Scenes from (near) the Inauguration

by , posted on Sunday, February 8th, 2009 at 9:45 pm

I didn’t make it to the Inauguration Ceremony, but I got close. Just about as close as it was possible to get without a ticket. As close, in fact, as some people got with a ticket.

I didn’t make it to the parade, either. After an hour of hanging around in the bitter cold, waiting to see if I was going to get lucky and land a ticket at the last second, I had had my fill. The last thing I wanted to do by that point was stand in the back of the crowd behind the early birds somewhere along the parade route for a few more hours so that I could listen to the sounds of a parade I could not see. But I did spend the better part of two days roaming around the edge of it all. And I took pictures. A lot of pictures.

Monday, January 19th

Monday started with Dick Durbin’sconstituent coffee.” Just Dick and Loretta and a few — well, okay, actually several hundred — friends, constituents, and who-knows-whos who just happened to be in town. The coffee was held in the very ornate Members of Congress Room of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Clearly membership does have it’s privileges.

The Senator would not arrive until about halfway through the event, but Loretta Durbin was there from beginning to end, visiting with an endless string of guests. Bill Houlihan, Durbin’s Downstate Director, did the same. Rep. Phil Hare (IL-17) was there early, too, quietly chatting in the corner. By the time Sen. Durbin arrived and headed towards the podium

the room had become so packed that the crowd had begun to spill out into the hallway, where it was difficult to hear what was being said. He was saying something about the history of the room, I think, and then a few more remarks, and not too much later he was gone, off to a news conference and a lunch with mayors from Illinois. The new junior Senator from Illinois, Roland Burris, also popped in, hitting the podium for a few remarks before the cameras before heading back out the door. Bill Marovitz (Illinois Democratic Party Vice Chair and 9th CD State Central Committeeman) was there with his wife, Christie Hefner, who was just days away from stepping down as CEO and Chairman of the Board of Playboy Enterprises. Reporters Carol Marin (WMAQ-TV, Chicago Sun-Times, and WTTW’s Chicago Tonight) and Andy Shaw (WLS-TV) were there, too.

In addition to my friends Chuck Sutcliff (Kendall County Democratic Party Chair) and Robyn Sutcliff (Yorkville Alderman), who had invited me to join them at the coffee, others from the Fox Valley putting in an appearance at the event included Mark Guethle (Kane County Democratic Chairman and 14th CD State Central Committeeman), Beth Penesis (an Intergovernmental Affairs Liaison in the Governor’s Office, and 14th CD State Central Committeewoman) and her husband, Ted. Also in attendance were Eileen Dubin (DeKalb County Democratic Party Chair and DeKalb County Board member), Jim Luebke (DeKalb County Democratic Party Executive Committee member and Progressive Democrats of America congressional district point person for IL-14), and Tony Wadas (President, NIU College Democrats) from DeKalb County.

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Next stop was Rep. Bill Foster’s office, where the Sutcliffs were to pick up their tickets and we would see whether there might by chance be a ticket available for me due to a last minute cancellation or some such stroke of luck. After a 45-minute wait in line outside, we finally made our way up to the third floor of the Longworth House Office Building, to which Foster has relocated in the new Congress. Not long afterwards we were on our way, the Sutcliffs with tickets in hand, me in possession of #5 on the waiting list. After lunch on Capitol Hill at a nominally Thai-Italian restaurant, with an English pub attached (which proved to have no real Italian dishes on the menu whatsoever), we made our way past the Capitol and the Supreme Court over to Union Station, where we had planned to grab the Metro in order to cut down on the walking. But when we got there we were told the Union Station Metro was closed, so we ended up walking another 16 blocks to the White House to get a look at the reviewing stand. Standing and walking, walking and standing. That was Monday.

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Tuesday, January 20th, Inauguration Day

The call from Foster’s office — telling me a ticket had miraculously turned up for me — never came on Monday, but I would have one more shot at scoring a ticket to the Inaugural. A longshot, but a shot nevertheless. The daughter of a friend of a friend had come down with stomach flu and there was a possibility she might still be feeling too ill on Tuesday morning to go to the ceremony. But there was no way to know until Tuesday morning, so while the odds weren’t in my favor that a ticket would be forthcoming, I still got up as early as I could and began to make my way down to the Mall.

There were eight people waiting at my bus stop alone, more than I could ever remember being there at any one time, but the bus wasn’t particularly full when it arrived and didn’t get too much more full as it made it’s way to the Metro station. There were a lot of people waiting for the next train on the platform, however, and I wondered how we were all going to be able to get on a train that had made several stops before getting to us, no doubt adding people all along the way. The answer was soon forthcoming. We were going to get on by squeezing on board and packing ourselves in like sardines. I have ridden the Metro in DC hundreds of times and never in my life have I been on a Metro train that crowded.

I decided to get off at the Judiciary Square station, thinking that would probably start me off closest to where I would need to end up if it turned out somebody was going to be waiting for me with a ticket. Things seemed relatively quiet when I left the station, but that was only because I had gone out the station exit farthest away from where the action was. A couple of blocks later, as I walked by the station exit on 4th Street, NW and came around the corner towards D Street, things were anything but quiet. [Map] Large quantities of people seemed to be coming from all directions now and were streaming towards the Mall. A crowd had gathered behind the Department of Labor building, on D between 3rd and 4th, so I headed over that way, edged along the back of it, and continued east, crossing over I-395. From the overpass one could see people walking down the ramps onto the roadway. There were no cars down there. Just a few lines of people making their way towards the tunnel to go under the Mall and come out on the other side, presumably, to get closer to their ticket area. The scene had an oddly post-apocalyptic feel to it.

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I tried making some calls on my cell phone to find out what had happened with my long shot for a ticket, but I couldn’t get anyone to answer. Calls immediately went over to voice mail. At one point a message appeared on my phone saying something about how my call couldn’t be put through because the system was overloaded. So I trudged on, trying to see if I could get down closer to the Mall. I went another block along D and turned down 1st, only to see another huge crowd ahead at the next corner. And that’s as far as I got. From the back of that crowd all I could see ahead was a mass of people filling the street, sidewalk to sidewalk, and they weren’t moving. Things had come to a complete standstill. I attempted a few more calls, had no more success than before, and came to the conclusion that there was no way I was going to end up on the Mall. Even if there was a ticket over there somewhere waiting for me, there was no way I was going to be able to find my way to it. Besides, it was cold, really, really cold. So I decided to turn around and head towards the Metro Center area, over closer to the White House, where I ended up watching the Inauguration Ceremony online with a friend in her office.

My walk across downtown covered ten blocks and it was one long street festival. All along the way there were people headed in every direction, every direction, that is, except away from all the excitement. There were food and souvenir vendors everywhere, too. But no cars. Or, almost no cars. Pedestrians ruled the streets. What few cars dared try to share the streets did so at a crawl. There were plenty of police on the scene as well, of course. Plenty of jersey walls, too. Metrobuses had been set in staggered pairs to block some streets off, and at one intersection I came upon a military police Humvee blocking the way. But the streets of downtown DC belonged to the people that day to an extent rarely, if ever, seen before, I suspect. And these were not the well-heeled, well-connected denizens of the Capitol city roaming about, either. One could see the occasional limousine parked off to the side here and there, but the people filling the streets hadn’t been driven downtown in any of those. It looked to me like the streets near the Inauguration were filled with locals, many of whom probably lived in the poor inner city neighborhoods like Shaw that are within walking distance, and they were having a blast. Downtown DC was not built to serve them, it was built to serve everyone but them, but on Inauguration Day those streets belonged to anybody and everybody who had a mind to take a walk right down the middle of them.

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Things didn’t go much better for some of those who had tickets than they had gone for me when I tried to get to the Mall that morning. Yorkville Mayor Valerie Burd, a few members of her

family, and Montgomery Village President Marilyn Michelini had tickets together in the Blue section, far better tickets than most, and yet they never made it in. After three hours of waiting, with no prospect that things were going to start moving forward anytime soon, they finally gave up and headed back out to suburban Fairfax, Virginia to watch the proceedings on television. They weren’t the only ones who didn’t make it in. Several thousand ticket holders in the Blue and Purple sections — sections where some people actually got a chair to sit on –- were turned away at the gates.

Chuck and Robyn Sutcliff had tickets in the standing-room-only Silver section, as did something like 100,000 others. They arrived at the L’Enfant Metro station that morning hoping to transfer trains and make their way to a station closer to the 3rd Street, SW security screening point they would need to pass through in order to find their place on the Mall, but the platform at L’Enfant station was so crowded they immediately realized they wouldn’t be able to make that transfer very easily, if at all, and began making their way out of the station.

It took them around 45 minutes simply to get outside. The escalator had been shut off because it was delivering people to the top of the station faster than people were moving away from the station entrance. This forced people to climb a very long set of stairs, all the while trains kept coming into the station, filling it up faster than people could get out by walking up the escalator. To speed things up a bit Metro employees finally opened up the faregates so that people could simply walk through them without putting their farecard in to open the gate up, but that didn’t help much as long as the escalators weren’t working.

Once outside, the Sutcliffs began working their way along the south side of the Mall towards the entrance to the Silver section. [Map] At 4th Street they found their path blocked, so they had to backtrack and work their way around farther to the south until they ran into the crowd that was being funneled back in towards the Silver section screening point on 3rd Street, where bags were searched and they patted you down. But after that there really wasn’t too much of a line when they got to the Silver section gate, a couple of blocks away. By this point it was around 9 a.m. and most people were already in their seats.

Having finally arrived in the Silver ticket area. Chuck and Robyn wound their way through the crowd towards the reflecting pool on the Mall between 3rd and 1st. Many had clearly been there since much earlier in the morning, camping out

on the ground on a premium spot with great sight lines right up front at the barriers which kept the crowd off the pavement in front of the reflecting pool. But as the Sutcliffs were checking things out, those barriers suddenly came down and the crowd surged forward, leaving the early birds behind, and Chuck and Robyn surged forward with them, ending up on the pavement only twenty feet or so from the reflecting pool themselves. This still left them a good 10-15 rows of bodies back in the crowd, however, which meant that Robyn’s view, at 5’2″, was of someone’s back. But, as she would say later, she did get to hear the ceremony and was very happy to be there in spite of not being able to actually see it.

By the end of the ceremony they had been standing for hours. They were tired, cold, hungry, and needed to find a restroom. Them and several hundred thousand others in their immediate vicinity. So they started heading down 3rd Street and made their way to the Federal Center SW Metro station. [Map] There was, however, a bottleneck at the station entrance, not surprisingly. In fact, the station actually closed down while they were waiting outside. One rumor they heard was that a woman had fallen onto the train tracks. Another was that it was being closed until after the Inaugural parade was over.

The crowd began moving down D Street to the east and Chuck and Robyn followed along, down and across I-395 and back up the other side, towards the Capitol South Metro station, where they encountered a line two blocks long. They saw restaurants nearby, but they all had long lines, too, so the Sutcliffs kept moving on down the street for another few blocks until they came upon the Kenneth H. Nash American Legion Post 8, the solution to all their problems. They holed up in that Legion hall with a few dozen others for the next few hours, enjoying a few hot dogs and beers, and having a place to sit down in out of the cold, to say nothing of the access to a restroom, and watched the rest of the afternoon’s events on CNN while waiting for the crowd to disperse.


For days after the event lost stickers and discarded handwarmers littered the streets, but even they evoked the carnivalesque world turned upside down that had manifested itself on those same streets, if ever so briefly, on Inauguration Day. Vendors soon appeared on street corners hawking Special Inaugural Souvenir Editions of a local paper. Inauguration t-shirts and knit caps and who knows what all else were added to the usual mix of souvenirs venders had for sale in stands along the streets.

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Walking through downtown DC on Wednesday morning, the day after the Inauguration, I passed Al Franken standing all by his lonesome outside of the Marriott at Metro Center, waiting for his ride. The day after that I saw NAACP Chairman Julian Bond coming out of the Kaiser Family Foundation building on G Street. Both were no doubt in town to enjoy the festivities, but there was work to be done, too.

That same Wednesday morning Barack Obama went to work at his new job. Hopefully, he’ll help keep the world turned upside down a bit longer, maybe long enough that it’ll become our political opponents who finally start thinking to themselves “been down so long it looks like up to me,” instead of us. If not, we’ll have to make sure we do our best to set his thinking on it’s head.


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