Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

The Inauguration Part 1; Half The Fun

February 16, 2009

I have been on trips where getting there was, indeed, half the fun. Going to the inauguration of Barack Obama was not one of them.

 

We had a plan for attending the inauguration, and though it did not include tickets to the event, it appeared infallible. We would drive to my mother and stepfather’s home just outside of Annapolis, Maryland the Sunday morning before the inauguration. We would stay with them, wake up on Inauguration Day, drive to the New Carrolton station (about 25 minutes away) and take the Metro in and out of DC. What could be easier?

Our inauguration travel crew consisted of myself, wife C., our nine-year-old son J. and my friend and co-worker H. As planned, we left my mother’s house at 7:00 am on the morning of January 20. We’d heard warnings on the news that Metro station parking lots would fill up quickly, so my brother-in-law, K, graciously agreed to drive us to the New Carrolton station.

 

Two days earlier, we had something of a trial run when J, H, K, brother R and I took the train into DC to attend the big pre-inauguration concert on the Mall. That day the New Carrolton station had plenty of available parking, and the only crowd we encountered was the one buying fare cards, where the line to each machine was 8 to 10 people deep.

 

Dozens of newly arrived port-a-potties lined the entrance to the station, awaiting the huddled masses yearning to breathe…well, you get the point. We bought our commemorative fare cards (with Obama’s face printed on them), including the ones we would need for Tuesday (a brilliant move, we were convinced) and boarded the orange line Metro train to DC without incident. We were on the Mall in less than an hour. The concert was good fun, though I kinda wish Garth Brooks had sung “I’ve Got Friends In Low Places.”

 

Getting home after the concert was relatively painless, as well. There was a bit of a crowd at the Metro station near the Mall, but nothing worse than the standard New York City rush hour. Piece of cake.

 

The team at Sunday's concert. We thought this would serve as a dry run for Inauguration Day. We were mistaken.

The team at Sunday's concert. We thought this would serve as a dry run for Inauguration Day. We were mistaken.

The morning of Tuesday, January 20, however, was a different story. For openers, I was not right physically. My stomach was extracting revenge on me for abusing it during a hearty chili, chicken wing and beer celebration the night before. I could barely touch my morning coffee. I feared the port-a-potties at the New Carrolton station might just come into play.

 

As we approached the station, highway signs advised us to bypass New Carrolton, and go to the next station down the line, Landover. STAY AWAY! KEEP GOING! SURRENDER DOROTHY!

 

We chose not to heed these dire warnings, figuring that the trains would fill up at New Carrolton, and we wouldn’t be able to get on at any of the later stops. This was the first in a series of bad decisions we would make throughout the day.

 

The police were not allowing cars to drive up to the station, so we had to walk from the main road. As we approached, my jaw dropped. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people crowded around outside the station, waiting to get in. Where were these people on Sunday?! I realized I would not be able to get even close to one the port-a-potties. I was at the mercy of my digestive system. Fortunately, my stomach embraced the sense of occasion, and did not give me any trouble the rest of the day. 

 

The crowd outside the New Carrolton station. A harbinger of things to come.

The crowd outside the New Carrolton station. A harbinger of things to come.

 

 

 

To make a long (and painful, tedious, frustrating) story short, it took us over an hour and a half to get on a train after arriving at the station. We were diverted from the station entrance, and sent up a (non-working) escalator into the rear parking lot, where a line that must have been a quarter-mile long extended into the far reaches of the parking lot.

 

Thankfully, that line moved pretty quickly, and as a result, spirits were high. A high-energy radio reporter from an Atlanta gospel station moved through the line, holding a tape recorder asking people where they were from.

 

“Ohio!”

 

“Virginia!”

 

“New York!” (that was us).

 

“Dallas!”

 

“Pennsylvania!”

 

“South Carolina!”

 

“Delaware!”

 

“Baltimore!” (big deal)

 

“California!” (big deal!)

 

The line to get back into the New Carrolton station was about 1/4 mile long.

The line to get back into the New Carrolton station was about 1/4 mile long.

Once we got inside the station itself, we moved quickly up the escalators and onto the train platform. The tremendous foresight we exercised in buying our fare cards two days earlier probably saved us all of five minutes.

 

We got on the next train to DC, and all four of us easily got seats. It felt good to sit down. We’d been on our feet for 90 minutes, and I figured we would most likely remain that way for the rest of the day.

 

The train was hardly packed, and when it pulled into Landover, five people calmly walked on board. We came to the awful realization that had we heeded the highway signs, we’d probably be on the Mall already. But no problem, it was now almost 10:00 am., we should still be okay.

 

H, C and J on the train heading into DC.

H, C and J on the train heading into DC.

The train lurched between stations as we crawled into Washington. The conductor announced we were being delayed because of heavy traffic in front of us. Far off in the distance, we could see the dome of the Capitol building. I pointed it out to J.

 

“That’s where Obama will be standing, right there,” I said.

 

“Really?,” he said in awe.

 

The conductor announced Federal Plaza station, where we planned to get off, was closed due to crowds. We wrestled with the decision of whether to get off the stop before, or the stop after. We decided the stop after, but it ended  up being a moot point, since the train stopped at Federal Plaza anyway, and we got off. Our second bad decision.

 

Rising up the long escalators to the bright light of day, we were greeted by a small army of Obama volunteers, identified by their bright red knit caps. “Ticket holders to your right, non-ticket holders to your left,” they shouted. Finally, some organization.

 

Being non-ticket holders, we proceeded to the left. There was a large throng of humans heading toward the Mall. The crowd was moving slowly, and we decided to venture off for a parallel route.

 

The streets were jammed with people heading toward the Mall.

The streets were jammed with people heading toward the Mall.

We zigged and zagged our way west (away from the Capitol Building). We tried to find the road less traveled, but, alas, there was no such thing. No matter which way we turned, we found ourselves in the thick of a slow-moving mob. This was especially tough for J, who only saw peoples’ backs for the better part of an hour (but didn’t complain). I held his hand tightly.

 

Throughout our tortuous journey, we encountered scores of souvenir vendors offering a massive spectrum of Obama-branded merchandise: T-shirts, hats, posters, calendars, coins, magnets, cups, mugs, pens, statuettes, bobble-head dolls, air fresheners (seriously), hand warmers (not Obama-branded, but a big seller) and more. The free market system was alive and well in Washington that day.

 

Only in America.

Only in America.

As we made our way along the southern edge of the Mall, the crowd got denser and slower. We found ourselves walking through a shadowy canyon of buildings. It was dark and cold. There were points where the crowd in front of us simply stopped moving. We were standing still. It was cold, dark and miserable. The Mall was to our right. To our left, there were small bunches of people who had already given up. They had perched themselves on trees, doorsteps, fire hydrants, window sills–anything with a slight elevation. I couldn’t tell what they were able to see, but supposed it to be one of the Jumbotrons that would broadcast the proceedings.

.

 

It was now 11:15 am. The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 11:30, with Obama taking the oath of office slightly before noon. I had serious doubts as to if we’d make it. The idea of having gone through all of this, and then not seeing the inauguration made me want to stick knitting needles in my eyes.

.

 

Then, just as the outlook was bleakest, we literally emerged into the light. Suddenly, we burst into a wide open, sun-drenched intersection. The crowd dissipated like a sneeze. We could see. We could breathe. The Washington Monument was to our immediate right. I felt like Joshua (as in the Generation) as we stepped onto the Mall. We were there.

 

I felt a warm rush of jubilation as C, J and I walked onto the Mall (H had to visit a port-a-pottie). The sky was a brilliant blue, and wide open above us. We felt liberated. It had been over four hours since we’d left the house that morning. I sent a text to my son, B, who was not with us, “We made it!” Of course, there was no way he could truly comprehend the sense of joy and relief behind those simple words.

 

 

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The Inauguration Part 2; Being There

February 16, 2009

The moment Barack Obama finished taking the oath of office, I turned to say something to C, my wife, but nothing came out. For one thing, I was too choked up to speak. But more important, I didn’t know what to say. There wasn’t a whole lot I could have added to the moment.

 

The people around us must have felt the same way. For the previous 30 minutes, there had been plenty of conversation, but at that moment, everyone was silent. Many people applauded (I would have, but I was holding up J, who at age nine, somehow manages to weigh 400 pounds), but that was about it. Everyone seemed to be simply savoring the moment.

C, J and I were standing beside the Washington Monument, about a mile away from the Capitol Building (which we could not see), and 300 yards from the nearest Jumbotron, which was like trying to watch a 12-inch TV on the other side of a crowded room. But we were there.

 

To the left of the flag is the Jumbotron upon which we witnessed history.

To the left of the flag is the Jumbotron upon which we witnessed history.

We watched the Jumbotron as the various officials made their way out of a hallway and onto the Capitol steps. There were various cheers and jeers for congressional leaders and former presidents as they were announced to the crowd. Around us, the Carters got a nice ovation, but the loudest was for the Clintons. There was silence when Laura Bush and Lynn Cheney were introduced. No cheers, no boos. They got a pass.

 

The people around us (about 75% African-American) booed Dick Cheney, when we was announced, but more than anything, there was curiosity as to why he was in a wheelchair. I speculated he forgot to charge his batteries the night before. When President Bush was announced, a massive shower of boos poured from the crowd. A lot of people yelled at the giant screen. “Good riddance!” “Thanks for nothing!” “Go back to Texas!” “And stay there!”

 

Someone near us yelled, “Go to hell!”

 

The man behind me said, “No, don’t say that. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

 

“Why not,” I said. “He’s done that to us for eight years.”

 

“Yes,” said the man behind me, “and someday he’ll have to answer for that. I’m a big believer in karma.”

 

There was silent appreciation during the musical performance. It didn’t sound recorded, but then we had the sound bouncing off the Washington Monument, which created an echo effect that was fine for the spoken work (sorta like Lou Gehrig’s speech), but kinda strange for the musical performances. I made sure to point out Yo Yo Ma to J, who is a burgeoning cellist.

 

To our left, the crowd surrounding the Washington Monument.

To our left, the crowd surrounding the Washington Monument.

After Joe Biden took his oath, there was applause and cheering. After Joe Biden gave his speech, there was a palpable sense of relief. He had not gone rogue.

 

Rick Warren’s benediction got more of a response than I would have expected, including applause at several points. Standing directly behind me were two elderly women who had traveled from Michigan by bus. They couldn’t even see the Jumbotron most of the time, and asked the tall man standing next to them (also behind me) to take a picture when Obama came on the screen. At several points during Warren’s benediction, one of the women muttered, “Thank you, Jesus.” It wasn’t something said in irony, nor shouted out evangelically for the benefit of the crowd, but a quiet statement of sincere and personal gratitude. This was a person whom, I suspect, was witnessing her prayers being answered.

 

Like Obama himself, everyone standing around me was a bit flummoxed when Chief Justice Roberts botched the oath of office, but immediately got past that for a muffled celebration when the new president finished taking the oath.

 

About every other person held a cell phone or a camera high above his/her head to document the moment. I was holding up J, and caught a glimpse of the Jumbotron around the mass of his coat. (Everyone in our immediate area had maneuvered so that the two elderly women, both of whom were barely over five feet tall, could see the screen.)

 

Obama held the attention of the crowd throughout his address. There were cheers at certain points–now louder than after the swearing in–but for the most part, everyone was intently taking in the new president’s message. On a couple of occasions, people near me were shushed for commenting during the speech.

 

When it was all over, there were smiles all around. While the day was cold, and the Mall was crowded, no one complained. I sensed a feeling of disbelief. Did this really just happen? Some people began making their way off the Mall, but many, stayed put, soaking up the atmosphere.

 

C, J and I turned to our right, and began making our way off of the Mall. We reconnected with H, and moved toward the Metro. The next phase of our inaugural adventure had begun.

 

 

 

The Inauguration Part 3; The Long Road Home

February 16, 2009

We turned 90 degrees to our right, and began making our way south off the Mall. We were heading toward the Enfant Plaza Metro station that would put us on the orange line, and take us to New Carrolton. It was 1:15 pm.

 

The crowd streaming out was more relaxed than the one heading in. While there were no wild whoops or chants, there was a levity to the atmosphere. The sun was shining. It wasn’t terribly cold. There hadn’t been a massive terror attack. People were happy.

 

Maybe it was the route we took, but there were far fewer Obama vendors on the way out than there were on the way in. I was a little disappointed, because now I was ready to pick up a souvenir.

 

We headed east, making our way toward Enfant Plaza. When we got there, we saw a crowd of people ascending a staircase, heading across a open patio space and moving toward a door into what looked like a sandwich shop. Someone (not a cop, nor red-hat volunteer) said this was the way to the Metro, so we joined in.

 

We got to the top of the stairs in about a minute, and onto the patio space, where I saw the crowd in front of us, which I guessed to be about 500 people, trying to squeeze into some sort of mall cafe through two standard glass doors that opened outward. It was absolutely jammed, and the crowd at the door was not moving. We decided we wanted no part of this funnel of chaos, and turned around and fought our way against the crowd, back onto the street.

 

Unsure whether to go left or right, we asked two girls who somehow seemed to know where the other entrances to the station were. (The thousands of cops and thousands of volunteers that were said to be swarming all over DC were nowhere to be seen. Completely disappeared. Maddening.) The girls told us we could get to the Metro station by going through the Enfant Plaza mall. They pointed us to the entrance, about 100 feet back from where we were. We thanked them and headed that way.

 

Enfant Plaza, at least the part we encountered, is a low-ceilinged hallway with stores and eateries on both sides. Most were closed. There was a line of about 100 men just inside the door to the right. It was for the men’s room. The line for the ladies room was, not surprisingly, about three times as long. I was extremely thankful none of our party needed the facilities.

 

We made our way through the mall, until we hit a wall of people, filling the hallway. A sign about 100 feet ahead of us pointed the way to the Metro. Here was another mass of humanity that was not moving. C was happy because she was finally warm. The cold had not been much of an issue for J or I, but C, despite all her long underwear and other sartorial preparations, was freezing.

 

The wall of humanity heading for the Metro stop in Enfant Plaza

The wall of humanity heading for the Metro stop in Enfant Plaza

 

 

We stood with the crowd for about ten minutes, when there was a sudden surge, and we moved about 15 feet forward before stopping again. By now, there were hundreds of people behind us, as well. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder for another 15 minutes without moving. I was getting pretty hot, but it was too crowded for me to take off my coat.

 

Not moving, and becoming more compressed by the minute, we debated the wisdom of continuing along this path. It was anyone’s guess as to when we would be able to get into the station at the rate we were going (or, more accurately, not going). After much discussion, we made the collective decision to abandon our present tack, head back onto the street, walk down to the next station and hope for the best. Bad decision number three.

 

We turned around, and began making our way through the crowd. We were moving, single-file with me leading the way, against the current. I was shocked to see how many people were now filling the hallway of Enfant Plaza. There may have been hundreds of people in front of us, but there were now thousands behind us. Like salmon, we bumped and banged our way upstream through the long hallway, that was now packed all the way out to the street.

 

Back on the street, we made our way east toward the next stop. Once there, a policeman informed us, via bullhorn, that the station was closed and the trains weren’t running. He didn’t know when the situation would change. We decided to walk ahead to the next stop.

 

Ten minutes later, we saw a line of people two blocks long, waiting to get into the station. The line wasn’t moving. We decided to walk to the next stop. At this point, we were all getting a bit cold, tired and cranky. There was not a lot of conversation. I was wondering just how far we’d end up walking. J was holding up like a trooper, but C was not happy.

 

We went over highway barricades, through a hole in a chain link fence, up freeway ramps, through crowded intersections. There were throngs of people everywhere. We paused to buy a couple hot chocolates from a little girl who had set up a table in front of her house. This was the first and only time we would not encounter a line of at least 50 people.

.

 

We finally got to a Metro station where we could (with the crowd, of course) make our way down the escalators and onto the platform. By the time we got on an orange line train bound for New Carrolton, it was 4:15. Three hours since we left the Mall.

 

My brother picked us up at New Carrolton, and we made our way back to my mother’s house. I wanted a beer, but we still had the drive back home ahead of us, so I settled for a coffee.

 

We packed up and got on the road as quickly as possible. It’s a four-hour derive under normal circumstances, and I had no idea what sort of northbound post-inauguration traffic we’d encounter.

 

The highways of Maryland, Delaware and the first 20 miles of the New Jersey Turnpike flew by just fine. Then we hit a wall of standstill traffic. We would sit in it for over three hours. This time it wasn’t a bad decision, just bad luck. The Department of Homeland Security, working on a tip, had detained a southbound vehicle that was believed to driven by a heavily armed man, and was loaded with explosives. The authorities shut down the Turnpike in both directions between exits 1 and 4, and had a suspect in custody. We were just past exit two. Had we left either an hour earlier, or an hour later, we would have been spared.

 

We straggled home well past midnight and crawled into bed. It felt like a long time between that moment, and 7:00 that morning, when we had embarked upon our odyssey. The next day, we would learn that the tipoff that had shut down the Turnpike for hours was a hoax. Seems the mother of the man driving the car hadn’t wanted him to make the trip, and called in the tip to stop him. She had done this before. Thanks, Mom!

 

LOOKING BACK

 

When C asked J what he would tell his classmates about the experience, he replied, “It was the most boringest day of my life.” I’m sympathetic to his point of view. Our moments on the Mall were amazing. We witnessed history. The enormity of that moment will only continue to grow over the years. We’ll always be able to say, “We were there.” In time, the pain that surrounded the moment will fade, and we’ll only remember the wonder and the joy we felt. Kinda like childbirth (so I’ve been told).

 

Attending the inauguration of Barack Obama was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And that’s probably just as well.