Monday, January 19, 2009

The dark before the dawn

What is difficult to convey are the size of the crowds in WDC.  I've lived here for over 20 years, more or less, and went to the swearing-in, the parade, and one of the balls for the Clinton 1992 inaugural, and I have never seen the city quite like this.

And everyone is polite and everyone is happy.  Civility and bonhomie.  Let's hope it lasts a while.

Robert's disabilities being what they are, the shadow of the fantasy of working connections to get tickets or even standing on the open-to-all part of the Mall was just that, a shadow that flickered across our minds.  Bill Clinton was sworn in as president nine years before 9/11.  Even so, we still had to go through a security barrier and find a place to stand on the west lawn of the Capitol at least an hour or two before the ceremony.  We looked for our pictures, and, yes, there we were: on the lawn, the Capitol looming behind us like the great white whale, filling up the space behind our faces in the photos.  Even then, Clinton is a miniature figure in our pictures--if you watch this on TV on Tuesday, we were standing where all the chairs are set up.

I can remember glancing back down the Mall in 1992, past the Capitol reflecting pool, and looking at everyone else watching the swearing-in on jumbo-trons.  The Mall was crowded, but only the first third or so was standing room only.  Remember that the Mall is a little less than two miles long.  Mark that against tomorrow's photos: Clinton was the first Democratic president in 12 years, and excitement was high.  The crowds for his swearing-in stopped well short of where the WWII memorial stands today--it didn't exist in 1992.

We took the kids down to the Capitol today to see what we all could see before tomorrow's events.  Although I exit the Union Station metro stop several days a week for work, and often walk up through the shops & restaurants, I have never in my life seen it as crowded as it was today.  Taking Robert down is circuitous--the disability access is through the Amtrak station at the back of the building, rather than a quick escalator ride from the metro exit.  We emerged from the elevator that runs between the metro platform and the Amtrak station, and I am not exaggerating when I state unequivocally that it was wall-to-wall people all the way through the shops to the door.  Threading Robert's wheelchair through the masses was a feat (that we had to repeat going back).  

On the red line, I chatted with the man across the aisle from me.  If you have a kid in a wheelchair, people will just talk to you about anything.  You look safe.  He was in town from Connecticut, on his way to pick up his tickets from his congresswoman.  Said the TV news was reporting 5 million people in town based in part on hotel bookings.  I believe it.

Pressing through Union Station itself, through the familiar, high, decorated wooden doors, was pressing through to a city transformed.  Pedestrians routed around the metro exit, outside, past a legion of port-o-potties, spilling out into the intersection of 1st St NE and Mass Ave, people pouring past the cars, across the intersections.  So many were there, I couldn't believe they hadn't decided to do street closings today.

We pushed on, down Louisiana and New Jersey to Constitution, looking for a way through the huge metal gates they've erected around the perimeter of the Capitol and the Mall.  Through the "purple" gate and onto the Capitol grounds, down the street that runs in front of the Capitol reflecting pool.  Running a zig-zagging gauntlet around and through the decorative stone walls and other security fences, we made our way up against the cyclone fencing and security guards who were preventing people from wandering among the carefully and exactly placed several thousand folding chairs set up in the center of the west lawn itself.  

The Capitol itself shining like ivory in the fading light from the sun, draped with flags from several junctures in American history, bunting, jumbo-trons set off discreetly to the right and left, huge and at the same time like postcards in front of the bulk of the building.  And everyone around us was smiling and happy.  Complete strangers trusting other strangers with their cameras, offering and volunteering to take pictures of whole groups for the record and the memories.  Being around crowds of that size is often a frightening experience, a feeling of fear and hostility creeps over you, you guard your person--but not here, not today.  Today, being in a crowd that size was like being dropped into a pool of pure bliss.  

We stopped off at my office for a few minutes to tend to Robert, then back in the twilight to Union Station and the Metro, through throngs of people and vendors selling everything with Obama on it they could get their hands on.  Edith bought an Obama bear.  Robert bought a flag.  We wedged ourselves back on the metro and were whooshed back up to Bethesda where we'll watch it all on TV tomorrow.  I can't wait to see the scale, the scope, the size of it all from the birds-eye view of a helicopter shot.  

Peace to all through this one last long, dark night of the Bush Administration.

1 comment:

jeneva said...

Oops! I wrote this post late last night, sleepy after the day at the Mall. I temporarily forgot that the WWII memorial is between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. What I should have said was that, during Bill Clinton's 1992 swearing-in, the crowds on the free access part of the Mall didn't go west past about 7th St.