Attending a Presidential Inauguration is a once in a lifetime experience. If you’re a college student living in Washington, DC you don’t think twice about going down to the mall. You don’t think about how cold it will be. You don’t think about how long you will stand there. You don’t think about how tired you’ll be when you get home. You simply think about the experience. You think “I’d be stupid to miss out on this opportunity.”
My inaugural experience 4 years ago is tattooed into my memory.
I remember waking up at 2-something-in-the-morning and putting on 4 layers of clothes: socks, tights, jeans, t-shirt, sweater, sweatshirt, coat. It was cold. It felt like -15 degrees outside. Friends and I tumbled into a cab and rode to Union Station. Then we walked. We were fortunate enough to have tickets. These weren’t fancy tickets. We didn’t get seats, but we did get “reserved” standing room. It was around 4am when we found the line.
When you stand in a line for close to 4 hours you make friends with strangers. All of us were cold. All of were tired. All of us were excited. We huddled together to stay warm. People with extra hand warmers passed them out to neighbors. Someone handed a friend an extra hat. We watched the sunrise.
By the time the gates opened, and people started rushing to get the best spot, you knew you weren’t going to be sitting again for several hours. Our spot had a relatively clear view of the big screen TVs and not too far away the podium platform.
The barricade (I think it was a rope or a plastic fence of some sort) looked like pushed against a sea of empty space right in front of the Capitol Reflecting Pool. When someone broke the barrier, we almost got trampled, and so did the little old ladies sitting on the steps, in what turned out to be a handicap seating.
I don’t remember much of the actual ceremony. I was too cold. I was too tired. I remember standing on tip-toes to see the big-screen over the heads of people far taller than me. People booing at President Bush. Obama speaking (I don’t remember what he said). Aretha Franklin’s silly looking hat. And then it was over. People tried walking on the frozen reflecting pool and the dispersal began.
And, we walked and walked and walked. Everywhere we went there were streets closed for the Inaugural Parade. We were directed to this street or that street. The whole city looked like a giant refugee camp or a scene from an end-of-the-world movie. People walking and walking and walking down the middle of streets lined with trash and walking through street tunnels as though they had nowhere to go. Streets open to people and cars created a new danger, when a car would suddenly com up behind you and some of the other 2 million trying to get home. By the time we reached a red line metro station, we had walked from the Capitol Building past the White House, in the least direct route possible, for at least 3 miles. I couldn’t feel my toes. My cheeks were numb. The metro even this far away from the Capitol was jammed beyond capacity. My legs were so worn and tired that anytime I tried switch hands on the metro I’d fall backwards into the lap of a poor stranger.
When I finally reached my dorm room I collapsed onto my bed. I called my mom and just lay the phone across my ear.
I look back on my experience with a mixture of pain and joy. I was there when the first black president was sworn into office. I was there when the first president I was old enough to vote for was inaugurated. Even now I have never been as cold or as tired as that day (and hopefully I never will be again).
Other friends tell stories of huddling together with strangers on the ground of the mall. Cuddling and holding each other to keep warm. Most talk about walking. All tired. All cold. All sore from head-to-toe the next day.
I’m more than happy to spend this Inaugural Day, indoors and curled up in a warm blanket, watching the ceremony on TV. But, I can die years from now, saying I’ve been to an inauguration.