5:15am: Sitting in a taxi caught in a traffic jam en route to the HuffPo buses at Citifield, underslept and uncaffeinated, I question the sanity of this whole endeavor.
Arriving at the stadium 20 minutes later, though, joining a sprawling sea of people—young adults, old adults, parents with tiny bundled-up children, some who had come from Connecticut and even California—a sense of subdued expectation and common purpose takes hold.
It is freezing cold outside, but the thousands of bodies crowded so close together actually keep me warm. Among this huge group, I only spot half a dozen or so rally signs—the now-classic “only Hitler is Hitler” and a few more original ones—“This is a sign from God,” a Ghostbuster rendition, etc.
6:30am: Just when we’re all starting to wonder whether the Huffington Post is ever going to get us on the damn buses—and where they’re hiding the coffee they’d promised in their email confirmations—the amoebic crowd starts moving, step by step, toward the parking lot.
On our way, we pass Arianna Huffington, Our Lady of the Free Buses. She seems impossibly wide-awake and lovely considering the hour and location, and is as good-humored as a fairy godmother as she takes pictures with and signs autographs for her fans. It is hard to be annoyed at someone who’s invested so much time and money in this event, and is enduring the whole experience with us gracefully.
7:15am: After filing through security (funny to think someone would attack the Sanity buses) and getting our wristbands from bleary-eyed Huffpost volunteers, we finally board the buses (60 of them in total) and depart for D.C.
Silly me, I actually believe at this point we’ll make it to the rally by noon.
12pm: While the other passengers and I are dozing on a bus somewhere in the middle of Maryland, the rally on the National Mall opens up with a 40-minute set by John Legend and the Roots, followed by Cat Stevens playing “Peace Train” and Ozzie Osborne interrupting with “Crazy Train.” Later, Stewart greets the rally-goers and 4troops sing the national anthem. These would’ve been lovely performances to see live, I’m sure, but they aren’t bad online either.
1:30pm: Arianna greets us again as we disembark at RFK Stadium, a 30-minute Metro ride from the National Mall. If she is disappointed about missing two-thirds of the rally herself, she certainly doesn’t show it.
The Metro station is slightly more clogged with people than Union Square at rush hour. Luckily, those in the crowd are sane enough to (narrowly) avoid fights at the fare machines.
2pm: At the National Mall, we pass several funny-haha signs (“What’s in a teabag? Try Decaf”), and an extremely diverse group of people ranging from 9/11 truthers and Code Pink (both of whom Stewart has explicitly mocked as examples of left-wing crazies) to people dressed in zombie costumes, to the vast majority of Average Joe types.
We have to stand along the outskirts of the mall, where it is both difficult to hear and see what’s happening on stage. Rallyers climb atop the port-o-potties to get a better view and police shoo them down every two minutes. I push to get to the front of the crowd, where I have a partial view of the stage. I see a great performance of “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” and other songs by Sheryl Crow, and a lot of hardly intelligible banter between Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.
2:45pm: In the last 15 minutes of the event, Stewart makes a sincere, only slightly preachy speech explaining his reasons for the rally. Admitting that, “none of us are quite sure why we are here,” Stewart says that the 250,000-person presence on the National Mall is a sign that we aren’t as hopelessly divided a country as cable news and Congress sometimes make us out to be. While not downplaying the problems we face, he warns against “the country’s 24-hour politico-pundit-panic-conflictinator” (nice alliteration) and uses our daily commute as an example that we do, in fact, cooperate quite often. The message is basically a more direct and less satirical version of what he’s said on his show, but it felt great to be part of such a huge crowd backing up his words with its presence.
4:00pm: Back in the RFK Stadium parking lot, the Huffpost people fulfill one of their promises by offering us free sodas and bottled water. On the way back, my bus has only 25 passengers — a sign that most rallyers have made the smart decision to stick around in D.C. and make a weekend out of the experience.
8:30pm: Our bus driver is kind enough to drop us off in Manhattan instead of way out in Flushing. On the subway ride home, the day that just past feels surreal—I am surrounded by Halloween partygoers and can hardly believe I’ve just been on a bus for ten hours and on the ground in D.C. for less than three. And I know I’ll have to watch C-Span at home to find out what actually went down at the rally.
Despite this, I feel satisfied to have taken part in something that made such a worthwhile point, all for the price of a D.C. metro ticket and a large cup of coffee. And I have a feeling most of my fellow passengers would agree.