Tuesday, January 20, 2009

From Washington: Tuesday

What a day was today!

The college friend I'm staying with in Washington and I left at about
6:45am, and headed to the Metro for a ride to the Capitol area. What
we found were subway trains already PACKED with exuberant
inauguration-goers. We found out later that the crowds were made
thicker by a half-hour delay on that line due to a passenger having
fallen onto the track. No word on any injuries, but apparently the
incident did cause a delay of about half an hour.

When we reached the destination station near the Congressional office
buildings, everything came to a standstill. The station exit simply
couldn't handle such a flood of people. Three trains arrived during
the time it took us to exit. The station operator was on the PA
system telling everyone to "walk straight through the gate" and "keep
it movin'". Eventually, being in an irrepressibly cheerful mood, the
crowd started to parrot these calls, and the words seem to take on a
political dimension. The station operator caught on too, and started
mixing in "yes we can" with her other instructions. This made a long
and frustrating wait thoroughly enjoyable. It was a remarkable
display of unity and the powerful of a joyful spirit.

We met briefly with friends from Fresno who had just flown from
Sacramento into New York, driven directly to Maryland, parked there
and made their way by subway into Washington. This was at about
7:30am, and they were already clocking a 24-hour day. We shared
tickets and split up from there. We didn't see them again because
they were on their way back to New York as soon as the ceremony was
over. What commitment! (And, ouch!)

The ceremony was fantastic. You saw it all on TV -- and you probably
had a better view than almost any of the 2,000,000 of us on the Mall.
Having tickets, we were able to get a little closer and could at least
see the Capitol (though we were too far away to see any individuals).
Mainly we relied on a Jumbotron, partially obscured by an
inconveniently placed tree, to show us the action. A 3- or 4-second
delay between the video and sound made the viewing a bit odd.

Later, walking away from that location, I realized how lucky we were.
Hundreds of portable toilet units were in place FAR from the Capitol,
near the Washington Monument. From there, depending on where you were
situated, you couldn't even tell where the Capitol was. Certainly
seeing the Capitol made things feel special.

The other special thing was the crowd. The Jumbotrons showed the
various celebrities and dignitaries filing in. There were strong
reactions -- positive and negative -- to the different figures. I was
particularly interested to hear impressions from some of the DC
residents about some of the national or local figures I didn't
recognize. It was a fun way to share a story with a friendly neighbor
and help pass the time. After all, speaking of passing the time,
things didn't really start until 11am, and we were in place by about
9. So, plenty of waiting. Not to mention being packed in so tight
that you felt pressure from your neighbors on all sides!

As chaotic as arriving was, leaving the Mall area was particularly
rough. My friend and I ended up walking several miles, sometimes in
circles, trying to escape the rush of the crowd, looking for a working
subway station, and navigating blocked streets, which were many and
seemed placed at random. By the time we reached our home station and
got ourselves to a restaurant, we had been on our feet for nine hours
straight -- all with almost no food or water. So you can understand
why we didn't stick around for the parade!

Those I've talked to all agree this is a historic occasion which we
would never have missed. However, at this point, I also agree with
those who say it's probably something I'll never want to do again!

Elliott Balch

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