So I visited DC for the inauguration yesterday, but arrived in town Saturday to play the tourist before the actual event. I think the last time I actually visited DC to see the sights, rather than do business, was when I was a Junior High Schooler. I walked from the Capitol building down the National Mall, the cernter strip of which was covered in a sheath of walkable grey plastic (for protection against the hundreds of thousands that attended). As I did, I saw not just throngs of visitors, to-be attendees and gawkers, but dozens and dozens of Obama memorabilia hawkers, selling hats, T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, calendars, postcards, buttons, pins, flags, posters, and so on, all emblazoned with the likeness of Obama, his family, his name, the Presidential Seal, and/or anything else that remotely tied into the impending Inauguration. It was a big party in waiting, a real celebration!
I wandered towards the Washington monument and stood close to the CNN broadcast booth, watching the backs of the newscasters/bobbleheads as they did their job, and watched them on the adjacent jumbotron. I and everyone else watched the one big camera hovering just above head-height over the audience to one side, preying mantis-like; when they cut to commercial, the camera would pan the crowd, and we would be blessed with our half-second of fame. (One person with a poster arguing for a Wall Street transaction tax (a "sales tax" - brilliant!) managed to get an enormous amount of airtime by positioning himself in the crowd behind and between two of the bobbleheads.) While waiting for my chance to Wave At America, I heard it, just rising above the crowd buzz:
"Ooooobama condoms! Oooobama condoms!"
I really didn't hear that, did I?
I turned and there was a scruffy young man with a box on his chest filled with...Obama condoms. Individual cardboard packets, with The President's likeness on the face. "The Ultimate Stimulus Package!" they proclaimed. The pitch lines didn't sound race-based, or derogatory of Obama as President; they sounded more like the bad puns you'd get from the sex trade:
"Make her feel like the First Lady tonight!"
"Remember the Election with your next erection!"
"He's a hard man!"
And so on.
Passers-by occasionally peered at him and the merchandise, but they didn't look like hot sellers. Still, I was fascinated, and watched for a few minutes as more people stopped by, both Caucasian and African-American, and had a laugh or bought a couple. Though the crowd reflected a very healthy diversity both in race and age, no one appeared bothered enough to try to stop him.
It struck me that this was a good example of the peculiar American prediliction for mixing the profound with the profane - a momentous occasion for President Obama, and the nation, commemorated by the vulgar. It reminded me of my first visit to the World Trade Center site about three months after the attacks. The iron fencing around Trinity Church was literally coverd with posters, photos, tributes and impromptu memorials from Americans, and from all over the world, in memory of those who died that awful day. And on the sidewalks along the fencing were table after table of street vendors hawking WTC and NYC memorabilia of all kinds. Whatever happens, commerce continues.
I think it must be hardwired in the american DNA to look for opportunities to make a buck from an occasion, even when the occasion is historic, weighty and profound. I'm not entirely sure what that says about us as a people, but I don't think it means we are shallow. Instead, I think it just means that we enjoy all aspects of life. In this one small instance, the Obama condom seemed more a wink at capitalism than a swipe at the occasion, or the President.