I was at Obama’s inauguration. I was at Obama’s inauguration! I’m finding myself repeating this sentence aloud in complete disbelief.
Let me stop you right now if you think you’re going to read another generic account of how historic, momentous, and unprecedented this day was. Yes, he is our first black president. Yes, the D.C. metro broke its traffic record. Yes, it was a remarkably peaceful day. And yes, at last we have a president who makes us willing to acknowledge we’re Americans.
But you never hear about the small stories that complete the picture. So let me tell you mine.
On Sunday morning, my friends and I rented a sedan from a company I will never use again and refuse to name (it starts with “D” and rhymes with viscount). I’ll spare you the full account of our many car disasters, which culminated in running into a snow bank and getting a speeding ticket.
Overall, the 11-hour drive down through five states and nine different tolls (thank you, Delaware Turnpike!), was a blur of music blasting through the iPod speakers, the munching on crackers with brie and hummus, and squeals of excitement from our Kiwi friend every time we passed a “Welcome to …” state sign.
Though the city was bustling, nothing could have prepared us for Tuesday’s crowds.
The next morning, we made our way to the metro, where we joined the throngs of people waiting to get onto the train. Though the hour was early, the lines long, and the cars packed, everyone around us was jubilant. Even the train driver felt our eagerness to get downtown. “We’re almost there everyone. I can see the platform,” he announced to a laughing audience.
Walking out of the metro and onto the streets toward the Mall was like entering a disaster movie (like Cloverfield, where the streets are crowded with people fleeing), except that it was all smiles and laughter, and cheers of “Oba-ma!” The city had parked big buses in the middle of the road to block off streets designated for the parade, adding to the chaos. But there was no panic or fear, just excitement and the awareness that we were all partaking in something monumental.
And everyone wanted in. On every street corner there were people capitalizing on Obama’s image. One man was selling mini basketballs, chanting to the crowds: “Get your balls of hope, balls of change, it’s a slam dunk people!” Two guys were even selling condoms, like the McCain one that read “Old but not expired.” If it hadn’t been so funny, it would just have been creepy.
Also taking advantage of the crowds and media attention were all kinds of activists and crazies intent on spreading their respective messages. We saw cool anti-fur advocates dressed in furry animal costumes, anti-war extremists claiming that Obama was going to take us all to Afghanistan, as well as those “crazy Jesus guys” that seem to pop up at every large gathering, yelling at you with their megaphones about how Obama is taking us all to hell.
But there were also civic-minded people offering whatever assistance they could. Girl and Boy Scout volunteers were directing people, helping the elderly climb steps, and wishing everyone a wonderful day.
And then there was everyone else. Those just like us, coming from all corners of the world, here in the same spirit of unity, hope, and joy. I’m not exaggerating when I say that strangers were hugging in the streets and sharing their food with one another.
A woman named Anne-Marie Champ had joined a stranger in holding up a poster that read “From Slavery to History!!! Obama Baby.” A naturalized American from Trinidad, Champ captured the spirit of the day: “I’m so happy to see this in America. This is beautiful, this is what’s supposed to be.”
What made the experience so remarkable wasn’t hearing our new president’s voice or seeing the sheer amount of people gathered for this event, but the collective spirit. It was the people – those who had travelled from far and wide, and who had their own stories to tell.