It was the sort of night when even homeless people know not to sleep outside. I had no way of knowing this when my phone alarm started playing irritatingly cheerful attempts at music at 2:30 a.m., while I lay in bed debating whether the inauguration was really so historic that it was worth poking my toes out of the warm covers after only four hours of sleep. I had anticipated this dilemma and accordingly made my roommate Morgan promise to keep me from going back to sleep.
I had gone to the inauguration expecting to wake up at a less unholy hour and to ride a comfortable bus to Capitol Hill, where, ticket securely in hand, I would see the inauguration up close. That was what the conference I was attending had led me to believe I had paid for, but of course by that time there was nothing I could do, except bundle up and think unprintable thoughts as my three friends and I left our hotel at 3:15 a.m. The conference leaders had assured us was a 45-minute walk, at most.
About an hour later we first caught sight of the Washington Monument. That giant obelisk, startlingly white against the deep-purple sky, seemed to say, “You think you’re cold and tired? My soldiers at Valley Forge didn’t even have shoes. So stop complaining and keep marching. I didn’t found this country so you could whine.” Yes, anything you say, Gen. Washington.
When we got closer to the National Mall the police and army vehicles reminded me of the news reports from countries in the midst of civil wars. We were diverted from 18th to 15th Street, then back to 19th. Still, eventually we reached the grassy strip of the Mall, and I felt a strange pride in the collective insanity I shared with such a crowd. We were lining up in the middle of the night, not for a concert or the release of a new video game system, but to watch democracy in action.
[hart]The Mall had opened at 4 a.m., and Capitol Hill was full by the time we got there at 5:15. Fortunately, someone had had the foresight to set up jumbo screens, and so we settled down to wait it out on a towel someone had “borrowed” from the hotel. That was when we realized it was cold.
I had thought I knew what cold was after three years in East Lansing. After all, I had felt the water vapor in my nostrils freezing on the way to and from class. It is one thing to be cold for 15 minutes, when you have a definite destination in mind and can pick up the pace when you realize your extremities have gone numb. It’s quite another when your obstacle is not space, but time, and you realize that nothing you do can make the sun rise faster and begin to drive the chill from your bones.
We tried to cope by making a human wigwam, piling on top of each other and taking turns being on the bottom, the warmest spot. It did not help much. Two people left after about an hour, and my remaining friend Justin started looking for newspapers to use as blankets. Since all of the cardboard boxes that had been lying around were already occupied, I just reminded myself, again and again, that I only had to be strong until sunrise, that it always gets colder before it gets warmer. In those early morning hours, believing the sun will rise feels more like an act of faith than acknowledging a scientific truth.
Still, it was worth it for the chance to be there. What I saw at the inauguration made me proud of my country. Not just the fact that apparently racism is less important to the majority of voters than the economy, but the fact that people came together on this cold day. No one was allowed to sell anything, but some people were just handing out mini American flags. About halfway through the morning, when they put on Monday’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial, people were singing along to “This Land Is Your Land” and waving their flags. The pride and excitement in the air went deeper than I can find words to describe.
[hart3]The ceremony itself was almost anticlimactic. After the entrances that I was pretty sure would go until midterm elections, there were musical performances, the oaths themselves and President Obama’s address. His message, as usual, was one of hope and faith in the American people, and the spirit was contagious.
I don’t know if he can keep his campaign promises. I don’t even know if he made the right promises. Just as getting through the crowds and out of the National Mall was a lot harder than getting in, the president’s real challenges are still ahead. He was elected on people’s faith in our ability to come together and get through times that look so dark to so many.
But if faith is blind, so is cynicism. I’ve heard professors and even students express the view that America is so deeply broken that all our attempts to fix it are as useless as trying to leave a permanent indentation in the Pillsbury Doughboy’s stomach. During my time studying in the United Kingdom this past summer I was amazed at how quickly my American classmates would join the British students in bashing their countrymen. Apparently some people really believe Americans are a bunch of stupid lemmings who have lost all sense of duty to anything but their wallets.
They are wrong. Hopefully we’ve elected the right man; maybe we haven’t. Time will tell. The stock market was plunging even as over two million people stood cheering the new president, and the whole world did not join hands singing “Kumbaya.” We still face a long, hard road. But you know what? For now at least, we’re walking it with our heads held high.