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Minutes before the ceremony began, my wife and I left our posts to seek out a better sightline to the nearest JumboTron. On the way, we passed blond teenage boys with Afros, men in full mink coats, and one guy holding a video camera in his right hand and a placard pasted with a collage of porn in his left. (I hummed John Cougar Mellencamp's "Ain't That America" the whole walk—unconsciously, of course.) We settled in a grove of skeletal trees by the American History museum, some 15 blocks from the Capitol, and watched as dignitaries trotted out onto the steps.
Our fellow spectators showed little patience for the old guard. They broke into raucous boos at former President George Bush. When Dick Cheney emerged in a wheelchair, the guy next to me heckled him.
"I heard he pulled his back out yesterday moving boxes," I said.
The man, wearing a blue Santa cap, scowled at me. "Bullshit," he said. "He just don't want to stand up to Barack!" Once Cheney was out of view, Santa turned his heckles into taunts and yelled at the screen: "Show him to me! Show me the man!" As Obama's face filled the big screen, our section burst into a celebration of tears, cheers, and flag-waving.
Amid the commotion, two ladies, having spotted our red caps, approached my wife. They had a crisis: A few minutes earlier, they had found a little girl named Sydney wandering lost near the Porta-Potties. Sydney was an 11-year-old African-American from Louisiana who made the journey for a school trip. The salty residue of dried tears tracked down her cheeks. "Can you take her?" the ladies asked. Sydney shivered and convulsed, partly from crying and partly from not wearing any gloves. My wife gave her mittens and a handful of "Little Hotties."
When the inauguration speech ended and the crowd thinned out, we headed with Sydney to the first aid tent and caller her teacher. (Sydney thankfully wore a necklace with contact numbers on it.) More than an hour later, the teacher showed up. She appeared angry at Sydney, and thoroughly thankless toward us.
But I guess that's what service is supposed to be all about: never expecting anything in return. Of course, when you think about it, the reward—and the inspiration—is now sitting in the White House. So maybe that's why it was so easy to volunteer. In Obama's America, I hope to start doing it a whole lot more.