In D.C. on Inauguration Eve

I'm writing tonight in the home of my sister's friend. She’s letting me, and several others, crash here tonight because she lives a few miles closer to the middle of DC than the other places we could have been. There are little scenes like this all over the city: people sleeping in offices, people crashing with friends, people staying in bars -- which are allowed to be open 24 hours tonight only -- and people sleeping in their cars at suburban Metro stations.

All over town, there's been a vibe today like Christmas Eve for grownups. Tuesday is a day we've all been waiting for, and now it's actually here. When we wake up tomorrow, George Bush will still be President, and when we go back to bed, Barack Obama will be. Today's date brings that fully into reality, and being in Washington tonight makes it a very personal thing.

I couldn't begin to tell you everything going on, but some moments have certainly stood out. Yesterday I was on the mall, between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, with about 500,000 other people for the big concert. It was a long list of stars and moments, and being among that many people is a powerful thing unto itself, but two moments are stuck in my head.

One was when Herbie Hancock, Sheryl Crowe and were singing Marley's "One Love." I mean, stop for a moment and consider that. At a gala public concert for our next President, a jazz player, rock star, and rap star were doing a Marley song, singing about one love. Has anything like that ever happened before? People were bobbing and weaving around, smiling, and then we looked up at the jumbotrons and saw, for just a moment, the Obamas, and Barack was bobbing his head and smiling, too. A wave giggle went through the crowd, and right there it hit me: change has come to America. Tomorrow noon we're going to have a president who digs Bob Marley and will even consider a phrase like "One Love." Hell, the name of the concert was 'We Are One"! Would W have even tolerated such a song, much less rocked out to it in public?

The other was at the end of the show, when they brought out Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen to lead everybody in "This Land is Your Land." Again, a song written by a communist alcoholic hobo as an anthem to fighting the power of the wealthy few, with a folk icon of the ’60s and a rock monster of the ’70s and ’80s leading half a million people in words that, among other things, challenge the notion of private property. Pete and Bruce were both smiling like kids, too. That was the first time this weekend I realized that, at age 42 and about as cynical as they come, I can't really sing a song like that, with that many people, black and white and brown all together, without choking up.

There have been a few moments like that since I got here, along with some only-in-DC images. Like when I was walking down Pennsylvania the other night, and it was about 16 degrees and windy, but there was a crowd of people in front of the White House snapping cell phone pictures, and the vibe was a lot like a Dead show, which I once heard compared to a championship team playing a home game. This also felt like a conquering army entering the city to take back what is theirs, starting with -- and symbolically all wrapped up in -- that house.

Walking along some more, I realized cops were blocking off all the streets, and word quickly spread along the sidewalks that the Obama motorcade was coming. He had just arrived by train from Philly and was spending the night in Blair House on the grounds of the White House. Sure enough, a few minutes later there were helicopters in the sky, black SUVs racing around, and then up Pennsylvania came several cop motorcycles, with sidecars inhabited by dudes with rifles, and then a couple cop cars, all of them busting along about 60 mph, and then two more SUVs with a big limo in the middle, then an ambulance, a few more cars, and a couple more motorcycles -- all a blur of speed and lights and impressiveness, and somewhere in there was the conquering hero himself.

To the folks who live here, that's all commonplace. To them, this is just another inauguration, only a bigger pain in the ass than usual. The whole central part of the city is closed to traffic for about 30 hours, offices are closed, it really feels like a city with a gigantic storm on the way. The Beltway Crowd either isn't easily impressed or feels the need to act unimpressed. Either way, they seem more concerned with acting aloof ("Inaugural balls are such a nightmare!") or playing the court watcher ("I hear Obama has worked something out to keep using his BlackBerry") rather than accepting the fact that something is about to happen in their hometown about which the entire world gives a very large damn.

To the rest of us -- Obama Nation, if you will -- there is a sense in town of it being Our Moment. I can't tell you how many African-Americans I have seen on the streets, dressed to the nines, heading out onto the town, and looking very happy. Or how many people are flying the Obama colors, which by the way is every style and every color on the wheel, from glitter to red and blue to orange to school letterjacket to beads to flags to stickers and buttons everywhere. And there seems to be a vendor selling all of those, plus hand warmers, on every corner. Yep, a championship team playing a home game.

Today, after taking most of the day to rest at my sister's house, I went into town to attend a gathering honoring Dr. King at a local church. My sister was going to some glittery party hosted by a TV tycoon, and she was all excited about meeting various broadcast personalities. When I told her which neighborhood I was headed for, she said to be sure I get out of there by dark. She didn't have to say why. But the thing is, Columbia Heights is, based on a few hours of being there, filled with blacks and whites and Christians and Muslims and yuppies and college kids and working-class folks ... kind of like America, you know? How many neighborhoods, or parts of states, are dismissed in their entirety because of the color of the folks living there? Or the income level? Or education?

The event was a gathering of many religious traditions -- Jew, Muslim, Evangelical, Unitarian, Buddhist -- to honor Dr. King in words and song, and to talk about racism, materialism, violence and religious intolerance. The crowd in that church, in addition to being charged with anticipation -- not just for tomorrow's events on the mall, but for the whole direction things seem to be going in -- was every stripe of humanity, every race and color and religion and income level. I saw old black women sitting next to young hipsters and old hippies sitting next to women in veils. The first thing the crowd did, other than pack the whole place and grin at each other, was sing. And I found out that I also can't get through "We Shall Overcome" or "This Little Light of Mine" without tearing up, either. But by then I didn't care, I just let it out all over the place, and a several things occurred to me, all at once:

That this kind of multi-racial, multi-faith, community spiritual gathering is something the Republican Party is not capable of, and that's why they are in the minority. That this is probably where Dr. King would have been tonight, had he still been with us. That maybe, just maybe, a new generation of progressives is starting to get some grip on the power in this country. That when you get people together who believe in something and want it to happen, you've just gotten closer to it happening.

And most of all, that tomorrow is going to be a wonderful day.

by Paul Gerald

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