Tuesday, January 20, 2009

USA, DC - Obama Inauguration

I'd been planning on heading into DC for Inauguration for awhile. Generally, my reason was that I wanted to watch the people – I just wanted to see the crowds and sheer craziness; but I can't deny that a part of me wanted to see the inauguration itself. My opinions and political viewpoints could best be described as "extreme moderate", and in every election I tend to find myself at a bit of a loss as to who to vote for.  I generally think of myself as slightly more conservative, but I often find myself at odds with that crowd. So despite this being only my second Presidential election, I'm not entirely sure how often it'll be where the winning candidate just so happens to be the person I voted for. Granted, I voted more for Biden than I did for Obama… but I certainly respected both names on the ticket. Toss in the bit about me living right in the DC area, and I just couldn't pass up the chance to dive into the crowds. Despite living so close to DC, I really don't visit the city enough… so this was a perfect reason to go.

2009 01 18 - 0308 - Washington DC - National Mall2009 01 18 - 0295 - Washington DC - National Mall

It sort of began on Sunday the 18th, when there were a slew of concerts being held at the Lincoln Monument by just about every big-name musician out there. There were so many celebrities in town that I couldn't even keep track of who was performing, who was just in town, who was attending the balls, or even who wasn't in town. Given that these concerts were free, I decided to give it a whirl. However, not being one to want to wake up early on a Sunday: I aimed for a 1-ish arrival… and the concerts began at 2:30. I was smart enough to know that the odds were slim I'd find a good spot.

Arriving into the Navy Memorial Metrorail station, I met up with my friend Lindsey. I had met Lindsey eight days prior at the No Pants Metro Ride. Since I'm sure family members are dearly curious to know what that is… basically you ride the Metro without pants on; in your underwear. If that's not a great way to meet new people, I don't know what is. It's certainly an ice-breaker (and considering the temperatures, I stand by that phrasing).

2009 01 18 - 0318 - Washington DC - Queue2009 01 18 - 0313 - Washington DC - 17th St

We took the direct approach: walking straight down the Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial. This worked pretty well up until around the Washington Monument, where after cresting the hill we started really getting into some thick crowds. It was at 17th Street, right at the edge of the WWII Memorial, that we encountered our first blockade. Instincts led us leftward, alongside the fenced off area, where we soon noticed that we were walking alongside a queue… a queue that extended for a long distance back behind us. We went as far as we could before eventually hitting the final blockade & opting to turn back.

2009 01 18 - 0323-0326 - Washington DC - Washington Memorial from Tidal Basin2009 01 18 - 0359-0360 - Washington DC - Pennsylvania Avenue

Our alternative option for entertainment was just to explore & see all the preparations. We made our way around the White House, Pennsylvania Avenue, the Capitol, and Union Station. We even explored a bit in the immediate east of the Capitol – an area I can't quite recall ever having stepped foot in. There were barricades everywhere, which while I was sure would serve a purpose on Jan 20 – they were a particular nuisance this day. There were many areas that were open to the public on both sides, but had a fence in between; inconveniently carving areas into multiple sections.

2009 01 18 - 0382-0383 - Washington DC - Capitol2009 01 18 - 0402 - Washington DC - E Capitol St

We ended up at the E Street Cinema, located on E Street. It's much better-located than that E Street Cinema on G Street… or the Pier 1 Imports on Pier 79. This cinema is pretty close to Chinatown & I'd never even known it existed before. We ended up seeing Che, which is about the eponymous Ernesto "Che" Guevara. This was actually a double-feature: the Che film is to be released in two parts, and we ended up watching them back-to-back.

Firstly, the acting was phenomenal: Benecio del Toro as Che was spot-on, and all the characters – Che, Fidel & Raúl Castro, and Aleida March all looked pretty much exactly like they really did. I was certainly impressed. The technical aspects were also pretty amazing. However, I'd entered the film not being particularly fond of Che Guevara. In a sense, I'd kind of appreciated his ideals; but I'd always kind of associated him with the "he's a murderer" camp rather than the "hero" camp. This movie certainly plays to the latter, but it did inspire me to read into him quite a bit more on Sunday and Monday… and while I still don't necessarily agree with all his means, I do have a bit more of a favorable view now.

I'd also been studying the Castros for about a year up to this point (last year's change of power over to Raúl got me interested in the subject) and the more I read, the more I really like them… and the less fond I am of how our post-WWII policy shaped Cuban-American relations. Granted, I suppose it was a different time, then, before we knew that the Domino Theory wouldn't exactly pan out… but now we're well past the Cold War, and yet our foreign policies are still rooted in the Cold War era. I'll be curious to see if the pending Guantanamo closure will result in potentially ceding it back to Cuba… and possibly a warming of relations.

2009 01 18 - 0403-0405 - Washington DC - Union Station

After the movie, I pretty much went straight home and arrived at about 1am or so. I'd walked almost nonstop for about five hours, covering about 8 miles in the process (and even moreso for Lindsey, who had walked down to the Mall from U Street. Her ankle and my hamstrings started to really ache, teaching me a lesson about how my body doesn't seem to be as young as it once was; and stretching may actually be a good idea nowadays. There was a time when 8 miles wouldn't phase me… actually, that time was only 2 years ago. Sitting in the movie theatre for 4.5 hours was no help: that just caused my legs to ache even more. Back at my apartment: several hours were spent researching Cuban history until I finally fell asleep, waking up early for work the next morning.

2009 01 18 - 0419 - Washington DC - Capitol

Come Monday, it was a bit of a surprise to be the sole person in the building for the first several hours. Just as I was getting ready to leave, however, management started rolling in – preparing a "slumber party" in preparation for the following day, whereby many weren't too willing to deal with a morning commute in combination with the doomsayer's predictions of traffic in and around the DC area. Throughout the day, I found myself with a heavy limp thanks to the preceding day's walks & 4.5 hours of stagnation… but by the end of the day, the pain had reduced considerably.

I woke up at about 7:30am on Tuesday the 20th. This would qualify as an "early day" by my standards for the past several months… and it also didn't help that I'd been up late again reading about Cuban history. After some sauntering about the apartment with my usual wake-up activities, I hit the road – grabbing a chicken biscuit from Chick-fil-A and making my way east to the Odenton MARC station (a commuter rail facility).

My railfan roommate, Steve, recommended I consider using the overflow lot, as on a regular day this station tends to be pretty heavily-used. However, since I forgot it takes only 10 minutes to reach the station instead of the 20 I thought it was… I opted to at least check out the main lot. The lot right by the kiss & ride was packed, but the lot just on the other side of a small grove of trees – still abutting the platforms – was almost completely vacant. I got a front-row parking space!

2009 01 20 - 0495 - Odenton - MARC Parking

Up on the platform, there were two women huddling together in a shelter as well as some MTA employees (Maryland Transit Administration). A guy with a Steelers scarf walked up the path right behind me, much to the amusement of the MTA workers. This is Ravens territory (even in the middle of Redskins' jurisdiction, it's still Ravens territory), and not only do Baltimore & Pittsburgh have a bit of a rivalry; but on the preceding Sunday the Steelers also denied the Ravens a shot at the Superbowl. For what it's worth, I was still reeling at the Cardinals' defeat of the Eagles that same day…

Further down the platform, by the kiss & ride lot, I noticed it getting quite a bit crowded. My area, however, consisted of only us four passengers when the train arrived. I got onto the second to last car and found myself sharing it with only six other people. Six. That's it. As we passed by the New Carrollton Metrorail station, however, I was amused to see a long line extending not just outside the station, but wayyy outside of the station. Pulling into Union Station, I noticed that the frontmost cars of our train were apparently quite well-packed – I ended up having to get behind them all on our way out of the station. Fortunately, it actually moved very smoothly – we had one and only one way out, and the police ushered us on in that sole direction.

2009 01 20 - 0503 - Odenton - MARC Train2009 01 20 - 0550 - Washington DC - Union Station

I met up with Lindsey again right outside the station's doors. It was a mob scene out there… people & crowds were everywhere. That's right, people and crowds: who would have thought?  Now came a series of bad decisions… and I seem to think that they were primarily my decisions. I think Lindsey was trying to encourage me to move northward… and anyone that knows me knows that when I'm leading the pack, I tend to make decisions regardless of whether they're good or bad. I just abhor indecision. Granted, since Lindsey was offering decisions… and looking back, they were far better than mine… perhaps I should've listened.

2009 01 20 - 0555 - Washington DC - Union Station

My first instinct was to exit Union Station and to head directly toward the Mall. It was about 9:30 am at this point, and the shindig apparently started up at about 10pm. Just like on Sunday, I knew I wouldn't get a crème de la crème location… and yet for some reason I thought I could just beeline straight toward the Mall? What was I thinking??

Sure enough, heading down Louisiana Avenue NW, we soon came to a roadblock at 1st Street NW. We turned right to head up First Street, since that would take us away from the Mall… that's a smart idea, right? Surely there'd be fewer crowds! Well, our little segment of 1st Street approaching C Street was only about 250 feet long. It took an hour to get off that block.

2009 01 20 - 0563 - Washington DC - 1st St

The problems were many. Firstly, our block along First Street had people trying to get away from the roadblock (like us) heading northward. Then there were people with tickets to get those choice seats on the Mall; they were heading southward. I think we actually did a decent job of separating ourselves by the "keep right" method.

Then there were the people approaching the pending 1st & C St. intersection… they were coming westward from along C Street. Most of these people were trying to turn left… to head south… either to join the ticket line or just thinking that they could get closer to the Mall. They came head-to-head with our line trying to go eastward on C Street. Further north on 1st Street and further west on C Street were both out of question – they were just as packed and immobile as our present situation.

Ambulances were approaching from the north and west, all trying to go eastward on C Street… this complicated matters. For a brief moment we were able to fill into the wake of a motorcycle going our direction, but others had the same idea & we didn't get particularly far with that. People (civilians, soldiers, police, fire personnel… everyone) were up on concrete barriers shouting and pointing in all directions, providing little assistance. Citizens hoping to help clear things up were shouting out orders in direct conflict with those coming from officials… and then they'd suddenly reverse and shout an opposite order… and then they'd reverse again… both citizens and officials were doing this. I think the head-to-head crowds kind of flustered everyone there.

So it took an hour to get through. During this time, however, I came to identify a particular personality which would be prevalent the entire day: that of absolute kindness & excitement. In these sorts of situations, you often get a couple people pushing hard on the crowd… with one exception, we didn't have that at all; and that one exception soon stopped when the crowd recoiled against them & proved that it wasn't about to move any faster. Also in such crowds, those little tiny pushes that almost everyone makes on the person in front of them tends to add up – really making a powerful force on those in front… we really didn't have that, either, except right at the very end where we freed up.

Details about pushing aside, the comradery was what really made things stand out. People were generally upbeat the whole way through, making brief acquaintances with those beside them – even if just for a fleeting moment before someone would get a chance to shift two steps away, out of vocal range. This optimistic sentiment lasted throughout the day: it was crowded, it was cold, and people were being forced to march horrendous distances… but that was the happiest I've ever seen people at any point in my 25 and a half years on this planet.

We fled down C Street and then looped around up New Jersey Avenue NW. We kind of took turns between traveling westbound and northbound – generally continuing westward until crowds started to slow us down; then we'd head north another block. We wrapped around the White House via H Street NW and made our way down 19th Street NW to the Mall. This street was relatively empty, whereas we could spot that 18th Street was still pretty crowded.

2009 01 20 - 0595 - Washington DC - F St approaching 12th St2009 01 20 - 0612 - Washington DC - 19th St from E St

Along the way we passed by some of the gates to the parade route. By the time I arrived, most access points onto the parade route (from the north) had already closed, and indeed: one of my coworkers was waiting in line and never did get in. I only came upon one access which appeared to be still be open (or so I'd assume from the fact that it was the only one with a queue)... except I didn't notice anyone actually entering through the gate.

2009 01 20 - 0592 - Washington DC - 12th St looking toward E St

Breezing right onto the Mall, we cut right around the Constitution Gardens Lake and came up upon the Reflecting Pool. This side of the Washington Monument was rather sparse, as there just weren't too many jumbo screens set up … though the crowds around these view screens were pretty hefty. They certainly could've used some more jumbo screens out here. However, we ended up with a moderately decent spot – we could see the view screens and could hear the audio, though the former was a bit small & faint; and the latter was a bit quiet. Fortunately, I could generally hear everything – including the lovely arrangement by John Williams whereby Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill performed some of Copeland's work combined with some other pieces.

2009 01 20 - 0614-0618 - Washington DC - Constitution Gardens Lake2009 01 20 - 0624 - Washington DC - Reflecting Pool & WWII Memorial area

With Obama's swearing in, we made our way eastward a bit, filling into gaps until we ultimately hit a stopping point at 17th Street. Here we listened to Obama's inaugural address, which I must say was quite moving and inspirational. It had all those usual buzzwords and covered the exact same fare that I'm sure we all pretty much expected, but something about that man's charisma just makes you feel so good inside. He really is an eloquent speaker, which is in stark contrast to what we've had for the past eight years.

2009 01 20 - 0632 - Washington DC - Reflecting Pool & WWII Memorial area2009 01 20 - 0644 - Washington DC - On 17th St

Thinking back, I really don't think Bush will go down as the worst President yet. I could agree that history won't rate him favorably, but certainly not the worst. I'll make it clear that I really don't agree with pretty much anything that Bush has done, but I do admire the man for really standing by his beliefs. I feel confident that he always did what he felt was really the right thing to do, and dagnabit he was determined to see it through. Even come the 2004 election, I actually had a higher opinion of him than I did of Kerry.

One other thing we'll miss is the laughter… for the last sixteen years, the comedy industry has enjoyed a job whereby their work pretty much writes itself. Clinton gave us no shortage of saucy stories, and his personality was almost like a more politically-savvy Elvis. He was a lady's man, he loved his music, and he had a liking for fast food. Then there was Bush, which was like a frat boy: often acting before thinking, and offering a degree of eloquence which certainly wasn't up to par with his father or with Clinton. Then there's Obama… this man is too charming and speaks too flawlessly, offering little to run with. The racial element may also give some comedy outlets a bit of hesitation, too. I could see it taking a couple months before we really feel comfortable with laughing at or with our President again (perhaps a Friars' Club Roast would help?).

After Obama's speech, we continued eastward up to the Washington Monument. Looking up toward its perch as we approached, I couldn't help but imagine it as if an anthill: little bugs jittering in all directions.  Granted, most anthills don't have a huge concrete phallus sticking out of it, but the comparison worked well enough.

2009 01 20 - 0648-0649 - Washington DC - Washington Monument
2009 01 20 - 0650 - Washington DC - Washington Monument

Being up on the hill beside the Washington Monument offered great views over the crowds behind us as well as the unending crowds further east, toward Congress. We briefly started making our way toward the Capitol, but soon gave that up when we couldn't see any good way to budge through the crowds. We turned about face and skedaddled to the Tidal Basin. From here we followed Maine Avenue SW down to I-395, where we walked along that all the way up to Massachusetts Avenue NW.

2009 01 20 - 0669-0672b - Washington DC - View from Washington Monument
2009 01 20 - 0676-0679 - Washington DC - View from Washington Monument
2009 01 20 - 0680-0682 - Washington DC - View from Washington Monument
2009 01 20 - 0688-0689 - Washington DC - View from Washington Monument
2009 01 20 - 0692-0694 - Washington DC - National Mall

It was pretty neat walking along a pedestrianised interstate, sauntering through the tunnels near the Capitol.  With hordes of people slowly walking in the same direction & the only vehicles those of emergency personnel: it felt as if I had found myself in a zombie movie.

2009 01 20 - 0740 - Washington DC - 12th St2009 01 20 - 0756 - Washington DC - I-395

2009 01 20 - 0760 - Washington DC - I-3952009 01 20 - 0765 - Washington DC - I-395 at 7th St

2009 01 20 - 0768 - Washington DC - 4th St2009 01 20 - 0770 - Washington DC - I-395 at I-295

2009 01 20 - 0781 - Washington DC - I-3952009 01 20 - 0789 - Washington DC - I-395

2009 01 20 - 0791 - Washington DC - I-3952009 01 20 - 0792 - Washington DC - I-395

We passed by a single trash can in the tunnels: sidled up against the concrete wall politely avoiding the crowds.  This wallflower of a garbage bin had nonetheless met its fare share of income: overflowing with refuse it helped highlight its lack of accompaniment both here and throughout the city.  There was a notable lack of trash cans everywhere, and the rare instances of finding one would consistently yield a pile of rubbish nearly burying the receptacle itself. ...Though despite the lack of bins, there was this lonesome can sitting here alongside the interstate.

2009 01 20 - 0797 - Washington DC - I-395

Emerging on the north side of the Mall, we made our way along Massachusetts Avenue over toward Mount Vernon Square, where we turned north and ended up somewhere in that area… eating at a café which was comparably empty, but still crowded. By "empty" I mean that we got a seat… barely… we just happened to arrive right as someone was leaving. The burger was pretty tasty, but I really liked the mango smoothie I got.

2009 01 20 - 0810 - Washington DC - I-395 approaching Massachusetts Ave2009 01 20 - 0825 - Washington DC - Massachusetts Ave at H St & 3rd St

After that we continued up to Lindsey's place near U Street. I really like this area of DC – it's just edgy enough that the higher-class folks would consider it "the hood", but it's slightly gentrified enough that it still feels rather safe and comfortable. We turned on the TV and were a bit surprised to see that the parade was just starting. I suppose Senator Kennedy's seizure may have been partly a cause of this apparent delay, or it could just be that perhaps the parade was scheduled to begin later than I thought. The news coverage regarding Kennedy was a bit difficult to follow, as they were speaking in past tense about what happened despite showing video of the Senator milling about which was labeled "live". At first I thought they were saying that something happened to Senator Byrd, which would have also not been particularly surprising… though now that I check Wikipedia, I suppose perhaps they were talking about him, too.

At about 4:30 pm I made my way over to the U Street Metrorail station. Along the way we passed by Ben's Chili Bowl. At first glance it didn't seem much more crowded than any other day… until we noticed that the queue was reaching around the building & down the adjacent alley.  It does that even on some more-or-less typical days, but this time it extended far further down the alley than I'd ever seen any other time.  That place is certainly tasty, though, but never tasty enough to justify the wait or the prices.

2009 01 20 - 0840 - Washington DC - Ben's Chili Bowl

The Metro station was, fortunately, a bit more accommodating. Lindsey and I parted ways, and thanks to three-minute headways: it wasn't long until I was on a Green Line train headed northbound.  My final destination was Union Station, located along the Red Line, but I had little desire to transfer in Chinatown. I knew that that place would be a mess, even if the guards were metering traffic into the station. So after squeezing myself onto the Green Line train, I transferred onto an almost empty Red Line train at Fort Totten and rode it around to Union Station. I'd say this was a pretty good move.

Emerging into the lower levels of Union Station, the only way to go was outside – all the direct accesses into the main part of the station were closed off. So I went outside and hooked left to head up to the main entrance. A large crowd was amassed here full of would-be train riders – some destined for Amtrak, some for MARC, some for VRE, and others trying to get to Metro. Police officers walked the banisters calling out information.  It was a bit aggravating as people tried to figure out where which groups were supposed to go. It ultimately ended up that Amtrak went one way and MARC / VRE went another way. Metro folks were out of luck: this station was exit-only and was closed to people trying to get on.

2009 01 20 - 0842 - Washington DC - Union Station - Police officer2009 01 20 - 0844 - Washington DC - Union Station - Police officer

There was one slip-up where a guy carrying large signs reading "MARC" with an upward-pointing arrow went walking away from the crowd… and like chasing after the Pied Piper, I and many other would-be MARC riders followed. It was when he kept walking away from the train station and stopped to chat with some police officers when I inquired whether we were supposed to be following the sign, or if he was just moving it about. It was the latter… I really didn't quite expect that answer, but I was glad I asked.

This event was a blessing in disguise. Seconds later, they started letting some people into the station (the officers were metering entering traffic so it didn't get too crowded). With me approaching at a different angle, a police car and porta-potty formed a pick and I had almost a clear shot into the now-moving crowd. In all I waited perhaps 10 minutes to get inside, and then another 10 minutes or so inside. It wasn't bad – I generally felt like I was moving most of that time. With much of the day gone by, the crowd itself was still in good spirits, and almost every person thanked & praised the police staff & volunteers.

Rightly so. Considering the pressure of maintaining security, controlling crowds, and offering directions – all at the same time – I'd say that they really did do a stellar job (except for that hiccup when I first arrived in the morning). The force could've used some more officers and volunteers to provide & reiterate information, as it was often difficult to hear instructions over the wail of the crowd. Additionally, I found that the volunteers tended to be a bit lacking in information… I suspect they were trained moreso in maintaining their specific locations and duties than offering directions, and I'm sure many came from areas far beyond DC.

2009 01 20 - 0854 - Washington DC - Union Station - Feet

It would have also been immensely useful had there been better maps available. WMATA, which runs the Metro services, has an excellent base map, but all they did with it was plot a couple concentric circles to show how far things were – 1 mile, 2 miles, 3 miles. All the other maps coming from the Inauguration Committee or the District were absolutely useless, often so cluttered with information in a jack-of-all-trades map that they became useless. Some of the news stations prepared their own maps, but the informal Google Maps mashups just didn't cut it for the level of detail that was needed. I hope that next time the District and committees make use of WMATA's map as a base and then tailor-make several maps geared toward specific audiences.

2009 01 20 - 0851 - Washington DC - Union Station2009 01 20 - 0862 - Washington DC - Union Station

My MARC ride back to Odenton was quite a bit more busy than the ride in – indeed, not a seat left. I took a window seat beside a volunteer who got a placement within the Capitol, and during the ceremony he was right behind the podium. A fine spot! He had some amazing photos, both of the dignitaries and other celebrities as well as of the crowd on the Mall… the latter being the most impressive. He works in the Senate, which helps explain how he got such a nice placement. I could tell he was extremely excited to have taken part in this event, and proud to have had the opportunity to assist. Two girls sitting beside me were also chatting about travel in Europe… so that kept me pretty well occupied between the Bowie State station and my stop at Odenton.

2009 01 20 - 0866 - Washington DC - Union Station

My car was still in its front-row spot upon my return, and traffic getting back to Russett was just as easy as it was in the morning. Total walk distance: about 10 miles. My feet were a bit sore, but moreso just from nearly 20 miles of walking in a three-day span. They didn't hurt; rather, they were just getting tired. Being an engineer, living in suburbia, and the excuse that it's winter & I don't like gyms… that definitely doesn't afford the greatest of opportunities for exercise. Sitting down for a bit to type this all up, though, I feel great now: I almost want to go out and walk some more… indeed, my legs feel like the need more movement; not less.

Overall, I'd summarize the entire Inauguration in almost the same way I did in an email to my dad…

- There were a lot of people;
- There were even more people than a lot;
- People (citizenry & officials alike) were in amazingly great spirits;
- My legs have gotten a hefty workout;
- It's nice to be in a warm(ish) place again!

2009 01 20 - 0868 - Odenton - MARC Station2009 01 20 - 0867 - Odenton - MARC Station