By Gerry Canavan
Nobody was tired; nobody was cold. By the time we'd gathered our group and walked the two miles from my friend's apartment in Virginia to the Lincoln Memorial—most of us wearing multiple layers of Obama T-shirts, I with my pajamas under my pants for extra warmth— it almost seemed warm.
We had woken up late, 7 a.m., and didn't leave Arlington before 8:30, which meant that by the time we reached the Mall the throng had already filled the prime spots by the reflecting pool. We settled in between the new World War II memorial and the Washington Monument in a comfy spot at the edge of the sidewalk, right in front of a screen. From where we were, we could barely make out the tip of the Capitol.
The cops were half-heartedly trying to keep 17th Street NW clear, which meant we were at one of the few places on the Mall where you could spread out without being sandwiched. So we sat down on the concrete and we waited.
When we arrived the screens were playing Sunday night's superstar-packed rock concert, but they soon switched to a live feed of the activities that were otherwise out of view and happening about a football field ahead of us. Here and there children sat on the sidewalk, playing PSPs and Nintendo DSes, undoubtedly brought there by their parents to witness something they had no perspective on. Nearby, college students fiddled with their cell phones and young lawyers fiddled with their BlackBerries.
It seemed to us that at last the world had turned right-side-up, the mighty laid low and the meek inheriting the earth. For those of us on the Mall, it felt like the city, and perhaps history itself, was being liberated. That was why we had gone there, I think, why we had all made our way out of our warm apartments into the cold, bundled up, one hand gloved and the other on our cameras: because we had needed liberation, because if it was finally going to happen, we couldn't let it happen somewhere else.
For a long time, we waited, packed in against an uncountable and always growing sea of people, all eagerly waiting and hoping for the same thing.
And finally it started.
The long parade of Important People began, a spectacle that had almost nothing to do with us rabble in the crowd. (More than once we were told to "take our seats." What seats?) When a Democratic Party stalwart appeared on screen, we cheered; when a loyal Bushie appeared, we heckled and cat-called.
A live mic had inadvertently been left on near the stage, catching tantalizingly anonymous snippets of Congresspersons' conversations as they entered—"I love your mom"; "No, Raleigh is the capital"; "Thanks for taking care of those people in Indiana." And more often than you'd think, the closed captioning translated hilariously wrong, as when Barack Obama appeared on stage to "[CHEESE AND APPLAUSE]," or when Aretha Franklin's unbelievably perfect rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" was perplexingly subtitled "♫ Threat ring."
But when Justice John Roberts fumbled his first attempt at administering the Oath of Office, no one laughed. And when Obama stayed at the podium to give his inaugural address, a litany of disasters sprinkled with steadfast hope, this loyal and victorious audience of as many as two million was spellbound through its final stirring moments: "With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America."
With the close of the speech and a last triumphant cheer from the crowd, it was real: The Bush years were over and Barack Obama was president. We could, at last, relax.
Then we realized we were cold. But only then, and still we didn't care.