January 23, 2009

Neuschwander’s golden ticket to attend the inauguration: Dispatch #3

The day before the inauguration, we stood in the cold for 2 hours to pick up our tickets from Earl Blumenauer’s office in the Rayburn Congressional Building.

Prologue: Better late than never

 Immediately after we got them, we went across the hall for a little reception in with his staffers and other Oregonians. Sometime in the 15 minutes we were there our tickets were stolen. We were devastated. Staffers took our phone numbers and said they’d call if the tickets turned up as they were clearing the office later that night. They were very kind, but busy and of course there were only 193 tickets, all already promised to others. We spent the afternoon reconciling ourselves to an alternate plan for Tuesday, and managed to cheer up. At 5:30, we got a call from the Chief of Staff telling us that the tickets had not shown up. But a few people hadn’t showed—they would hold two of the remaining tickets for us. We raced over, and were received by the entire office with such warmth, sympathy, and happiness. For our distress, they even gave us slightly better tickets (a good thing, because with the original tickets it’s very possible that we would not have made it through security in time). So, from this act of kindness I found an excuse to write my first letter to a member of Congress—one of thanks.

Epilogue: Phew

John and I returned home last night to the safety and sweet comfort of our home, our own quiet city. Walking away from the airport, where nearly everyone on our flight from Chicago had been in DC with us, we felt the tug of separation. We were departing from the easy knowledge that every stranger shared a thing in common with us. It was permissible, for four days, to jump into other peoples’ conversations, to laugh at a stranger’s joke and not hide the fact that you were eavesdropping. We were in some way a part of each others’ lives now, openly and cheerfully. I’ve never experienced quite the same energy, the desire to share stories, the will to speak out to those around you. We met people from all over the country, and we reveled in our commonality. A Great Leveling took place—in our crowd were Tony Dungy (NFL coach), the mayor of Alhambra, CA (pop. 90,000), a busload of people who had made the pilgrimage from Oakland (ages 5 to 78), a woman who had watched MLK deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, friends of ours who had traveled from New York, Ohio, New Orleans… With no distinctions drawn on the basis of influence or wealth, we all stood in the same lines and were grateful to be there.

On Wednesday, we joined thousands of people for a visit to the Lincoln Memorial. It felt like a pilgrimage, a family reunion, and a block party all at once. We reread Lincoln’s words, etched in stone: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” We took photos. We looked out over the mall, yawning toward the Capitol, which was now miraculously bereft of trash, barricades, cameras. It was almost surreal that it was over, and we took comfort in the strangers around us.

It will probably take months for us to really assimilate everything that happened over these four days into some kind of explanation that makes sense. In some ways it was terrible (the crowds, the cold, the standing)—but we also felt overwhelming joy, trust, common purpose, amazement. As I begin to distill some of the experience into meaning, I am most forcefully struck by the fact that 2 million people—in any other context a terrifying, apocalyptic mob—gathered peacefully and with kindness to see a very unpopular man hand power over to a very popular one. There was booing and there were cheers—and that was it. This mundane thing is absolutely remarkable the more I think it out. Americans gathered to express their will, raise their voices, witness the culmination of an event (which, let’s not forget, was of our own making), and then they went home to tell their stories.

We stayed that night with our friend Ricki and her fiancé Moni, who arrived in the U.S. from Uganda three weeks ago. The president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, has been in power for over 20 years. Moni hopes that one day he will move on, but said that when he does it will only be because of death (“by accident, hopefully”), and that there are hundreds in line to fight over his place. He feels that many, many people will die in the transition of power, whenever it happens. The duality between this way of living and ours explains a little why people all over the world were reveling on Tuesday along with us.

Someone just asked me, “Do you feel changed?” In more ways that I can configure into coherence, I do. I heard a lot of people this week say, “I feel proud to be American for the first time.” I think I just feel American for the first time.

Hanna Neuschwander is the director of publications for the graduate school. Click here to read Neuschwander’s golden ticket to attend the inauguration: Dispatch #1 and Neuschwander’s golden ticket to attend the inauguration: Dispatch #2