Friday, January 23, 2009

Inauguration Day memories - part 2

1/20/09 Inauguration Day – Part 2

So I’m at the Glenmont Metro station by 4:15 a.m. on Tuesday morning. The drive over was what you’d expect at 4 in the morning – you’re the only car on the road and for a brief moment you think you’re in an M. Night Shyamalan movie or a Danny Boyle zombie movie and everyone is dead and you’re the only one left but that’s how you felt during the 8 years of Bush and that’s going to be officially over at noon today so time to get hopeful, get happy and get to the National Mall for the inauguration. Parking’s a snap even though the bottom level was fairly filled. A handful of people headed to the escalators to the Metro. Lots of “Hope you got lots of layers” and “What a great day” are exchanged. I’m down the escalator and on the Metro before I even have a chance to feel just how cold it is. (Travel note – I was smart enough to buy my Metro pass the day before in the late afternoon. The lines then were 12-15 deep at every ticket machine and I wasn’t about to first start digging for change on Tuesday morning.) The Metro was waiting there for me and there were plenty of seats. So glad the folks I was staying with lived near the end/beginning of the line. Sat next to two black women – one was striking, early 40s, Lena Horne’s gene pool with a no-nonsense air about her. Since I talk to everyone I started talking with her. She had flown out from Bakersfield and had scored tickets from a Republican Congressman who her next-door neighbor knew personally. She was a Corrections Officer and lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood. She was heartsick over the housing/foreclosure crisis and had seen what it had done to many folks in her neighborhood. But she was also big on personal accountability – banks and mortgage companies were wrong, but so were the people who took the loans to get their piece of the dream. She had worked hard her entire life and had earned everything that had come her way. And she knew that people needed help. So as tough as she was, she wanted government to help, even if it meant helping folks who’d done the wrong thing, in her estimation. The crowd in the Metro car was predominantly black (I counted 2 white faces, mine and one other) and she couldn’t get over that “a middle-aged white man” had driven 500 miles to be at the inauguration. I told her about my Bronx background and how I had grown up with diversity and how it had helped form me and my beliefs and values and how I had loved it. Told her I had gone to college in Harlem at City College. Mentioned a few of my favorite lines – mainly how post-war American culture is all Jews and Blacks (movies, music, books, Broadway, et al) and that’s the culture that was transmitted all around the world and we should be damn proud that today is the political highpoint of that cultural shift from “old white men” to ethnics and people of color. Told her I had to be there to beat witness, to feel the energy, to be counted among the thousands who were there. Getting up early was nothing. Being cold was nothing. Being generally uncomfortable for hours was nothing. A bi-racial President who looked like most of the world; a former Constitutional Law professor who inspired with words he actually wrote; a young man, a family man, who preached compassion and accountability – that was something. And I had to be there to see it just as much as she had to be there to see it. She
said I was the first white man she’d ever talked “race” with. I said I preferred “ethnic” since it was white people who put my people in cattle-cars. George Bush is a white guy. Miami Steve, Little Steven from the E-Street band and the Sopranos, he’s ethnic. Pacino, ethnic. Dick Cheney, white guy. Phillip Roth, ethnic. Donald Rumsfeld, white guy. When I told her that I wanted to be judged by the content of my character and not by the non-pigmentation of my skin, she laughed. The announced her stop – Judiciary Square – for the ticketed folks. We hugged. I couldn’t resist. I said a little too loudly, “See? Black and white can get along.” She laughed. Very few others did. Didn’t matter. It wasn’t even 5 in the morning and it was already a great day.
Next stop was Chinatown, my stop. I’d been reading for days which Metro stops would be closed, and which would get me to where I wanted to go on the Mall and Chinatown was it.
To me, for a city to be world-class it has to have a Chinatown. Because this means it has Chinese food. (This law of mine may only apply to Jews since the Old Testament story of manna from heaven, which we all know today as Kung Pao Chicken.) And DC has a Chinatown and it lets you out on 7th Street which was perfect cause I was going to head down 7th Street to the checkpoint. This would lead me right to the first part of the National Mall open to the public and right behind the last ticketed area. Things were looking good as I left the Metro and hit the street. And then the reality of bitter cold, darkness, and crowds hit. There were thousands of people out. Everybody was bigger and bulkier than they might otherwise have been because we all had layer upon layer on. We looked like the world’s worst shoplifters – simply putting on all the clothing we were stealing and then trying to walk out of the store inconspicuously. I had on the following: On my legs – thin REI thermals, another pair of REI thermals over that, a pair of dungarees, fleece pants over those, and XL sweatpants over everything. On my feet – a pair of thermal socks, insulated boots and handwarmers in the boots. My legs were warm. My feet were toasty.
Up top I had on long-sleeved REI thermals, long-sleeved Kurt Cobain style thermals over that, long-sleeved Obama Inauguration Day T-shirt that I’d gotten for donating money to and I was wearing “to represent”, hooded Miami Dolphins sweatshirt that I’d bought in Vegas years before (I hate the Dolphins, but the colors were good), blue (representing again) Patagonia fleece, and a Murphy Brown jacket that came to me somehow from my ex-wife. A pair of gloves from snowboarding and a thermal headband from REI and a Denver Broncos knit cap. I was representing Blue America, NFL America, TV America, recreational America, and consumer America and I was warm and it felt good.
At 7th Street I was in the first group of thousands that were smashed together at the first checkpoint. Some of those concrete highway barriers were there to guide us into lanes but there were too few to actually do that and we quickly became this giant amorphous mass. Friendships were made, vows were exchanged, babies were born – it was that intimate and it went on for hours. I talked to a couple from Cameroon who were thrilled to be there. They kept apologizing for their English but I told them that they spoke better English than our departing President and they laughed. None of that Japanese girl hand to the face hiding their laughter. They laughed deep and rich and real and I told them I wanted to be a stand-up comic in Cameroon because if audiences laughed like they just did, that had to be the bext feeling in the world. They said they didn’t know of any Cameroon stand-ups and I said that’s because you’ve got other things on your mind, like will you be eaten by crocodiles today and they laughed again. Note to self: look into plane fare to Cameroon and possibility of opening up a comedy club. Far inland. Not near any rivers. No shirt, no shoes, no crocodiles.
And we waited. And we shifted our weight from foot to foot, doing the freezing, god I have to pee dance. But nobody was peeing. The port-o-sans were all behind the checkpoints and they were probably already filthy. I think they’re filthy when they come off the assembly line. I think the folks who make them shit in them and pee in them to test them and then don’t clean them cause they’re port-o-sans and that’s what they’re supposed to do. Note to self: Never ever use portable toilet.
Met two women in their 60s who come in with their church group on a bus from Ohio. One had on a faux mink coat and the other had a Cleveland Browns jacket. They actually passed a small flask back and forth to take off a bit of the chill and I said that their Church must be the greatest Church ever. The woman in the Browns jacket said, “If you’re a Browns fan you always have the flask ready.” I loved them.
Helicopters kept passing overhead with their searchlights trained on the crowd. When a young guy next to me said, “WTF are they looking at?”, I answered, “A shitload of alleged perpetrators.” Huge laugh. Note to self: Start doing stand-up again but only in Black clubs.
Hours passed. Talked to everyone around me. The crowd was like those movies they show in bio class of the paramecium – the pseudopods reaching out, oozing like jelly, the amoeba body following. When someone moved, turned or shifted, the people around you all changed. You were no longer looking left and talking to the Cameroonian couple; you were now facing behind you and talking to the college kids wearing the yellow Presidential Inauguration Conference headbands. Talked to one id with a BY Terriers hockey hat. He played club hockey and we talked hockey for a while. Only natural on an pre-dawn 11 degree morning. As a hockey dad it was very natural. He and a friend of his from Penn State (God, how I hate Big 10 football) and I talked politics. Great to hear young people with articulate, progressive views. And they were with a girl from Florida who was wearing ballet slippers. When I pointed out the fact that it was 11 degrees and her feet would probably fall off before Biden was sworn in she said “I’m from Florida.” I said, “I’m from Earth but I know that the Moon has no oxygen so I’d better bring my own if I go. Did you ever hear of a little thing we call WINTER?!” She said her feet were already freezing and I told her to collect as much newspaper as she could. And somehow wrap them around your feet. I made a homeless reference and a Valley Forge reference and she actually said “Ewww.” I said she could be a slave to fashion and have no feet or she could wrap her feet in newspaper and maybe live to dance again one day. Last I saw her the two college boys were picking up newspaper for her after we got through the checkpoints. College guys will do anything to get laid, even if it means fighting homeless people for insulating material.
7 o’clock came, the checkpoints were supposed to open and we were supposed to be on our way to the Mall. Nothing. No word from the National Guard behind the metal gates.
7:30, still nothing. Crowd chanting “Let us in.” No response.
8:00, and yet more nothing. People on cellphones are finding out that other checkpoints are letting people in. WTF?! My plan to be in that first big block of free public space on the Mall, behind the last ticketed group, was in danger of failing.
8:30, I get a call on my cell. A friend, Jerry Ramirez WHO HAD FLOWN IN THAT MORNING FROM L.A. AND HAD LANDED AT DULLES AT 6:15 OR SO WAS ALREADY ON THE MALL!!! WTF???!!! He had flown in on the red-eye, landed, taken a cab to the Metro and Metroed to the south side of the Mall AND HE WAS ALREADY ON THE MALL!!! WTF??!!
9:00, still nothing and then sometime after 9:15 they opened the gates. 8 at a time. Great. 8 at a time, 2 gates, thousands of us, yeah, I’ll get to the Mall sometime in February.


suZLew said...

More please!

Rainer Doost said...

A wonderful tour de force! How about opening a comedy club in Asheville. Valeria and I promise to laugh as enthusiastically as your Cameroonian friends.