24 January 2009

An Unmediated Inauguration, Part 4

5:47 pm
Entering Washington

Just like that the sylvan stateliness of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway gave way to the first strip malls and parking lots of the nation’s capital. The twilight settling in took the harshest edges off what by any measure was not the prettiest part of town. At the first major intersection, a cluster of floodlit white tents proclaimed itself an “Inauguration Welcome Center.” On closer examination, it proved to be an open-air souvenir shop staffed entirely by African-Americans and offering ever form of Obama memorabilia imaginable. Similar roadside stands – or, more often, single individuals clutching a handful of pennants, balloons, or badges – cropped up with increasing frequency as we neared the city center.

The last block and a half of our trip proved to be the longest, or at least the most tedious. So smoothly had traffic flowed for most of our journey that the driver had seldom needed to touch his foot to the brake pedal, but with our destination on H Street in tantalizing sight, we succumbed to the long-predicted inaugural gridlock.

I lost count of how many times the lights changed before we were able to move at all. Like a child unable to sit still, I stood up in my seat waiting to be discharged into the chaotic streets, but to no avail.. Did we really have to wait until the bus had turned that seemingly impassable corner? Couldn’t the driver simply open the door where we stood and set us free?

Then at last I was on the pavement, assailed on all sides by the cacophony of a street bazaar with only one product: Obama, stamped in words and pictures on every possible surface. Did you want Obama earrings, belts, sneakers, notepads, hoodies, binoculars, whistles, bells, sunglasses, hats, track suits? All were not only available but being hawked passionately by almost exclusively African-American salespeople. Anyone still clinging to racist stereotypes of blacks as work-shy or unmotivated would, I thought, have a difficult time explaining this phenomenon.

I’ve been in cities before where great crowds were gathering in anticipation of vital or life-changing events, but never before had I experienced the extent of the electricity coursing though the veins and arteries of Washington’s body politic. The vendors – and many of their customers – may have been African-American, but the celebrants came in all shapes and colors, and, judging form their accents and regalia, from all corners and classes of the nation.

Torn between reveling in the spirit of the streets and hurrying out to Georgetown where I could relieve myself of my backpack and make plans with Danny and Bella for the morrow’s adventures, I did a bit of both, and even toyed briefly with the idea of paying a flying visit to the still-open Smithsonian. But ultimately I opted for the longish trek out Massachusetts Avenue, past embassies and hotels and apartment buildings of varying degrees of pomp and grandeur. It was not an uninteresting journey, but nonetheless tended to drag a little, owing to the lengthy blocks and the unnecessarily large spaces between things. I was reminded of the similar row of stately yet a trifle too ponderous buildings lining the southern flank of London’s Kensington Palace Gardens.

A couple of the hotels I passed were hosting black tie celebrations for white people. A considerably more mixed and less formal do was in full swing at the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) hall, but even that resolutely working class affair didn’t look like one I could successfully crash. The sound of a chanting crowd in the distance heralded the first gathering at which I would be unhesitatingly welcomed, or at least not turned away.

Somewhere on the order of a thousand people had gathered in the center of Dupont Circle. From the noise they were making, it was clear that they were agitated about something, whether for or against it was impossible to tell. I cut across lanes of stopped traffic intending to find out; the first thing I saw was a tent adorned with a sign advocating medical marijuana, followed by a great cloud of strange-smelling smoke rising up from the crowd and rolling lazily in my direction.

It was unlike any marijuana smoke I had ever smelled, though, and I recognized it as the scent of burning sage in the same moment that a voice from the stage informed me that we were participating in a ceremony to cleanse the capital of the evil spirits which were meant to have infested it of late. A shaman – who, as it turned out, was a woman, leading me to wonder why she hadn’t been introduced as a sha-person or sha-woman until I hypothesized that she probably got round the problem by spelling it “shamyn” – was brought forth to lead the incantation.

Mama Dada, she was called, from Brooklyn, NY, and with the accent to prove it. She spoke with the rising rousing tones but none of the mellifluousness of a deep-fried Southern preacher as she urged – hectored might be more accurate – her audience to “shake it out, shake it out, shake those feelings out.” Listening to her was neither inspiring nor pleasant, so I moved on, stopping only at the Metro station to buy a ticket in case I needed to take a train in the next two days. Though I’d read that you’d only get a commemorative Barack Obama ticket if you bought it on Inauguration Day, mine came out emblazoned with the 44th president’s likeness, and I counted that as a score.

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