“I just knew I was going to vote for the first black president, but now I feel like something’s not quite right,” 20-year-old Gemini tells me days before Obama is sworn in. “People drop out of the race and they become secretary of state. McCain lost, but now Obama says he’s working closely with him. I’m down for humbleness after losing, but I feel like someone’s got something up their sleeve … It seemed like it came too easy, because, to be honest, there aren’t enough black people in the world to elect him president.”
“You know blacks weren’t the only ones voting for him, right?” I ask.
“Yeah, I know. But it just felt like it came too easy.”
For Gemini, very little has come easily. Readers who followed her in the “Dispatches From the Anacostia” series watched Gemini struggle through the Earth Conservation Corps program and navigate her way toward the future she wants for herself and her children. In and out of correctional facilities from the age of 13, she had her first son at 15 and her second at 18. She managed to get her GED while locked up and has just converted a government internship into a paying job. But she doesn’t yet trust in happy endings—for herself or for Obama.
Inauguration Day. A friend and I step onto the Mall at 6:15 a.m. and a volunteer hands me a nametag: “HELLO, my fellow American, my name is …” I try to call Gemini before my entire face freezes over, but I have no cell-phone signal. This will happen to many on the Mall that morning. Instead, I talk with Walid, a 37-year-old Lebanese businessman, while my friend decorates my nametag with exclamation marks.
Walid is no more an official American than the Brits stomping their feet nearby, but he accepts a “fellow American” nametag all the same. He’s lived in several countries, holds an MBA from a top American university, and doesn’t understand how American women define dating. He surveys the crowd with a pleasant, bemused expression, but very few smile back. They may, like me, be wondering if witnessing history is worth being this cold and crowded for another six hours.
“I thought it was a very civilized event,” he’ll tell me later. “I’ve been in political rallies that turn really crazy and [today] we were in a very diverse group. The guys behind us were from Canada. In front of us, we had the African-Americans from right here in D.C. Then to my back we had the people from southern Illinois. On my left, you had the Michigan guys … And the patience and willingness of people to stand there, like us Type A people who don’t know how to relax, for whom every minute counts!” It makes him laugh, in hindsight.
On the Mall, no one talks or laughs much until the JumboTrons come alive with Lincoln Memorial concert footage around 8:30 a.m. The concert happened two days earlier. Though many here may have attended the concert as well, they stand, dance, and sing along. Movement is key.
A boy curls up on the ground as others begin to sing along with Garth Brooks’s rendition of “American Pie.” No one can convince the child he’ll be warmer if he stands and dances. People offer their extra hand warmers and foot warmers, but he refuses them all. Though the sun’s light has reached the Smithsonian Castle clock tower and the military troops pacing on the rooftops, this boy continues lying in the shadows of grown-ups dancing badly.
At 10:30, the ceremonies begin. Yo-Yo Ma’s face is captured on the JumboTron as prerecorded music fills the air. The ex-presidents step onto the inauguration platform and people around me react. Bush senior, some think, looks really old. Bill Clinton’s presence elicits a few cheers. Outgoing-president Bush appears and a wave of boos washes over the Mall. “I bet the people at home can’t hear this over the television,” a woman remarks. The curled-up boy stands.
“Why did you go to the inauguration?” I ask Walid afterward.
“I wanted to make sure George Bush was leaving, but that’s not the only reason. I do believe we’re living in a world that’s gone crazy, and just the fact that this guy’s been elected makes me feel comfortable that the world is getting back to some sense of normalcy.”
“And if we’d elected McCain?” I ask.
“I would have thought it was still running crazy. Because you don’t win a war against an ideology with tanks and airplanes. You win it just by being more civilized. All of the American people decided something needs to change and it was interesting to see that frenzy of craziness take hold.”
The crowd on the Mall talks through Obama’s swearing-in, but goes silent for his speech. Lines about the high cost of health care and lost homes draw murmurs. His offer to extend a hand to those on the wrong side of history if they’re willing to unclench their fists lifts the murmurs to cheers. As he closes by asking Americans to let it be said, in the future, that we did not turn back or falter when tested, everyone claps, cheers, and, finally, puts down their cameras.
A week later, at a Quiznos a few blocks from the Mall, I ask Gemini what she thought of Obama’s inauguration speech.
“I missed it,” she says. She was at home working on her MySpace page. She had stepped out of the room just before his speech and had returned just after he’d stepped down from the platform. “It’s a big deal, but I really don’t know the struggle my ancestors had to go through. I don’t feel the struggle, and I’m worried about other things more than that. It’s going to happen or it’s not. I’m trying to not really think about things I can’t control in order to think about things I can.”
Among the many things she’s trying to control are sidestepping a PCP habit, learning the ins and outs of office politics, and putting food on the table for one child while regaining custody of the other now that his father has been locked up again. She looks at me and the other Quiznos customers who are still aglow with Obama buzz like we’re all half-crazy. The most buzz Gemini gets these days comes from knowing she’s able to spot and avoid most drug triggers.
“I’m thankful God redirected my life, because I could’ve been right there with him [her baby’s father], locked up all over again and mad as hell … but it’s a slippery slope.” She smoked once in January, got behind the wheel, and was pulled over. But the police didn’t catch on to the reason for her erratic driving. Just the same, the experience scared her. “It’s black-ice slippery,” she says.
One o’clock and I’ve left the body heat of the crowd in search of a way off the Mall. The cheerful volunteers who handed out the “HELLO, my fellow American” nametags have left. It’s windy on the slight perch from which I try to find a route out.
Crowds swarm toward one supposed exit onto Constitution Avenue and bump into a concrete barricade, nearly crushing those at the front. They maneuver themselves toward another barricade and then yet another. Some people dash in the direction of the Porta-Pottis. One man scurries toward the bushes lining a Smithsonian building. It will be at least an hour before most of us find our way out, but nobody seems upset. Cold, yes, but not upset.
“Now kids can’t say the system is against them,” Walid will tell me afterward. “This guy [Obama] had the deck against him and this is an inspirational moment for every kid in the world.”
Inspirational or not, kids still struggle to apply its lessons to their reality. Gemini shakes her head as she pulls her coat back on. It’s time to go back to work. “I still can’t believe I’m making money. I’m so used to doing stuff under the table, living life sober and legit is difficult.” She glances at the people behind us. “I hate people looking over my shoulder.”
It doesn’t matter that I’ve seen no one look over her shoulder or that this is nothing compared to the people in the crowd looking over each other’s shoulders on Inauguration Day. What matters is how much longer Gemini will feel watched while she tries to steer clear of the black ice, and whether the rest of us, worried about job security and supporting families, can hold onto the inspiration well after our “HELLO, my fellow American” nametags have been set aside.
Perhaps we will, though. Four weeks after the inauguration, I’m in a bar, watching Obama on the overhead TV. Three people are watching me. They wear bemused expressions much like Walid did on the Mall. “I know who you’re smiling about, even without looking,” one tells me. “Everyone does that when he talks.”
If notoriously serious Washingtonians continue smiling at the sight of Obama, and if young people like Gemini can avoid the slippery slopes long enough to write their own inspirational stories, we just might.
Walid and Gemini’s names have been changed to protect their identities.