I arrive at the corner of Constitution and 7th for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear an hour early. In my first five minutes, I cover all of ten yards in my quest to reach friends and the Mall. Ten minutes later, I reach the Mall lawn, experience my first crowd squeeze and lose cell phone coverage. The systems have overloaded, I’m not yet with my friends and, in this sea of people, I won’t spot them. I can’t even see the ground under my feet, so crowded is every inch of space with bags and bodies.

Rally tourists and the Jumbotrons they love

If Jon Stewart asked us to raise our hands if this was our first rally… we actually couldn’t all raise our hands at the same moment without a lot of inappropriate hand to body contact. But, if we could, most would.

This is the rally of well-intentioned first timers, as clueless as those smiling tourists who stand on the left-hand side of the metro escalator. We unknowingly hit each other with backpacks stuffed with things we’ll never unpack because there’s no room to swing the bag around and open it up. Some forget to use our “rally” voices and subject everyone around them to discussions about reality TV shows, needing to get laid NOW and whether the redhead nearby will show her breasts for a beer. A few actually try to make friends during the worst of the crowd surge. They don’t realize it’s not okay to talk at length when you’re close enough to see someone’s dental work and have someone’s water bottle jammed against your rib cage. But everyone’s polite, even as they’re senselessly pressed in the direction of the Jumbotrons.

A Jumbotron can be an event organizer’s best friend. Spaced down the length of the Mall, these screens break crowds into manageable clumps, gathering around the nearest Jumbotron. This isn’t happening at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Someone didn’t order enough screens. Someone clustered the ones they did order instead of spacing them out.

The crowd, a herd instinctively seeking water, presses forward. A few try to stand their ground, content to see little. They are carried along with the tide, regardless. For the first hour, the rally-tourists act desperate to see the faces and expressions of those about to perform. Like we’re seated too far from our TV sets on which we ordinarily watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Like we’re settling in for a show and not a rally.

Is it a concert?

The Roots play and the couple beside me are swaying. Others do the same, their faces turned toward the stage and screens we can’t see. They are, on average, the younger attendees. They hold very few signs but know all the words. The sound system fades in and out. They never stop swaying.

I try to sway, but the family on my other side isn’t playing along so, with perhaps my two inches of personal space, I give up. Mom, Dad and two teenaged sons have driven up from Raleigh. The parents hold the signs and stickers. The boys carry the bags of crackers and sandwiches.

“You want one?” their fifteen year-old asks. He spews peanut butter and cheese cracker bits as he offers me the last one along with a TEAM SANITY sticker.

“Sure.” I take the sticker and pass on the cracker. “Do you like the Roots?”

He makes sure his parents are busy handing out stickers and gives a quick nod. “I’ve got a lot of their songs on my iPod.”

“Show us the other side!” calls out the couple beside me.

They’re calling to a man, somewhere north of forty, just ahead. On the side of his sign facing us is written ME TOO. Hearing their request, he turns it around. The flip side: YOU SUCK.

“It’s true,” the girl from Georgetown says. “I do.” “That’s the best birth control,” her boyfriend calls out. The man holding the sign shakes his head slowly. “Well, it is,” the boyfriend tells his girl.

She presses her back against his chest and they sway to the beat, arms around each other. They don’t notice the parents from Raleigh shaking their heads. They likely wouldn’t care, even if they did. For them and many who’ve shown up, the day seems to be all about the show. Even if they can’t see or hear much of it.

Or is it a rally?

46-year-old Nell from Kentucky sits on the 7th Street curb. Her mom sits beside her, taking long gulps from a water bottle. Her teenaged son has vanished.

“You’d think a 6’4” boy would be able to stick close," she tells me. "Or lead the way for the rest of us. But we’ve been to dozens. This is his first rally. "

I ask how today compares to other rallies.

“Confused,” Nell says. “Everyone’s moving in different directions, trying to accomplish different things. A lot of first-timers here, I guess.”

The sound system is working again and Stephen Colbert’s jokes are making people around us laugh. Nell doesn’t notice. She doesn’t watch either Colbert or Stewart’s shows. She goes to rallies.

“You’re looking at three generations of political activists,” she tells me. “Well, two. My son will show up at some point. I’ve been to the Million Mom March, marches against war, for peace, you name it. We go. My mom, her sister and me—”

Nell pauses and looks around. So do I. In the immediate vicinity: her mom, a box of Band-Aids, and a woman dressed like a round pack of birth control pills, being interviewed while a man in Joe the Plumber costume waits nearby. Strange, but not bizarre enough to rattle a veteran rally goer like Nell. “What’s wrong?” I ask. “What are you looking for?”

“Where’d she go?” Nell asks her mom. “Aunt Jenny.”

“The Port-a-Potty. She’s been saying she had to go for the last hour. You just wouldn’t listen.”

Nell rolls her eyes. “I told her to piddle on the grass. If this was a real rally, no one would leave the Mall for a Port-a-Potty.”

Does it matter what we call it?

Not to Grace and Jim from Maryland. Their three kids amuse themselves reading the signs. Grace and Jim alternate between talking to each other, checking on the kids and watching a Jumbotron. They’ve secured a slice of heaven outside the Sculpture Garden and can actually see a screen AND hear what’s being said. But they’re just as happy talking with me and others walking by. They catch Stewart’s show every night. For them, the day is more about showing up than listening to people on stage.

“We’re behind this [Democratic movement], but generally we have jobs to do,” Grace says as her three year old ties her wrists together with a pink boa. “We don’t have time to go to a rally during the week. But this is on a Saturday. I don’t have to get up early. I don’t have to stay up late.”

They’ve never been to a rally before, but FoxNews’s coverage of Beck’s rally caught their attention.

“They [Fox] made it seem like all these people are behind Beck, but it was a limited number of crazies,” Grace says. “When Jon Stewart announced his rally, we wanted to help show how many of us there are.”

“The people who came to the Beck rally didn’t even want to use the subway,” Jim adds.

“It’s true! It’s like they didn’t get that this is a real city, with real people.”

Have Grace and Jim come wielding signs like Nell and so many? No. Would they have come into the city with three young children if the weather had turned bad? Probably not. But they’re here and open to talking about politics, the signs they’re glad their youngest can’t spell out, and anything else. Even the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear app I’ve loaded on my iPhone. They haven’t heard about it and want to see it in action.

“It’s not much good with cell signals jammed,” I tell them. “But take a look.”

Jim checks out the static map and segues into talking about their favorite DC restaurants. Grace interrupts her older daughter’s reading aloud of a sign—GLENN BECK HAS A TINY PENIS—and asks her to tell me about her Cleopatra costume. The iPhone app we can’t access is quickly forgotten.

When Stewart announced this free app, he joked about how it would allow rally attendees to stare at screens instead of talking to others at the rally. The audience laughed. He shook his head. Thousands, self included, downloaded the app.

We can’t use it today, when the information might help, but it’s okay. There are enough people on the Mall to get any question answered, any directions provided and any political thoughts heard. All we have to do is put down the signs, take a break from the musicians we can’t hear anyway and talk to each other.

A moment of Zen

A man sits in the V of a tree high above the crowd. He’s wedged his sign—GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY DREAD—between the trunk and a branch. He’s perfectly positioned to see the real thing: Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart on the stage, not the Jumbotron. Instead, he’s shouting down warnings.

“Watch your step! Someone pooped under the tree! Be careful!” He pauses, checks the stage and turns back to us. “Please!”

“Mind the poop!” a woman calls from the next tree over. “Thanks!”

“Don’t add to the poop!” shouts a third. “Please!”