A reporter’s hopeful journey from Monterey into the heart of inaugural madness.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Washington D.C. – The thick syrup of people oozes down the street as one, slow, motivated and totally confused mass. The military police present do little to dent their misdirection by offering conflicting advice. Someone standing on a cement roadblock yells, “Medic!”
“I lost my only friend,” says a lady pressing against me from the left. Despite her plump figure she looks stretched – like she might start laughing or burst into tears. “Gail? Gail! I can’t believe I lost her.”
I try to shape my face into a smile of serenity and suggest she try texting Gail since the cellular networks are likely overloaded.
“She doesn’t text!” she declares, glancing over. “What are you doing, taking a journal? Of what, the Walk from Hell?”
At that already slightly surreal moment, revered Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris materializes next to us, loudly encouraging people to “Move to the left!”
Thankfully, the sludge gives way to a line – the first indication after an hour of searching that there is an organized process in place to access the silver section behind the reflection pond beneath the U.S. Capitol in time for the most anticipated inauguration in the nation’s history. But the unmoving line wraps around one block, then another, and another – revealing an endless parade of increasingly impatient people. Helpful signs are conspicuously absent.
You could call this a cluster you-know-what – but that’d be a lot like Bush calling Abu Ghraib and the absence of WMDs in Iraq “disappointments.”
More troubling than my inability to raise my arms or escape in the case of idiocy is the fact that I was warned about this – and ignored the advice. I can’t help but wonder who’s dumber: the guy over there selling pictures of “Obama and MLK talking in the Oval Office,’’ the people who buy them, or me. I don’t wonder long. The answer is easy.
I should’ve listened to Obama.
~ ~ ~
Before the warning came the honey.
In just six days, we will begin the next chapter in our shared American story.
We’ve put together an inaugural full of great events. I want you to be a part of the celebration…
A click on the YouTube link unleashed Obama’s multimedia warmth.
“You’ve probably heard the reports that unprecedented numbers of Americans are planning on joining us in Washinton,” he said. “That will mean long lines, a tough time getting around, and most of all, a lot of walking around on what could be a very cold winter day.
“You don’t have to brave the crowds and commotion in order to participate in this celebration.”
Something in his language sounded familiar.
“Good to hear from you,” a D.C.-based colleague told me, “but are you f –-ing crazy? D.C. is going to be a zoo. Stay in Monterey and watch it on the TV.”
He wasn’t done. “Good luck, dude. Where are you staying? The city is booked. They’re closing all the bridges. Dump trucks full of cops. Bring your own tear gas.”
Echoes of his cautionary talk were increasingly audible from the authorities. FBI supervisory agent Christopher Combs told USA Today that despite the absence of credible threats against the inauguration proceedings, the amount of people alone mandated that they 1) construct a separate cellular network to avoid system overloads that further panicked the aftermath of Sept. 11 attacks; 2) erect an unprecedented crowd-control complex of loud speakers, large-screen TVs and cell-phone alert protocols; and 3) mobilize a regiment of security that includes 100 teams of GPS-synchronized specialists trained on hazardous materials, weapons of mass destruction and hostage rescue.
“One of the reasons the assets required [for the inauguration] have doubled, even tripled, is not because of the threat, but because of the number of people coming,” Combs said. “A problem can be magnified 10 times because of the size of the crowd.”
Added Northwestern professor Hani Mahmassani, an expert on crowd behavior and the deadly stampedes that have scarred Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca, “Anything could be a spark. A person falling or tripping. You try to keep the psychology positive so that no false rumors spread.”
~ ~ ~
An elaborate exercise in positive psychology – a free superstar-studded rock concert for a nearly a quarter million people – boded well for the Big Day. The potentially crushing crowds at the “We Are One” concert filed in tamely; strangers exchanged spontaneous smiles and offered hands to help their fellow concertgoers sit on top of Dumpsters or in trees for better views.
A half-mile from the stage and a continent away from the Air Force base where he works, a Sacramento man stood beneath a tree. “It’s a good spot,” Ernest Chambers said, then summarized the effect of the event succinctly. “The most important thing is that all of America is coming together.”
Despite a crowd larger than Monterey County’s entire population, exposed to weather cold enough to make teeth chatter and children whine, seemingly too large to find silence, a moment comes when the sound of the wind shuffling temperatures lower is the only sound. Earlier, this group danced and sang with a single voice to Garth Brooks’ version of “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie” and their shouts with U2 scratched to the top of the towering Washington Monument. Now, though, they stand attentive – I remember no rock concert so quiet. They’re listening.
Barack Obama steps to the podium beneath Abraham Lincoln – he had recently visited the Memorial with his two daughters, raising the already-high stakes for his inaugural speech.
His family’s reaction was interesting enough to share with the press. His youngest daughter noted how long the Gettysburg address was, and pressed him to go briefer on Tuesday. Her older sister, meanwhile, reminded her dad that he was the first African-American President, so the speech, “better be good.” Come noon on inauguration day, Obama made it clear he was listening.
~ ~ ~
I wouldn’t be there, though. I’d stomached three flights and one train to make it across the contiguousness – and despite the fact I’d survived a subway door nearly shearing me from my backpack on the D.C. Metro and a kitchen fire at my host’s apartment (always be 15 percent smarter than the technology you deploy, in this case, an electric teapot that doesn’t belong on the stove), and while I’d secured a ticket to the silver area thanks to Rep. Sam Farr’s office, bent my body and bike through the maw of the masses for an hour, and ebbed and flowed with four or five people touching me at any given time for another 45 minutes – I was about out. I’d retreat to the public section, maybe the Lincoln Memorial, and take in things from there. After all, the “We Are One” event had given me practice at distance appreciation.
Then I paused. And decided to listen to Obama.
“Along the way there will be setbacks and false starts and days that test our fundamental resolve… ” he said at “We Are One” beneath Lincoln. “But despite all of this… I stand here today as hopeful as ever.”
Hopeful, I sloshed back into the human soup.
~ ~ ~
For the restless masses stuffed in sleeping bags, scarves and Obama beanies who arrived at the National Mall starting as early as 3am on Inauguration Day, the massive Capitol building cutting into the morning gray behind the stage offered a dramatic reminder of how far Barack Obama and the country have traveled to get here – the 288-foot-high rotunda was built by slaves.
In their own more modest ways, Monterey County’s very Americans covered some ground themselves – and resourcefully tapped reservoirs of talents, connections and energies along the way – to meet history here today (while worming their way into as many exclusive events as possible).
Big Sur native and noted photographer Kodiak Greenwood took an Obama-esque slow train of his own, rumbling out of Los Angeles on Amtrak last week, relentlessly crawling all over the train (including the roof) to snap his skilled shutter along the ensuing 44-hour leg before emerging in Chicago to tour Obama’s Windy City – and later boarding another train stuffed with Barack backers that pulled into Washington in time to crash a handful of parties before and after the big day (link to Santa Barbara Independent’s account of the trip at www.mcweekly.com/obama-express).
“Talking to the people on the train – seeing the energy and the excitement – was a real highlight,” Greenwood says. “We just got to downtown [D.C.] and the energy is crazy. Full bore.”
Carmel Valley’s Kate Howard leveraged a budding TV career at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a battalion of press pass requests and nervy willingness to test any security guard with her homemade inauguration pass to earn access into a whirlwind calendar of events. One moment the former Weekly intern was quizzing star designer Nick Virreos about the exuberant First Lady-inspired series of gowns he debuted at the California State Society Luncheon, the next boldly gathering footage from the Hip Hop Inaugural Stage.
“Just balled out of control at this hip hop ball,” she texted me. “I stood on stage filming T.I., Russell Simmons, Busta, MC Lyte, Bow Wow.”
Monterey native Stephanie Martin worked for years in Kenya, but any allegiance with Obama’s forefathers wasn’t what helped her pull off an impressive inauguration-parade-ball triple-crown ticket pull. She had her grandma in traditionally Republican Utah request tickets from her Congressman early on – bingo; tapped an IRS-employed attorney friend to gain access to a high rise perch along Obama’s parade route; and petitioned her Monterey High classmate and longtime pal, 1993 valedictorian Kim Baker, to see if her husband could get Martin into the Illinois-Hawaii Home State Ball – arguably the hardest ticket in town. Since he was anchoring the event’s entertainment, Baker’s better half, Jack Johnson, was able to get them in.
Reclining in the plush bar-restaurant at downtown D.C.’s Sofitel, Pacific Grove Mayor Dan Cort made the trek for love – and scored inauguration tickets from (and a breakfast date with) Rep. Sam Farr. “I wanted to support my wife Beth’s work on behalf of Obama all year,” he says between bites of salad Nicoise, “and I wanted to be here because Obama is one of those people who inspires me. He changes everything. His success means so much for the rest of us – there are no more excuses. That makes us a better country.”
These locals were joined in D.C. by students from York School and Carmel High, politicians like Monterey Mayor Chuck Della Sala and Monterey High grad Jolene Rust (a budding actress-musician here with Michael Franti to help manage a week of policy and profound rocking), among others. But the most resourceful members of a capable county cross-section might have been Alisal High’s AP government and politics classes.
“Most of these students come from low-income backgrounds and are first-, second-generation Americans, live in East Salinas, an admittedly difficult situation, with poverty, low education rates,” says their teacher, Ruben Pizzaro. “The main thing about students at Alisal – what makes them special – they are overcomers.”
The students decided that the Inauguration would be the best way for them to complete the class’ annual goal of observing governance in action, but that meant they would need to raise $70,000 in just a few weeks to stand a chance at going.
They leaped to work – selling tamales, hosting car washes, soliciting their doctors and dentists, and hosting a Mexican rodeo that pulled in $20,000.
“They do whatever you ask them,” Pizarro says. “You just need to ask them – and keep asking them to do these things that may seem impossible.”
Seeing Obama succeed helps, he adds. “Having a minority president empowers them because in some of their situations, some have a difficult time believing that they can or should do certain things in life,’’ he says. “Now all excuses are out the window.”
In the days before the Inauguration, they poured across cityscape, museum and monument; when the Weekly caught up with them in the scrum of early-morning humanity, waiting to gain access to the unticketed area next to the Air and Space Museum, pre-7am – after they had gathered in Baltimore’s 3:30am bitter cold to make a trek they admitted was rendered more manageable by how far they’d traveled already – they seemed as ready as any to seize the momentum of the moment.
“Our [fundraising success] makes it feel like we can do anything we put our minds to. Anything is possible,” says Alisal senior Alejandra Salvaña. “Now I’m experiencing something not everybody can be here with all of us to see. All the hard work paid off in the end.”
They might be equipped as anyone to answer the charge they heard while near the front of the hundreds of thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the “We Are One” concert.
“Only a handful of generations,” Obama said, “have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now.”
~ ~ ~
Listening pays off. I dig through the masses, ducking and squeezing, and ultimately making it to the end of a line that actually might lead to a gate. Still, it looks hopeless: I calculate the length of the unmoving line to be a 20-minuts sprint. And it’s less than two hours to history.
A minute later, a guy in a red cap on what seems to be a Samaritan kick comes by.
“This will take you nowhere,” he tells the assembled sheep. “I’m telling you, go that way, you don’t even need a ticket to get in. This line will lead you nowhere.”
Maybe two of us within earshot listen, and only hesitantly; as we start moving away from the line we fought to find for blocks, it’s hard to tell whether our new mutton-like mass is herding itself through another exercise in historic futility. But then a turn feels more promising than any heading we had earlier – and the shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie, already surprisingly upbeat given the stressy circumstances, further thaws the prevailing 20-something-degree chill.
Then, as quickly as it has repeatedly clumped, the crowd diffuses. The space works as a muscle relaxer. The gate sits ahead, open, uncrowded. History will have us. Even a momentary setback – Secret Service tells me my bag isn’t coming in with me, and that they won’t watch its Macbook contents for me – finds quick resolution (I wait till they’re not looking). Equally surprising on the security front, despite the fact that Sen. Dianne Feinstein told the assembled lawmakers and fashion fans at the California State Society inaugural event that the tickets have six types of security precautions imbedded in them, no one asks to see mine.
~ ~ ~
They layer the mall like a carpet of never-ending anemones waving tiny American flag tentacles, hundreds of thousands of people – many who traveled hundreds of miles overnight. Their shimmering cheer sweeps past my surprisingly cherry spot halfway up the statue of Ulysses Grant into the reserved-seat labyrinth of lawmakers and VIPs with a unified voice reinforcing a primary tenant of the change at work: We Are One.
To see it happen is to bathe in involuntary goosebumps.
But unity requires listening – to our enemies, to all stakeholders involved. To our hearts.
A lush and passionate voice like Aretha Franklin’s makes listening easier, more instinctual; same goes for the celestial peels of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, buoyed by Itzhak Perlman violin and John Willliams’ guidance and the thuds that come with the official peaceful passing of power.
That cannon that marks that passing snaps heads all around me.
People raise arms reflexively, involuntarily. The reality of a new day sets in a rush.
Now they are thumping one anothers’ backs, grinning.
“Yes we can!”
“Yes we did!”
~ ~ ~
I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll listen more closely. That starts now.
“Our challenges will be met,” he says. “All of this we can do; all of this we will do.”
“We reject the false choice between safety and ideals.”
“They will judge you on what you build, not on what you destroy.”
“We’ve chosen hope over fear.”
“Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back, nor did we falter.”
I tell myself I won’t ever stop listening, then tuck my camera and go, eager to out-hustle the fast-gathering crowds at the exits, wary of another bottleneck.
In so doing, I miss the galvanizing closing poem. My fear, however fleeting and minor, keeps me from listening. But it’s the singer, not the song.