Friday, January 16
The trains from New York are starting to fill up with people in Obama shirts. Taking the train to DC you arrive in Union Station. It’s domed and marble and neo-classical, like lots of things in Washington. When, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart arrives at Union Station from his small, American town, he glimpses through the columns of the portico that other lofty, neo-classical, marble dome — the Capitol building — and leaves, without thinking, leaves the porters and bustling men and walks out after it into the air. Coming into DC on the train this weekend feels a little bit like that.
10:30pm to 2:30am
I get a third-hand invitation to a house party on Capitol Hill. The crowd is young, 25-35, mostly white, and about to be doing the grunt work of running the country. Most of the people here worked on the campaign. They are all about to get jobs. Everyone else is a friend from out of town sleeping on somebody’s couch. I meet a woman with 25 people staying on her floor. She is afraid her pipes will freeze. It’s cold.
In the kitchen there’s a keg. One of the hosts calls our attention to the beer cups. “They’re made of corn,” he says. We stand around the keg talking about renewable resources until someone remembers what Jimmy Carter said about using corn as an energy source (“We shouldn’t take fuel out of people’s stomachs”), and then we talk about micro-financing. I think to myself, “This is what wonks do all day long.”
A lot of people here started with one candidate and got absorbed into the Obama machine as the field narrowed. I ask a tall man what he does, he says, “I’m just another unemployed political guy… until Tuesday.” He adds, as casually as if picking out the color of a tie, “I think I’ll get something in the Labor Department.”
Later, drunker, one of the hosts stands on the landing of the stairs and makes a toast that ends in a loud round of “Yes We Cans.” Congressional aides have begun breakdancing. An assistant to a cabinet member does a keg stand.
Saturday, January 18
I take the Metro to U Street. The tickets have Obama’s face on them.
My friend Zetta lives in an apartment building called the Ellington. U Street is a historically black, working class neighborhood that’s started to become gentrified in the last five years or so. There are organic restaurants beside Somali bars, hipster tattoo parlors beside old barbershops.
Zetta is a specialist in Emergency Management. The books on her shelves have titles like Modern Weapons Caching and Homeland Security Law Handbook. She has broken her legs seven times during training. Her girlfriend, S. does something for the Department of Defense that she isn’t allowed to discuss. For example, I learn that S. is away for the weekend and when I ask where she is, Zetta says, “I’m not allowed to tell you.” On the fridge is a scrawled card from S.’s niece that reads:
Dear Aunt S. I think it is cool that you are a spy.
It’s signed in crayon with a heart.
Zetta and I go downstairs to the bar and drink sake. They offered her a job doing security at the inauguration but she turned it down. “If anything serious went wrong they wouldn’t be able to control that crowd. If they needed someone with my training it would already be too late.” We drink more; Zetta helps me with Tuesday logistics. We are eleven blocks from the parade route, two from the evacuation route. She shows me maps and timetables. My incursion into the crowd will be a surgical strike, considerably better planned than the invasion of Iraq.
Sunday, January 19 9pm to midnight
I meet my cousin Jake and his two friends, Trevor and Ahmond, at a bar called Tryst in Adams-Morgan. They’ve just arrived from New York on the Chinatown bus. We eat carrot cake and waffles and drink a bottle of wine and wax lyrical about how Obama makes us want to be better people. We joke about all the things in our lives we’d like Obama to use his magical powers to fix: make me taller, teach me how to fly, insure me. Jake is smart and red headed and politically engaged; he works in a gay investment firm. His friends are both artists: clever, graceful, black gay men in their late twenties or early thirties.
Today in Dupont Circle, which is mostly a gay neighborhood, they saw an effigy of Bush hanging from a tree with shoes scattered over the ground. “It was like, nothing would be happening and then someone would think, ‘Katrina, asshole’ and throw a shoe. Then there would be thirty people throwing shoes. And then it would stop.”
Midnight to 3am
Adams-Morgan is packed. There are Christmas lights still up, mingled with signs in lights announcing “WELCOME BARACK AND MICHELLE!” It’s a college-y neighborhood and there are huge, cheerful clumps of people poured out over the curb around every bar and club.
We snake through the crowd back to their place. They’ve rented a basement for the weekend. The family has sublet the whole house, different floors to different people, and left town. It’s a design-y, modern house. We take over the Ikea kitchen table and open more wine. Another of Jake’s friends, Toussaint, has just arrived from Philly on the bus. He emerges from the basement, rumpled from a nap, asks sleepily, “Did they just elect a black man president?” Then, deadpan, incredulously, “No, stop fucking with me.” Toussaint is a black poet in his early fifties with a soft, cultivated voice. He wears two thick, gold, hoop earrings with turquoise stones and walks with a cane.
People keep arriving through the night. We drink more. We reconcile ourselves to Rick Warren as a necessary evil. We talk about black history and gay rights. It gets late. We are full of love. Our jokes seem funnier, the bottle bottomless. We praise the president’s three-legged puppy, his adorable daughters. We talk about the avalanche of pride and money that is descending on DC this weekend. We talk about the sky opening, the sea parting.
Monday, January 19, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day
1pm to 5pm
DC is like Munchkinland after Dorothy landed on the witch.
On U Street there are seven or eight Obama vendors on every block. Obama has become a cottage industry. There are Obama hats, scarves, jackets, pins, shirts, sweaters, Obama long-johns, cups, keychains, calendars, magnets, DVDs of Obama’s speeches, facsimiles of Nov. 5 newspapers. Every person on the street sports Obama gear. There are Obama murals graffitied in the alleys and on the sides of buildings. A small boy perches in the window of a diner holding an Obama mask to his face and gives passersby a presidential wave. A young woman in a makeshift DJ booth freestyles on the corner of U Street and 10th: “Obama! What!” There are lines around the block at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a neighborhood institution, allegedly the only business still in operation to have survived the 1968 riots. I hear someone say as I pass, “Obama was here.” I have an Obama Burger for lunch and wash it down with a rum-based Obama.
I take a taxi to meet Jake, Trevor, Ahmond and Toussaint in Georgetown. A dozen blocks from my destination, traffic stops. I get out and walk. I pass through a checkpoint with helicopters and dogs.
On M Street in Georgetown, Jinx Proof advertises Obama tattoos. Inside I ask if anyone has gotten one. The man behind the counter is young, white, inked, skinny-jeaned and gauge-pierced. He rolls up his trouser leg to show us the outline of Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ portrait of Obama. Earlier today I bought this image on a poster from a street vendor for $5.
Coincidentally, we are going to a gallery party organized by Shepard Fairey’s group Obey Giant in collaboration with Move On and the Service Employees International Union. The party is called MANIFEST HOPE: DC. We don’t have tickets and we aren’t on the list. It takes us 40 minutes to get past the elite squadron of door bitches guarding the party.
Inside everything is gleaming bright and open. Both floors of the gallery are devoted to Obama art. There are portraits of Obama in oil and acrylic, Obama collages, a wire, Calderesque Obama scupture, a giant, red pendant Obama mobile. My favorite is Herb Williams’ piece that superimposes Obama’s head over a map of the country. It is made entirely out of broken crayons and reminds me of things I saw growing up in Vermont: portraits made out of beetles or buttons at rural fairs. There is a giant Shepard Fairey above the stage. It’s an enormous exhibition, perhaps 80 pieces.
It hits me how extraordinary it is that I feel no Obama overload, no self-aware recoil. I do not feel that this has become silly or excessive. My happiness, gratitude and relief feel unlimited. Trevor, Toussaint and Jake and I start dancing. Sometimes one of us will just start laughing. There’s an open bar. Santogold does a set. They pull a bespectacled, gay Arab named Ibrahim onstage to dance. De La Soul does a set. People in tuxes and gowns trickle in. I make eyes at Casey Affleck. I make friends with a woman in a shirt that says “Adopt” with a Shepard Fairey woodcut of a rescued puppy. Moby spins. The crowd turns the stage into a dancefloor. A black, female security guard in her fifties throws off her security jacket. She parts the sea of hip young things, climbs up center stage and dances.
Tuesday, Inauguration Day 9am
From bed I call my Granny, who is perhaps my favorite person. A white liberal in her seventies, she ardently supported Hilary and felt alienated after Obama won the nomination. She voted for him but resented it. Today I hear in her voice the special love she reserves for her grandchildren. “I’m so proud of him,” she says. “He’s so calm.”
9:30am to 11:30pm
The morning seems unusually bright. We wash, cook, ice champagne. Jake, Trevor and Ahmond arrive at Zetta’s, where we’ll watch the proceedings on TV. Toussaint went straight from the party last night to the Mall.
Obama walks to the platform, quiet and self sufficient as if he were alone.
We tense for Rick Warren’s invocation. When he finishes all three gay men in the room say, “that was good, that was alright what he said.” I realize Obama must have know this all along, that it wasn’t just a gesture toward the right but the chance for the right to make a gesture to the left. And then quietly, privately, the clock ticks over to twelve while Yo Yo Ma plays and Obama becomes President.
1pm to 5:30pm
Exultant, tears on our cheeks, we rush to Pennsylvania Avenue and stand in the cold for four and a half hours waiting for Obama to pass. We lose feeling in our feet. We receive text messages about Kennedy’s collapse and the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland. I realize suddenly that I will remember this as an old woman, the day I stood in the cold and saw him. When at last he passes I do not see him. The crowd bends forward to see, as if one organism. I see the side of a dark limousine. He’s gone and we leave also.
6:30pm to 11:30pm
That night we are ravenous. We go to an Indian restaurant south of Dupont Circle. It’s soft gold and open, almost palatial. We sit at a large round linened table and eat and talk and drink for hours. We talk about the campaign: Jeremiah Wright, Sarah Palin, the speech on race, the leaked photo of Obama in Somali garb. We remember the last eight years: Katrina, Valerie Plame, WMDs, the Kyoto Accords, the backdoor draft, the cluster bombs dropped on Afghanistan, the PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo, No Child Left Behind, Lynndie England and Dick Cheney. The past, which has only recently become the past, seems tonight incomprehensible to us: a long, collective madness.
Slowly the waiters break down the round tables and the room fills up with black women in bright dresses and men in sharp suits.
Later, undressing, brushing my teeth, I remember a conversation I overheard on the street among three young black women from Brooklyn in fur coats. “I can finally say he is my President, not President-elect, but President.” “Safe and sound.” “We pray for his safety.” Climbing under the covers, sleepy and drunk, I feel toward Obama something my Granny describes feeling toward FDR when she was a small girl during the war. Safe and sound, I think, safe and sound.