Roaming the Mall: T-shirts, tourists, no feds


I wasn’t sure what to expect from the inauguration: an atmosphere like that of Election Night, perhaps, a night that felt like a moment of national catharsis – thousands of people flooding the streets, cheering, crying, honking horns.

But Inauguration Day wasn’t like that. There certainly were emotions: tears after Obama took the oath of office; smiles after the Rev. Joseph Lowery’s benediction. Overall, though, the mood was more celebratory. The Foggy Bottom Metro stop looked like a street fair: Dozens of vendors sold everything from Obama t-shirts to commemorative copies of the Washington Post. They said business was slow – but, in fairness, this was at 5:45 a.m.

In Georgetown, I met a group of tourists from London who flew in for the inauguration. They were literally running towards the Mall (again: this was still before sunrise). One of them was born in Sierra Leone; he said the excitement over Obama’s inauguration wasn’t just an American phenomenon.

“All the world is excited about this! My family can’t stop talking about it,” he said, running off to catch up with his girlfriend before I could get his name.

All of these early risers crowded the Mall in the predawn hours. By 7:30 a.m., crowds had already filled in from 4th Street past the National Gallery.

I met a family from Woodville, Miss., a small town just across the border from Louisiana. The matriarch of the family was an African-American woman named Jackie; she flew in with her daughter and two granddaughters.

She was bundled up against the cold, a scarf and a hat and a long winter coat, but she adamantly insisted the weather didn’t bother her.

“I grew up during the civil rights movement,” she said, “and I’m not going to let a little cold stop me from seeing this.”

One of her teenage granddaughters was yelling excitedly into a cell phone – this was early, maybe 7:30 a.m., before the cell networks were totally overloaded.

“You’ll NEVER believe where I am!” she said, then paused and turned to me. “Where am I, exactly? What’s this area called?” (It was the National Mall.)

Many of the spectators were young – teenagers, college students, twenty-something professionals. Perhaps that was a function of the conditions: it was cold, after all, and spectators had to stand in thick crowds for hours. But it was also a reminder of the coalition that built Obama’s electoral victory.

“I wonder if Obama thinks we’re pathetic for coming out this early,” said one girl, a George Washington University student, to a friend.

A fickle coalition, perhaps.

But they weren’t all young. I met a woman named Brenda Ice, a self-described “old lady” who refused to give her age. She recently lost her job at a steel company in her hometown of Weirton, W.Va., and decided to take classes at a community college.

She graduated last month with an associate’s degree in education. So she came to Washington to celebrate – and she had a few words of advice for Obama.

“He needs to fix the No Child Left Behind act,” she told me. “Young people are our backbone. If you don’t invest in them, it’s like building a house on the sand. And you can’t expect every child to take all these tests and be at the same level.”

Ice wasn’t the only one with advice for Obama. Many of the spectators on the Mall seemed to have their own pet issues. There was Matthew McCowan, a railroad conductor from Charlotte, N.C., who was wearily hoisting his six-year-old son onto his shoulders.

“Don’t wear this view out, man,” he said. “You won’t see anything until 11:30 anyway.”

McCowan told me he supported Hillary Clinton during the primaries, but came around to Obama after his speech at the Democratic National Convention. And he had lots of praise for Obama’s Cabinet picks so far, especially Hilda Solis, his choice for labor secretary. McCowan said his rail company had to lay off workers recently because freight shipments have declined.

“We have 12 tracks at the yard, and they used to be filled every day, but now we’re using maybe five,” he said. “People stopped consuming, I guess.”

McCowan said Obama should make sure Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid “fall into line.”

“They were in a defensive mode when Bush was in office,” he said. “So now they’re going to feel the need to stand up to Obama.”

Another North Carolinian, a middle-aged woman named Tracy, suggested Obama focus on early education: She runs a Head Start program outside of Charlotte.

“It all revolves around children,” she said.

Interestingly, in more than two dozen interviews over eight hours on the Mall, I didn’t meet one federal employee. Perhaps they were all enjoying the day off before the new boss takes over?


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