THIS IS MY FAMILY: OBAMA”S INAUGURATION 2009
by Jacob Asher Michael
“By the dawn’s early light.” Frances Scott Key (1779-1843)
I woke up at 4:00 AM. It was a full half hour before my alarm was set to go off. I piled on my clothes: a turtle neck with a long sleeved shirt pulled over it, covered by a lamb’s wool cardigan and topped with a zippered blue fleece. Around my legs were a pair of fancy high-tech long johns; a loose fitting pair of cheap old long johns; a pair of flannel pajamas, ensconced in khaki slacks; and lastly, rain pants. No belt would hold this edifice. I wore suspenders.
On my feet I wore thermal undersocks and Marino wool hiking socks, perhaps the best thing I have ever placed upon on my feet. I had purchase them the day before, specifically for this occasion. I got into my car with a well-thought-out bag of food containing juice boxes, oatmeal cookies, dried fruit, two bagels, and a lemon Tastykake pie.
My dad attended the 1963 March on Washington as one of the skinny white ministers who walked in front to keep everyone else from getting shot. Unfortunately, he took very few pictures, and I was determined not to make the same mistake. I double checked the purse-like (yet manly) durable nylon case that held my cell phone and my camera. They were both there.
I drove down former country lanes dusted with snow to the parking lot in front of the K-Mart. There, along with a few dozen other groggy-eyed people, I boarded a bus bound for Washington, DC and the inauguration of America’s first African America president. This was all pretty amazing given that in eleven score and twelve years, our nation had elected not only just Caucasians, but white men whose lineage traced back to the British Isles, quite often to nobility. Eisenhower was the only German.
With Obama, we had not simply taken a step forward, we had leap-frogged like some bizarre Amazonian toad whose Herculean ability to lunge defies the laws of physics.
Once on the bus, I sat down next to My Artist Friend, who will never tell me her age. All I know is that she and her mom saw the Beatles play at the Philadelphia Civic Center on their first American tour. It was My Artist Friend who had offered me a ticket after the bus was sold out, which oddly enough it wasn’t. Regardless, I stomped the snow off my boots, climbed up onto the bus, and plunked down in the seat next to My Artist Friend.
Across from her sat her brother, a photographer, and his wife who worked in an organic/free range/fair trade grocery store that has fantastic frozen mango chunks, and cheap too. In front of me were some of My Artist Friend’s buddies: a guy with a VW microbus that ran on spent cooking oil, and his wife, who was handing out home-made empanadas filled with ham, chicken, or spinach. I got the chicken. Across the aisle from them was Phyllis (her real name), who was eighty four.
Although this little cadre of partisans was all white, not everyone on the bus was. There were about a dozen African Americans, including the bus driver and one petite yet striking young woman with a smile that beamed like Diana Ross at the 1965 Grammy Awards. Around her tastefully tailored winter coat, was draped a blue and white sash that read, “Miss Cheyney University.” She was sitting alone in the back. Her posture was excellent.
Toward the front of the bus sat another lone female, a young hipster with vine-like silver rings on her fingers, and a glittering stud pierced into her nose. Her jet black hair was braided into two long, thick pony tails that jutted out from above her ears like a punk Pippi Longstocking. Her olive skin and dark eyes suggested her family came from a land whose inhabitants once wore togas and sandals. Dress her in iridescent silk and a crown of cowry shells, and she could have been cast as the Queen of the Phoenicians in some Steve Reeves gladiator flick.
Having surveyed my fellow passengers, I settled into my seat, and attempted to adjust the five pairs of pants that swaddled me like a mummy. Just to be extra vigilant,I checked my “not-a-purse” for my phone and camera. The lid of the case was unlatched and hung loose. The phone was still there, but the camera was gone. I stood, ready to ask the driver if I had time to return to my car and look for it. Just then, the twelve wheels below us lurched forward. Three weeks later I would find that camera outside my front door, frozen in a block of mud.
When enhanced by my handy-dandy travel pillow, the padded seat into which I was nestled was suitably comfortable. Soon enough, I nodded off. Some twenty minutes later, I was roused into semi-consciousness by an atonal chorus of idling truck engines. We were cued up at the entrance to a weigh station in Northern Maryland. I had ridden my share of busses, but this was the first time one got weighed. I assumed it was the luck of the draw, and again I wafted off to sleep.
When I woke up again, we were inching forward into yet another weigh station just north of the DC beltway, creeping along in a long line of trucks and busses, but no cars.
Our driver piloted us onto a rectangle of road surface. I can only imagine it was a gigantic scale. On either side of us were rows of black SUVs with darkened windows, multiple antennas, and Secret Service license plates. Why would they care about how much we weighed? Trim fit men in cop-like all-weather coats scanned the underside of the bus with a long black tube, looking for bombs I suppose. We had none, so they waved us on. After that, we saw no cars on the road.
We pulled into RFK stadium, its parking lot chocked full of busses fresh from the left-leaning corners of the North American continent. I have never seen, and likely never will see, so many buses gathered in one place. I suspect that few other human on the face of the earth have ever seen as many busses as I saw that day. If I were to describe is as a neatly parked flock of square robotic elephants, dipped in white chocolate, it might sound interesting. But in hindsight, it was just a bunch of busses.
The driver turned off the engine, and I recalled the first time I happened upon a mass gathering in DC. It was the anti-war protest in January of 2003, and it was huge. Me and a few friends got lost in the churning tide of people, so we asked a cop for directions. He asked us to wait for a second while he finished a conversation he was having on his walkie-talkie.
He then turned to his partner and said, “There’s 100,000 here and 100,000 down at the navy yard, so they’re gonna redeploy everyone at the Mall over to there.”
In other words, there were 200,000 people there. When I flipped on the news the next morning the reporter said, “It is estimated that thousands of people attended a march in DC this weekend… and now let’s go to Howard Eskin with highlights from the Eagles’ game.” Six months later, I heard that the New York Times printed a story in which they admitted to having incorrectly reported the number of marchers, which they concluded was more like hundreds of thousands.
Myself, I am not a conspiracy theorist, I just think the newsies were so eager to cover a war they went into a drooling zombie state. A similar thing happened after 9/11, when there was a spontaneous anti-terrorism demonstration in Iran of all places. People filled the streets of Tehran waving American flags. That’s right, I said waving American flags, not burning them. The only coverage this Muslim show of popular empathy received was a short segment on the PBS News Hour in which they discussed significant stories that did not get reported, rather than actually bothering to report on them.
So, one could say that I had some experience navigating big crowds in DC. That is why I stood up on the bus and called out, “There are going to be really big crowds here and it’s easy to get lost. If you are here alone without a group, you can come and join ours.”
It was not the sort of thing I usually did, standing up like that. Where I grew up, such a display got you a punch in the stomach from the kid who stole your lunch money. But this was a day to be courageous.
We tumbled off the bus, or as they would say in the airline industry, we de-bussed. At the low end of the parking lot, a line of humanity five people thick stretched for block after block, extending from somewhere to somewhere, or perhaps nowhere to nowhere. Everyone standing in it was shaded from the low morning sun and looked miserably cold. Were they even moving? Throughout the day we would see a plethora of these Möbius strip lines, never starting, never ending.
With tones of dread, someone said, “That’s the line for the Metro.”
A couple of day before the Inauguration, My Artist Friend and I had determined that if worse came to worse, and we could not take the Metro subway into town, we would hike the three and a half miles from RFK Stadium to the Capitol. Neither of us wanted to. In my over-cautiousness, I even printed out a fuzzy map of DC from someplace on the web. I unfolded it. All we needed to do was walk straight down Independence Avenue and we would be there.
My Artist Friend’s brother said, “We’re going to have to walk.” The big question was Phyllis. At her age, would she be able to take the walk, the crowds, and the cold air, or would we end up carrying her on our backs like some Vietnamese refugees fleeing their napalmed village down the Ho Chi Minh Trail? While the elders of our ad hoc tribe convened a meeting, I made a B-line for the only port-a-potty in the lot. It was occupied. I waited until a very skinny, very old black lady with a cane hobbled out of it. I held the door and put out my hand in case she tripped over the plastic doorstep by her feet. I then entered the facility.
A bad port-a-potty is terrible place to be, and this was far beyond that. There were wads of toilet paper splattered all over, and the floor and seating were glistening with bad, bad stuff. Next to the rim of the seat, someone has set two empty sardine cans. Why on earth they would be there is almost imponderable. I suspect this was not the first indignity that old lady bore during her decades on this planet. At least on this day, she would be getting something back.
I relived myself, standing like an engineer whizzing off on the back of a little red caboose, meticulously touching nothing. Zipping up, I fled to my crew huddled by the bus, where I was informed that we would indeed be walking.
I had brought with me a standard-size American flag, which I had intended to hoist off a five foot-long piece of PCV pipe. However, the afternoon before our trip, My Artist Friend sent me an e-mail detailing how the Secret Service was reserving the right to confiscate any weapons, anything that remotly looked like a weapon, or anything that could hide a weapon. Essentially, they could sieze whatever the heck they wanted to. So instead of bringing a flagpole, I just brought a flag.
When I had witnessed the big anti-war march in 2003, I came to understand that a flag on a flagpole is a most valuable tool. In a crowd of mulling people, a flag raised high above everyone’s head is an excellent way to let your comrades know where you are. This is why flags were invented. In the fog of war, a shiny band of silk lets your archers know that they should shoot their arrows towards the other chaps, and not at you.
Since I had no flag pole, I tied my flag around my back like a cape. Whereas, I’m just over six feet tall, I figured I might serve as the flagpole for my group. Upon donning this gay apparel, my group laughed at me, and asked me to pose for photos like a superhero flying through the sky. However, once I pontificated to them as to the utility of this flag, they laughed at me again, and once more asked me to pose like a superhero.
Our group packed up their bags, swaddled their heads in scarves, and began the trek westward. A few solo travelers took us up on the offer I had announced on the bus. One of them was the bus driver, a black guy from northern Delaware. He was planning on taking a nap in the bus since he woke up at three AM, but he decided to join us. The other tag-alongs were Miss Cheyney University, Punk Pippi Longstocking, and a one or two others.
I unfolded my map. Turns out no one else had one, except for Punk Pippi Longstocking who said, “I really don’t know how to read this.”
My Artists Friend’s brother, serving as the reigning alpha male, pointed at me and said, “We’re all gonna follow you.”
It was a position with which I was not entirely comfortable. In all truth, I had been to DC before, but not this neighborhood. For all I knew, we might end up passing ominously through the mean streets of the south side, or the west side, or whatever side it was where Sharks and Jets flashed stilettos and got into rumbles over turf.
In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character says something along the lines of, “I don’t think God is that much different from us, it’s just he’s seen it all before.”
Or perhaps, I thought to myself, what makes the Almighty almighty is, he’s got a map.
We had climbed up a hill about four blocks to an old school that was in the early stages of being demolished or rehabbed. A chain link fence surrounded it, and there were piles of construction debris strewn about. It was a horn of plenty for a dedicated trash-picker like me. I retrieved a jagged stick of wood. It appeared to be a fractured board wedged off a wooden pallet. Its shape was that a medieval sword, minus the handle, but with a blunt square tip.
I tied my flag to this jagged stick and rested it on my shoulder, in the manner of Andy Griffith taking Opie to the fishin’ hole. The wind blew, and as we got closer to the action, people began to snap my picture with the Stars and Strips waving above my head.
When I asked directions from a dog-walking metrosexual, he said, “They are closing off streets north of the Capitol. When you get to North Carolina Avenue, you should follow that south.” He motioned toward my flag. “You know, they’re not going to let you into the Mall with that.”
“It’s just a stick,” I said. “If they want me to get rid of it, I’ll toss it on the ground.”
Most of the roads we were traveling on were lined with parked cars, no empty spaces. None of the locals were driving that day, and no one was entering or exiting the row-houses that became ever more gentrified as we stepped closer to the National Mall. Periodically, a police cruiser, ambulance, or both would speed by. Most the time, we had the sidewalk and the asphalt to ourselves.
This changed when we got within what I estimated to be four or five blocks from the Capitol. Given the kitty-cornered street grid that runs through Washington, DC, we were never entirely sure which way we were headed.
This wacky street pattern was designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who was such a pain in the hind end that nobody could stand to work with him. After he got his pants in a serious bunch, he rolled up his plans and went back to France. His draftsman was Benjamin Bennaker, a free black Quaker.
According to the story I read in fourth grade reading class, Bennaker redrew L’Enfant’s detailed plans from memory, thus saving the day. Oddly enough, this narrative is not historically true, but reality was even stranger. Although Bennaker did not redraw the plans, he was a self-trained clock maker and astronomer who published a series of almanacs. His maternal grandmother was Millie Welsh, a white landowner who married one of her African slaves. The slave was named Banneka, and he came from the Dogan tribe, a people renowned for their knowledge of the stars.
Thus, the layout of our nation’s capitol is veiled in a swirl of myth and fact, which might explain why we and all the other pilgrims to this city were wandering around quasi-aimlessly, despite having maps. We considered asking directions from the national guardsmen who were standing post by barricades, but they were all pimply-faced kids from out of town, dumped on the streets by their CEO and ordered to stand in the cold wearing a yellow plastic vest. They looked more disoriented than us.
The cops were very helpful, especially when Miss Cheyney University asked them for directions, but there were not very many of them. Most of them were busy doing something useful, like shooing people away from oncoming fire trucks.
At one point I was strolling down the middle of the street with my stick and flag and a number of people – some from my group, others not – filled in behind me. It was as if I was leading my own little parade, until of course a cop shouted, “Get out of the street, Flag Man.”
I sheepishly scampered off to the sidewalk.
“She’s a grand old flag” George M. Cohan (1878-1942)
In the late 1990s, having survived a brush with death, I began to attend the Unitarian Society of Germantown on Lincoln Drive in Philadelphia. During one of my first visits, the service featured a visiting minister who was a homosexual, and one of the most dynamic public speakers I ever heard. His sermon was a proposal for gay marriage.
His basic argument was that all of the stereotypes about gay men being promiscuous, inordinately-style conscious, and prone to spending the night is sleazy bars, were true. His proposition was that endless unfettered bachelorhood of gay men would be tempered if they, like their straight counterparts, had the opportunity to get married and settle into normal healthy lifestyles, spending their money on Thomas the Tank Engine toys for their kids, rather than tickets for the Ru-Paul show.
I recall that when he spoke, there was a white-haired church lady sitting in the front row with her nice little square purse and low-heeded shoes. She listened. She sat in her pew up front, considering the words of a man that my grandmothers, sweet as they were, would have spurned. That little old Unitarian was Liz Charles.
I never got to know Liz real well, but she was the first extremely old person I ever met who I had any desire to emulate. She didn’t grouse or spit fire. She listened, an art I have yet to master. Liz died a few weeks before Obama’s Inauguration, so she didn’t make the trip to DC. However, another taciturn old lady did, and that would be Phyllis.
Phyllis was all of five foot two, and had an economy of speech she appeared to have learned while being suckled by the same pack of wolves that raised Clint Eastwood. As she walked, always slowly, down the re-gentrifying streets of Washington DC, I asked her if this was her first inauguration, assuming she might provide me with an entertaining story involving Stokely Carmichael or at least Pete Seeger.
Her reply was, “Yes,” nothing more.
I asked her why she was attending this one.
“This is the only time,” she said, “we ever elected a president who ought to be the president.”
I scanned each and every brain cell in my cranium for a possible follow up question, but since she had pretty much explained herself as well as anyone could, I smiled like a dolt and shut my mouth.
Because Phyllis was the slowest and most vulnerable among us, I was assigned the task of staying with her. Fortunately, she wore a distinctive purple beret, which was one of the few hues that clearly registered on the back of my colorblind eyeballs. She and I would spend the next eight hours negotiating through what may have been the most massive gathering in the history of North America. Through it all, our conversations consisted of me saying,
“I’m right behind you, Phyllis.”
To which she responded, “Good.”
It was an effective working relationship.
Our group tried to stick to our original plan, which was to walk to a Metro station and hop a ride into town. But at every stop, all we found were those infernal lines. At one point, Phyllis appeared to be fading, although she insisted that she all she needed to do was pull up her socks. We decided to detour to the nearest Metro station, which I estimated was three blocks away. To my left, a line of people was busy not moving, so I asked if any of them knew where the Metro was.
“Yes,” they said, “This is the line for the Metro.”
It was three blocks long.
That was when we came to accept that we would be spending the day hoofing it. We delicately asked Phyllis if she could make it and she said,
“Oh yeah, of course.”
We carried on, waving goodbye to the three-block-long line. At one tangled warren of diagonally crossing streets, I lost Phyllis. I retraced my path, but she was gone. A half block in front of me, My Artist Friend was waving for me to come over to her. She was standing by a market square with tables displaying hats, hand-made earrings, Indian dresses, and other yuppie accoutrements.
“Did you find Phyllis?” I asked.
“Yes,” said My Artist Friend. “We’re going to stop here for a while. Phyllis wants to do some shopping.”
“Shopping!” snorted her brother, but it was all in vain. His snorts had no power to usurp an eighty-four year old woman who had trudged miles through the winter’s cold, yet still had the gumption to go shopping.
I acquiesced to the inexplicable wheel of fate and strolled across the square, which in typical DC fashion, was actually a triangle. I wandered into the stall of a West African guy, tall and dark complexioned with a goat-like goatee and no mustache. He was selling traditional wooden African masks.
Over the past fifteen years, I had purchased a number of African masks from a North African named Hamed, who had a tiny store packed to the gills with African art in Glenside, PA. Glenside was originally an 18th century plantation north of Philadelphia, whose owner let his slave mistress move in with him. They had a few kids who he openly raised, much to the shock of his neighbors. When he died, his will stipulated that his estate should go to his mulatto family. They summarily sold the land and skipped town before anyone could come up with a reason to seize it from them.
The African mask dealer noticed me scoping out his wares and asked, “Is there anything I can show you?”
Some of his pieces were nice. One sculpture was quite good. I told him I was just browsing and, having taken a bus, was not in a position to schlep home any large carved objects. Somehow, I mentioned that I had bought a few masks from a shop north of Philadelphia.
The Mask Dealer said, “Oh, so you must know Hamed.”
I replied that I did, and the African told me about what a nice warehouse Hamed had across the street from his shop in Glenside. We chatted about the mask trade, Hamed’s America wife (he was from Morocco), and the outrageous prices they charge for masks in New Hope.
“Are you here for the Inauguration?” asked the Mask Dealer.
I told him I was.
“Obama,” said the Mask Dealer, “He is good for Africa. Africans, they need to see this.” He said something else I did not entirely follow, but I think I heard the word, “democracy.”
Another customer was looking at some traditional African soap the Mask Dealer had stacked up in plastic deli containers.
“I’ll let you get back to you work,” said I.
He took off his glove extended his hand. I took off mine and we shook.
“If you see Hamed,” he said, “tell him I said hello.”
“One small step for man…” Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)
In 1764, a fourteen-year old lad named Richard Humphreys sailed away from his father’s sugarcane plantation on the Caribbean island of Tortola, and became an apprentice to the Philadelphia goldsmith who made the inkwell used to sign the Declaration of Independence. Eventually, he took over the business and became stinking rich.
Although Humphreys was a gun-toting jack-Quaker who owned slaves, he got irked when, in 1829, gangs of unemployed new immigrants – with whom the well-heeled gentry refused to associate – roamed the thoroughfares of the City of Brotherly Love setting fire to things owned by Negro freemen who had clearly worked industriously enough to generate the income required to purchase said things.
This whiff of anarchy inspired Humphries to re-write his will. Upon his death in 1832, he left a princely sum of $10,000 (one tenth of his estate) to establish a school for what he called “the descendants of the African race.” Initially it was given the really cool name of The African Institute. Ultimately, it evolved into the much more boringly-named Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the oldest historically black college in America. In 2008, its student body crowned as its homecoming queen, a pre-law cheerleader majoring in criminal science.
Some cheerleaders are statuesque amazons, who could Indian wrestle my bony frame to the ground in six seconds flat. Others are nimble Tinkerbelles who can be flipped into the air and land gracefully in the big burly arms of the male cheerleaders who threw them. Miss Cheyney University was of the latter category and stood a good many inches below the Neanderthal crest of my balding head.
Whenever I was walking near her, people would snap pictures. She was the beauty, I the beast with a flag tied to a stick. The fact that I was wearing a brimmed wool cattleman’s hat and a knee-length Marlborough Man trench coat only enhanced the physical contrast.
On more than one occasion, Miss Cheyney University would be speaking with one of the guild of young black men hawking Obama memorabilia on the sidewalk, and just as they launched into their rico suave “well-aren’t-you-just-something” sales pitch, I would stomp up behind her wielding my jagged stick and grunt, “We need to get going.”
She would flash a smile in response, like she did to everyone, and the now-confused fellows who had been bartering with her would gaze up with pained expressions, as if to say, “Who the hell is that bean-pole freak, and why is she even acknowledging him?”
Miss Cheyney University was equally a magnet for teenage girls who flocked around her saying, “You’re so beautiful,” and old black church ladies in fur coats who also said, “You’re so beautiful,” but with less awe.
Every block or so, without fail, someone would approach Her Majesty and start chatting. If this person was a Cheyney University graduate, hugging would commence.
Since I was serving as her ersatz bodyguard, I took the opportunity to ask her, “What all do you have to do as Miss Cheyney University?”
“Well, the mission for my reign,” she sated as if having been asked by Bert Parks himself, “Is Technology, and how we can use it in secondary education. I visit schools representing Cheyney University, and I work on campus with my royal court.”
I scrunched one eye shut, and with furrowed brow said, “You have a court?”
This was much more tactful that saying, “Whatever happened to elected representation? What are you some kind of monarchical dowager tyrant? Heck sakes, even Queen Elizabeth has a Parliament!”
Although I did not say that, I think she heard it. In muted tones she replied, “Well, I work with Mr. and Miss Freshman and some others…” Her voice trailed off. She nearly rolled her eyes as if recognizing that she was a fully grown woman talking about educated human beings as if they were Barbie dolls.
When we reached D Street, or L Street, or some other street that we didn’t even know we were on, we were told by someone on a cell phone that they were closing off streets due to the overwhelming crowds, and that we should go to 14th Street West. This meant absolutely nothing to any of us, so we just followed the rest of the herd.
We passed by lines upon lines, and stalled masses forced to stop dead in their racks while cops and soldiers allowed a platoon of black SUVs and limousines to rumble out of underground garages. At one point, we were all compacted against a building while a pair of god-like Marines in full dress uniform and spotless white hats sprinted though the crowd with a stretcher. Someone was yelling, “Medic!”
Somehow we ended up between a chain link fence and a MacDonald’s with a group of tough looking indigenous people sporting traditional tattoos around their chins. Samoans perhaps? Phyllis and another woman decided to brave the winding line that led to the McDonald’s bathroom. The rest of us gathered around a hot air grate for warmth. Folded steel bars had been welded onto it at odd angles to keep the homeless from sleeping on it.
As we waited, I too felt the need to relive myself. I crossed over to the Holiday Inn, but they had a man outside who would only let in people who flashed a door key card. I went one door down to a Starbucks, and squeezed inside. There was a jittery line of caffeine fiends backed up behind the counter. I heard someone mutter, “I think the bathrooms are around back.”
I followed the line out through a foyer, where I met with a pair of nondescript double doors. I blithely pushed through them and found myself in the hotel lobby. There was a well-lit sign pointing to the men’s room. I took off my hat, trotted down the hallway, and there it was; a bathroom with no line. Posted outside of it was a hotel worker, who smiled at me. I smiled back, and slipped to the bathroom. There were no sardine cans in there.
When I rejoined my coleagues outside, they were taking pictures of a giant foam rubber Abraham Lincoln, waving like Mickey Mouse in the Disneyland Parade. Phyllis was with them too, and we decided to walk north toward the Mall. We had no idea what was going on with the Inauguration proceedings, but according to the schedule somebody had downloaded off the Internet, it had already begun.
Cell phones were flipped open. I placed a call to my 75-year old parents to find out what they were seeing on CNN. They told me there were big crowds. I retrieved a text message from my sister in New York who was dutifully listening to NPR at work. She let me know I should watch out for big crowds. So much for technology.
Someone walking by informed us that they had closed the Smithsonian, which was supposed to be where anyone could use the bathrooms. We also heard that the street to our left had just been closed. As we mulled around, I spied a port-a-potty with a short line. It posed an increasingly declining opportunity, so a few of our number crossed the street and cued up.
A passing stranger called out, “There’s bathrooms in the Air and Space Museum,” which was right in front of us.
Me and My Artist Friend went in, and after passing through the metal detector, confirmed that indeed there were bathrooms there, complete with the requisite huge lines. But at least it was warm.
“Let’s try going upstairs,” I said.
Up the grand escalator we glided, ascending to the top of Skylab. The second floor was largely deserted. Tired people were lying propped up on the unforgiving indoor-outdoor carpeting, but in front of the bathroom, there were no lines. I went downstairs to report this finding to my comrades, now clustered on the museum steps basking up all the sunlight they could absorb.
My Artist Friend’s brother said, “I saw this woman crying. She was from Utah and drove three days to get here. She had a ticket for the Inauguration, but the line was too long and she couldn’t get in.”
I told him that we could get into the Museum, but the danged door that led out to the Mall was locked. The only direction in which we could go was toward the front steps of the Capitol building, and Lord knows what kind of crazy crowds were gathered their.
We were essentially trapped.
My Artist Friend reappeared and suggested we all go to a balcony on the second floor of the museum that looked over the Apollo 11 capsule. From there, we could see out a large window to the Mall below.
Our choices were limited. Either we could stand out here in the cold, and not see or hear anything, or we could go in there and at least see something. It was agreed that we would go in. The group gathered up their bags.
I said, “You go on up there. I’m gonna head east and see if I can find a spot were we can see something. If I find a place, I’ll come back and get you.”
Punk Pippi Longstocking marched up, declaring, “I’m going with you. I knew I probably wasn’t going to see anything, but I wanted to at least hear his speech.”
Miss Cheyney University asked, “Can I come too?”
“Sure,” I said, “anybody else?”
“I’ll go,” said woman in our group who I really hadn’t noticed up until then. She had come by herself and had brownish blond hair, neither too long nor too short. She was a Quaker Lady, mild mannered, agreeable and to the point. In reality, she may not have actually been Quaker, but she had sensible shoes and a positive outlook. Given that she came from Chester County, which has more Quaker Meetings per square mile than any other place on earth, it seemed a good guess. She gave no reason why she wanted to go along. The spirit just moved her.
“Pioneers, O Pioneers” Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Miss Cheyney University, Punk Pippi Longstocking, the Quaker Lady, and I bounded down the steps of the Air and Space Museum, passing vendors, large-hatted black church ladies, and the ubiquitous lines. We landed in the garden outside the curvilinear walls of the National Museum of the America Indian, whose exterior was effectively designed to look like a plug of rock plucked from the walls of the Grand Canyon.
Above us on top of every building – and I mean every building – square white tents had been erected. Periodically, sharpshooters dressed in faceless ninja suits and head sets would peer down at us, more like giant pigeons than men with anti-personnel weapons. No one told me to put away my jagged stick. There are benefits to being wrapped in a flag.
We jogged between outdoor representational statues of wigwams, teepees, and birch bark long houses. Punk Pippi Longstocking pointed her Queequeg tattooed finger toward a sea of humanity my inner Ishmael might otherwise have avoided. Onward we pressed.
Over the loud speakers we could hear Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman playing John Williams’s Air and Simple Gifts. I got up on my tippi-toes to see where it was coming from.
Punk Pippi Longstocking pushed her long Sacagawea braids under her hood and asked, “Can we get any closer?”
I, carrying the banner of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, said, “I think so.”
We went closer. The voice of Nancy Pelosi, the first female to swing the gavel at one of the world’s most powerful old boy’s club, was blasting from refrigerator-sized loud speakers. Her jumbled voice echoed off the reflective limestone walls of the buildings surrounding the Mall creating a barely comprehensible tiled bathroom of cacophony.
Atop a low wall in the distance stood a row of people, arching their necks to observe the proceedings. At the end of this rock-hewn obstacle was a mini-Cumberland gap though which we four could pass.
Punk Pippi Longstocking, with Captain Kirk bravado said, “Can we get closer?” I, with Spock-like accuracy noted, “I see a loud speaker over there. I think we could hear better if we got in front of it.” Dr. McCoy and Mister Scott agreed. And so we boldly went to where we had not been before.
We paused to take our bearings at the intersection of a cross street that the police were keeping free. To our left was the fence that penned in all the official ticket holders; cows unable to roam like we buffaloes. Had we arrived on time, the cops would have shoed us away, as sure as they would have pulled Jim and Huck Finn off their raft. But it was too late for that now. Chief Justice Roberts was standing by the podium.
“I think this is as close as we can get,” said I, the tall skinny Scarecrow to pig-tailed Dorothy. The Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion concurred. We staked our claim under a traffic light by a pair of trash cans, and soaked in the view of the flags that hung from the stentorian columned dome atop the merry old Land of Oz.
God’s finger flipped the off switch that controlled the boom box of mortal life, and everything went silent. No one spoke. No sirens blared. No babies cried. Two million people on a cold day in January, and I swear by Mary, Joseph and the Latter Day Saints, that there was nary a cough nor sneeze to be heard.
What exactly was going on, we did not know. The billboard sized TV jumbo-trons were too far away for us to see them clearly. Even if we did, our view was blocked by the flock of young men who had climbed into the bare branches of the trees in front of us.
President Elect Obama placed his hand on Lincoln’s Bible. We heard only fragments of his words, bits and pieces of a sacred text unrolling like the Dead Sea Scrolls. He said, “I do solemnly swear… to the best of my ability… so help me God.”
Everyone cheered, but not nearly as loud as I would have expected. Perhaps the living layer of wool coats and fleece had buffered the noise. I unfolded my cell phone to send a dispatch back to the gang still marooned in their shtetl high in the Air and Space Museum. I wanted to send a telegraph notifying them that we had made it through the Donner Pass. They needed to pack their Conestogas and join us where the soil was rich and deep, and the water sweet and plentiful.
I dialed My Artist Friend’s number, but all I got was a series of rings. All day long, the rumor mill had been informing us that cell phone reception was spotty. I stayed on the line and got her message machine.
Obama, or should I say, the President, began to speak. I considered the best route I could take to dash back to the Air and Space Museum, and lead my party to Beulah Land. Directly in front of me, I observed my female companions. Miss Cheyney University wept. Punk Pippi Longstocking wept. I did not watch Obama, I watched them. Everyone was crying. I kissed the Old World goodbye, and tucked my phone into my pocket.
Next to me were two trash cans. Standing on one was a young black man with a video camera. Across the street was a bus kiosk with a square top. Two shaggy white slacker dudes were climbing up onto it.
With flag in hand, I hopped up onto the unclaimed trash can and hoisted my flag. There were a zillion little flags out there. I suspect they gave them to all the ticket holders. But me, I had the only big one. Before my very eyes I probably saw a few hundred thousand people. And yet I was the only one with a flag, a real flag. I waved it furiously, emphatically. People snapped pictures.
A gaggle of black church ladies in full-length mink coats and massive hats gathered behind me. I repositioned my feet. The lid upon which I was attempting to stand was not a conventional lid, but rather a low dome of flexible black plastic. I was balancing not on a firm structured trashcan, but a light flexible recycling bin. This was why no one was standing on it.
My ankles bowed. My legs cramped. I envision myself tumbling backward into a scrum of aged women whose thick fur exteriors might provide me with a somewhat cushioned landing, but whose weary old bones would not appreciate serving as a one hundred eighty-pound man’s safety net. I crouched low, and somehow made it to the pavement without impaling anyone.
Obama read his prompter; no Gettysburg address. But as far as I could make out, he said the right things. Everybody more or less gaped in the new President’s direction. A few gray haired old black men nodded their heads as if to silently say, “Yah, that’s what I was thinking.”
I propped my flag on my shoulder, waving no more. With no one to call, and no one to lead, I listened. From wherever it is that Unitarians go when they die, Liz Charles was listening too.
The loudspeaker pumped out oratory, and some of the young folk mulled around. It was hard to blame them. Once you’ve heard one sermon, you’ve heard them all, even if it’s a sermon you like. Up on the Jumbo-tron, Obama’s face moved. As a result of the odd angle with which we viewed the giant screen, the blue sky behind the podium look like dark strokes from Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The tan in his face let off an orange-brown glow like those of a south sea islander painted by Paul Gauguin.
“…and God bless the United States of America,” he said, which was followed by a thunderously loud bang. It was either the blast of a ceremonial cannon, or a twenty-one gun salute. And then from behind us, we heard the pounding of drums, massive and throbbing. I don’t know how many there were, but there were more than a few. They wafted out into the Mall from the steps of the Museum of the American Indian.
Punk Pippi Longstocking’s eyes lit up like Chingachgook upon hearing the call of Manitou.
I, fulfilling my role as pale-faced Natty Bumpo said, “That must be the Indians.”
“We got to get over there!” she proclaimed, so we made our way toward the pow wow. We shimmied around fences and Jersey barriers until we hit a mass of other people drawn to the indigenous celebration.
Unfortunately the swirling crowd slowed our travel to a crawl, and by the time we got to there, the action was over. What we did manage to see was a bunch of Indian chiefs dressed up in the wildest, classiest bead covered garb Native America could stitch together. The native aristocracy started packing up their gear, and heading back to their hotels.
Off to our left, a production crew from some black-oriented media outlet was trying to film a segment. The reporter was a tall and beautiful woman with flowing hair, and – like most anchors on black-owned stations – the facial features of a Norwegian with a remarkably even tan. She seemed pissed off at her much darker cameramen, who were frantically fixing some malfunctioning equipment. It might have been fun to watch, but we had to get back to the rest of our shipmates still marooned in the Air and Space Museum.
Over my right shoulder, I thought I saw feathers bobbing. It was an Indian chief in full regalia. Indeed, I was walking down the street with Miss Cheyney University, a beauty queen to my left, and a bona fide Indian chief to my right.
He was some sort of Plains Indian, a Sioux perhaps, in his mid fifties, with a bit of a gut. He had a bonnet of white eagle feathers that cascaded down to his heels. The sleeves of his leather coat were trimmed with rigid quarter-inch thick cuffs the color of adobe that had a line of bright white paint on the edge.
I was going to ask him where he was from, but I couldn’t. With every few steps, he was interrupted by some onlooker asking him if they could take his picture. He smiled a little smile and kindly nodded his head like your uncle would, but he didn’t stop walking. After all, he was on the job. No doubt he had been through this before. You don’t go to town dressed like that and expect to go unnoticed. Its part of what a chief has to do, just like any other politician.
I had lost track of Punk Pippi Longstocking and the Quaker Lady, but I knew where Miss Cheyney University was because she cried out – dare I say squealed – with all her might. She ran toward another young woman who looked, dressed, and acted pretty much the same as she did. They hugged, screamed, and hugged some more. Were they were relatives?
“Oh my God,” said Miss Cheyney University,” I can’t believe it!”
It was one of her friends from school.
“She was on my cheerleading squad!”
They hugged and hugged and hugged and hugged, and talked about some things that I didn’t quite follow, but which made them genuinely thrilled. What I could gather was that the Cheerleader Friend was from Buffalo, New York and had graduated the year before. She came down on a bus that left at 2:00 AM with her family.
The Cheerleader Friend asked Miss Cheyney University if any of her family had come down with her. I knew they had not. Miss Cheyney University had come down alone. Up utill then it had not struck me how odd this was, as if there was some kind of mystery there, albeit one I would be better off not knowing.
By way of response, Miss Cheyney University turned toward the Quaker Lady, Punk Pippi Longstocking, and yours truly, the Flag Man and said, “My family didn’t come.”
She waved here hands our way, like Vanna White showing off a brand new Chrysler town car.
“These are my family,” she said.
With just that phrase, I experienced a moment of stillness, like in a car crash when time slows down. Perhaps it was the jolt of Buddha’s diamond thunderbolt dope-slapping me in the back of my head. Or, maybe not.
I thought to myself, this was one of those things they tell you is supposed to happen, but it never does. When the people of Who-ville join in a circle and sing, the Grinch is supposed to grow inside, but we know it doesn’t work that way. In the real word, the assholes win. They always win, just like they always have, and their hearts remain a carbonized cinder, withered like a peppercorn.
But before I could finish my thought, the Cheerleader Friend hugged the Quaker Lady, then Punk Pippi Longstocking, and then she hugged me. I suppose that is the appropriate way to greet a family. I hugged her back.
Barack Obama said he wanted to change things, and I agreed with him. We needed it, and bad. It wasn’t just the war. We were all stuck in rut, even the liberals.
I had figured that if everything went right, which it never does, things might change, or at least begin to change by the time my twelve-year-old neice was as old as Phyllis. Maybe, with a little luck, my sister’s daughter might witness the dawn of an era in which all the little nobodies all over the world finally got a change to get nice set of clothes, a quite park where the kids could play, a fridge full of cold drinks, and a vote that actually counted for something.
I had assumed it would take decades for this process to begin. Turns out I was wrong. It all started changing right then and there, outside the Air and Space Museum, about thirty five minutes after a skinny mutt from Hawaii named Barack Hussein Obama pledged to protect and defend the whacked-out United States, a nation born of souls who were shipped in or forced out, a rather charming slice of real estate in terms of natural beauty, and the land that just happens to be the place in which my family lives.
© 2009 Jacob Asher Michael