So here's what happened on the Big Day...
We managed to wake up at the dark, strange hour of 4:00 am on Tuesday. We bundled ourselves in our double layers and extra hats and headed out. It was dark and cold and the streets were quiet, but a few blocks from Ken & Lindsay's apartment we spotted some other inauguration-bound early birds. Our first stop was breakfast at Open City, a coffeehouse • diner • bar that stayed open 24 hours during the Inauguration festivities. It was actually kind of bustling (for 4:30 in the morning); we weren't the only ones prepping for the big day with a big meal.
By 5:45, after stopping to buy a couple of copies of the Post, we were boarding a very crowded Metro, just wedging ourselves into the back of the train. We got off the train at Farragut North and joined the strong current of people heading south to the National Mall. It was still dark as night, but the people were out in droves and everyone moved in a unified direction. It was surreal to feel so in tune with such huge numbers of perfect strangers and to be making this epic journey at this ungodly hour with them. That we were moving so far all together on foot, that the bone-chilling cold did not deter us, that such a diverse range of people all had the same destination in mind ... all contributed to the visceral quality of the morning.
So, on we went, skirting the closed roads and barriers, remarking at the strange feeling of so many military personnel standing by, marveling at the some-what delirious man with a bicycle and a tiny American flag who asked us "Is somethin' goin' on today? Where's everybody goin'?"
It was 6:30 by the time we arrived at our pre-scouted-out spot immediately east of the Washington Monument where the hill gave us a nice vantage point of the capital, which was still (of course) about a mile away but was glowing brilliantly. There were plenty of people arriving when we did, plus some who had been there already and were sound asleep on the ground, bundled in sleeping bags. I had just arrived and was already freezing, so I couldn't imagine what those folks must have felt. Although after a couple of hours of cold I began to imagine.
The 11 degree wind chill effectively chilled me to the core rather quickly and though we huddled together, bought lots of hand warmers, and jumped up and down to keep warm, I couldn't fully shake the piercing edge of the persistent cold. I thought that my toes would go numb. The temperature rose slightly a couple of hours later after the sun had come out fully. But by then we were nearly frozen solid and were reluctant even to remove our gloves long enough to use our cell phones, (which had trouble working anyway). And so we just watied with eagerness and watched.
The monumental significance of the event was touted proudly by everyone's Obama wear, but uniquely so by some inauguration goers who wore shirts or carried flags that said "we were there." I kept thinking "I can't believe I'm really here." But the phrase "we were there" already pushes the event into the past, even as it is still happening, even before the ceremony has begun.
As the fully diverse crowd began to fill in thick and steady, the hour approached for the ceremonies to begin. With binoculars we could see the jumbotron and could watch the dignitaries move into place. The crowd booed & hissed a couple of folks but mostly hoorayed the rest, going crazy when Obama was on the screen and calming down to almost-silence in anticipation of the big moment.
That 2 million people were all gathered in one spot was obviously remarkable. But the fact that 2 million people were more than willing - happy even - to stand for hours in the freezing cold, work through the crowds, wait in line 30 minutes for an unpleasant porta-potty, etc., all in order to gather in one spot for this one event - that was something I couldn't fully grasp, even as I stood right there and felt it myself.
The ceremonies transpired quickly, like Christmas morning after so much anticipation, the culmination of unparalleled excitement. After the prayers, the songs, the oath, the speech, the poem, the tears, the squeals, the hoorays, and the thunderous gloved applause ... the mass exodus began and we all jostled together like penguins slowly waddling our way out - moving as one body - trying to leave the mall.
The great quantities of people dispersed on foot through the city, moving through the transformed streets and filling up the restaurants and metros. We were hungry and tired, so we took a taxi back to Ken & Lindsay's and began the slow process of thawing while reveling in the reality of our new president. With vegetable stew bubbling on the stove, we listened to the radio, watched the TV, and Googled for more information.
The inauguration was beyond exciting. But the thrill didn't stop there: later that day, when someone on the radio reported on "former President George W. Bush" and then said "President Obama" - my heart skipped a beat at the thought of what just happened. The city hummed with excitement into the next day as Ken and Lindsay reported elevator and metro conversations with fellow chatty and happy inauguration goers. The excitement followed Sergio and me home on our direct flight back to Kansas City - on the airplane it was every topic of conversation. And even on the shuttle bus out to economy parking at MCI, the people around us were abuzz with inauguration stories.
I am happy for this buzz to continue for a long time.