Journey to DC
This is a written account of my trip to President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency with 52.9% of the popular vote to John McCain’s 45.7% becoming the first African-American to be elected president.
I was one of the lucky ones to get tickets to Obama‘s swearing-in ceremony. On December 16th I received a letter from my congresswoman Rep. Zoe Lofgren stating I had received two tickets in a blind lottery. I felt like Willy Wonka and skipped around the house singing “I got a Golden Ticket! Yes, I was excited, right up until I read that I could be standing outside for 3-5 hours in 37° weather. You have to understand, I am a California girl so when it drops below 50 degrees I’ve got a ski jacket on.
One of my friends called and I shared the good news. “Great!”, she said, ” When are we leaving?” I spoke With two more friends, the same reaction. I started to think I should keep my mouth shut. So, I thought the best thing to do is to give the tickets to my parents for Christmas. My parents said they’re too old for all the hoopla and would rather stay in their warm, comfy home and watch it on TV. Well, I could sell the tickets on Craigslist, make some cash and sit home with my parents. Hmmmm.. let me see how much this is all going to cost.
Ay ay ay! !! $900 a night at most places, cheap 1 and 2 star motels are $379 per night. That is, if you can even find a room. Let’s not even discuss airfare. Then if I’m there I have to go to at least one of the many balls and other events going on. Omigosh, there is a recession going on people.
At this point I decide I’m not going to go to DC and place my tickets on Craigslist. I get a couple of offers for $1500 not to mention a Lego desk from eToys.com, 7 night stay at a timeshare and various services offered. But then again this is a major historical moment not to be missed, right?
I call Southwest Airlines to get an idea of the airfare cost. My customer service rep was very excited for me. I told her I was not going to go because it was going to be too expensive, too much hassle, and way too cold. She asked me if I was old enough to remember when man first set foot on the moon. I said, “No, but I saw the movie and it was very touching.” She emphatically went on to say. “I was so excited I took a picture of the TV screen. It was a historical moment, like when Kennedy got assassinated. This is a moment in history that you can not miss. Huge historical moments like this come once every 100 years or so and YOU will be there.” She actually got me a lil’ misty.
This kind woman also went on to tell me to make sure to pack some Chapstick and tissues because it will be cold out and my nose will be runny. Wow, so maybe I shouldn’t sell my tickets. I could regret it for a little while that I’m cold with empty pockets or l can regret it for the rest of my life that I didn’t go. Okay, okay book the flight! It’s was going to be $750 but lucky for me I remembered I had a “must fly” green ticket which is a magical ticket Southwest marketing department gives out. It’s good for any price airfare, anytime and you can’t get bumped. The rep tells me, “Your are lucky because if there is any time you want to have a green ticket, it is now.”
My luck continues as I find out my friends David Lopez and his daughters Gabriela and Adriana are headed to DC and have a friend Doreen who rented a house in Vienna, VA for a week. We all agree to split the cost of $2500. Vienna, Virginia is 13 miles from the Dulles airport and from the house to Capitol Hill is 15.7 miles further. Beats paying $900 per night.
Now for a car. I went on to Priceline to reserve a car and lo and behold the prices are jack’d up. The cheapest economy cars that would fit just me and a suitcase were going for $144 per day. This is where luck and blunders converge. My car got hit a couple of weeks earlier so I figured I would take it into the auto body shop while I’m away. Since I would normally get a rental car while my car is in the shop, I told the insurance rep I would be out of town and could I rent the car there. She said “You get $25 per day reimbursement for as long as your car is in the shop”. Even better, since we are taking a cab to the house because we are getting in too late to pick up a car at the airport, we are going to have Enterprise pick us up the next day. After a little research I discovered the Enterprise location in Virginia less than 1 mile from the house has prices that are much, much lower. What would have cost $720 is now going to cost $125, which ends up being zero because I’m getting reimbursed. In case you are wondering price gouging is only against the law if there is a civil emergency.
The 10 day forecast on Weather.com says it will be 38°F outside for the swearing in ceremony. The record low for this day was 7°F in 1985 during Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration which was forced inside by freezing temperatures and the parade was canceled. The record high was 70°F in 1951. A local website warns spectators to “Watch for signs of frostbite…hypothermia – shivering and numbness, confusion…slurred speech.” Lovely. So why am I going again? It’s historic moment in time.
Let me share another historical tidbit with you. William Harrison took the oath of office in freezing temperatures on March 4, 1841 while delivering the longest inaugural address in American history. He then rode through the streets on his horse in the inaugural parade. A few days later, he fell ill with an pneumonia and died the next month. Bummer.
So I’m hoping for a record breaking high. Come on people, have hope. When Obama saunters up to the stage to take his oath the clouds will part and the sun will coming shining down, right? Yes, I am an American who will be there hoping for change in more ways than one.
Today in San Jose, California it’s expected to reach a high of 75° and I’m going to be out buying thermals.
On January 13, 2009, Sal Pizarro mentions us in his column for the Mercury News saying,
Darlene Tenes, owner of Latino lifestyle company CasaQ, got a ticket from U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s office and is blogging about the trip at www.obamastreetusa.com. She plans to hang out with National Hispanic University President David Lopez and a couple of media pals, CBS 5’s Len Ramirez and Empire Broadcasting’s Rosana Madrigal.
Yes, along with the aforementioned folks, I am going to be going to DC with two journalist friends, Len Ramirez a CBS TV reporter and Rosana Madrigal a KLIV radio news reporter. I thought it would be cool to all team up and document this incredible journey. We have all known each other for years, belong to the same groups, go to the same church. Len even worked with my brother at McDonald’s when he has a youngster.
Traffic in DC is expected to be a nightmare! I am told it will take us 4 hours to get to Capitol Hill from where we are, possibly longer. But, I am still renting a car for two reasons, 1) Because we are staying in Virginia and 2) we have a bunch of equipment with us that we don‘t want to be toting around on the Metro. The problem is DC is going to shut down on January 20th. Roads, streets, bridges will be closed and a large perimeter around Capitol Hill will be tightly secured. What to do, What to do?
Rosana’s sister-in-law to the rescue! The DBI Architect’s office is four blocks from the White House. Their offices were very nice, as they should be, since they are corporate architects and interior designers for every major corporation you can think of. More importantly, they had showers and were located just a couple of blocks from the White House.
We decided to drive in on the 19th before the streets get shut down, park at the office and spend the night there. Then we can walk over to Capitol Hill in the morning. We don‘t want to bring sleeping bags because we are trying as much as possible to pack lightly. So, I went online and ordered 5 air mattresses to be delivered to DC with Len’s credit card because we decided he’s making out like a bandit. Pillows and blankets are coming from the in-laws.
Also, staying at the office solves a lot of problems for us because we need Internet access and room to view, edit and send video, pics and audio. I also heard Internet access may be hard to come by even with a Starbucks on every corner. On Capitol Hill I‘m guessing we are not going to find an open WiFi connection and everything is password protected. Our files are too big to send by phone, so back to the equipment. We are bringing laptops, HD Video and still cameras, etc. Most of this will not be allowed on the grounds during the ceremony plus I really don‘t want to carry it all day. Cameras are allowed; tripods and camera bags are not. They also mention, “Food, beverages, and other amenities are not available within the ceremony perimeter. Do not bring any food item larger than a small snack. Thermoses are prohibited.” Geez!
I already bought the “small snacks ” for everyone (nuts, snack bars and kid juices) because I don’t want to be wasting my time going to stores over there and waiting in lines to pick up miscellaneous items. I‘m either bringing it or buying it online and having it shipping directly to DC. We also decided we don’t want to drink a lot of water because I heard on the news this morning the Port-a-Pottie count was 4000 to 1. I’m anti port-a-potty, even when it‘s convenient.
My trip started off with blue skies and 70 degree temps at Mineta San Jose International Airport. The Southwest rep was very excited for me when she saw I was headed for DC. The airport was not very busy and getting through security was a breeze.
As l arrived at my gate, I was surrounded by kids all abuzz with excitement from Redwood Middle School marching band in Saratoga who were also headed to DC. They will be the only middle school participating in the Inauguration Parade. One of the chaperones said they found out in mid December that they were chosen and immediately began fundraising to attend. She said they were surprised to receive donations from people across the nation and would be in the first division, 27th entry in the parade. They are staying 3 hours from DC and will have to get up to leave by 1am in the morning to get there in time. Yikes!
We had a quick stopover in Reno. Southwest is very efficient with shuttling people on and off a plane in a hurry, like cattle. Unfortunately the flight was overbooked. There were 137 spots available and 23 hopeful people were left behind. I would not be happy. But I made it to DC and I was happy, very happy.
On the final leg of our trip from Chicago to Dulles I noticed quite a few fur-covered passengers. Minks and fox coats everyone. Oh Lord, this would never fly in Califomia they would be dripping with blood the second PETA activists spotted them. Then Len asked “What do they do if it rains?” I said, “Len, animals are in the rain everyday.”
Len and I picked up the rental car this morning drove into DC and parked across the street from the offices that we will be staying at on 17th and L Street. One block away from the locked down area. They told us once we park, that’s it, we’re not getting our car till 6pm tomorrow.
Then we headed over to Congressmember Zoe Lofgren’s office to pick up our tickets and interview her. The tickets we got are in the “silver standing area” which is by the reflecting pond. Len and I interviewed Zoe and the students from San Jose State University working on a civil rights journey “44 days days to the 44th President” in her office. They stopped at many famous and infamous locations of where the civil rights movement passed through and met some of the people who had a hand in history.
After going through their journey they better understood the struggle and persistence, people of all colors made, to bring us to this point in history. They all expected to gather in the mall to witness history together as a group. But as the day wound down and all tickets needed to be picked up by 4pm, Zoe Lofgren’s and her aide pulled Professor Michael Cheers aside to inform him they would give them any leftover tickets they had.
The good news was they had 7 reserve tickets to be on the Capitol Mall lawn for the Inauguration, and additional tickets to go to the parade. The bad news was there were 13 of them. The professor took a poll and asked them who wanted to go to the parade. No hands were raised. Hmmmm. What to do? All of them stood silently and politely firm. Finally he handed each one an envelope and when they opened it they found out which direction they were going. Tears were flowing and hugs were there for each one of them, whether it was for joy or heartbreak.
While picking up our tickets at Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren’s office we ran into some friendly faces from San Jose. Rigo Chacon, a former CBS news reporter and Dan Pulcrano, publisher of the Metro Newspapers who were also picking up their tickets. Len had to hightail it back to the office where he set up a mini-editing room to get his story back to the west coast. Dan and I on the other hand decided upon cocktails. We wandered into the closest restaurant, The Source, one of Wolfgang Puck’s latest additions to the DC scene. After walking all day we sat down to a bottle of red wine and tasted a plethora of incredible dishes from the menu.
As we were dusting off the last tasty crumbs on our plate we noticed a slew of finely dressed people streaming in and asked them where they were headed. Apparently the The Huffington Post Pre-Inaugural Ball was going to be starting soon just next door at the Newseum. Dan has the bright idea that we should crash the party, for which I was not opposed. He wants to head over right then and there as I’m saying, “Have you seen what I’m wearing? I need to change.” I of course always pack a formal or two in my suitcase because you never know when a grand party may be thrown in your path.
Dan went on to the Huffington Post Newseum party as I headed back to the offices to check on Len who was still editing and gave him some unsolicited input. I scurried to get dressed, do my hair and makeup and head back out. I even did a mini fashion show and tried on two dresses to get a quick vote from the men on which one they preferred. My deep emerald green velvet V-neck dress with long sleeves and a slit won unanimously. Which was good because it was warmer and almost all the women were wearing black.
I grabbed a taxi and the driver left me off as close as he could to the party (or so he says) so I’m walking in my high heels in the cold, down these now dark DC streets, mumbling to myself, “this party better be good, it better be good”. Finally I arrived.
The sold-out Huffington Post Inauguration Party was billed as the most exclusive party in town, filled with Washington insiders, celebrity legends and newcomers from every industry. I had no idea.
I texted Dan who had a bracelet for me to get in but he didn’t answer. Aaah! Then he finally answered and said he was trying to make his way up front. Once I got inside I understood why it took him so long. In fact I ended up just walking in and nobody said anything. Nothing at all. They were stopping people left and right, checking them off the exclusive guest list and I just sauntered in.
And let me tell you, what a shindig it was. The Newseum one of DC’s newest museums is 7 stories high with an open atrium and 250,000-square-foot with 15 theaters and 14 galleries. The music was pumping, the drinks and hors’ d’oeuvres were flowing and there were interesting people everywhere. I passed Jesse Jackson and Jamie Lee Curtis on the way in. Stopped to meet DL Hughley and Josh Groban. Dan said he saw Martha Stewart. Then, as Arianna Huffington took to the stage we made our way upstairs. People were hanging out on all of the balconies.
I walked into an area, which I quickly discovered was a VIP section as a security guard bellowed, “Stop right there!” I turned my head around as my body was still moving forward and saw they were stopping the person behind me. In the same moment I walked smack into Chris Matthews’ chest. He is very tall. To be honest with you I didn’t even know where I was going. It was so packed in that area. l am sure they were breaking every fire code violation there is. I walked into Chris Matthews, John Cusak, Isaiah Washington and there were a bunch of other people I recognized but couldn’t remember their names. ET and some of the other media outlets were doing interviews.
Then Sting and will.i.am took to the stage with Sheryl Crow and belted out quite a few songs. It was great! They say about 2,000 people attended the event, which featured a New Year’s Eve type of countdown to Inauguration Day complete with hats, noisemakers and confetti. It was an unforgettable party. Woohoo DC!
This is it, the big day. We started off later than planned but were out the door by 6:30 am to make our way to the Capitol. I started to take a sip of orange juice and suddenly had visions of rows of port-a-potties in my head. I quickly put it down and decided it was better to be hungry and thirsty than become friends with a teal blue outhouse.
I had gotten Gabriela a ticket in our section after a little sweet talking. Actually the ticket was for her dad David, but he gave it to Gabriela and decided to go with Doreen to a VIP screening with hot toddies. Smart guy. Doreen gave her ticket to her niece Mackenzie and David’s other daughter Adriana. They ended up in a seated section up front amongst the media and celebrities.
I suggested to Gabriela that she spend the night with us at the office because it would be difficult to find each other later or meet us at the office very early in the morning. She called and said they were still awhile away in the car and she would catch up with us later. Oooh kay. I‘m not feeling real confident about that.
Len and I headed out first and the rest said they would catch up to us in 5 minutes. We never saw them again.
Walking down the street the energy was incredible as if we were walking into a championship game and everyone was a fan of the same team. Drums were beating, people were dancing, laughing and whooping it up. A man was holding up a sign on the steps of a building that said, “MLK is smiling today.”
It didn’t feel cold. Of course I was bundled up with a hat, gloves, scarf, turtleneck, thick coat, double socks, the works. I looked like the kid from the Christmas Story.
People were hawking T-Shirts, buttons, hand warmers, gloves, newspapers, etc… along the route. Nobody wanted to buy anything they didn’t absolutely need, because they didn’t want to carry it all day.
Although we were only one block away from the secured perimeter we had to walk all the way around to the other side where the entry was for the silver tickets. It was just two Metro stops away but all the metro stations were shut down that close to the mall. Google maps said it would take 56 minutes to walk. That was of course without blocked off streets and millions of people, so it took us just a bit longer to get there. Just a bit.
Just as we were walking in the silver ticket gate, Gabriela called us. She was just half a block away with unfortunately hundreds of people between us. The crowd was a beast, that just kept pushing us along. When we got to the security gates I expected metal detectors, dogs, pat downs and there was none of that. I think it’s more difficult getting into a NFL game.
In between screening a million messages from family and friends back home asking “Are you there?” I exchanged texts and calls with Gabby telling her where we were at so she could catch up to us. Then the phones went dead. We never found her. We realized the next day we were probably less than 200 feet from each other at one time but you couldn’t see 5 people past you. I noticed one large family of 6 all had matching obnoxious yellow knit caps on to keep track of each other. They certainly weren‘t going to win any fashion awards, but that was smart idea.
We crossed the street and were standing up against a fence where it was so squished I couldn’t even lift my arms. They were letting disabled people into a wide-open area in front of the reflecting pond. As an experienced news reporter Len turned to me and said, “This is a dangerous situation and how people get trampled.” Not 5 minutes later it was as if a dam broke when a flood of people broke down the fence and took off towards the front. You had to stick with the crowd or get trampled.
Once the dust settled, the cops fruitlessly asked people to go back (loud laughter ensued), but there was plenty of room. We eventually figured out that we were in the purple section on the left side of the Capitol Building just behind the first Jumbotron. Later on we would find out up to 4,000 people mostly in the purple section were stuck in an underground tunnel dubbed “the Purple Tunnel of Doom”, and were not able to enter the grounds at all.
Now that we had some elbow room we began interviewing people as we waited for the ceremony to start. I have never been in such a large crowd that was so peaceful, calm and quiet. Everyone was so friendly; they turned and spoke with each other as if we had all come together. They shared smiles, stories and batteries when their cameras went dead.
They started showing people coming in up on the Jumbotron. Bush, Sr. comes in and there is polite silence. Condie Rice – boos. Dick Cheney – boos and shock that he was in a wheelchair. Cheers for the Clintons, Carters and Powell. Boos for Barbara Bush. Someone shouts, ”Don’t boo her, she didn‘t do anything”. A reply from the crowd says, “She gave birth to him!” Then W finally enters, it seems as if everyone saved his or her breath for his final hurrah. Load boos ensued, then suddenly as if we were a giant chorus everyone began singing the 60s song by Steam, “Na, na, na, na, hey, hey, hey goodbye.” Some people express their concerned that his mother and kids have to hear all of this. I do think that silence would have been more polite than boos, but c’est la vie.
The ceremony starts, choirs sing, Aretha does her thing and we all thought Yo-Yo Ma should have been cut out of the program. Not because we didn’t like him but we were concerned about Obama taking his oath prior to noon when Bush’s reign ended. Finally at 12:05 Obama takes his oath. Which was much shorter than I expected. There were beaming faces and tears of joy but really not as much emotion as I expected from people. Maybe it‘s because everyone’s faces were covered in scarves and their tears were frozen at this point.
Now, everyone stops to listen to Obama speak. Well, almost everyone. Some people decided they had enough of the cold, had to go to the bathroom or wanted to get a head start on the crowds.
The program ends and we begin to head out. I will now condense a 2-3 hour trek to mere words and say – it was complete chaos. Compared to getting in which was relatively organized considering the huge numbers of people coming in. Although I’m sure all the purple ticket people who were left out on the curb would argue with me. Leaving was absolute madness. There was no organization at all.
The crowd was jubilant at first, then hours later after going around in circles and feeling trapped in an endless crowd the mood changed. I kept seeing the same trail of lost gloves and scarfs or was I delusional at this point?
It was 2, possibly 3 hours of walking in the bitter cold before we made it back to the office. I have never felt so cold, hungry and exhausted in my life. Len got to work editing so he could make the deadline for the evening news on the West Coast. I went to get us a Quiznos cheese steak sandwich after starving all day. That was the best, darn sandwich I have ever eaten in my life!
Little by little everyone made it back to the office to pack up their things and head out once we could get our cars out at 6pm. We finally got on the road just before 8pm to head back to Virginia. David, Gabriela and Adriana were back at the house when Len and I arrived. Doreen was a trooper and went to the Western Inaugural Ball. The rest of us were too tired to leave so we ordered pizza and watched the People’s Inaugural Ball on TV. Much better. I had enough of people for one day.
It was amazing that not a single person from the crowds at the swearing-in ceremony or parade were arrested on Inauguration Day. The fact that no arrests were made by any agency during the inaugural events was unheard of for a record of nearly two million gathering in Washington, D.C.
I have never felt so cold, hungry and utterly exhausted. I just got back from the 56th Presidential Inauguration for President Barack Obama and turned on the news and found out it was 26 degrees. Lord, Almighty it’s a good thing I had no clue.
But it was worth the experience, every minute of it. Mind you l will probably never do it again, unless of course a Latino becomes president. My only regret was not buying a pair of thermal socks.