It is hard to overstate how crowded it was on the National Mall Sunday. I've been to New York City. I've been to Disney World. I've been to Phish concerts. But to be one amongst nearly a million human bodies is oddly disconcerting.
Especially because it seemed like a good thirty percent of those bodies were Marines, cops, or Secret Service agents. The rest of the crowd was mostly happy, but reserved: affluent Washington types in tweed, groups of black women on all-girls trips, one chick on roller skates. All together it made for a weird vibe: refreshingly optimistic and yet completely terrifying at the same time.
Judging by my experience, the city did an amazing job with the logistics. The subway ran smoothly. There seemed to be plenty of port-o-potties. Vendors hawked hot dogs and souvenirs in a very orderly and well-behaved fashion. But it would have been impossible to check people's bags. I doubt I was the only one envisioning what the carnage would look like if a suicide bomber rolled through.
I arrived basically underneath the Washington Monument and saw this.
Note the Lincoln Memorial, in the distance, far, far away, looking tiny in this picture. That's where the action was: a big concert with Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce and U2, plus many more. I had little hopes of getting any closer. And because I had decided to go to Washington at the last minute, I missed the December deadline to apply for press credentials.
Except -- burning a hole in my pocket was a white ticket with a fancy silver seal, given to me casually by a friend -- a super, awesome, wonderful, well-connected, and generous friend who is a total rock star.
It looked special, but it said "preferred standing," which didn't really sound like "VIP." I figured it was probably a holding pen kinda sorta close to the stage. I realized I should have arrived much, much earlier. Still, I decided to try to hoof it. I did not think my chances were good.
On the way, I encountered tons of these army dudes in camouflage:
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and was astonished when, after almost an hour of walking, I flashed my ticket and was let through a checkpoint. I found myself in line with a lot of people with fancy laminated passes identifying themselves as part of the inauguration event staff. We had to go through metal detectors and have our bags searched. I rounded a bend and saw this. (Notice the snipers on the roof)
I'm not sure if I had a really special ticket, or if I accidentally walked past a guard who was not paying attention, but suddenly I was here. In the picture below, on the lower left, you'll see the bulletproof glass where Barack Obama's family was sitting. He is that little speck at the podium. Yeah, he and I were so close we were practically making out. The only thing between us was maybe 200 super-special people, senators and whatnot. Behind me were about 999,800 regular folks.
Now, you would think it was exciting to be there --- and it was. But it was also very, very, very tense. Airplanes were flying super low nearby (here's a link to a photo taken from a plane, that shows how close planes get to the Mall). I am sure I'm not the only one who had visions of September 11 running though my head. I couldn't believe they hadn't shut down the airport. Who would even want the president's job, I wondered. It's so freaking nerve-racking.
Bono got up there and was singing, and so did Shakira, and Stevie Wonder. And while people swayed in their seats, Michelle Obama -- seen via Jumbotron -- was the only one who looked loose. Only when Barack finished speaking and we collectively realized 'cool --we're not going to die in a terror attack today' did the mood break. That's when Secret Service officers slipped into smiles and people started chanting "O-ba-ma!" I couldn't help it -- I felt a little misty eyed and sang along out loud to "This Land is Your Land" -- me and Bruce Springsteen.
It was touching. It's cool that a big public clebration like that could even still happen in this day and age. I sure do hope we are in for a better world. Personally, I think Barack Obama is a badass even for showing up to work.