Barack in the John Paul Jones

Barack in the John Paul Jones

 

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The crowd in the lobby of the John Paul Jones Arena, half an hour before the inauguration, includes a teenage kid with an Afro who says he’s Obama’s cousin, a college girl with an Obama button on her backpack who gallops and grins toward the stairs, and an African-American man in a ski hat leading a tiny white girl by one hand as she carries a red stuffed bear by the other. In other words, it’s mixed. We’re all being funneled into one pie-shaped section. Kids look bewildered; the sound in here is dull but drowns out the Jumbotron. On the screen, figures in black (is that Katie Couric?) are outlined against a crisp blue day, and in here, it’s warm and smells like hot dogs.

“I luv Goj Boosh! I luv dahble-you!” says a buzzcut blond guy in a leather jacket, putting on a Borat accent for his friend. “Please be seated” says a female voice onscreen and I follow the carpeted hallway to an open section of seats, just as George H.W. Bush and Barbara toddle down a marble hallway in the Capitol, earning no applause in this room. The camera pans over the sunlit masses in D.C. We’re a crowd watching a crowd.

I sit at the top of a stairway and a parade of girls in cowboy boots troops down on my left. The Clintons appear on the screen and get a little yell, though Bill looks morose. The acoustics are a thin buzz that make me feel I’m everywhere and nowhere. A fiftyish couple in front of me waves small American flags. She’s got a purple turtleneck and long ex-hippie hair pulled back in barrettes.

Now there’s a huge Awwww for Malia and Sasha. The parade down the metal stairs next to me echoes how the bunting-draped orifice of the Capitol keeps disgorging VIPs down its carpeted steps. The JPJ’s a bit less than half full now.

What: Inauguration Broadcast
Where: John Paul Jones Arena
When: Tuesday, January 20

A girl passes me wrapped in a yellow cloth printed with a map of Africa and Obama’s face. Then Jill and Michelle are on the screen! And then W., all alone, and the crowd here briefly considers booing—you can feel it—before settling on light applause, the grownup thing to do. There’s a long, slack pause.

And then Obama’s there, ridiculously calm. We’re standing up and cheering and turtleneck is clapping loud and long. Zillions of flags are waving on the Mall. And what makes me tear up is the slow, slow lift of a white-gloved hand, a Marine saluting Obama on his way out the Capitol door.

The Obama faithful at the John Paul Jones Arena looked up to technology heaven—a Jumbotron—to see the Inauguration festivities.

It’s solemnity, it’s joy, it’s the media’s electronic eyes, it’s each of those distracting us from the others. A girl across the aisle from me looks frankly bored and depressed. But after Biden’s sworn in, turtleneck’s husband says, “Yeah, Cheney’s out!” I realize I’m waiting for a disaster. Little Sasha’s face is distorted behind the plexiglass.

And we all stand confidently to hear the oath of office and that’s it! It’s done! And Obama’s taking command of the whole ceremony, speaking to the entire world, and my god, does he have this memorized? He does. The crowd in here makes a warm, wordless response to certain of his lines—“We will not apologize for our way of life”—and when he’s done a girl stands fast with both arms up, Obama’s waving and turning, and people are already streaming out of here, back toward their lives.

It all ends fast. Elizabeth Alexander’s poem doesn’t hold this crowd. A fragrant half-eaten sandwich passes me during Joseph Lowery’s prayer. Dianne Feinstein tells us to remain seated while the presidential party leaves the platform, but this is TV, and we don’t have to listen.

In a minute, I’ll be back out in the hallway near two nasal-voiced guys. “It didn’t need to be lofty,” one announces. “I would have liked it to be better than Kennedy’s, and it wasn’t,” the other says. But for now, I’m still sitting in the Arena, and it’s emptying fast, and a black woman in a pink coat and curls is sitting four rows down from me, moving a little to the piccolo solo in “Stars and Stripes Forever” and smiling at the screen.

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