Maiden Voyage is an autobiographical story about my daughter, Carrie, and I going to the Obama inauguration in January of 2009. Here's a bit from an essay I wrote soonafter the experience.
"Carrie and I decided to leave for Washington D.C. on Sunday, even though I had just returned home from a few days in a Connecticut studio and then a gig in north Georgia. This was tough on my son, Sam, as well as my husband, Joe, who had been keeping the kids for days. But my dad came through for us just a couple of days before with tickets to the Obama inauguration. I still am pretty stunned by my dad’s generosity and love for me and his granddaughter, that he would cross party lines like he did and work to find us some safe way to witness what I believed would be one of the seminal events of both my and Carrie’s lifetimes, the inauguration of Barack Obama.
I am torn as I write this essay, because of two major factors: one, that Carrie and I went to Washington D.C. to celebrate with the rest of the world; and two, that Carrie and I were in positions of privilege as we went there. But we all have our story, and this is mine. And if I learned anything from this trip, it is that when one story is told, one thousand stories remain untold.
We decided to drive our Honda Fit up through the mountains of Virginia in order to miss the crowded roadways of I-95 into DC. However, this meant that we drove through several snowstorms on the way. At 10pm on Sunday evening, as we were nearing our hotel in Christiansburg, VA, Carrie and I both looked at the windshield as it was being pelted with snow, with 18 wheelers all around us and temperatures hovering at 32 and 33 degrees, as we learned from Joe who was monitoring the weather conditions for us town by town. Carrie said, “Mom, it’s more snow.” I said, “Yes, honey, and you know what that means,” and she replied, “Yes, we must be brave.”
We made it, of course, and left the hotel early the next morning, even in some pretty icy conditions. There was normal traffic on the roads all the way into DC, but nothing too intense, probably because of the snowy and icy conditions. We arrived in DC around noon, and slowly drove down one of the main thoroughfares as big trucks moved chairs and barricades, and groups of people wandered from museum to monument. Carrie and I left a day early so that we could get in line at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in order to get our coveted tickets by 5pm. Carrie fell asleep just as we found the building, but she got to sleep for an hour as I searched for a place to park.
It’s odd, having a special ticket to something that other people don’t have. Part of me felt guilty, of course, as it seemed everyone in the world wanted what we were getting. And yet I felt grateful, and very lucky. As we found out when we got into Senator Thad Cochran’s office, we had a standing ticket in the Blue Section, rather than a sitting ticket in another place. Somehow I felt better because of that. Nonetheless, I never would have brought my four-year-old daughter without some assurance that we had a place to go. These tickets got us out the door, and to D.C.
We stayed with my cousin on Capitol Hill, which was another coup, because most of the 3 million folks had to take buses and trains into town. Carrie and I left around 9am and made our way up the few blocks to the starting point of our gate entrance. Though everyone seemed genuinely happy, it was cold, and I only had smiles returned to me by volunteers who were directing us up certain streets, and away from the capitol. The city shut most of itself down for this day, and we all had to follow convoluted routes to get where we were going. We were walking up the east side of Capitol Hill, past the east side of the US Capitol, though many blocks further away than one would normally walk to get to those places. After about four blocks, Carrie said, ‘I’m tired of walking.” And I wondered what I had gotten us into. She had a long way to go that day.
The mood went from elated to anxious as we started nearing the blocks where the gate lines began. The orange gate line seemed to have some order (and I’d say, when we passed it, it seemed to have about 1000 people in it, wrapping back and forth through some system I couldn’t register). Those headed towards what they thought was the way for the blue and silver gates had no direction. All we could see was a mass of people in every direction. I panicked a little, nervous that we had gotten a late start, and so we hopped one barricade we saw, pressing through many people, only to eventually maneuver back over that barricade a few minutes later, and then to find that the barricade ended about 15 yards beyond. The area was that packed with people. We asked about 100 people which way to go, and eventually saw the blue gate signs in the distance.
In retrospect I think Carrie and I cut in line in a major way. I seemed to get us pretty close to the blue gate sign by 9:45, with a sea of people all around us, and something resembling a line going off to the south way beyond us. But no one was moving. We met some nice people around us, including a group of folks invited by the new Illinois Senator Burris who had just been appointed by the controversial Illinois governor Rod Blagojevichjust prior to his impeachment. There were many white people and many black people, but not much more ethnic diversity than that. We struck up some nice conversations, and many were charmed by Carrie and her general cuteness.
Carrie was not noticeably nervous in the crowds, she did not seem scared. I pray this was the case, because I was scared for her. One white woman in a fur hat, trying to nose past us, told me I should pick her up, lest she get trampled. Of course I had been picking her up off and on, though it is hard to hold anything that weighs 40 pounds for too long. One younger woman not far from us had a patriotic feather boa on, and she kept anonymously dropping feathers on Carrie’s head and shoulders, so Carrie thought they were arriving by magic. The woman was mere feet from Carrie, close enough to reach Carrie, but we were so crowded in Carrie could not see her, even when I was holding her."
My partial essay ends there. I think at that point it was too painful for me to write about the fact that Carrie and I didn't see the Inauguration. Several thousand people at our gate were turned away due to a 'electrical failure' at the Blue security gate. Over 10,000 people didn't make it in at the Purple Gate for the same reason. I find that explanation implausible, and think that instead there was a perceived terrorist threat that day and that somehow the gov't suspected persons in line at the Blue and Purple gates. Once, when some of us started chanting and booing about the lack of movement in our line, a sniper on top of the Capitol building turned his gun straight at us. We stopped booing.
Around noon, the MASSIVE crowd around us dissipated within moments. I found it pretty surreal. I was holding Carrie, and had been for a couple of hours, and she was asleep in my arms. I could barely move, and had no more energy to act. The temperature still hovered at around 18 degrees. Now I know that everyone fled to various Smithsonian museums where they watched the inauguration on big screens while drinking free hot chocolate. Not us. The picture displayed here is basically where we stood for six hours, and someone took it of us while the inauguration was in process. I cried many tears of anger and frustration at that time, as I had never exerted such energy to do something for my daughter, and failed. Of course the outcome was out of our control, but I could not help but feel personally responsible.
Soonafter, I came to the realization that I could now understand better, but only the smallest amount, how millions and millions of parents feel when they try to provide for their children and cannot due to circumstances beyond their control. I thought of undocumented workers crossing the Texas border and coming into a hostile US simply to provide for their families. I thought of refugee camps filled by the millions. I thought of victims of war and poverty and oppression. I tried to turn the experience into a time of philosophical reflection.
Carrie and I started walking back to our cousin's apartment. We bought bookmarks for all of her classmates from one of the dozens of vendors. We passed young teenage black boys celebrating Obama's inauguration, in freezing temperatures, and I understood anew what this election meant for the African American community, and for all minorities. I would salvage this experience!!
But then we got a phone call from a friend. She asked if we would come to a building about forty blocks from where we were and watch the parade with her. Jill said they had chicken nuggets, and CAKE. and BEER!!! Carrie and I both salivated at the thought, and we walked those forty blocks with ease. I was ready to get there, as it was freezing and of course I was exhausted and my nerves shot. We passed a flag vendor, and Carrie asked if she could buy a flag. At first I said no, for no good reason other than we had just bought 25 Obama bookmarks. She burst into tears, and I immediately understood my error. We turned around and got that girl a flag. She waved all the way to the building. Pictured below is Carrie waving that flag late in the afternoon while we waited for the parade to begin. It started late because of Ted Kennedy's collapse at the inaugural luncheon. No matter. We had friends, and cake. And a flag. We felt proud to be there.