Things move far too fast for me to ever be a real journalist. Well, yunno, if there was a real deadline I might move words a bit faster. The Inauguration, from a news cycle perspective, is so completely last year. It was covered. But wait, I was there! Hopefully, I have something unique to tell you about it.
I visited my old friend Lo in Arlington – drove there on Sunday night. Her brother had scored tickets thru his congressman up in New York, but then decided that the trip and the event would be too intense and too unrewarding for the six-year-old that was to be in tow. So, he FedEx’d the tix to my ex. Many many thanks to you, bro.
I was sick. A sort of sore-throat flu, achey and nasally raw. It had started on Friday. I did my best to slam it with fluids and pharma, and some additional rest on Monday. I managed to shore up enough energy to tackle the event, but I was disappointed that I was not going to be partying in DC after the inauguration. I made the best of it.
The city, as you know, was in full prep for the event, knowing that it was to expand by a few million people, population-wise. It was super-smart for the organizers to shut the city down at the border, closing bridges and tunnels to car traffic, and forcing people onto public transport. I have one shot in the video that I took where I’m on the metro, on a fully crowded car, heading over the train bridge next to the 14th Street bridge, where a caravan of 8 buses is heading into the city, parallel to us. The name of the game was “How to Move 1.5 Million People Into One Central Location in a Short Period of Time.” As far as I could tell, the planners were on their game.
My companion was fretting the whole way in – that’s what she does. “We should have gotten up earlier. We’re never getting in.” was her mantra. We stepped off the Metro into a massively crowded L’Enfant Station in DC, and shuffled slowly up stairs into morning sunlight, and attempted to figure out our path. We were Silver Ticket holders (more about that in a bit), and we were able to find our line fairly quickly, thanks to a friendly guide. Unfortunately, we found the middle of the line, and had to work our way down Independence Ave, directly away from the venue, to find the end of the line. Lo’s mantra became quicker and more insistent.
We found the end of the line in front of a beautiful old Smithsonian building. We got there at almost precisely 8 am, the same time that they were opening the gates on the mall. The line had not yet moved, obviously, but as soon as 8 am dinged, the line began to move. Quickly. We knew the line was at least 10 blocks long, but after we had moved a city block in under ten minutes, we knew we were going to be fine. I had to phrase it as a math problem to terminate Lo’s mantra.
We proceeded. Just past the Museum of the American Indian was a large cache area, a big pool of people, waiting to step up. After wading thru the pool we came to a long row of gates, probably 50 gates with four attendants at each, which is why they were able to process us thru so quickly. The Silver Ticket area was probably the lowest security ticketed area, as it was west of the Reflecting Pool, separating us from the interior arena. There were 240,000 total tickets, and I would have to guess that at least half were silver. So we were in a big general section with about 120,000 people. We were in before 9 am, so I would have to guess that they were able to process between 20,000 and 40,000 people per hour. I have to give them props for that.
A guide to the ticketed arena
Also, it seemed that our section provided a sort of security buffer. Our view of the Capitol building was still impossibly distant; there was no way to even make out individuals from that distance unless you had some sort of military grade binocs. My point is, theoretically, this section did not necessarily need to be ticketed, cos it didn’t necessarily improve one’s ability to see anything. But, as we were a secured crowd, we provided a human buffer in front of all unticketed, unsearched individuals that started in the section directly west of (behind) us. There was nothing short of a missile that would have reached the dais from that point.
I hope my interest in this part of the event is not unseemly; it’s a unique and terrifying moment from a national security standpoint. Beyond our fears for Barack, our entire Federal Government was on one stage at one time. All living Presidents and Vice-Presidents, all the top Senators and Congressmen, the whole Cabinet, Oprah… what sort of chaos would we be in if something had happened? I’m in awe of the assessments and wargaming that our National Security wonks had to suss out; DC was a giant theater with millions of audience members, thousands of performers and hundreds of leading roles. They must have considered some pretty awful scenarios in their planning.
I was taking mental notes for this blog post, and I was beginning to realize that I was witnessing a logistically successful event that I would probably write about in glowing terms. And so I have. But the next day, I got to read about these guys.
It’s also worth noting how weird it was that the lowest level ticket was Silver. Yunno, the old song about the Golden Ticket. Well, a Silver Ticket must be just below that, right? What’s worth more, silver or yellow? Keep your blue ticket, I’VE got a silver ticket.
So, yes. We were in. We had a Jumbotron in close proximity, the Capitol looming large but still a distance away. We chatted with our neighbors, watched the ‘tron as VIP attendees were videoed making their entrance. I chain-sucked zinc cough drops, and we enjoyed cookies and orange slices. It was cold, yes. Layers is the way to go. Occasionally I would do a little jumping dance to get new blood to flow to my feet again; this dance was apparently all the rage. Don’t call me a trendsetter, though.
I discovered quickly that the sound system was shit. Really. Take note, festivities-planners. Whoever was in charge of that debacle needs to be given a job in some other field. Either that, or the budget for the sound system was short by about half. There are ways to design a large-venue sound system to account for synchronization problems. There are also ways to determine how many speaker cabs you’re gonna need to fill a certain area. It was fortunate that there was closed captioning on the jumbotron, cos otherwise the speeches would have been unintelligible.
I’ll process the video for tomorrow, and you’ll get a sense of the festivities down on our part of the farm. People had no problem expressing their feelings for various members of the outgoing administration; it made me wonder, though, if the crowds up close had the same vocal attitude. Not that I think Cheney would have cared what we thought, but when he entered in the wheelchair, it was clear that there was no love lost. The wheelchair itself helped further caricaturize Cheney; it at once evoked Mr. Potter, Dr. Strangelove, and Dr. Scott, with a little unmasked Darth Vader thrown in. How unfortunate for him.
The crowd obviously went nuts whenever an Obama was on the screen. From 11:30 on, all official cameras were trained on the ritualistic passage of each of the players. There were lots of corridor shots, etc. Well, you saw this part. But it was fun to watch the crowd’s reactions to each icon as they took their places on the dais.
And so the ceremony started. One neighbor of mine was facing me during the Rick Warren invocation. I suddenly processed that he was in a posture of protest, facing away from the dais. For me, the Warren nod was unfortunate, but I took it as just a ‘politics as usual’ moment. This gentleman, however, was clearly deeply offended by Warren’s presence. I considered joining him, but chose to be Switzerland, for a number of reasons too personal to really get into here. I watched his facial expressions as he quietly noted the points of irony and hypocrisy in Rev. Warren’s invocation. This became one of the most moving parts of the whole event for me.
It’s been noted that Noon is the moment that the transfer of power occurs, and not at the conclusion of the oath. Biden was quickly sworn in at 11:57, and I was expecting Obama to follow. There was that musical interlude, though, which took us past the noon hour. Right at the moment when Itzhak and Yo-Yo struck up the band, which was pretty much noon, there was a sudden appearance of a flock of birds directly above the mall. It was a beautifully timed and surreal appearance, as if the Earth itself was expressing relief at the passage of administrations. Four dozen gulls swooped and circled in sync to the strings below. It was a very high moment.
Then, boom. The Oath was taken (such as it was), we saw the handshake, and the crowd went nuts again. It was a great feeling to actually see this effort thru to fruition. Right? It’s about that moment. Two million people standing for four hours in a cold crowded arena to be there for that exact moment. And boom, boom, boom. The 21 gun salute was fired from cannons – we could feel them in our feet, even from a half mile away.
I loved Obama’s speech, as much as I could follow it (the sound problems), but I cheered for the proclamations that I could understand. I spent some of this time listening to the unique audio effect of Obama-voice bouncing off buildings, echoing and reverbing. Barack knows how to work a PA, man. Even with shitty, echoey audio, he still sounds awesome.
When the speech was completed, many in the crowd immediately went to depart. Everything following Obama was anti-climactic, sadly. We weren’t really sure if we should start to head out, so we waited things out. Might have been an error. Then again, I don’t think we would have gotten ahead of the crowd in any case.
As with all things, the exit strategy was poor. To be fair, it’s much harder for event planners to plan for the mass disgorgement of the mall. One just has to hope that people will use their common sense as they stumble and shuffle their way out of the arena. However, nobody really had a sense of which exits (read: streets) would be best to use. More signage, please, next time! Or some sort of map, included on the website.
After climbing over a few barriers, we headed west on Independence Ave, seeking schools of fish to join up with as we swam upstream. The weird thing was, EVERYWHERE was upstream. Eventually, we came to the intersection of Independence and 12th, where we experienced Human Gridlock. An entire intersection filled with people, nobody moving cos everyone wanted to go in every direction. Amazing, and slightly frightening. In retrospect, it is a beautiful thing that there were no real incidents or arrests (so I’ve heard). So, though it was utter chaos, it was a peaceful chaos.
Independence and 12th
We eventually escaped to Arlington on foot via the 14th St bridge, and down thru a park on the Virginia side of the Potomac. I was sad that I was not attending some fabulous DC after-party (screw the balls, a bar or a house party would have filled the bill), but I was exhausted and numb and strung out on DayQuil. We ate Thai, then napped for three hours. Par-tay!
Still, I have confidence that I didn’t miss the best part of the day.
(photo credits to Lorraine Brasseur)