Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 4
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
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Inaugural Adventures and a Near Mishap: A Town Topics Writer Goes to Washington

Dilshanie Perera

The question that was asked everywhere was: “Where are you from?” Standing amid the crush of people straining to get into the Capitol grounds on Inauguration Day, I struck up a conversation with the young white woman from Hawaii to my left and the older African-American couple from Birmingham, Alabama on my right. On Monday outside the Smithsonian, two elderly ladies from Georgia and I joked about George Washington’s teeth. During my bus ride down from Princeton to the nation’s capital that Sunday, a Geography graduate student from California and I spoke about how we wished we had been in Grant Park on the night of November 4, especially since both of us had lived in Chicago for a time.

“Where are you from?” From everywhere, representing every demographic imaginable. Parents cooed to young children swaddled in their arms, “Maybe you will remember this.” Rowdy teenagers boarded an already packed subway early on Tuesday morning and immediately began a chorus of “The Wheels on the Bus.” People nearby smiled and shook their heads, but when the lyrics were improvised to “the people on the train say: O-BA-MA!” the metro car shook with the clamor of voices.

The confluence of this hugely symbolic and historic moment and the kindness and delight of strangers made the experience exhilarating. Even things like too little sleep, the claustrophobia of being surrounded by millions of people, and freezing temperatures did nothing to dampen the excitement. After waiting an hour and a half, with about three to go until the Inaugural events started, we heard a kind soul with an iPhone yell out, “Weather dot com says it’s 21 degrees outside!” And everyone laughed. Seriously. I couldn’t feel my feet, but it didn’t even matter.

I found myself in that particular group of people on that particular morning because by some stroke of fate, the Senate Press Gallery had issued me a blue ticket, meaning I’d get to stand among a few thousand people just to the House side of the Capitol building, and if I was lucky, maybe even catch a glimpse of the 44th president unassisted by telephoto lens or video projection.

So by 7 a.m. on that frigid Tuesday, thousands of people with blue tickets in hand had gathered in the holding area in a line that seemed to have neither a beginning nor an end. Eventually the somewhat ordered line became a tightly packed group of people, a crowd, but thankfully never a mob. As the time of the Inaugural proceedings neared, and most of us still hadn’t passed through the metal detectors, much less even seen them, anxieties simmered. What if we came all of this way only to miss everything? Some of us had been waiting our entire lives to bear witness to this change of administration, to see the beginning of something new, to be excited by politics again.

Despite the pervasive tension, calmness and politeness prevailed in the crowd. I later heard that there were no arrests and no tramplings, and, given what I saw, I am not surprised. One man began singing with two ladies nearby, which visibly eased all within earshot. I can’t imagine a better time for an a cappella, three-part harmonized version of “Amazing Grace.”

By the time 11:30 a.m. rolled around, I had already run the emotional gamut — denial, mild anger, regret, acceptance — and shuffled out of the crowd to a place where I could breathe and think a bit more clearly. While walking around, I saw people who had taken to the trees in order to get some sort of view. Perhaps arboreal acoustics were better too. Chancing upon a man from Cameroon with a cellphone-transistor radio, a group of us listened to Rick Warren’s invocation, and the swearing-in of Joe Biden. So it came to pass that I heard Aretha Franklin’s voice, but completely missed her much talked about hat.

When the police arrived, cut the yellow caution tape, and notified us that we could go to the National Mall to see and hear the remaining proceedings, tears of gratitude welled up, and I ran with hundreds people over to the area by the reflecting pool, already at maximum capacity.

We made it! The absolutely rapt crowd cheered in one rumbling wave as Barack Obama took the oath, and many times over during his Inaugural Address. The morning’s desperation was erased when he spoke about a return to truths like honesty, courage, and curiosity, saying, “This is the price and the promise of citizenship.” It was only then that the weight of history actually hit home: this moment is real and I am here.

The notion of what is possible, doable, thinkable in America had changed, and it felt great.

As a rule, I never sing in public, so I was shocked to find myself singing the national anthem out loud along with everyone there. In her poem that followed President Obama’s Inaugural Address, Elizabeth Alexander asked, “What if the mightiest word is love?” And when we were standing and singing with hundreds of thousands of equally joyful perfect strangers, it certainly was.

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