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At 5 o'clock on Tuesday morning, two full hours before sunrise, I reported for duty at the base of the Washington Monument. A tangle of strobes beamed up from the center of the Mall, and more than mile away, a battery of floodlights illuminated the Capitol. Seven hours later, Barack Obama would be sworn in as president of the United States.
"Where's Team 13?!?"
"Team 6 meet here!"
"O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA!"
Semipro team leaders called out directions at the scrum of volunteers rubbing their mittens together and swapping tales about who traveled the farthest or woke up the earliest. (Others scoffed when I griped about getting up at 3 a.m.) Then I heard a lady behind me exclaim in a thick, Southern accent, "I thaink I gotta dud."
The woman's outburst wasn't a result of being paired off with an unpromising partner for the day, but of the fact that her hand warmers—"Little Hotties"—weren't living up to their name. This was no time for faulty advertising. Temperatures hovered in the teens, and the wind mocked each and every layer of the allegedly "extreme conditions" gear that I'd put on that morning. Our shift lasted another 10 hours. I hoped that the "Little Hotties" just needed some time.
Weather aside, I felt more than a little uncomfortable and awkward when I showed up. The fact is, I had never volunteered a day in my life for anything. I am just not a rah-rah kind of guy. I guess I lack the civic gene. Sure, I had voted for Obama, but I never chanted "Yes, we can" or "O-BA-MA." Last week I asked myself whether I had done anything significant either to help Obama get elected or to help him succeed once in office. Having answered "no" to both questions, I raised the prospect of volunteering with my wife, a chronic do-gooder with numerous Habitat for Humanity projects under her belt.
"That's great," she replied. "I've already signed us up."
Among the various roles that any president should fill, perhaps the most crucial is the capacity to inspire the nation. Such inspiration can take numerous forms, from military service to the Peace Corps to AmeriCorps to just flying a flag in front of one's home. In Obama's inauguration speech, he called on Americans to show "a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves"; hours after being sworn in, I watched Obama on television endorsing a program called "USA Service."
Just how much will he reshape the way that Americans, especially minorities of all ages and liberal whites belonging to the generations after Vietnam, perceive national service? Based on my own impulse to volunteer, I would think a lot.
In preparatory e-mails leading up to the big day, I was told that my service would entail safety, information, surveillance, and watching for "unruly guests." Until I spotted the plethora of National Guardsmen, police, Secret Service, and Eagle Scouts, I thought this might have involved brandishing a taser. Alas, the guys in full uniform handled the more exciting jobs. My wife and I, sporting red knit caps with "volunteer" stitched across the forehead, greeted people and fielded questions. ("Sir, this is the Mall" and "Ma'am, the Porta-Potties are over there" were my two most popular replies.)
The red cap also entitled us to a secret cache of "Little Hotties." When I stripped last night, I counted 19 "Little Hotties" that, over the course of the day, I had slipped into chest, my pants and jacket pockets, and my socks and gloves. That being said, the most valuable asset of the red cap was that it threw me in the middle of Obama's new America.
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.