My Trip to the 58th Presidential Inauguration
On Thursday, January 19, 2017, I left school with a backpack, a camera, and a Greyhound ticket. I bid farewell to my friend at the 42nd Street Subway Station, telling her I'd see her on Saturday at the Women's March on Washington. I walked the echoing underground passages towards the Port Authority Bus Terminal, stopping to purchase an emergency replacement pair of earbuds- a long bus ride needs a soundtrack. My bank balance noticeably lessened, I lined up to board the bus bound for D.C.. My trip had two motives: to cover the next day's Presidential Inauguration, and then the Women's March on Washington the following Saturday.
I don't want to dwell on it too long, but I'd be remiss in not recounting that bus trip, as it truly was the strangest of my life. To begin with, the driver informed us that the bus on which we traveled had a mechanical problem in its hydraulic system, and by law he had to transport us to the nearest Greyhound facility to change buses. We took a short detour to the new bus, got off the old one, got on the new one, and found there was one passenger too many for the new bus. We switched to a third bus. The driver gave a sermon on attitude being the defining aspect in living a good life.
Of the 54 passengers of the bus, I estimated from their conversations, luggage, attire, and facial expressions that 40 were traveling to the Women's March on Washington.
I sat next to a Dane. He told me he traveled the states before; he hit Burning Man in the summer, and now he was heading to D.C. to conduct research for his doctorate. I asked where and what he was researching. He answered he studied at the University of Copenhagen, and that he researched post-Truth politics. He said he wanted to check out D.C. during the Inauguration. I welcomed him to the country. He offered me a cigarette at a rest stop in Delaware.
I arrived late in D.C., departing Union Station, and walking quickly across the deserted Capital to my contact's house on New Jersey Ave. S.E.. She welcomed me warmly. I hit the rack for some much needed sleep: the next day would prove a long one.
I woke early to a somber, cloudy atmosphere shrouding the stately white-columned facades of Washington. Exiting the house before my host awoke, I hastened towards the National Mall, looking back to see two National Guard dump trucks filled with sand barricading New Jersey Ave..
I had no ticket to the Inauguration, thinking I would instead make for the back of the Mall, and focus mainly on shooting the onlookers there. As I crossed D Street, a women offered my one of her two remaining extra tickets. They granted access to the Green Section, up close to the South East corner of the Capitol Building; close enough to see the proceedings. Elated at my good fortune, I went through security screenings and presented my tickets to a National Guardsman from Louisiana.
Pressing through the crowd to get as close as possible, I came to an impasse. Then after large scale crowd jostling, I found myself in the Orange Section, further back from the Capitol, but at a more direct angle to observe the ceremonies. However, I found my telephoto zoom hampered by a tree- I said goodbye to iconic photos of the new President placing his hand on the Lincoln Bible.
Instead, I busied myself with getting to know my neighbors in the crowd. To my right stood a step-father and step-daughter from Florida. I offered to lend the daughter my telephoto lens for her Nikon. She told me the tree blocked the shot. We laughed at our misfortune. They both worked at SeaWorld in Florida. He was deeply religious. They couldn't believe their good fortune at scoring tickets to the Inauguration. Asked why they supported President Trump, they simply responded, "he's going to make us great again." Most folks I talked to didn't want to discuss their political views.
Just in front of me stood a young couple. The husband flew helicopters for the Army, while his wife worked as a nurse. They had two young children. He originated in Texas, she in Louisiana. We exchanged pleasantries. I intended to masquerade as a Trump supporter, but they said my facial expressions gave it away. I told them I came for a school project, that my parents are very liberal, and that I don't agree with them on everything. I told them I wanted to witness history. They called me "son" and "honey" in Southern accents. He told me about joining up at 18 after Sept. 11. He told me the election was another shift in America. He gave me advice. He had been 18 when the towers came down, and I was 18 when this shift occurred. They said Trump would protect their Christian values.
I also spoke with a woman named Sarah Back. She lived in Virginia, but originally came from Kentucky. She didn't love Trump, but said he was a hell of a lot better than Clinton. She wanted the country to unify around the new President. We squabbled a bit, but ended up saying how nice it was to be able to speak about politics in respectful terms.
The man on my left drove from Michigan. He voted for Obama twice. He clapped at lines about draining the swamp, but that was about it. He didn't like Trump's rhetoric on immigration, but relished his positions on trade. Behind me and to my right, a lady I came to think of as the "Smiley Lady" grasped my shoulders from behind and rubbed them to warm me when I began to shiver. She told me I had to take good photos for the history books. I smiled back. She said she could be friends with anybody.
As the ceremonies progressed, I realized that around me was a sea of red caps worn by primarily young white men. I reminded myself to not put too much store in crowd demographics. The clouds held tight, creating a gray-white canopy over our heads. When former President Clinton and the Honorable Hilary R. Clinton entered the platform, the crowd roared with resounding chants of "LOCK HER UP!" The man from Michigan shook his head.
As the cameras for the Jumbotrons caught President Clinton glancing at the dignitaries gathered on the stage, I heard a father point out to his sons "Look at Bill checking out the interns." Later, as Senator Charles E. Schumer (D- NY) addressed the gathered crowds, I strained to hear his speech over the thundering chants of "DRAIN THE SWAMP!" After the President took the oath of office, a woman to my left remarked about First Lady Melania Trump, "Woah, a First Lady that looks like a First Lady, isn't that nice!"
Besides these somewhat tasteless comments, I found the people I spoke with to be very kind and welcoming. They wanted unity. They were excited to speak with someone who did not necessarily share their political views. The younger couple insisted that if I needed anything while staying in D.C., all I need do is ask. Mrs. Back asked me to send her the photos I took. Most were exceedingly nice people. I left the National Mall as the ceremonies concluded. It seemed more a festival atmosphere than a democratic transfer of power.
That afternoon, I made my way down streets parallel to Pennsylvania Avenue in a half-assed effort to see the Presidential Parade. I made friends with two 16 year old kids on skateboards. They cut school in Arlington, VA to see what the hell was happening on the other side of the river. We lost each other going through the security checkpoint for the parade.
As I made it through the checkpoint, I heard from my left the sound of a flood rushing towards me. The flood chanted "TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP." I knew what it meant; I ran down the street perpendicular to Pennsylvania Ave. just in time to catch the President passing. I got on top of a FEMA trailer to photograph him and his entourage. I had left my telephoto lens back at my host's house. I saw Vice President Pence pass.
I spoke with an older woman from Philadelphia named Phillis. We tussled over climate change. She was lovely, but she could not back up her claims with factual evidence. We agreed to just watch the parade together. We enjoyed the horses.
The sun set behind the blanket of clouds. D.C. rapidly fell into a cold darkness. The streets went from a crowded amalgam of supporters and protesters to an abandoned, road-blocked city as I walked up towards Capitol Hill. The clouds and the city lights combined to tinge the sky a bloody, fiery red. It looked like smoke reddened by fire burning beneath. I returned to my host's home. We went to Thai food. We found a weary-looking Senator Lindsey Graham (R- SC) sitting alone with a bottle of white wine waiting for his Thai food. We let him be. It had been a long day. The next would be longer, and so would all the rest to come.