Be the Change – Ms. Cynic Goes to Washington
I step up to a surly border patrol officer who looks like someone spiked his sunny disposition with a concealed weapon or a pre-noon cavity search. I answer his questions as breezily as possible. FYI: tell a border patrol agent you’re travelling alone to meet up with a group at the Presidential Inauguration and you’ve bought a one-way ticket to a full body search. As the security officer takes my shoes, searches my bag and enthusiastically pats me down passing second base and headed for third, I wonder what the hell has possessed me to be here.
I run to my flight gate, sure that I will miss the flight to DC where I will meet up with a group of university students bound for the Inauguration of Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States. When I received the letter of invitation last June I held it up to the light, called multiple authorities to ensure its validity, yet I still can’t shake the feeling that if I do manage to arrive in DC I will be absorbed into a cult or held hostage at an inauguration time-share presentation.
I manage to make it to DC and attend the outdoor concert at the National Mall. There is a man clutching a well-worn bible nearby, barking scriptures at those who enter the grounds. The mass of American flags is retina-burning. A man bumps into me and I can feel the brush of fingers in my jacket pocket searching for the wallet I’ve thankfully stowed in my purse. The sentries of portapotties stretch in seeming infinity. Six thousand for the predicted five million people who will show up over the next few days. Roughly one for every 850 people. I pour out the $5 cup of “freedom coffee” I bought on the way over onto the frozen ground.
A man dressed head-to-toe in rhinestone-studded Obama paraphernalia follows me down the street shouting at my back. “$15 girlie come on now. You gonna be the one gal here stickin-out like a sore thumb without your ‘Bama shirt?” If cheap consumer crap is any indication of political ability, then President Obama is sure to be a force of mythic proportions. Everywhere I look his image is affixed to tee-shirts, buttons, airfresheners, bobbleheads . . . anything you can imagine. The vendor gets antsy as a police officer moves closer and tells him to pack up his illegal operation. Ethical capitalism at its best. I keep walking. “Shit girl, forget you.”
I take a photo of an FBI contingent parked on the corner and receive a sharp elbow in the back. “Lord have mercy, these stupid tourists are like locusts.” The woman gives me the eye-rolling equivalent of a bitch slap as she walks by and I scramble to pick up my camera where it’s fallen on the ground. I tuck my ID badge in my coat and keep my eyes down, feeling glaringly Canadian in this sea of stars and stripes. What the hell am I doing here?
It’s 3am on inauguration day. The walk downtown DC brings me past nightclubs pouring their staggering clientele out into the streets . Once they mingle with the people on foot to the inauguration they are indistinguishable. Everyone surges forward in the -15 degree weather drunk with the intoxication of optimism. After 9/11, I remember George W. Bush being met with the same fervent conviction of the righteous. The expectations are heaped onto Obama by the shovelful. Fix this economy! Stop the war! I wonder whether the suffocating piles of optimism will bury him.
It takes an hour and a half to pass through the security checkpoint to cross Pensylvannia Avenue and the parade route to reach the National Mall. Pressed in together with tens of thousands of people I pass through the metal detector and a security sweep on steroids. My purse is searched, I’m patted down front and back, and scanned with the electronic wand. The officer, one of 70 000 police and secret service rumoured to be present both in and out of uniform, looks at me suspiciously. He stares at my insulin pump like it harbors nitroglycerine. The man pressed against my left side yells out “Damn! How’d those guys get such good seats?!” Lining the rooftops, dressed in black are teams of snipers. I reattach my insulin pump. Visions of a laser sight on my forehead make me reattach it quickly. “Leader of the free world Barack Obama!” yells a man in the crowd and several people do the Obama terrorist fist bump that Barack Hussein has made so popular. It’s common to hear this yelled as I walk along, accompanied by hoots and catcalls as if we were at a Bon Jovi concert rather than a swearing of the Oath of Office. Amid the presence of security technology reminiscent of an Orwellian police state, I marvel at the physical reality of the so-called free world before my eyes.
We push forward past the Washington monument where a not-so-secret service contingent is camped out around the base clutching assault rifles. I can feel the cold through my toque, scarf, long underwear, three pairs of socks, two pairs of pants and three wool sweaters. I squat on a patch of ground on a folded piece of cardboard that a Republican group is distributing. Straight out of the whitest cul-de-sac in suburbia, I marvel at the colours that swirl around me, all dusted with a fine layer of frost. I curl up to try and conserve some body heat. A man yells out “Alright now, everybody spoon!” And we do, pressing together for warmth like a giant interracial cutlery drawer. The Jumbotron TV to my right vanishes beneath the press of thousands of people. I try to quell the shivers and fall asleep to pass the eight hours until the 44th president is sworn into office. Twenty minutes after my fingers and toes sting and seep into numbness, someone steps on my side as the crowd surges forward and I feel my kidney contract. What the hell am I doing here? Surely these people will have the hope sucked out of them by the end of this production and I’ll be staring down the back end of a full scale riot. The question begs to be answered in the hours that follow. What the hell am I doing here?
Then he speaks. And it isn’t what he says, the words I know to be scripted by a speechwriter and tweaked to perfection. Other than the chorus that greets the reference to George Bush (Hey hey hey! GOODBYE!!), it’s the silence. The utter silence, the collective inhale and exhale of three million people. You can feel the quiet vibrate in your bones like a bell that’s been struck, filled by a creeping sense that history has annexed our bodies. And in this moment, these millions of faces I can see are all turned in the same direction with the same purpose, the same focus. Too soon it is over and for a moment no one moves, swaying in time and space before reality returns.
The emotion, thick in the air, is getting to me. I feel as though I have the emotional stability of some sort of political menopause. Tears come to my eyes and I choke back the sobs at the sight of the “I have a dream” speech stitched in all its glory on a cotton bath mat in the window of a convenience store. The next moment I have the almost uncontrollable impulse to flip old honest Abe the bird and demand that he explain how the tenets of the Constitution could result in the shit storm trifecta I see in the world around me. Recession. War. Environmental degradation. In the frigid cold I am overheated. In the end I can’t insult the founding father because the line up to his monument stretches back three blocks. I can’t decide whether President Obama is the bravest, or the stupidest man in the world to sign up for the job he has. But to be part of the atmosphere he has brought unto Washington is to want to sing and dance with exuberant optimism, to fervently believe him when he says that “this generation will change the world.”
A vendor follows me down the street. “Hey sistah! You won’t find a tee-shirt as good as this no way! Look fine on yo-self!” I know it is synthetic. The price inflated. The stars and stripes on the front dwarfing the Made in China sticker on the back. Damn you Obama, I think as I reach for my wallet. Cynicism will surely return. But as I fork over $20 bones for what I am assured is a one-of-a-kind official inauguration tee-shirt, I enjoy the brief reprieve of its absence.