Hello there again! Thanks for stopping by for another edition of The Crooked Frame, wherein I ask a pal to describe their most “memorable” live experience. If you want a better idea of why I put “memorable” in quotes, check out the first two posts in this series. Go on, check ’em out. We’ll wait here for you.
Today’s tale comes courtesy of Eric Nusbaum, who is a co-editor of Pitchers & Poets and contributor to future sports publication The Classical. His work has appeared in publications including Slate, Deadspin, and The Best American Sports Writing. His tale unfolds after the jump.
I worked on a congressional campaign in rural Illinois during the 2008 election cycle. There are few perks to campaign life, especially when your job is organizing. One of those perks can be an open bar victory party. Another, in the right year, can be tickets to Barack Obama’s inauguration. So a couple months after the campaign ended, I flew out from LA to Washington DC. Ostensibly I was there to start a new life in the political sphere. Instead I drank with a lot with campaign buddies and a week later, moved to New York. This is the story of the Inauguration itself.
When I woke up it was still dark. I put on two pairs of socks, thermal underwear, four layers of shirts and sweatshirts, and finally a wool overcoat. At Dunkin Donuts, my friends and I ordered small coffees because we had heard rumors that there wouldn’t be restroom facilities near the Capitol. We made our way to the Columbia Heights stop, waited for two packed trains to pass by, and finally held our breath and squeezed into the third.
Inauguration tickets were sorted by color-coded standing room sections. Our group was handed silver tickets, which placed us approximately in Maryland. But due to some connections involving his sister, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), and god knows what else, my friend Ross and I were able to snag a pair of purple tickets. With those we might be able to at least recognize the blurry distant form that would Barack Obama without the aid of binoculars. As the rest of our group split off for the distant silver entrance, Ross and I snickered. We were already near the purple gate on 1st and Constitution. For two long blocks leading from the gate, the streets and sidewalks were completely painted in humanity. It was almost 7:00 am.
We waited there for a while, confused but optimistic. To our right, a middle-aged black man was offering to share his breakfast with every passerby. Yogurt, bagels, juice, fruit for whoever was hungry and nearby. His attitude was typical. For a mob scene, everybody was in a great mood. Soon though, eating would be literally impossible due to space constraints. We couldn’t move our arms. We stood there for 45 minutes, no idea what to do.
Eventually a rumor spread that we were all wasting our time. There was a line – a real line! – wrapped around a nearby building. Those were the people getting into the purple section first. We sprinted, expecting to be among the first in line. But no end seemed to come. We eventually found ourselves, blocks later, on the verge of a highway tunnel that runs underneath the Mall. The last authority figure we would see that day checked our tickets. He told us to enter the tunnel, walk to the end of the line.
The line was maybe eight people thick and it wound through the tunnel and out onto the highway. We walked for twenty minutes, past off-ramps and on-ramps and under the giant green signs that tell cars where they are before we reached the end of the line. It was 8:00 when we got there.
You can see in the picture above that despite the 15-degree temperatures and the masses of people ahead of me, I was excited to be there. Note also that from where we were standing, the tunnel we had passed through wasn’t even visible. The next three hours of this story are boring. We stood in place as the line grew behind us. We moved forward in short spurts. Behind us in line were a group of organizers and assorted other staff from the Obama campaign in Wisconsin. There were political folks and lucky tourists from Dallas, Orange County, and New Orleans. Some folks grumbled, most of us tried to stay positive, some of us were delusionally canting YES WE CAN and OBAMA. We tried to ignore the fact that there was not a single person anywhere nearby who knew what the hell was going on. We tried not to ask questions or check our watches. After all, we had tickets. We were there so early.
When we finally made it back into the tunnel, we were elated. This was a major landmark to the huddled and uninformed masses; it gave us a sense of location and shielded us from the wind. Our cheers now had walls to echo off of, creating a warm and golden atmosphere. Even as massive hanging icicles dripped down on our shoulders and more ticket holders strolled past to take their place behind us in line, enthusiasm did not waver.
But with minimal cell reception and nobody to inform us of what was occurring up above, rumors spread quickly through the crowd. Slowly, we became restless. People began to write “FREE THE PURPLE PEOPLE” and “LET US IN” in the frost on the tunnel walls. As the tunnel branched out and our section narrowed over the final two hundred yard uphill stretch, the line dissipated into a giant mass. We poured into the street with no order and slowly the crowd bent around the corner toward that Purple Gate banner I had glimpsed earlier. The tunnel crowd and the street crowds blended haphazardly. A person who arrived just then could step right in with us, totally nullifying our wait. It was all for naught, I realized. But a homeless shelter overlooked the street, and Obama supporters leaned out the windows waving flags and flowers and cheering on the crowds. There joy became my joy. Who cares if I waited? I was now outside. I was here. It was 11:00 AM.
Right away, small groups began to push hard upstream. They swam against the endless humanity pouring out of the tunnel’s mouth and they preached a frightening gospel: the gate is closed, no more tickets are being honored. The police who admitted us into the tunnel hours earlier were now gone. There was nobody to turn to. But turning around was not an option. We pushed forward. We’d traveled thousands of miles to be there. The ceremony was beginning in thirty minutes. Finally, we reached a square where the crowd had congregated between office buildings and jammed up against the fences that separated us from the proceedings. Beyond the fences we could see metal detectors sitting idle. There was no movement up there. We wandered the crowd asking questions. Rumors spread. The leading theory was that an earlier stampede had caused authorities to close the gate for good. But why not let us know?
Thousands of us in a small square. All with tickets. All shrouded in fog and ignorance. There was a traffic light on the verge of tipping over. Four men at a time worked to keep it from falling and exposing live electric wires. Abandoned police and emergency vehicles sat there like props. People climbed trees to get a better understanding of what was happening. The chants weren’t so optimistic anymore:
1, 2, 3, 4 WE DON’T WANNA WAIT NO MORE….5, 6, 7, 8, OPEN UP THE PURPLE GATE
NO WE CAN’T…NO WE CAN”T….NO WE CAN’T
Finally, at 11:30 a muffled voice was heard through a bullhorn. The official asked the crowd which of us had tickets and asked those without to please go elsewhere. Thousands broke out in laughter. People screamed back “We all have tickets,” and we raised them over our heads. My friend Ross wanted to burn his like a draft card, but ultimately could not find a lighter or match. I stood up on an eerily-abandoned police SUV to catch a glimpse of the crowd. A few lucky ones were allowed entry single-file.
It should have been a riot, but we were all too polite. There was an 82 year old woman next to us who had come up from Tennessee for the inauguration. She waited her entire life for the day a black man would be elected President, but was stuck on the outside. When a girl played the swearing in ceremony through her cell phone (a friend on the other end of the line had held up their phone to a television), people huddled around her and sobbed. The first cannon shot of the 21-gun salute scared us, but in reality it was the only part of the ceremony we could be a part of; one of the cannons was in distant view beyond the fences. Everything could have turned so ugly and so vicious. The city was literally falling apart in the middle of our crowd. But nobody was hurt. Nobody was trampled. We just walked away disappointed. The help never came. The gates never opened.
Entirely dejected, we walked past the Capitol toward Union Station. But for the hundreds of vendors hawking Obama shirts and buttons and hats and calendars and everything you could possibly imagine, the streets were very quiet. In the mall, on their couch, at a bar, everybody in Washington was watching the speech. I noticed a handful of people crowded together in the park, and tapped Ross on the shoulder. We joined the group and saw that they were crowded around a man with a boombox. He was a big black man, holding the stereo up above his head in one hand, and a stack of CDs in the other.
It was just a few of us at first, listening intently to make out Obama’s voice. The volume faded in and out, and sometimes other stations cut in for a moment. The man with the boombox moved it carefully the way a person might adjust an antenna for the best reception possible. Nobody said a thing. We just listened and the group began to grow larger. Families and couples and loners straggled toward us to hear the speech. It was obvious that nobody expected to be there, that we had all given up on the day. Maybe some were cast off ticket holders like me and others were apathetic about politics and just happened to be passing by.
But as Obama spoke and a busker in the faint background played America the Beautiful on tenor sax and vendors pitched their commemorative trinkets two for five dollars, I realized something. I realized that the whole experience, clustered in a frozen park with rejects and passers by like me, was just as meaningful as whatever was going on inside those gates. I didn’t have to see the inauguration to be there. Nobody did.
After the speech, we all just stood around for a moment. The boombox man handed out free copies of his single. “After that moment, I can’t sell these,” he kept saying. Some people shook hands, others passed him cash, others just walked off. Finally, Ross and I made our way to Union Station so we could beat the oncoming rush. We were still pissed off. It had been a terrible, frigid morning full of wasted optimistic and numb toes and futile waiting. I came all the way from California, he from Illinois, and both of us had spent our entire adult lives under a President we didn’t necessarily love. Missing history was hard. There had been such a roaring buildup for us, for the thousands of other rejected ticket-holders, and such a whimpering let-down.
So we did the only thing plausible. We got off the train at Dupont Circle, walked around until we found a bar that looked appropriately sad and dark, and proceeded to drink until inauguration became little more than a word we couldn’t spell or pronounce properly.