Save for John Roberts' flubbing of the presidential oath, the parts of the inaugural ceremony that were broadcast on television went smoothly and predictably. Aretha sang, Rick Warren pronounced Malia and Sasha's names in a bizarre way, and Barack Obama gave a nice speech.
But for the millions of people who lined the National Mall, the day, while historic, was also a living hell. From the beginning, it became clear to all who had raised themselves at 4am to trek into town that the trip wasn't going to be anyone's idea of fun. The metro trains were massively delayed, and it took many people three hours from the time they arrived at their original station to the point at which they disembarked. The number of trains clogging the tracks meant that each one was constantly stopping to accommodate trains ahead of it. People on our train became sick due to the sudden lurches of the delayed Metro. On the floor, a large pool of vomit had been covered over with a newspaper ad (which read "Yes You Can - Get a Master's Degree" and had a picture of everybody's favorite president). When we finally arrived at L'Enfant Plaza, the station managers had decided that none of the tens of thousands of passengers in the station were fit to be released into the wild. A supervisor yelled out "Close the gates!" and the exit gates were immediately locked, imprisoning the crowd while the few station personnel figured out what to do.
The event itself went well, mainly because the millions of crowd members were so buoyant and excited that they were extremely nice to one another. A woman gave me her spare gloves (and a hand-warmer!) when she saw that my hands were frigid. People were patient, tolerant, and tried their best not to crush each other, though this was difficult. We filed into the Mall in a relatively orderly manner, and arranged ourselves in front of the Jumbo-tron, where everything proceeded as planned. As long as you weren't sick, and didn't need to go to the bathroom, everything was fine.
But if you were sick (and there was plenty of hypothermia to go around), you were doomed. The medical tent was damn near impossible to find, and you needed to squeeze your way through about a million people in order to get there. As far as I could tell, there were no officials in the crowd helping people. I heard cries of "Is anybody a nurse?" emanating from the throng. The best idea was just to hope you stayed well.
But it was the scene after the event which was most chaotic, as the throbbing millions all
attempted to leave the Mall at once. We were prepared to do this in a slow and diligent manner, but the authorities made the process far more difficult than it needed to be. The entire crowd started to move southward, only to be informed that this was not a valid method of exit. Of course, the police didn't actually tell the crowd this, with megaphones or over the loudspeaker. They just told the first row of arrivers, who had to inform those behind them, who had to inform those behind them. Shouts of "We all have to turn around!" came from the front, but there was no sign of which direction we should head. Random barricades had been erected at every turn, with seemingly no logic in their placement. Police blocked the way to L'Enfant Plaza, leaving everyone to mill about the Department of Agriculture until they could figure out an alternate route. People were given no guidance as to how to escape the city, and there was not a single sign to help them. The one man I saw who looked official turned out to be just a random biker in a fluorescent jacket. The police were very good at forming inconvenient blockades in useful streets, but not as good at actually directing the crowd, which they made no attempt to do.
So the crowd was left aimless and confused, with only our mutual love for Barack Obama keeping us sane. People poured down every street seeking a method of exit. At one point, the crowd found that a construction site was blocking its way. So they tore through the fence, and hundreds poured into the building area looking for a new route.
By this point, the scene had become post-apocalyptic. Everyone was freezing cold, and looked homeless. Peddlers tried to sell cheap Obama knick-knacks, while the elderly members of the giant mob suffered and got sick. With all the buildings closed, millions wandering the streets, and garbage and lost gloves strewn over every inch of DC, it seemed exactly like what would happen when our civilization crumbles and we're plunged into disorder. Perhaps if the recession gets worse, that's the scene we'll end up with.
Thank goodness for human decency. The situation that unraveled on Jan 20th looked exactly like the type of scenario that typically ends in a riot. But on that historic day, not even the city of DC's terrible, terrible planning could keep us from enjoying the moment. And so perhaps part of Barack Obama's vision for America sort-of came true, as millions of cold, hungry people kept themselves from turning on each other for one shining moment, as we tried to find our way out of his city.