24 January 2009

An Unmediated Inauguration, Part 6

Jan. 21
9 am

Bella had to report bright and early for her first day at the research institute, leaving Danny and I to our own devices. I had only a few hours before having to be in Chinatown to catch the bus home, so we meandered through Georgetown, following Wisconsin Avenue down to the banks of the Potomac before discovering the delightfully picturesque Chesapeake and Ohio Canal walk that led us halfway into town.

Danny and I had forged our friendship over the course of a dozen years of walks that took us all over London and, in more recent years, an ever-widening swath of Southwest England. Sometimes the walk is its own point, more often it’s merely the backdrop to an ongoing conversation covering politics, philosophy, economics, science, and most things in between. Danny holds a doctorate in biochemistry but makes his living as a journalist with one of Britain’s leading dailies, where his beat consists mainly of animal stories and the paranormal.

Not the cutesy-wutesy sort of animal stories, though he is not above the occasional two-headed dog feature; his primary stock in trade consists of ferreting out animal abuse in all its forms, as when he recently risked life and limb to expose the factory farming of pigs on the Polish-Russian border. Another time he used me and a couple other friends as undercover agents to investigate the claims of a renowned London psychic. She predicted that within a couple years I’d be living on an island, and before you point out that by moving to New York City, I effectively fulfilled that prophecy, you should know that I asked her myself if that would qualify, only to be told that she was thinking more along the lines of something with palm trees.

Right now, Danny told me, he’s working on a project studying the interface between science and religion (“…are not mutually exclusive,” I started to sing, before telling him about the Screeching Weasel song whose chorus begins with that line), and by the time we’re done talking about that and Richard Dawkins, toward whom we share a similar degree of disdain, we were walking up to the front of the White House.

Workers were just beginning to dismantle the reviewing stands from yesterday’s parade, and in the meantime, we had the opportunity to get a look at the President’s home from a much better vantage point than that normally afforded tourists. The first time I came to Washington in October 1967 – I was with that bunch who were going to levitate the Pentagon, if you must know – I took a stroll up to the front gates and saw, or at least thought I did – LBJ at an upstairs window, staring disconsolately out into the night.

But on my more recent visit, I’d discovered that visitors were no longer allowed on that side of the street, and had to observe the White House from considerably farther away. However, that rule did not seem to be in effect today, and our only obstacle to an unobstructed view was the steady stream of African-American parents bringing their children to see where President Obama lived.

And even the little two and three year olds seemed to understand that this was a very big deal, asking where the President slept, and if he ever came out to play out in the yard. One tiny boy looked up at his mom and said, “Pres’ent ‘Bama’s nice, isn’t he?”

I marveled at what a different world these children would be growing up in, one in which the world’s most powerful and – at least for now – most-loved man was someone who looked like them, and how different, too, it would be for the parents who would be raising them, who could now in all earnestness say, “Eat your vegetables, study your lessons, and you can grow up to be anything in this world that you can dream of being.”

The President had reminded us in yesterday’s speech that not so long ago – within memory of some of us – a black man could legally be refused service in many restaurants. For the most part, you couldn’t even see a black person on TV, except for the occasional servant or clown. Millions of people were told, sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, that it didn’t matter what they said or thought or did, that their contributions to the national gestalt were neither needed nor wanted.

It’s tempting to say that everything has now changed, and of course on one hand it hasn’t – black men still rot in prison and beg on street corners in horribly dispiriting numbers – but on the other hand, it has. It seems silly now, but in 1960 there was a real question about whether a Catholic could or should ever be elected President. Once it finally happened, it became a complete non-issue, and I think the same thing is about to happen with African-Americans. A few years from now – or sooner – it will become hard to remember or understand how or why this country nearly tore itself to pieces over the non-issue of race.

When I got to Chinatown chaos reigned supreme. You couldn’t get down the sidewalk for all the backpack and sleeping bag-toting people who hoped to climb aboard the next bus north. I stood in line anyway, even after I’d been told I’d probably have to wait till the next bus or the one after that, and to my surprise, managed to snag one of the last couple seats, right up near the front.

Our driver coming down had been a quiet, middle-aged Chinese man, but our driver going home was a youngish African-American man and not very quiet at all. Well, he could be, and was at times, but when he had something he wanted to communicate, you heard about it.

“Yo, listen up!” he said, before we pulled away from the curb. “I want you all to know that this is my bus and on my bus I am the captain. There is only one authority on this bus, and I am it.

“Now rule number one on my bus is that there will be no trash or garbage left on the floor, under the seats, on the seats, or in the overhead bins. You will take all your trash and garbage with you. I know it’s a shame I have to speak this way to grown up people who should know better, but that’s just what it is. You got me?”

When a few people nodded their assent, he demanded to hear from everybody, and once he had, shouted, “Okay then, let’s roll. OBAMA!”

Obama was invoked at several points of the journey: when in our Baltimore stop, a young woman tried to push her way on to the bus without a ticket, he demanded, “Are you related to Obama?” Before she could answer, he added, “Cuz I don’t care if you are, you ain’t getting on this bus.” When a young Frenchman tried a similar tactic, the driver turned to and asked, “Any of you speak French? Tell this guy oui-oui-Obama, no bus!”

When a couple were late getting back to the bus after a rest stop, he started to drive away without them, declaring, “They can get a ride with Obama, cuz I sure as hell ain’t waitin’ for ‘em.” But his greatest ire was reserved for Maxine, a fur coat-clad 70-something Jewish lady who sat directly behind him and talked pretty much nonstop on her cell phone for five hours.

She first ran foul of him by propping her foot up on top of the ledge in front of her, leaving it dangling a foot or two from his face. He said not a word, just turned and glowered at her for a lot longer than he should have, considering that were traveling up Interstate 95 at 70 mph in the opposite direction. She was slow to grasp his meaning, but when she finally did, gave no ground.

“What? That’s not bothering you, is it? My foot’s clean. It doesn’t smell. It’s not in your way.” He glowered and glowered some more, and when she got up to go to the bathroom, announced to the whole front of the bus, “She says her foot don’t smell, but it does, it smells like old lady perfume mixed with stinky old lady feet smell.”

When Maxine continued jawing loudly on her phone, he called out loudly, “Can I have everybody be quiet for a minute?” Such was the authority in his voice that the bus went dead silent – except for Maxine, who after a couple minutes started looking around uneasily trying to figure out why everybody was laughing at her. Then the driver put the radio back on twice as loud, which of course meant that Maxine had to talk twice as loud, and more or less genial chaos ensued.

The radio was tuned to an R&B station, and many of the riders, about two thirds of whom were African-American, would sing along with the more popular songs. In between, the DJs played and replayed excerpts from Obama’s inaugural address and gently ribbed the President about his dancing prowess. “We need y’all to send your CDs and videos to the White House so the man can learn how to step,” they said, before going on to announce that Hillary Clinton had been confirmed as Secretary of State and launching a segment for people to call in and describe how they were going to respond to Barack Obama’s challenge to better themselves and the world around them.

All the way back from Washington I’d been writing in this journal – by hand, as for the first time in years I’d chosen to travel without a computer. And the R&B station on the bus ride home was the only contact I’d had with the mass media since starting this trip, Danny and Bella’s new flat being without radio and TV. So for the first time since, well, ever, I’d experienced a major public event without the help of commentators telling me what I should be thinking or how I should be feeling, or for that matter, what anyone else in the country was supposedly thinking or feeling.

And you know what? I kind of liked it that way. I think I may try it more in the future. But most of all I liked the bus rides, the street scenes, the crowds on the mall, the gentle camaraderie, the shared sense of promise and purpose that seemed to be washing through the streets of DC and all the way back to New York City. It’s starting to look more like the America I always wished I could live in. I wouldn't mind getting used to this sort of thing.

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