During the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, I was traveling around Washington D.C., one of a swarm of journalists covering the historic event. While I was running around the city working on various projects, I also began talking to people about their lives and what the inauguration meant to them.
Below are their stories:
410 1st St. SE
January 15, 9:45 AM
Ricardo has to keep moving to avoid the cold wind as it gusts through the open doors.
A few blocks from the Capitol, he and his coworkers are frantically preparing the BullFeathers pub for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration.
On a normal Thursday, chefs and servers start trickling in around 9:45 in the morning–milling about as they prepare the deceptively large space for the midday rush of lobbyists and staffers heading back to Capitol Hill after a morning meeting.
Lunch and dinner hours are usually a flurry of activity, full of patrons eating sandwiches, munching on mozzarella sticks and drinking beer. During the mornings and on the weekends, however, the place is nearly empty.
But not today.
It’s t-minus five days until the big event, and not a minute can be wasted as the pub prepares.
“We’re going to be open from 6 in the morning until 4 the next morning,” Ricardo says with a heavy Spanish accent. He declined to give his last name.
Ricardo knows today will be busy, and it’s that thought that keeps the men moving in the cold. While the few people walking outside wear long winter coats, Ricardo and his delivery men are only dressed for the indoors. And with the front door almost constantly swung open as deliveries swerve in on squeaky hand-trucks, all the men can do is hunch over and stand to the edge of the wind as they rush to prepare.
Ricardo avoids the cold from behind the bar with a long-sleeved shirt crunched up beneath his nice polo, and a black beanie. As he bounces from one end of the room to the other, unboxing liquor and placing it on shelves, he directs the seemingly unending deliveries of beer kegs to their taps.
Located a few blocks from the Capitol steps where Obama will be inaugurated, and just across the street from a Metro subway station, BullFeathers promises to be even busier than normal as millions of spectators pass by on their way to and from the day’s event. And BullFeathers is one of countless businesses stocking up before the big day.
Preparations are humming along as the entire city braces for the as yet untold number of Americans who are coming to watch the inauguration of a new president.
Before the bell tolled to ring in the new year of 2009, many store shelves had already switched out their Christmas trees for Obama hats, t-shirts, mugs, and flashing buttons. There were commemorative pens, memorable plates and big-O underwear. All sorts of merchandise from the retail shelves to outside vendors bore Obama’s face.
And for days after the president-elect and Mayor Adrian Fenty had lunch at the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl, the waiting line to order from the venerable restaurant stretched the block.
Indeed, Obama-mania had hit.
“It’s very good for business, but it’s also very good for the country,” Ricardo says of the inauguration, struggling for his words in the cold. “Lots of people are happy.” And it’s hard for Ricardo to hide his excitement, too, smiling as he talks about the incoming president.
While he won’t say where he was born, Ricardo would say that he came to the D.C. area seven years ago from San Bernardino, California–a place where, he admits, the weather is nicer, and the commute is not as hectic. But while Washington has been good to him and his family, Ricardo can tell that now people are going to be different.
“The Democrats want everyone inside,” he says, making the gesture of a large tent over his head. “The Republicans, they don’t want me here.”
Perhaps more importantly, he says there just needs to be change. And to the arrival of Barack Obama, he says “Thank God.”
But, at least for Inauguration Day, he doesn’t really want to be here either. Long before President Bush declared a state of emergency in the District of Columbia, the inaugural committees announced that all paths into the city would be closed, and that limited city-related traffic will be allowed through. In other words, no cars from Virginia or Maryland will have any luck getting in–including Ricardo’s.
Highways which were once packed with bumper to bumper traffic were in the process of closing for security reasons, acting instead as staging points for inaugural crowds. On January 14, President Bush declared a state of emergency for the District of Columbia, freeing up badly needed funds to cover the soaring costs of the inauguration. And while crowd projections shrunk from five million people to just under two million, the District’s anticipated costs skyrocketed to $47 million, nearly three times the budget given by Congress.
The interstate highway that runs underneath the Mall only blocks from the Capitol Building was transformed into one of the many entrance areas for ticket holders for the inaugural address. Still, as streets closed and police barricades were set, bus routes were mangled, and people’s lives were turned almost completely upside down.
But Ricardo still needs to get to work. “I’ll be taking the Metro,” he says with a sigh. “I usually drive, but not that day.”
Standing beneath the streaming banners of red white and blue, Ricardo catches his breath as his attention turns to the television. He dials up the volume as Senator John Kerry, the once presidential candidate, is giving a speech to begin confirmation hearings for one of Obama’s new cabinet members.
The keg men slow their march, turning to watch the man speak. Noise from the kitchen calms, as once-hurried short-order cooks pause as Senator Kerry continues. Then, a commercial comes on, the television is muted, and it’s back to work for the big day.
White Flint Metro Station
5500 Marinelli Rd, Rockville, MD
January 17, 11:08 PM
When Sam Auciello volunteered for the inaugural committee’s main office in Washington, he never expected he might actually meet the president-elect. But one day, while he was standing in line for an elevator, someone told him to move aside.
“Then, suddenly, everyone lined up, the Secret Service swooped in, and there he was,” the 19 year old says. “That’s when I got to shake his hand.”
But, Auciello says, the event did not mean as much to him as it would many others.
Perhaps it’s his socially liberal private schooling, or his upbringing, but Auciello doesn’t appreciate the hype of Obama’s inauguration. “I don’t think it should be a big deal because we should be color blind,” he says. Sure, he voted for the man, but Auciello isn’t convinced Obama will fix all the country’s ills.
This is all to say that the thing going through Auciello’s head was not excitement at the moment, nor was it the historic nature of the event. As he shook the president-elect’s hand, all Auciello could think about was how strikingly tall the man was.
“It’s weird that that great opportunity ended up with someone who didn’t appreciate it, or didn’t appreciate it as much as someone else would have,” Auciello admits. “I don’t know yet if shaking the president’s hand will be something I’d be proud of, because I don’t know if he’s a president I’d be proud of yet.”
Auciello sports a disheveled beard, and just at this moment, on a Metro train with 10 other passengers trying to shake the bitter cold outside, he’s wearing a beat-up rain jacket, a dirty pair of khakis, and a knit cap, made by his mother. On his collar is a button from the memorial of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, Auciello points out, was facing a similar economic climate.
Yet, despite his middle class upbringing, and his private education, Auciello looks a little like someone caught rummaging through trash cans on the street. But instead, he is one of few applicants who have been accepted to help during the inauguration.
How did he do it? The same way anyone does anything in Washington–he knows someone. Or, in Auciello’s case, his mother knew someone.
The Metro train descends from the cold outdoors of Maryland to the caverns of Washington, passing station after station with political advertisements that are normally absent from the Metro Rail walls. Where ads for movies, new Lockheed and Boeing weapons systems, and AIDS public health notices once were, now were a flurry of political advertisements, plastered everywhere the estimated 120,000 rail passengers per hour would see them.
Some, like Pepsi, put a playful spin on the week’s events by inserting its new “O” logo in a large billboard, “Hope.” Others are more serious, printing multiple billboards in succession depicting an alien, a mermaid and the mythical big-foot, all holding a dusty hunk of rock– “In reality, there’s no such thing as clean coal.”
As the ads whiz by, Auciello says he’d decided to take a year off between high school and college, “just to rest.” He emphasizes that point because, unlike so many other people his age, he’s not trying to find himself or figure out what he wants to be. When he graduates from college, he wants to become a mathematics teacher or a computer engineer–something with numbers.
And he’s well on his way. For the past few years, Auciello has worked as a math teacher for students at his former high school, both during the school year and the summer.
He also likes boats. Before he was a math teacher, he worked on a dock, helping tie boats down for tips. He like boats so much, in fact, that he built one for a senior project.
He’s also willing to try anything once. Which is also why, when his mother met an Obama campaign coordinator who’d moved to Washington as part of the inaugural committee, Auciello thought, “Well, I’m bored, tired, and poor. So, why not?” Now he’s here, helping Obama’s operations team keep the office working.
And he’ll be a lot busier, now that the Obama family has once again arrived in Washington after a long day on the Whistle-Stop Train tour down the eastern seaboard.
When Auciello is not refilling copiers with paper or toner he’s manning the phones and opening mail–sorting it into letters of congratulations or tossing it into the ever-growing pile of requests for inauguration tickets. “They said they might get around to sending response letters, but there’s just so many of them,” he says.
Every once in a while, though, something unusual happens.
“I opened a letter one day from someone asking that at the end of Obama’s inauguration speech, where he says ‘God bless America,’” Auciello says, “that he also say, ‘and God bless the world.’”
He sits, with a smile on his face, soaking in the words.
“Then I remembered that I always passed this door that said ‘Speechwriter’ on it,” he says.
So he wrote a short note and stuck it to the door.
“I don’t know if he uses that office, or if he’ll see it, or if he sees it whether he’ll hate it, but…” he stopped, thinking of what to say next.
“It felt like I was throwing a penny in a wishing well. But you never know.”
Georgetown University Dorms
January 18, 12:35 PM
“I could have totally put this on Craigslist,” Brett Ambrose says as he opens the door to his college dorm room.
It’s Sunday, 48 hours to inauguration. Ambrose steps over clothes and random papers. “I could fit two people in here,” he says. “I have the bed and an air mattress.”
A New Jersey native, Ambrose is studying German at Georgetown University in the northwestern quadrant of Washington. He’s a freshman, living in what should have been, for the moment, prime real estate–a half hour’s walk from the White House.
He has a laptop, speakers, a printer, a television, and some movie posters on the walls. To the side is a minifridge, with snack-sized bags of chips and cookies on the adjacent crates, stacked as a makeshift shelf. His armoire is a mess. His bathroom is worse.
“I’d clean it up,” he says in a jokingly defensive voice as he looks around. “I’d make it super-nice if I knew someone was coming.”
At 18, Ambrose says he doesn’t care for politics. He’s that crucial demographic that MTV tries to reach every year: he didn’t vote, he doesn’t discuss policies, and aside from gay marriage and abortion, he’s indifferent.
But the inauguration of the nation’s first black president did pique Ambrose’s attention when hotels filled beyond capacity and newspapers printed stories about city residents renting out their homes at exorbitantly expensive rates. For a few fleeting moments, Ambrose had ambitions of joining the local entrepreneurs who were offering out-of-towners a place to stay for tens of thousands of dollars. “I could make a lot of money off this,” he says. “And besides, it could help me pay for tuition.”
But Georgetown ended Ambrose’s dreams with a single email that he read one night at his desk, he says, with an empty pizza box sticking out of the trash can. “As you prepare for this weekend, we want to remind of you of the special guest policy and procedures in place for this weekend,” the email began.
Hurrying through the message, meant to essentially scare students from renting out their dorm rooms, Ambrose got to the point: No dorm room inauguration profiteering. “If you do it, you get disciplinary action,” he says. And although he doesn’t know exactly what that means, it sounds bad enough to stop him from capitalizing on the moment.
So, Ambrose decided not to risk any penalties.
Instead, he’s gathering his things and heading to a music festival with Barack Obama at the Lincoln Memorial later this afternoon. Then he’ll probably watch the parade on Inauguration Day as well. “It’s a pretty big thing,” he admits.
And even though he didn’t make the extra money, he’s glad things turned out this way. On Election Day, his first chance to vote for an American president, Ambrose didn’t vote at all. But when Barack Obama’s victory was announced well after midnight, he did follow many of his friends who ran from Georgetown to the White House to celebrate the new president. “How often, can you say ‘when Obama was elected, I partied at the White House?’” Ambrose jokes.
At least 1,000 people gathered near the White House to cheer the new president. Cars were honking, music was playing and people were singing.
“I felt like the celebration was a little over the top, but we’re allowed to do it,” he says. “Even though I didn’t vote, I want to experience everything at this school.”
The experience didn’t particularly change his mind about politics though. It all takes a back seat to being in school and being a student. And, he says, “I have my opinions, but I don’t want to go out and vocalize or get involved.”
He did admit, however, that two hours of celebration outside the White House on a cold November morning did emphasize exactly how important his new home-city was. “This is the hub of the world,” he says, looking beyond his window to the city outside. “This is where everyone wants to be.”
As to whether or not he’ll vote in the future, Ambrose says he probably will. But for now, he’s just planning to participate in the inauguration ceremonies. “It’s a historic, once in a lifetime opportunity,” he says. “Why not go?”
DuPont Circle, South Side
Connecticut Ave and Massachusetts Ave NW
January 19, 5:08 PM
Rafael Herrin stands among a crowd of about 100 people in Dupont Circle with a shoe in his hand.
It’s a generic dress shoe–sleek, black, leather. He’s tall, a redhead, and dressed comfortably in jeans and a nice peacoat.
With a large smile, and an almost childlike playfulness about him, the 36 year old architect from New York pulls back his arm, and then launches the shoe at President George W. Bush, the inflated balloon version, standing nearly 20 feet tall.
Cars beep. People cheer. More footwear sails through the air.
“It’s been a long eight years,” Herrin says. Shoe after shoe bounces off the balloon president. “It’s a comic form of catharsis.”
Herrin came to DC by way of a bus from New York, leaving behind his wife who can’t take time off from work. He’s never been to an inauguration before–but he’d never had a chance to vote for an African American president before either.
After a short stint phone-banking for the Kerry/Edwards campaign in 2004, he wasn’t sure he would even volunteer during this election. But then he went to a rally Obama was holding in New York. There, he saw a candidate very much unlike what Senator Kerry had been. For Herrin, this wasn’t just a television persona, repeating a stump speech. Obama felt down to earth–and he talked to the crowd in a very real way.
On the way out, he was asked if he would volunteer.
“They told me that if you volunteer for Obama, you’ll feel positive energy,” Herrin says. “And sure enough, I felt like there was a lot of love out there when I walking around with a clipboard and a pen, trying to register people to vote.”
Now it’s Monday, 19 hours to inauguration, and he’s in the middle of the crowded circle, a 15-minute stroll from the White House, hurling shoes at a balloon-George W. Bush.
He joins the cheerful crowd as he picks up a pair of tennis shoes from the pile of mismatched slippers, dress shoes and boots.
“This president does not represent us,” he says. “He was a disgrace for our country, and he should be treated that way.”
It was an odd sort of protest, and Herrin seemed to like it that way. “It has this circus quality about it,” he says. “It doesn’t seem that vicious, but it’s making a point.”
Where some might yell profanities and others might protest, Herrin tossed a shoe.
“It’s time to put this whole thing behind us, and get on with the future,” he says, dodging a boot launched just above his head.
In a way, that’s what Jose Rodriguez wanted to express when he organized the unorthodox protest. But while his group, ArrestBush2009.com, also wants the country to move on, Rodriguez says he nevertheless wants President Bush to answer for the sins of his administration.
Wearing jeans, a jacket and a black baseball cap that says “FBI” on its front, he stands to the side of the inflated president, smiling as he watches people laugh, take pictures, and toss footwear.
“Bush took an oath to preserve and protect,” he says, pulling on the bill of his cap. “We want a return to law and order.”
Rodriguez’s group designed the Bush balloon with a Pinocchio nose and a pilot’s uniform reminiscent of the president’s now infamous 2003 speech aboard the USS Lincoln, in which he declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.
There’s a sign below the balloon president, encouraging passersby to “Give Bush the Boot!”
Overnight, the scene from December 2008–where an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at the president’s head–had become an international symbol of insult, spawning viral YouTube videos, “Daily Show” Jon Stewart monologues, and endless political cartoons.
Rodriguez says the shoes were donated from across the country–1,000 smelly tennis shoes, sandals, and bedroom slippers mixed with one pair of tan boots, said to have come from a soldier in Iraq. After the inauguration is over, Rodriguez says he’ll donate the shoes to charity. But for now, they’re flying satire, creating an outlet for the visceral emotions of a cheering crowd to be channeled into laughter, joy, and fun on a cold winter day.
Rodriguez halted the crowd, telling them all to hold their shoes while others prepared.
This was one of the few protests in Washington. Weeks leading up to this point had been largely quiet as the city prepared. Whether or not this was because of the president-elect’s appeal, or tightened security, is hard to tell. But the few who did protest in the capital were more often expressing gratitude that President Bush was leaving office, rather than voicing their displeasure with Mr. Obama. Such was the case with Rodriguez and his cheerful posse.
As Barack Obama is wrapping up a speech at a bipartisan dinner event across town, Rodriguez shouts, “3–2–1–go!” and all the shoes launch at once, bouncing off the inflated president and onto the ground below. Rodriguez chuckles. “It’s better than getting therapy,” he says.
The Convention Center
7th and L St. NW
January 19, 9:06 PM
The temperature is near freezing. Street closures, traffic backups and already gathering pedestrian crowds have almost paralyzed the city. If you need to get across town in a hurry, a tricycle with a huge passenger’s seat in the back looks like a good alternative to the traffic.
So here comes a peddicabber–27 years old, hair bunched under fleece cap, warmup pants, and several layers under her jacket. Her name is Shannon Montgomery. She’s an Afghanistan war vet. She served for a year in 2005 as part of the Texas National Guard, providing security and support at military bases and different cities.
Talking about the war is still somewhat hard for Montgomery. When the subject comes up, her warm Texan accent becomes much more rigid as the energy of her smile melts away. “They want to say they’re liberating people out there, but…” she pauses. Then, in rapid fire, she talks about the atrocities she saw and the lack of respect from either the military or the Afghani people. She talks about the mess it all is.
“It’s about the way we’re treating those people,” she says in the middle of a story about the attitude her fellow service-members had toward the Afghans.
While she had special training for three months before shipping overseas, Montgomery says there was little emphasis put on cultural understanding or sensitivity to the people she believed the United States was protecting from the Taliban.
“We would roll though with tanks and almost smush people’s feet,” she says. One day, her first lieutenant spoke with a family whose father had been hit by a US vehicle. “He was trying to find a way to get them out of our hair,” she says.
But that isn’t as important as what’s happening tomorrow. “I’m glad George W. Bush is leaving office tomorrow–rock on!” she says, rubbing her shoulders to keep warm, hoping for a fare from the Illinois State Society Ball.
As women in ball gowns and men in tuxedos scurry by on their way to the celebrations, Montgomery says she drove for about two days to get here from her home in Texas because she knew it would be great for business. In Austin, she owns her own pedicab company, making between $400-500 each weekend, giving both tourists and locals a unique way around town. Here, she’s worked shifts in freezing temperatures for four days straight, and the tips she’s earned broke her even on both her travel and equipment rentals. And her busiest day is yet to come.
She’s one of hundreds of cabbies who were courted in to the District to supplement the locals who work during the winter off-season, giving rides around the city for tips alone.
For Montgomery, it’s been successful. Her only challenges have been the hills, which she loves, and learning the layout of the city. Over the past few days, she’s had to learn convoluted street patterns designed to thwart British invaders from two centuries ago, that exist today only as accidental turns. But her customers don’t seem to mind when she gets lost.
Traveling around Capitol Hill and throughout the city that sent her to war, Montgomery reiterates that she is glad President Bush is leaving office, and even happier that Obama has promised to end the war. And although she loves the Afghan people, Montgomery hates that she was there as part of the military.
“I hate Bush–I see his signature on some of my paperwork and it’s frustrating,” she says, adding that she would never encourage her kids to enlist.
And even though she isn’t particularly a fan of Obama, and she hadn’t voted–”I vote with my pocketbook at local businesses”–Montgomery is excited to be part of the festivities. But she’s still doubtful much will change.
Then, two shivering ladies in ball-gowns walk up from behind and ask if she’s free. At that moment, Montgomery remembers she’s too busy to talk. She tucks her new customers into their seat with a blanket, gives them a smile, and pedals them off into the city.
Madison PL and Pennsylvania NW
January 20th, Midnight
For Tim McBride, this is bigger than Woodstock.
It is 12 hours until the inauguration, and McBride is looking at the White House from across the street in Lafayette Park. He’s standing with his son, Eamonn, and his son’s friend, Kacey, who grew up so poor that he’d never had a chance to visit a big city.
McBride has been here before, and so has his son. But this time is different for both of them. This time, it’s like a pilgrimage.
“It’s a thing from my generation, but have you ever heard of a contact high?” McBride asks. “It’s like contact elation.”
The gathering crowd’s excitement is infectious, but the city itself is in a state of perpetual fear. Week after week, the Washington Post published stories warning residents about the impending influx of crowds. Estimates put the event at four to five million people–a crowd 20 times larger than saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial four and a half decades earlier.
McBride was excited, thinking about the magnitude and importance of this day. He was so excited that he decided to leave a message on his boss’s phone. “I’m not going to be in tomorrow because I’m going down to Washington DC,” he said. “Me and my son are going to watch the inauguration!”
Only a few hours earlier, McBride had resigned himself to the fact that the big idea–driving for six hours from their home in Olean, NY–to see Barack Obama inaugurated live on the National Mall wasn’t going to happen.
“I don’t know; the weather’s bad and it’s cold,” McBride recalls his son, Eamonn, saying early in the morning. “He sounded like a 19 year old kid who didn’t want to get up.”
So McBride, who works for the Federal Bureau of Prisons just over the state border in PA, walked out into the woods–not to blow off any steam, or lift his spirits, but simply because he likes being out-doors. Ever since he moved into the area over a decade ago, he’s spent so much time hiking around ravines, taking photographs, harvesting timber, and building little walls out of rocks, that it’s a constant source of jokes for his family.
“They refer to it as ‘the Land,’” he says with a chuckle. “I do spend an inordinate amount of time out there, considering I have a wife and children.”
It was McBride’s day off from work, so he took a little more time than usual as he strolled through the freezing weather. Outside his home were the stars and stripes, hanging from the second floor of his house. “Obama,” it read on the bottom of the huge flag.
“We live in a Republican neighborhood,” he says. But that didn’t stop him or his family from fervently supporting the new president.
“He’s going to fundamentally change people’s perspectives,” McBride says, citing Obama’s inclusiveness of gays, lesbians, and other minorities into his team.
Despite his family’s enthusiasm for the new president, it wasn’t until McBride was walking in five feet of snow that his son called him on his cell phone: “This is going to be like Woodstock.”
It was Monday, 24 hours until inauguration and McBride had until then been convinced he wouldn’t see Barack Obama’s inauguration live, in Washington. But when Emaonn finally got out of bed and arrived at work, his boss told him about how the inauguration reminded him of Woodstock, and how his friends had offered him to go all those years ago, but he’d decided to stay home. “He said he always regretted it,” Emaonn told his father.
McBride’s wife, Camille, had also been suggesting they go. And when McBride returned from his hike, there were his son and a friend, ready for the trip. And so, with three mugs of coffee in hand, they made their way through the surprisingly clear roads.
Naturally, McBride did meet a few fellow travelers refueling their packed vans and station wagons.
“There wasn’t a lot of traffic until we got a few blocks away,” he says, after having driven for six hours to arrive at 7pm. “We only spent four or five minutes in a traffic jam at the edge of town, and then we were here.”
“My wife said that the day after the inauguration, everything will feel better and different,” he adds. “Of course it won’t be that different, but we will feel better.”
January 20, 11:15 AM
Nancy Ortiz isn’t exactly sure what to think.
A graduate student at USC and native of the Los Angeles area, Ortiz had gotten hold of six tickets to the inauguration from a friend in South Dakota. And although she’d been a supporter of Hillary Clinton “to the bitter end,” she was excited to go.
“In my mind, I’ve tried to downplay the fact that it’s our first African American President,” she says. “When people say it, I think–why does his ethnicity have to matter?”
Ortiz says she isn’t like most people. She doesn’t acknowledge the barriers she faces as a woman, or as a Hispanic American. She grew up in a generation that, in many ways, refuses to let race decide their fate–a generation that just helped elect the country’s first African American as President of the United States.
But then, on second thought, race might matter after all.
“I realized that the children born in this generation will have a completely different view on race and ethnicity,” she says. The children born today will see a black president as something that’s normal. Their first thought will not be of the civil rights struggle, or of Dr. King’s dream.
Ortiz struggles to reconcile her thoughts: race shouldn’t matter, but perhaps it should.
So, what did Obama, race and all, mean for her?
“Maybe I’m trying to find renewed hope in a leader,” Ortiz says with a sigh.
Ortiz represents the confusing group many political operatives are clamoring to understand: The “Millennials,” a generation raised in a world with Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, and MTV’s Rock the Vote. A generation that starkly contrasts with the notoriously apathetic “Generation-X” that came before them.
Ortiz is one of an estimated 23 million 18-29 year olds who voted in record numbers for an unprecedented election. Nearly 11 percent more than eight years ago, in the year 2000. Now, two months later, Ortiz has flown to Washington to participate in an unprecedented inauguration.
She says that it was her want–her need, even–to find inspiration that drove her to use frequent-flyer miles to make her way out east.
“I wanted to go and see him,” she says. “I wanted to be inspired to do my part to fix the wrongs of my country.”
She woke up early and stood in line at a security gate, waiting for her turn to participate in the historic event.
And even though she, like so many other people, had arrived in Washington completely unprepared for exactly how cold the day would be, something kept her moving. What it was, exactly, she can’t quite express. But she had to be there. “I was pretty sure I was going to lose a toe in the name of Barack Obama,” she says with a laugh.
The highway that ran underneath the Mall next to the Capitol Building had been transformed into one of the many entrance areas for ticket holders for the inaugural address. Over 4,000 people stood beneath the stands of history, waiting for security to allow them above.
But when her access gate prematurely closed for security reasons, Ortiz ran around the Capitol, looking for every possible point of entry. And she wasn’t alone. Many people using online blogs and Twitter were discussing the logistical chaos as it happened. Photographs spread, depicting seemingly endless crowds standing in lines all around the Capitol–stuck outside the inaugural gates as the event began.
But not Ortiz.
After searching from street to street, and stepping in plants marked “Poisonous, Do Not Touch,” she eventually found a gate that was still open and made it through just before the inauguration started.
As Barack Obama’s limousine approached the Capitol Building, she was there, toe and all.
January 20, 11:40 AM
It’s hard not to notice Billy Davis as he walks along the edge of a crowd in Union Station. Like so many other people crowded around the live television feed, his skin is black, but his intensity makes him different. He walks with purpose, his face is tense. And there’s an Obama-“O” logo shaved into his hair.
A product of the foster system in Cleveland and Atlanta, the 40-year-old Davis had moved to Washington for work. Now, he’s a healthcare technician, bundled in a peacoat and a red, white and blue muffler, 20 minutes before the inauguration. He’s looking for the friends with whom he’d taken the subway a little after its opening at 4 am to cold, excited crowds.
“I had tickets, but I got separated from my friends,” he says. But Davis wasn’t too frustrated. The excitement of the crowds and the historic nature of the event kept his spirits up and his head high as he walked among the crowds.
Union Station was a spillover corral by now. When overwhelmed police began shutting off access to the Capitol, inaugural ticket holders began filling the railroad station, where they could warm up, eat fast food, and look for a television so that they could at least see the event–even if they weren’t going to witness it first hand.
In a corner of the main hall sit the only two readily-visible televisions, turned to CNN as the inauguration unfolds, live, just a 10 minute walk away. Nearly a hundred people crowd around the tables of a private party, peering over one another for a glimpse of the 44th President of the United States.
As President Bush and Barack Obama emerge from a morning coffee at the White House, the group burst into song, “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, good-bye!”
Neither of Davis’ foster parents lived to see the day, he says, thinking of what they’d taught him about the importance of participation–of voting. His father was a concrete worker who never learned to read or write.
He never knew his biological parents.
Davis was matched with his new parents shortly after his birth in 1968–a year filled with race riots, the assassinations of both Dr. King and Sen. Robert Kennedy, and a seemingly unending war in Vietnam. Luckily for him, Davis says, he was too young to remember all of that.
Perhaps that’s what would have made today that much more of a special day for them. With pride in his voice, Davis says they would have been ecstatic to see this step forward after so many years of discrimination. “Back when I was a child, they would say you can be anything,” he says. “But if you wanted to be president, they would say, ‘Well, you might want to think about that.’”
All around him, people are excited. Every moment the mere portrait of Barack Obama shows on television, people cheer. And as the day’s moment draws closer, people begin to prepare. Newly purchased Obama flags lie idle in people’s grasp, children try to move through the crowd to get a better look at the picture, and smiles are everywhere.
233 years after the United States declared its freedom from British rule, 147 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and 44 years after Lyndon B. Johnson stood in the well of Congress and spoke words from the famous freedom song, “We Shall Overcome”–this country was about to inaugurate its first black president.
But Davis isn’t thinking so much about the here and now. To him, this moment is about the future. Now that black children know they can reach the highest office, Davis says he hopes this will teach them other things as well. “Being an African American male, it’s time to see some change,” he says. “We need to bring back pride and dignity.” Healthcare workers respect one another no matter what race they are, Davis says. But, when he steps outside Capitol Digestive Care, he sees fellow African Americans calling one another by racial slurs that were once taboo, and wearing shabby clothing.
“We need to have the pride to pull our pants up and conduct ourselves professionally,” he says. “I want us to get the dignity we deserve.”
700 14th St NW
January 20, 12:35 PM
Barack Obama is wrapping up his first speech as President of the United States from the Capitol Buidling. Crowds are cheering, flags are waving. And Ali Suliman is standing in the back of a Starbucks, two blocks from the White House, smiling from ear to ear.
“I got here too late to watch him become the first African American President,” he says somberly–half of his attention on the tiny laptop computer blaring the live webcast from msnbc.com. “They aren’t letting anyone into the Mall, anymore, but at least I get to hear him.”
Suliman, who is applying for residency as a doctor of internal medicine at Arlington Hospital, moved here three years ago from the country of Sudan, where his parents, his brother, his sister, and their families all still live. “I don’t want to think about it,” he says, staring at the image of Obama on the computer screen. “I wish they could be here.”
Suliman was granted political asylum after traveling to Egypt and then the United States on a student visa. “I made up my mind a long time ago that I would not go back to Sudan,” he says.
Every year since, he has applied for his family’s green cards.
Although it took him a while to learn English, and to make some friends, Suliman says he’s finally happy here. But his heart is always with his family, 6,500 miles away. Even on a day like today, where he had hoped to snap a photo of the president’s inauguration from the National Mall.
But at least he’s here.
And he’s seen the president before–he met then-Senator Obama during the summer of 2005, just before Suliman moved, when the American politician made an unannounced visit to the village of Ghedesh, where Suliman was working as a doctor.
“At the time, he wasn’t famous to me,” Suliman says. “All I knew was that he was a US Senator.”
During that trip, or perhaps sometime afterward, Suliman recalled a quote from Obama’s speech: “America is a great nation and a great country, and people come to see how great we are.”
Here, Suliman says, is the proof.
“Now, we have a president that proves you can be anyone, and still become a leader,” he says. “This does not happen anywhere else in the world but here, and certainly not where I’m from.”
He fights back tears. He smiles. He looks at the computer and lets out a sigh. “It is good to be a part of this country.”
555 11th St NW
January 21, 6:49 PM
Adam Henderson and Andrew Dimpfl sit, sipping coffee at another Starbucks just blocks away from the White House, basking in the glow of a new president. One might say the two men are guaranteed Barack Obama supporters–wearing rings on their wedding-fingers, given to one another as Christmas Presents.
But Henderson and Dimpfl say gay rights was not the primary issue that made them vote Democratic, or support the new president.
“We aren’t one of those couples who have been dating for 15 years, but marriage isn’t one of the most important things for us either,” Dimpfl says. “Let’s fix the economy, let’s take care of the war. These things need to be addressed first.”
Henderson agreed, “Knowing he’ll repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell within his first year is enough for me, for now,” referring to the ban on out-of-the-closet gays in the military.
Henderson and Dimpfl had been planning to come and watch Barack Obama’s inauguration almost from the day that he was elected president.
Henderson, a lifelong Democrat from Los Angeles, became enthusiastic about Barack Obama when he saw the Senator’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Then, in 2006, he met Barack Obama on a campaign stop to support Phil Angelides’s campaign for Governor of California.
“He came and shook my hand, and gave a great speech,” Henderson says. “After that, I read his book, The Audacity of Hope, and became a Barack Obama supporter.”
For Dimpfl, it was a little different. “I grew up in a Republican household,” he says, shaking his head as he says he’d voted for George W. Bush both in 2000 and 2004. “I didn’t know any better.”
But, after Henderson took him to see Obama speak in January right before Super Tuesday, Dimpfl decided to switch sides.
“I was charmed by his personality and speaking skills,” he says. “It was an exciting time to watch what could be the first black president follow the previous bad president.”
Even though they were completely unprepared for the weather–”winter clothes” have a different meaning in Los Angeles–they still wanted to see the new president march down Pennsylvania Avenue on his way to the White House.
“We waited for three hours to get through the checkpoint, and everyone was already beaten from standing around in that awful cold while the parade was delayed,” Dimpfl says. “But when he got out of the car, and started marching toward the White House, everyone got so excited.”
Henderson added, “We witnessed something that will be a story we tell our kids and grandkids. And sure, I’ll probably exaggerate and say he shook my hand and offered me a job, but it’s still an amazing thing to have witnessed.”