Think a press pass to the 2009 Presidential Inauguration meant that crowds parted at security gates like the Red Sea did for Moses?
And who said my personal inauguration movie would star the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, a man with one tooth, and the Obamas and Bidens walking down Pennsylvania Avenue just thirty feet away?
When I arrived at the entry point for my press pass (12th and E Streets) just before 8 AM, absolutely nothing was marked. Some people held tickets, others held press passes, the majority held nothing but hope. Practically speaking, we were all in the same boat.
After clearing security with some similarly confused Associated Press (AP) reporters from Spain, I arrived on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Unfortunately, my pass was for the south side.
Our press materials indicated a crossover point right there. I was headed across the street and the Spaniards were headed to the National Mall. We queried a group of security men in fatigues.
Men in fatigues at 12th Street, “Sorry. You cannot cross here. Try 14th Street.”
Men in fatigues at 14th Street, “Sorry. You cannot cross here. Try 12th Street.”
Getting the idea here?
The Big Loop
Before going any further, a map of Washington, DC with all the confused twists and turns of my eight mile route through the city (thanks to my GPS tracking device) might be illustrative.
All I wanted to do was cross the street. I might as well have had a pass to the moon.
“You’re gonna’ have to go to the top of the parade route,” the security officer delivered with conviction. So much conviction, I’m certain he didn’t even look me in the eye.
“Pennsylvania and 18th.”
I was at Pennsylvania and 12th. That’s only about six blocks. The only problem: Washington, DC was barricaded like it was under siege.
Two miles later, I arrived at the edge of the Ellipse just in time to witness the mid-winter fringe festival. One episode featured the Christian Right vs. the Gay Goths. Think “Celebrity Death Match” inaugural style. Megaphones in hand, they debated the pros and cons of sodomy.
Ah, the grand American tradition of dissenting views.
I continued to a fairly peaceful and surprisingly uncrowded Washington Monument.
“How do I get to the south side of the parade route from here?” I asked anyone with a badge. This included Boy Scout volunteers, more men in fatigues, even trash collectors.
Everyone was kind, but empty hands and shoulder shrugs ruled the day. One of the inauguration volunteers suggested that I go to the information booth because, “They might have information there.”
Kafka was smiling.
I turned around, headed back and watched my own personal film reel rewind: past the porta-potties lined up under the Washington Monument, past the volunteers, past the men debating the pros and cons of sodomy. The streets fogged with the masses headed to The Mall for the swearing-in ceremony. And I was going against the grain.
It was about 10:30 AM when I returned to the 12th Street security checkpoint. (In case you’ve been following the map above, my pace had been rather brisk). There were four hours until the parade was scheduled to begin. The only problem: there were approximately 120,000 more people at this checkpoint than there had been two hours ago.
“Maybe I can make myself very small,” I wondered in a moment of delirium.
I made my way to the side of the mob. You know when you’re in a traffic jam and that guy comes up the shoulder? That was me.
Fortunately, there was another lost soul in the crowd with a press pass – a reporter from ABC News 7 Chicago. I’d like to think that we combined forces. In truth, he had a plan and I was simply hoping to ride his network coattails.
“I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for the people who couldn’t be here,” he appealed to the crowds to let him through so that he could cover the event for his home station.
“There’s a guy from ABC over here. Let him through.” Someone yelled.
“Hey, Anderson Cooper’s back here! He needs to get by!”
A few people budged, most people just laughed. We weren’t going anywhere.
One man, facing the reality that he might not clear security to see the beginning of the parade, summarized it best: “What’s important is that we’re here.”
As I melted into the crowd, my feet lifted off the ground. I was despondent and considered giving up and going home.
“400 people per hour,” one of the security guards said, referring to how quickly people were clearing the four metal detectors in front of us. I estimated that my body sat in the squished mass of humanity at about slot #2500. Time and math did not appear in my favor.
Fortunately, the people around me added humor and humanity. The couple behind me spoke French; they were probably from somewhere in Francophone Africa. They still held out hope that they would be able to see the swearing-in ceremony. Another man behind them smiled with a grand total of one tooth. His girlfriend provided comic relief by harassing everyone in the crowd.
Ninety minutes later, I was miraculously sucked into a current that dumped me on the other side of the gate. Chance separated me from the crowds behind. I then made it through the metal detectors – for the second time that day – and stood just a glance from the parade route.
I felt like a freed prisoner. I shook. The sun shone. I bent over and kissed the ground.
Cue the music from Shawshank Redemption.
Police lined Pennsylvania Avenue in picket fence formation. On my left, a division of Philadelphia police stood tough. They rarely smiled. On my right, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. They stood tough, too, but they peppered in a few smiles and conversations as they surveyed the crowd.
“So who are you shooting for?” one of the guys asked as we all shuffled our feet to stave off hypothermia.
“I’m a freelancer, but I’m taking photos for the Peace Corps. My wife is marching with them in the parade.”
“Oh, that’s great!”
Then a pause. “What’s Peace Corps?”
Just before the Obamas and Bidens arrived, one of the LA County officers looked at me and the photographer to my left. “Pay attention,” he suggested with a nod.
Something was up. I wasn’t certain what, but his body language indicated something unusual. The other photographer interpreted the message as an indication that the Obamas would be walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and possibly even shaking hands in the crowd.
So I asked him, “If Obama came over and started shaking hands, would you go for the photo or for the handshake?”
“The photo, of course,” he answered without skipping a beat. “That photo will last a lot longer than the handshake.”
I thought for a moment, “I’d go for the handshake.”
The Pennsylvania Avenue Walk
To see the President, Vice President and their families take a stroll in the frigid DC winter – just thirty feet away – is something I’ll never forget.
I found their decision to walk both courageous and hugely symbolic. The crowd behind me went insane at the first sight of the new president. The cheers, tears and screams recalled The Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.
Just when I thought the excitement was over, Joe Biden walked over to the crowd, crouched down, and motioned like a high school football player might after scoring a touchdown.
“The Scranton shuffle” is the only way to describe it.
After the Obamas and Bidens passed, the crowds virtually disappeared. It was an understandable response. The parade had begun late and temperatures continued to drop as evening quickly approached.
One woman next to me not only stayed but she cheered wildly for every group making its way down that unforgivingly cold parade route. The police puzzled at her excitement, but to me her spirit defined the day.
As the Peace Corps made their way closer, I could see their colorful flags over the tops of the heads of the Philadelphia police. “My wife is marching with the Peace Corps!” I yelled – to the cheering woman, to the police, to just about anyone who would listen.
As the Peace Corps contingent passed, the woman cheered even louder. I shouted Audrey’s name; she looked back and waved. Some of the LA County police turned around with their thumbs up.
“Did you get the shot?” One asked.
I looked down at my Nikon LCD screen. Audrey was a blur.
“I don’t think so. There’ll be hell to pay,” I joked.
A Final Surprise
Disappointed with that photo, I chased the Peace Corps down the street. Through diversions and barricades, I caught up with the end of the group, but not with Audrey, who was in front. I hit my last security gate of the day.
I turned around to enjoy a bit more of the parade, but was drained. It hit me how little I had eaten that day – a Vitamin C drink and a banana in the morning. I fumbled with what to do next.
I heard a voice behind me; it barely registered, “Dan! Dan!”
The calls became louder and more persistent.
I turned around to see a friend whom we had first met while traveling through Turkmenistan in 2007. He had come all the way from Wisconsin for inauguration weekend.
After my initial shock, I got his story and we caught up without skipping a beat. His energy captured the moment: “This has been an absolutely amazing day…I’m so happy, I’m on a high.”
So was I.