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The Universal Sadness Issue

My Obama Hajj

As someone raised on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I have to report that the actual invitation to the 2009 presidential inauguration looked a tad underwhelming.
January 2, 2009, 12:00am

As someone raised on

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

, I have to report that the actual invitation to the 2009 presidential inauguration looked a tad underwhelming. Heavy linen paper and miniscule security threads gave the invite the feel of new currency, but its purple border, puffy embossment, and sparkly foil US Capitol symbol seemed mere flourishes on an otherwise conservative palate—a far cry from Wonka's golden ticket. Earlier in the week, my dad had received a fake ticket from some not-yet-demobilized echelon of the Obama fundraising machine, a cheerfully designed decoy requesting his presence "to attend and participate" in all public events. The only real difference between his ticket and mine was that mine allowed the bearer passage into the inner sanctum of the viewing stands. Only 240,000 people received such invites, a number both reassuringly elite and refreshingly inclusive. Jehovah's Witnesses believe far fewer will make it into Heaven.

I gave the ticket to my wife, Tara. She agreed to photo duty while I was to navigate the rabble. The night before the inauguration we'd shared a taxi with six other people, speeding through a city under siege—checkpoints, racing motorcades, constant sirens. In the flat light of early morning DC, the scene didn't appear nearly so chaotic. Just cold. Deeply, profoundly, disturbingly, not-fit-for-humanity, mega-shittily cold.

We caught a surprisingly placid bus to 16th Street and then walked south. Food is a laxative and liquids are diuretics, so I'd planned on fasting for the morning. This plan changed when I found myself scarfing down pastries and a jumbo coffee, willfully blind to the dearth of toilets in my near future. Oddly, the overworked all-black staff at the Starbucks on K and 16th seemed absolutely unstoked on the inauguration. Call me what you will—naive, patronizing, outside-the-beltway bumpkin—but until that very moment I had actually expected to see everyone in DC grinning wildly. Ninety-two percent of the city backed the winning horse; why the long faces?

Outside the coffee shop, a young Abe Lincoln impersonator loitered and posed with children. We headed east on I Street, zigzagging south and then east again. I saw only one discernible fashion motif: Proud, unsmiling black ladies in sleek fur coats. The crowd grew denser as we approached the checkpoint for official ticket holders, and we found ourselves moving against the flow of foot traffic as if walking straight into some vast disaster.

I wasn't that far off the mark. In an inaugural first, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty requested and received a preemptive federal emergency declaration from the outgoing president (and Gen X, if Obama's youthful tenure doesn't make you a little uneasy about your own life goals, please note that the capitol's ruggedly handsome mayor was born in 1970). Although attendance estimates had trickled down from an original 4 million people, the day was still expected to easily outstrip 1965's record of 1.2 million. With the prospect of cellular logjams and medical nightmares and logistical meltdowns, the city had steeled itself for disaster. Cutting upstream through the throng, I felt the opposite. This was the closest America has thus far gotten to a pilgrimage. I was expecting the universal brotherhood of the Hajj.

The map on the ticket showed viewing areas coded by color—purple, yellow, blue, orange—leading us to a checkpoint by the mouth of the 3rd Street Tunnel. Tara found a lone cop at the head of a long line and asked where to pass through to the viewing area.

The cop motioned back to the crowd with a weary laugh. The line curved around a street corner, and when we crested this bend I saw, with chilly disbelief, that the mob dipped back into the tunnel and extended beyond the line of sight. We descended down into a scene from a grim sci-fi movie, a procession of somber refugees having no apparent end.

We walked and walked through the dangerously tight crowd and still couldn’t find the endpoint. Every now and then I heard Tara reconfirm my own disbelief, "This is the purple ticket line, right?" Later I read, reports of "thousands" in this tunnel, but it must have been in the tens of thousands. If someone had told me it was over a hundred thousand—more than the population of the city I grew up in—I would have accepted that figure as well. We walked steadily for twenty minutes and found no end. Eventually our side of the tunnel merged with the empty opposite lane and there was some breathing room.

Only where the tunnel opened back onto the street did we finally join the line as participants. Strangely as we inched back in the direction of crowd, less than a dozen or so people lined up behind us. The crowd slowly marched forward, and the line widened without lengthening, leaving the polite rule-followers behind while the more aggressive pilgrims simply moved forward and cut back in. This was my first inkling that I might have to significantly ratchet down my expectations of universal brotherhood.

Tara and I parted ways with an agreement to meet later. Solo, I found one entry to the Mall closed, then another. Every passing conversation concerned the closed gates. Near the Archives/Navy Memorial Metro station, I found a stalled crowd of three of four thousand at another checkpoint. It was after 11, past the point when all of us could be admitted to the public festivities with any kind of security screening. The dull roar of distant Jumbotrons drowned out the crowd's fatigued chants. I passed an unhappy little boy sitting on a low retaining wall, his American flag drooping. "I don't want to stay here. I want to go."

At Indiana and 6, I joined another blob. Somebody close to me said, "They're not letting nobody in nowhere". National Park Regulations call for one portable toilet for every 300 people, and we could all see the orderly rows of relief on the other side of the fence. On our side, great billows of trash swirled in waist-high eddies.

I huddled in the doorway of a florist and struck up a conversation with a young Brooklyn native named Pinky, a fellow traveler whose morning had gone pretty much like mine. I told her I was covering the event for this magazine and she laughed and gave me her band's CD, and we both refreshed the

New York Times

website on our phones to see if the actual swearing in had taken place. It hit noon and the distant roar from the mall momentarily swelled. "Well Pinky, we have a new president," I said. "Congratulations."

I started to get the joke: Purple tickets were the gag gifts of the day. At a tea house on D and 8th, I spoke with a bleary-eyed middle-aged black man who told me his name was Michael Jackson. Jackson had driven up from southern Virginia and waited in the purple line since 2 AM. He never made it in. He'd lost his sister from Texas and seemed disillusioned with America. Nearby, I spoke with Heather and Joyce, two weary white women who'd left their Arlington house at 6 with purple tickets and found themselves locked out by noon.

I sat with a hot drink, trying to define my disappointment. It wasn't just the letdown of exclusion or the sad tales burbling at every table, it was the palpable sense of missing spectacle. I'd digested that there would be nearly zero protests at this inauguration, already an anomaly for anyone my age or younger. But where were the crazy people? Crazies are undeterred by cold weather and generally leave their droppings—flyers, magic marker signs, nonsensical one-sheets—for the alert tracker. Except for one completely rational Jews For Jesus flyer, I'd seen no literature of any kind. Where were the Larouchians, the 9/11 conspiracy jerks, the Times Square Space Muslims? Where were the shrieking street preachers and batshit insane beardos?

And where the fuck were the interesting Obama shirts? Had I missed some memo? Over the course of the long walk from the bus stop five hours earlier, I'd mentally processed at least 500 individual Obama shirts and not a one was worth taking a snapshot. Respectful montages with MLK and JFK are great, and I'm sure such shirts will be worn with pride for years to come. But what about Obama as the Joker, Obama fronting Pantera, Obama with a mustache?

Tara texted “

remember taksim square

?” This was bad. Nine years earlier, we'd maxed out a credit card and flown to Turkey for New Years Eve 1999. In Istanbul's version of Times Square, minutes after midnight, we'd come very close to getting crushed to death. What struck me most about those terrible five minutes was how quickly we'd been swept into danger. I'd thought of this moment while traversing the 3rd Street Tunnel, but kept the comparison to myself out of prudence.

I rushed back to our meeting spot and found her untrammeled. Tara recounted her last few hours. After we'd parted, the line had picked up to a jog. By the end of the tunnel, people were sprinting. She described the scene as something post-apocalyptic, a sluice of humanity spilling past the initial checkpoint only to crush itself against a second. She'd held her purse in front of her to keep some breathing room, but the moment was traumatically familiar to that Turkish nightmare in the first moments of this decade; facing a grisly death at the dawn of a new era. People screamed that they couldn't breathe, and an old man in a wheelchair pleaded for his wife. Then the crowd surged again, overwhelming the police and their metal detectors, and she was able to run into the viewing area. Anyone could have had a weapon. Bush's helicopter soared directly overhead and the new president gave his speech, blocked entirely by the backside of bleachers erected for people of the yellow, blue, or orange ticket castes. She never saw Obama. A few people cried, but only out of frustration and humiliation.

We kept walking. On the edge of Chinatown, we stumbled into an open-air bazaar and I finally found the shirts that had eluded me all day—Obama the prize fighter, Obama the DJ, Obama the slam-dunking Superman. I talked with a jovial fellow named Shakir from Philadelphia who sold foam V for Victory hands. Tony B Conscious, outsider artist of Los Angeles, handed me a business card flecked with spit. A hearty young white guy spanged by the Metro entrance, his hoodie reading "I [heart symbol] B.O." In the distance, someone yelled "Obama's black ass, $5!" I walked from table to table, snickering and then unexpectedly tearing up without reason.

After dusk, the temperature fell to the mid-teens. Swaddled in my jacket in front of the Gallery Place/Chinatown station, I was suddenly struck with two distinct and overlapping realizations:

1. There are moments when Obama seems fictional—not as the suave leading man role he has now so handily assumed, but more as a protagonist in a children's book. I remember all the books I read as a kid, and all those inevitable bittersweet moments when the stories would end and I'd have to part ways with characters I'd looked forward to rejoining night after night. Obama's rise has been entirely public, just as his assumption of power must now be entirely private. When I read the paper, I feel some of this same bittersweet residue from childhood; a sadness that I will no longer get to share in the adventure, but a strange sort of pleasure thinking about the adventure continuing somewhere far away that I will never know about. I think of the president now—conferring with advisors, exploring the rooms of his mansion, learning all the insane secrets only a president may know—and it makes me oddly happy.

  1. This guy better not turn out to be the next Hitler.