My fingers hurt. My toes. My nose red and running. My ears past pain. My arm around my wife. We walked away from our seats muttering about warmth and where to find it. This was fun. Let's get out of here.
Inauguration Day, Washington, D.C., the Capitol steps, 2009.
We walked by some people straggling behind. Not moving. Cardboard, placards literature laying about. A breeze moving things, hordes of people, somewhere warmer. But these people, these few people, stayed. Unbothered by elements and that gene like birds have that make us want to follow the more formidable mass. These people stayed. Waiting for some thing more than the great evidence of speech and song and universal cheering, tears. What more can there be? A half a million screaming, crying, shivering Americans and huge screens showing this man, this most unlikely citizen, swearing on a book that he will faithfully preserve, protect, defend and uphold our sacred document. Bands played. The man himself made a great speech. Ella sang for god's sake. Couples, strangers hugged, celebrated and made for the buses. But not these frozen few. They just stayed, actually staring at the screen. Some looking high up towards the Capitol Dome. What else could there be?
"What are you waiting for?" I thought I would just ask.
"The chopper," said one.
"The ex-President," said a woman next to him.
"Bush," said another with a hard look towards me like I should know.
"Marine One," said a kinder soul. "We're waiting for Marine One. It'll be coming up there. Rising above the dome any minute."
"Oh," I said.
She went on: "Just proof. I want proof. I want to see that son of a bitch haul his ass out a here. That's how they go. The old first couple is escorted by the incoming first couple and shove them into Marine One and off they go. See ya."
She looked back at the dome. So did every one else. Everyone who was still there.
I am not an Obama fanatic. I did not favor a surge in Afghanistan; didn't support the nature of the financials bailouts; wanted universal health coverage; wanted proper prosecution of the thieves of Wall Street, believe the war on drugs must end yesterday.
But here, now, just shy of four years later I can look back and I can have respect for this man. He said he was going to bail out Detroit and he did; he said he was going to pass the stimulus package to stave off loss of jobs and rebuild infrastructure and he did; he said he was going to surge in Afghanistan to facilitate a later winding down of that war and he did; he said he was going to end the inane war in Iraq and he did. He passed Obamacare like he said he would. He reversed the loss of job growth trend like he said he would. He extended unemployment benefits and helped folks keep their homes like he said he would. And on and on it goes.
In the more freezing cold, the unbearable bone chilling cold, I stood, unmoving, looking too at the dome. My wife beside me. Looking up. Listening. I hadn't cried today. I was among the few. I was glad to be there. Excited. Glad to witness history. I felt sad for this man who is now president. This man, whose most likely greatest achievement in his life he has probably already accomplished.
I looked up. Tears, but only from the wind that physically hurt my eyes. This dome. I remember someone saying... a tour guide? a Capitol policeman? A congressman? I remember someone saying:
"This is your building. You own it. You decide who can have an office in there and you can decide to kick 'em out."
"Same with the white one down the block. Yours. You're the landlord. You rent to who you want to rent. YOU own it."
I heard a rumble. Felt a stir. Some people got up off the ground, up from chairs. Those leaning straightened, looked straight up. On the big TV screen I saw two couples now on the other side of the Capitol walking towards the chopper, Marine One. They stopped, tilted heads away from the running blades. One couple patting the other, shaking hands and sharing hugs. Very formally acted out as to let us know that this is how we do things here. Good mannered, the way we move power from one man's hands to another. A marine saluted and the doors shut. No wasted time, the chopper headed upwards out of the screen's view. But like a well executed film edit the thing, the chopper in full voice, escaped above the dome in full sight, in real time, straight up above it. It was then, just then that I was attacked by something deep in my chest. It could have been the icy wind kicked up by this flying thing cutting through to the bone. The phrase "Long live the King," flew through my mind. And I realized then that coronations, inaugurations, they are funerals first, aren't they? Someone's gotta go for this to be happening. Just then in my chest, something. And I started to cry. I, the only one it seemed who'd risen above such easy display all day. What is this? I cried, trying to hide now audible sobs, sounds grotesque. Stop! My wife looked over confused. No more than I. Stop! I couldn't.
This takes a while to figure out, this stuff. If you asked me then and there as my wife delicately did, I'd have nothing for you. No answer. Dunno. It was like I had done something wrong. I was ashamed. I had that feeling of failure that surrounds you and swallows you whole, makes you less a man. Shame.
In eight years we had lost ourselves as a people. I'm thinking this to myself. I think in big sentences sometimes. Ignore it. We have caused the death of hundreds of millions of Arabs for reasons I can't get my head around. Thousands of American servicemen and women. Tens of thousands of life altering wounds both physical and psychological, spiritual. We entered into another war which just twenty years earlier brought down an empire by being as stupid. We have bankrupted our treasury with these wars and the inane war on drugs while aiding and abetting Wall Street's theft of our savings and our homes. We have been systematically killing arts in our culture and in our schools while supporting windfall profits and tax breaks for the oil and war cartels. Big sentences. Ignore it. I'll take responsibility. My fault.
I now know the thing that happens to children that is unthinkable. They think it's their fault. They shoulda done this; avoided; run; attack; something. I shoulda done something.
I almost voted for Nader in 2000. I thought it really didn't matter. They're all the same. Now when I come across that indifference I get a little charged up: "If the other guy won? We would never have been in Iraq; we'd have invested in alternative energy and been leading the world market in the next difference making industry; we would not have continued the systematic destruction of the middle class, the deaths of unfathomably countless Arabs in Iraq (whatever the grotesque number is!)..."
Our president has helped alter a force of nature. An economic tsunami that was poised to wipe us out. Response is everything. Just this past week as we hunker down in New York and all points here in the east we see a difference maker; a builder of castles unwilling to do any other thing than yield just momentarily to the storms but then roll 'em up and get to work. To work.
Slowly, methodically if need be.
How long does it take to destroy a sand castle? And then how long to build it back up?
The helicopter, as only it can do, spun left and rocketed toward the Potomac, one last pass over the Oval office where so much had been undone. I fixed my eyes on the chopper. Stayed fixed to that as if it should bring me relief from whatever this was. No help. But fixed I stayed on it as it withdrew, became small, until the dot, the spec that was left was no longer there. Shame. It's visible only while you look at it. But it's always there.
I shudder to think what will happen if this president does not retain the lease to our Oval Office. This challenger is better at stomping on sand castles, enjoys it, finds the fun. He is more sophisticated, a better practiced version of what we last saw flying in a dot over the Potomac. He is against everything that I am for. Leave that dust alone. Avoid! Run! Attack!
Wait. Wait one moment. That building is ours. We own it. We the lessor, we renew the lease. We do.
Your keys, Mr. President.