one outside the perimeter, which meant we couldn't see the memorial at all, as there's sort of a dip there. The crowd was packed in like sardines, and occasionally couples and groups of people would move through the crowd, holding hands and holding their bodies sideways--we'd lean against the people behind us and hold our breaths so they could get by. It was hard to tell exactly when the event started, as they were showing things on the screens beforehand, and then Bishop Gene Robinson gave some kind of invocation--the sound was muffled you couldn't hear much of it, so we weren't sure if it was part of the event at first or not (later we learned that part wasn't broadcast on TV). When the announcer told everyone to "please remain standing for the national anthem," everyone in the crowd laughed, as of course, packed in as we were, no one could have sat down if they'd wanted to.
As the event began, we realized it was going to be a real celebratory event, not just a concert. The performances were about the occasion, not about the stars' egos, and the speeches and readings were meaningful and thoughtful. People danced, clapped and sang along. The woman directly behind me screamed when Obama came out, but screamed longer and louder when Denzel Washington took the stage. I pointed this out to her and we all laughed--it was that kind of day. My friend and I got tears in our eyes several times (Egbert didn't, and decided that this meant that he's "not an emotional person").
The whole event felt very uplifting and unifying. Denzel's reiteration of the "we are one" theme was reflected by the shared connectedness. People helped others to stand and balance on the jersey barriers for a better view, and then to get down. They were patient, and shared information. They smiled sympathetically at crying babies.
One instance of that group cooperation I didn't at first understand: I observed from a distance a fire truck parked on the closed-off 17th street between us and the reflecting pool, with three firefighters standing on top. They were constantly taking photos--without stop. At first, I could only guess they were taking pictures of everyone in the crowd in case something happened, but since they just seemed to be pointing and clicking that didn't make much sense either. My friend thought they were just taking photos of the event for themselves, but that didn't make much sense: they'd have had dozens of rolls of film or memory cards of the same scene.
When our joints began to ache from standing for so long, we decided to walk around and see if we could get a different view, and as we approached the firetruck, we saw what they were doing: since they had a better view than those of us on the ground, they were taking photos for people with their cameras. Dozens of people stood around the firetruck, cameras held aloft, and each firefighter would take a camera, click a few shots toward the memorial, turn around and click a few toward the monument, bend down to hand that camera back and grab the next one. For over two hours, they did nothing but take hundreds of photos with hundreds of cameras. I hadn't brought my camera, because I couldn't find the film I thought I had, and though I had originally planned to stop and pick some up, when our start was delayed, I scrapped that plan. Today, of course, I found my film (in the basket with the lentils and beans, naturally!) But, it didn't really matter, as my friend is a professional photographer and brought her camera bag with her.
Up by the monument it was easier to see the memorial. The way it was lit inside made it hard to tell if you were seeing Lincoln inside or some stylized black-and-white banner hanging from the columns. We finally decided it was the actual statue but looked weird from the lighting (which, looking af the photos on WaPo's website today, cast double shadows on the wall behind). The jumbotron speakers didn't do the best job of amplifying the sound--you had to be in the right spot, and sometimes the sound seemed to fade in and out. It also wasn't synchronized with the video very well--and especially when Obama was speaking, it was disconcerting to see his mouth move and then a few seconds later to hear what he'd just said.
After Obama was done, Pete Seeger and then Beyonce finished things up with "this land is your land" and "America the beautiful" (respectively). By then we were walking away, tired and cold, towards the National Gallery (where we got some hot chocolate and saw Franks' "The Americans" exhibit), but we could still see and hear as we passed the jumbotrons along the way. As it happened, taking time out to go to the gallery enabled us to miss the worst of the crowds leaving the mall. The metro was packed but manageable, and people were sharing their perceptions and experiences on the train. We made it home (stopping at a Five Guys on the way) around ten, excited, happy and exhausted.
"what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you - Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there." --President-elect Barack Obama, January 18, 2009.