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It takes 10 minutes of high-speed Segwaying to reach the convention center. The security cordon around the building—which is where the president and vice president will be spending much of the evening—extends for blocks in every direction. I think I might be able to Segway straight through the checkpoint, but I'm stopped short when a Secret Service agent steps into my path and halts my forward progress, sticking his massive, barrel chest in front of my handlebars. He says nothing, appraising me with cold eyes. I suddenly realize I am dressed entirely in black, wearing a ski mask, and attempting to barge a Segway through a Secret Service blockade. It is a minor miracle I haven't been shot. I lock the Segway to a nearby light post and walk the last few blocks.
Once I'm through all the metal detectors and past the phalanx of police, I enter the main floor of the convention center. Ever gone to a bar mitzvah at a giant hotel—where there are seven other bar mitzvahs happening simultaneously? This is what the convention center feels like. At the end of every hallway is another mediocre swing band, another crowded bar, another windowless room with spilled food getting ground ever deeper into the wall-to-wall carpet.
I've got tickets to both Obama's and Biden's "Home State" balls, which honor the politicians' regional allegiances. These official balls represent my best chances to see the men of the hour. Unfortunately, as I head toward the entrance of Obama's ball, I find I'm swimming upstream. Everybody else (including D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and comedian D.L. Hughley) is leaving the event. The woman at the door confirms the bad news: Obama just left. Though a few people inside continue to dance, the energy's gone. It's a dead ball walking.
There's still the Biden ball. Am I too late? I sprint across the endless lobby, up three escalators, and around a corner—slaloming through a blur of gowns and tuxedoes. I can hear a fanfare coming from the doors at the end of the hall, and I see people rushing in. I enter just in time to see Joe and Jill Biden taking the stage. Success!
Biden takes the microphone and offers some anodyne tributes to Delaware. When he's done, he lets loose with a trademark, off-color ad-lib. "Don't get too close to these Marines, honey," he says to Jill as she walks past the Marine band. "I don't want you screwing around with any of them."
The couple takes a couple of turns on the dance floor as the band plays. Then they wave goodbye to the cheering throngs and disappear behind the velvet curtains. This was what everyone here paid the big bucks for, bought the new dress for, stood around waiting for, and the whole thing is over in about four minutes. Yet everyone seems to be thrilled. Proximity to power, however brief, is all these people wanted. They're still basking in the afterglow as I pull on my overcoat.
Exiting the convention center, I walk a block south to the ball for the Arizona State Society. It's a small event with no VIPs to speak of. But were I to spend my whole evening at a single party, this might be the one. It's got booming old-school rap, a whole lot of cowboy hats, and several visibly drunk women in cleavage-baring ball gowns. This is an extremely potent recipe for fun. But I've got to keep moving.
I unlock my Segway and head for the Mayflower Hotel in Dupont Circle. Glancing at the readout display, I notice I'm getting pretty low on power. The full charge I began the night with is dwindling fast. Which brings two undesirable outcomes into play: 1) The Segway runs out of batteries when I'm far from home, leaving me stranded; 2) the Segway goes dead while I'm humming along at top speed, causing the balance mechanism to fail and sending me hurtling over the handlebars into a gutter.
I make it intact to the Mayflower—site of the Human Rights Campaign's "Out for Equality" ball—arriving just as Cyndi Lauper and Rufus Wainwright are launching into a ska version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." The dance floor is teeming. It seems to be 85 percent men and 100 percent good-looking. Dress is more stylish than at the other balls. One fellow wears a plaid tux and totally makes it work. I feel acutely aware that my haircut could be better.
But time grows short. Must keep moving. We're on to the All-American Ball. It's nearing midnight now, and people are sprawled across the lobby furniture of the Westin Hotel. Bowties are unknotted and horseshoed around men's necks. Women are holding high heels in their hands, dangling them from the straps. I stay just long enough to see astronaut Buzz Aldrin—the ball's lone celebrity guest—take the stage and call for a new era of space exploration. What this has to do with the inauguration, I can't rightly say.
I hand my ticket to the Westin valet, and he wheels out my Segway from behind the concierge desk. There's still the Pennsylvania State Society ball to get to, and we could try to catch the celebs as they leave the Creative Coalition ball. Let's keep this thing rolling, people!
I make it 100 yards before the Segway's battery conks out. I restart it, wringing out the last drops of juice, which get me another block or two. And then it's totally dead. Game over.
Final tally: seven balls. I'm no competition for President Obama, who was scheduled to visit 10. But then, he had a motorcade to ferry him around. In the end, it was my trusty Segway that did me in.
I check my watch. Just past midnight. Which seems fitting, because my coach has turned into a pumpkin. I drag the limping machine the last few blocks to my apartment—a valet ticket still hanging from the cup holder, fluttering in the breeze.