On Election Day, we were so busy getting out the vote that we never made it to the euphoric post-election celebrations immortalized in so many youtube videos. Among other things, we missed our chance to join happy Seattle revelers in their spontaneous sing-along to the Star Spangled Banner and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”. On the morning after the election, hoping to belatedly capture some of that magic, my wife, daughter and I resolved to attend the inauguration. We had no tickets or lodging, but that didn’t matter. Somehow, we figured we would make it happen. Read on to hear about the highs, the lows and how Michelle Obama helped us out.
After making plans to rent a kind-hearted D.C. resident’s apartment (through craigslist), we counted the days until the big event. We traveled to the capital by plane and train, arriving late on the Sunday morning before the inauguration. The first event on our itinerary was the outdoor “Obamapalooza” concert being held later that day at the Lincoln Memorial. In what should have been a giant, flashing neon warning sign of things to come, the scene was disorganized and chaotic. We waited in a long serpentine line for several hours, and when we got within a stone’s throw of the security checkpoint, authorities announced that the concert was filled to capacity and closed all entrances. Fortunately, several giant video screens had been installed in an overflow area near the Washington Monument. Despite the long futile wait, a poor quality sound system, and freezing temperatures, it was fun to watch the show in this huge and happy crowd. But with no tickets for inauguration day, we wondered how much time we’d be spending this week viewing events from afar via jumbotron.
Monday was spent waiting in security screening lines to gain access to the offices of various elected officials, trolling for inauguration tickets. While we met many nice and sincere young congressional aides and got to see Congressman Jim McDermott’s office, we came away empty handed. While waiting in line outside the Hart Office Building, we met a fellow Seattleite named Katie, who offered to inquire whether her congressman might have any extra tickets available; I gave her my cell number but did not feel very optimistic about our prospects.
The second big event on our itinerary was the Kid’s Inaugural Ball, which was scheduled for Monday night. This concert was being hosted by Michelle Obama, Jill Biden and their children/grandchildren, and it was to feature the brightest stars of the pre-teen set, including the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, and many others. As far as our ten-year-old daughter, Maya, was concerned, this was THE main event. Although I’d been looking for tickets for weeks, information about how to find them was scarce. Maya suggested that we try our luck outside the arena. I was dubious, fearing this would be a fruitless effort that would only lead to greater disappointment. Maya’s enthusiasm prevailed however, and we found ourselves outside the concert venue sans tickets, feeling a bit like Cinderella, with only a remote hope of attending the ball.
Unfortunately, many people were seeking tickets, but it appeared that no one had any to offer. My daughter watched, forlorn, as happy throngs of excited girls and boys streamed into the arena. I created a makeshift sign reading “Need tickets” which I held overhead to no avail. Finally, near the start time a woman emerged from the entrance with a bundle of tickets, saw my sign and told me: “Michelle Obama sent me to give tickets to any children and their families who would like to attend”. She handed my daughter three tickets and her face lit up like a pinball machine – for her this was the moment when Charlie Bucket found the golden ticket to Wonka’s Chocolate factory. If anyone is still wondering what kind of First Lady we have, I think this incident tells you all you need to know.
The kids’ concert was everything Maya had imagined it would be. It was such a magical night that we found ourselves feeling less disappointed about being unable to get tickets to the inauguration itself. But there was another surprise yet to come. As we were leaving the concert, I received a text message from Katie, the nice lady we had met while waiting in line earlier in the day. She had miraculously been able to obtain extra inauguration swearing-in tickets – enough for everyone in our group. The only challenge was that she was staying at a hotel in Alexandria, VA approximately 45 minutes outside downtown D.C. I hurriedly hopped a late night metro and was able to pick up the tickets just in time for the big day.
At 7AM the following morning, we set out from our rented apartment in Foggy Bottom filled with anticipation about the inaugural festivities. We opted to walk the 2.5 miles to the U.S. Capitol Building, fearing the DC Metro might become gridlocked, saturated with the record-breaking crowds. Our journey turned into an epic adventure. As we approached the Capitol, the crowds grew more and more dense, and the flow of people slowed as security check-points and barricades created a multitude of bottlenecks and dead-ends. Instructions from authorities and official volunteers were frequently conflicting, and often added to the confusion. Several times we were told to follow a particular route, only to reach an impasse and find ourselves forced to retreat to try an alternate path. After two hours of this confused, circuitous march, we finally reached the end of our voyage…the infamous Purple Gate, where we stood, unmoving, for another 90 minutes.
The Purple Gate experience has been widely and thoroughly documented elsewhere. As purple ticket holders, we were lucky that we were never directed into the dreaded Third Ave Tunnel. By around 10AM, we realized that we were not going to get in unless something drastic occurred. Among the massive throngs of people waiting in the vicinity of the Purple Gate, we observed a trickle of people far to our left, who appeared to be making their way through a small gap in the barricade to the Purple security check-points, which were the last obstacle for admission to the Capitol lawn. After struggling to move in the general direction of this opening, we found ourselves, unbelievably, within 30 feet of the entry gate. At this point, the mob began to compress around us. My daughter, who is just under 5 feet tall, was surrounded by an ever-tightening wall of bodies. She became understandably upset and my wife and I grew increasingly fearful for her and our safety.
Then something wonderful happened. The people standing around us noticed my daughter crying. They became concerned, and asked if we needed any help. They opened up a small circle around her to ease her anxiety, and they offered her words of encouragement to help raise her spirits. Although these caring individuals were complete strangers, they all bonded together to help our daughter. I told Maya, “You don’t need to cry now, all these people around you are going to help keep you safe.” It was a moving experience, and I think it says a great deal about the character of the people attending this event.
Gradually we inched forward, and finally passed through the narrow opening in the fence. We cleared security and were on the Capital Lawn by 11AM. The morning’s frantic quest had ended, and we had some difficulty grasping that we had made it to our destination. It seemed too surreal. We found a place in the standing area near the back of the Capitol lawn, where we had a wonderful view of the proceedings. The ceremony was magnificent. At the moment when President Obama was sworn in, there were a dramatic series of loud booms, as members of the military performed a twenty-one gun salute in celebration. It was a thrill to experience all of this first hand. I especially enjoyed observing the crowd at the Capitol. There were smiles, tears and hugs all around. The crowd was suffused with a kind of subdued joy, a quiet contentment at the thought that, finally, at long last, everything was going to be all right.
This trip was quite an adventure. At times it was frustrating, difficult, and overwhelming, particularly with a ten-year-old in tow. But we went to Washington with a desire to experience this unique moment in history and we were not disappointed. Many of us will never forget being in this place, at this time, at the very moment when the nightmare ended and the dream finally came true.
Cross-posted at my blog: http://mkcohen.com.
UPDATE: Thank you all for the recs and the many kind comments.