E lection Day 2008: Spring out of bed early and zap e-mails to Congressman Delahunt and Senator Kennedy, humbly requesting a ticket — maybe two? — to the inauguration of No. 44. Book affordable hotel room for the nights before and after. Hope that I won’t wind up with an invitation to a ceremony for Palin and McCain. 11pm: Oh, the audacity of hope!
11/11/08: Book flights there and back. Spring for the fully refundable airfare, in case of . . . whatever.
12/2/08: Open e-mail from college classmate Elaine: Come crash at her place in suburban Maryland for a dormitory buddy reunion for MLK/inauguration weekend. I move up plane reservation but hold onto hotel booking, just in case.
12/15/08: Open e-mail from Kennedy’s office! Due to the overwhelming number of requests . . . our office unfortunately cannot accommodate . . . . Is this a no? I think it’s a no.
December-January: Try to score volunteer assignment with Presidential Inauguration Committee. Fail. Try to score tickets to Oprah’s pre-inaugural broadcast at the Kennedy Center. Fail. Try to score tickets to the inaugural parade. Fail. Imagine spending inauguration day adrift, cold, wet and hungry on the Mall. Elaine’s jumbo HDTV screen, cushy lounge chairs and mojitos begin to sound interesting.
Snap out of it: This mission is about bearing witness to history, live and in the well-covered flesh. It’s about getting over disbelief. It’s about getting over not being at the March on Washington. It’s about participating in a spiritual laying on of hands, to summon protection and nourishment for the history maker. Can’t do that justice with one hand wrapped around a mojito glass.
This mission is also about bringing along Aunt Bern. Bern’s photo, anyway. Bern arrived in Washington in 1945 to take a secretarial job in the War Department — perhaps the highest government job an African-American could aspire to back in the day. In D.C., Bern could not try on a department store dress unless she bought it. She could not take her little niece to a Maryland amusement park. She could not vote for president until the 1960s. She did not have a representative in Congress until the 1970s, and to this day, that representative has no vote. Despite these indignities and then some, my late aunt was the consummate flag-waving American. She also loved a good happening — the lighting of the White House Christmas tree, Fourth of July fireworks at the Washington Monument, the topping off of the National Cathedral. If I could help it, Bern was not going to miss the inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama. She deserved to be there more than I did.
1/5/09: Send Congressman Delahunt’s office a polite follow-up e-mail. I was just wondering . . . .
1/9/09: Receive phone call from Katy in Delahunt’s office. They have two tickets for me for the inauguration. Am I still interested and available? Gee, I dunno, let me check my calendar . . . Yes! Thank you!
1/15/09: Receive another e-mail from Kennedy’s office. So now they want to invite me to inauguration? No. But they do invite me to a simultaneous viewing reception at the Senate office building.
1/16/09: Weather forecast for day after tomorrow — travel day — snowy and ominous. Move up plane reservation yet again, to tomorrow. Cancel two-month-old hotel reservations and make somebody’s day. Dash to Brickman’s for hand and foot warmers. Stay up till 1 a.m. packing. Toss in slinky sheath, pumps and a little bling, in case of . . . whatever.
1/17/09: Ride to ferry terminal with cab driver Susan Amazeen. Gush about pilgrimage. Learn that Susan’s daughter, a D.C. college student, plans to be on the Mall for inauguration with her boyfriend. Promise to e-mail details about Kennedy-Kerry reception. One boat, three buses and one plane later, I land at Baltimore Washington International. Inaugural buzz is in the air.
1/18/09: Receive elegant inaugural invitation packet from new best friend Katy at Delahunt’s Capitol Hill office. Also receive invitation to the Congressman’s post-ceremony reception at a nearby hangout. Bestow gift of Black Dog biscotti in return. I learn that some of today’s travelers from the Cape and Islands have indeed been waylaid by snow. Here in D.C., the Capitol building basks in sunshine, draped in inaugural finery. I scout my inaugural viewing area — the silver standing section behind the Reflecting Pool. I take photos of beaming tourists and let beaming tourists take photos of me. Oh, the buzz. At the Metro station, I encounter two acquaintances from the Vineyard. An Island moment.
1/20/09: Layer on clothing. Tuck Bern in wallet. Head to Metro station at 7:30 a.m. with dorm buddy Celeste, leaving others to snooze. Stand in line for two hours waiting to board train. Break out hand warmers. Cool out Celeste. Arrive on sunny Capitol Hill — buzz central — at 10:40 a.m. Weave slowly through crowded streets toward security gate. Come to dead halt. Time: 11:15. Dread missing everything. Cool out Celeste. Punctual Bern is not pleased. We join the chant — Let us in! — waving our tickets high in the air. The security detail relents. We step lively, snaking through humanity until we reach and stake claim to a reasonably central vantage point. I raise my binoculars. Intermittently, between the shifting heads before me, I make out the tiny podium way in the distance. Let the ceremony begin. We are contentedly in the moment: The prayers, the music, jeers for the old guard, cheers for the new. Aretha Franklin, an odd hiccup in the oath of office, a joyful tear, a flock of seagulls soaring and swooping to Appalachian Spring across an azure sky. An ocean of waving flags on the Mall behind us. A speech at once sobering and ascendant. Poetry. The National Anthem. The liftoff of Bush’s chopper. Giddy “skaters” in boots on the Reflecting Pool. I hug Celeste. I run into a friend’s soon-to-be ex-husband and hug him too. I love everybody right now. Delahunt’s cozy after-party offers wine, hors d’oeuvres and fellowship, not to mention bathrooms and BTUs. Had I been cold out there? I’d been on too high a plane to notice.
1/21/09: Expect bedlam at BWI airport and find lingering buzz instead. Set off security alarm with my Obama button. Score a Washington Post for posterity; miss out on the New York Times. Drag weary self to the gate. Over the past four days, I have undergone not only inauguration, but also the dorm reunion, a dinner outing with former business colleagues, an afternoon hanging out with a bunch of cousins from Florida and an unofficial inauguration night party. On the flight back to Providence, my Brickman’s bag outs me as a former constituent of my seat mate, former state Rep. Eric Turkington. We talk inauguration. We worry about Senator Kennedy. Eric introduces me to another passenger: Julia Burgess, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. After I score a New York Times at T.F. Green airport, Julia kindly gives me a ride to the ferry, sparing me three buses and two and a half extra hours of travel.
We talk inauguration. As I disembark the Island Home, I find a welcome sight: Sue Amazeen and her cab. We talk inauguration on the way to my house. It’s good to be home.
1/22/09: Pry myself out of bed. Go take care of some business at Edgartown courthouse. Spot the back door of the Old Whaling Church on my way out of the parking lot. Reflect on a moment in August 2004 when a young senatorial candidate from Illinois emerged from that door and graciously signed copies of his autobiography for a dozen or so admirers. He inspired our little gathering that afternoon. Today, he inspires the world.