Wednesday, January 21, 2009

President Obama Will Protect Me From Zombies

I was on the National Mall for the inauguration.

Here's what happened:

I was originally supposed to meet a group of friends at some ungodly hour of the morning at the Chinatown metro. From there, we were to walk down to the mall, etc. etc. etc. just to make sure we would get a place in front of a Jumbotron. Well, at 11:30 p.m. the night before we all started txting back and forth; some people were dropping out of the group, other people wanted to meet on the Mall itself instead of walking to Chinatown and backtracking, etc. Around midnight, txting with one hand while scanning predicted inaugural foot traffic reports on the computer, I realized that the following day was going to be completely unpredictable, and all best efforts to organize would only result in frustration. I sent off a txt along the lines of "Will meet you on the Mall. Entering 17th Constitution and will proceed east towards 7th Constitution. I have to cross Penn Ave to get there so if I am held back by crowds DON'T WAIT FOR ME; go through security xpoints and stake out a spot!"

Once I had instructed everyone not to wait for me, I went to bed and slept.

I woke up, deliberately, well past the ungodly hour (it started with a 5) at which we had originally agreed to meet. It was one of the smarter things I did that day. I took the long route, circumventing the parade entirely, and was on the Mall by 8:00, while some of my friends who took the early route had been waiting in queues since 6:00 a.m. (It helped that I came at the Mall from the back, through the Washington Monument, instead of waiting in the lines near the Capitol Building.)

By 8:30 my cell phone had stopped working, and I had no idea where any of my friends were. I wandered east for a while and then realized the futility of playing a giant game of live-action Where's Waldo. Also, it was cold. I decided that I had soaked up plenty of Obamamania atmosphere (and there was plenty of Obamamania, with everyone around me cheering and jumping up and down--unless that was just to keep warm), and that I would be much better off watching the inauguration in a cafe. I'd jet out as quickly as I came, be at Busboys and Poets by 9:30, and from there (where, no doubt, my phone would work again) start txting my friends to join me.

And then I discovered that no one was letting anyone off of the Mall.

From 9:00 to about 11:00 I wandered up and down the fringes of the Mall with hundreds of other people, all of us wanting to leave, all of us being blocked at every potential exit. Security was locked down. No one was being let on or off. Many of us had maps; mine was printed from the internet, others were more official-looking purchased maps, and some of us tried to use the maps to argue with the policemen and National Guard: but this says that 14th Street is reserved for pedestrian exit! The guards said they were sorry, but the exits were now closed.

It made sense that we couldn't leave on the north side of the Mall, because we would be crossing the parade route; but we couldn't even leave on the south side. Again I was stuck with hundreds of people, moving in a slow shuffle only to end up in front of policemen who told us to go back onto the Mall.

The Federal Triangle metro was closed, but the metro station itself was open and marginally warmer, and I ended up waiting there for a while with crowds of others trying to stay warm. The saddest people in my group were a very well-dressed family who had flown in to DC to watch the inauguration from some VIP hotel; their limo had let them off by the Capitol Building and told them they could cross to their hotel at 7th and Constitution, which had been one of the streets reserved for pedestrian crossing but which was now blocked off. The mother and her daughters were wearing strappy heeled shoes and no socks; the father kept saying "rub your toes, baby."

I had a book; I read it, and by 11:15 decided to head on back to the Mall to watch the jumbotrons. Despite the crowds I had a great view, and watched as Obama and Biden appeared to wild cheering, Bush and Cheney appeared to boos and hisses, and the inauguration oaths were given and received. It was a historic, humbling moment.

And then I did something very stupid. I was pressed up against a tree, it being one of the few places where a short person could get a bit of a height boost, and I suddenly thought I would take a small piece of bark from the tree to commemorate the moment. The instant I did it, I was ashamed at my thoughtlessness--after all, if everyone in the four-million-strong crowd took a piece of bark, or a rock, the National Mall would be stripped bare--and let the piece fall without putting it into my pocket.

After the speech was given and the presidential parties left the stage, it came time to consider how to get home. My original plan was to stay for a while and watch the parade on the Jumbotrons; to try and let the crowd disperse a bit before making my way out of the Mall. (This, in retrospect, would have been a stupid move.) Instead, after staring at the Jumbotrons for a while and deciding that they didn't seem to be showing anything but a message advising the crowds that the only available exit was on 14th and Independence, I gave up and decided to go home.

Did I mention that the only exit was on 14th and Independence?

Here's where the zombies come in.

You've all seen those movies: Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, National Mall Egress of the Dead. People spreading out in all directions, climbing up onto overpasses, walking over bushes and flowerbeds (never mind my poor piece of broken bark), squeezing between gates and embankments and that plastic orange netting which blocks off construction zones, tearing down the netting, walking over turned-up earth and the grates where the water drains from the road, swarming over any available piece of ground looking for any exit other than the only one that is actually available, the only one not blocked at the end by the National Guard.

Where do people end up in zombie movies? The mall. And that's where we ended up, too; pressed back to back (belly to belly) inside the mall at L'Enfant Plaza, shuffling forward an inch at a time as we slowly made our way towards the L'Enfant Plaza metro.

It took me over three hours from the moment I set foot inside that mall to the moment I made it the hundred yards (or so) to the metro itself. Just like in zombie movies, the mall was lit up and the music was cheerfully playing; the stores were even open, if we were interested in taking a break from the crush of things to explore the sales at Lady Foot Locker. As we slowly inched by some people begged the store employees for water; when one woman fainted the crowd demanded that the man at the nearest store call 9-1-1 (as none of our cell phones were working, yet); he said "Do you think I haven't called anyone? I've called everyone! Police, 9-1-1, nobody will come!"

We passed by the mall restrooms and, surprisingly, very few people peeled off to use them (I did, and there was no line whatsoever). About two hours into our travel we inched past an Au Bon Pain, and the workers stood at the doorway calling out "Water! Three dollars!" and money and bottles passed their way over the crowd.

And then there was the kid in front of me, who was probably eleven years old and who began to beg his mother for an Au Bon Pain cookie. Sure, you might say, the kid was hungry, but this kid had been continually snacking out of his mother's purse since we had started our egress. His mom told him no; the kid kept whining "I want a cookie!" until finally the elderly white couple in front of us, no doubt wanting to show Obama-love to this young black child, offered to buy the boy a cookie. The mother took a moment to restrain her anger at this couple's attempt to co-opt her parenting, then said graciously that it would be all right. Then the Au Bon Pain employee got in on the game and announced that the cookie would be free and handed it to the kid, who took one look at it, said "eew! raisins!" smushed it up in his hand and started demanding a chocolate-chip cookie. At this point his mother gave him a few harsh words and that was the end of it all.

I had my book, which I read; when I got to the end of it I started at the beginning again. Every ten minutes we shuffled forward a few more inches, which I thought was strange since I knew the metro trains were supposed to be running on rush-hour schedules (one train every three minutes) until I got close enough to the door to see that there were two huge masses of people trying to get in; us, on the inside of the mall, and another group at the metro's outdoor entrance. I was so glad that I had chosen the indoor route.

The police let two groups of the outdoor crowd in to every group of the indoor crowd; which made sense, logically, but did not make the people at the front of the line very happy. It was only near this very end of the line that things started to get chaotic; it was only near this very end of the line that I remembered the trampled Wal-Mart worker and realized that I had no way of getting out of a very similar situation, should one occur. But the police with their bullhorns kept order, never mind the people trying to push and shove and get through out of turn; and finally, finally, it was my turn and I was shoved through the door to the metro escalators and on my way.

Once inside it was a simple trip and I was home in ten minutes. The parade was long gone, the balls were starting, and the line inside the L'Enfant Plaza mall was still slowly pushing its way through towards home.

But it was worth it--I guess--because we were there, on the National Mall, to watch Obama's inauguration.

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