How many inaugural balls can one man endure?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 21 2009 10:16 AM

The Partygoer

How many inaugural balls can I get to in one night?

See all of Slate's inauguration coverage.

Seth Stevenson on a Segway.
Seth Stevenson on a Segway

How many inaugural balls can one man endure? Friends, we are about to find out. I've made arrangements with several host committees. I've donned my tuxedo and a comfortable pair of shoes. It's time to hit the town and keep a running tally.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Of course, we'll need transport. These event sites are scattered all across the city. Much of downtown is closed to cars. Pedaling a bike might make me sweat through my tux. Waiting for the Metro could waste precious minutes I'll need for partying.

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You know what? It's possible we've hit upon the sole practical usage for the much-maligned Segway. It's allowed anywhere a pedestrian can go. It requires no exertion. A full day's rental is a mere $150. Let's fire it up! The quest begins.

Segwaying in formalwear is an excellent way to draw attention. A city cop directing traffic at a busy intersection breaks into a grin as I approach. "Oh, you are not going to the inaugural ball on your Segway!" she laughs.

"Oh, yes I am," I reply, rolling by.

"You handle yo' BIZ-ness!" she shouts at my back as I speed away.

My first stop: The Purple Ball at the Fairmont Hotel. I'm not totally clear on the raison d'être of the Purple Ball. (No doubt some worthy, noncontroversial charities will be honored.) Nor am I clear on why it's purple. What I do know is that famous people are expected to attend. Patricia Arquette. Ashley Judd. Maybe John Cusack.

I leave my Segway with an amused valet, enter the hotel, and head straight for the ballroom—where I'm rudely stopped by a security guard. No press allowed inside, he says. Instead, I'm shunted into a holding pen with the other media wretches. From here, it will be possible to observe the stars arriving on the red carpet. It will also be possible to follow them mournfully with your eyes as they disappear behind closed doors to enjoy vintage Champagne and gourmet finger foods.

I spend 15 minutes amid the herd of photographers here, but no celebrities materialize. Eventually, I decide it's not worth the wait. I've got way too many places to be tonight—can't let Ashley Judd hold up my evening.

I hop back on the Segway and begin an epic, 25-minute ride to the Hawaii State Society ball on the other side of town. (Perhaps I could have planned out this itinerary better, you say. Shut up, I say.) Along the way I pass three separate motorcades, sirens a-wailing. National Guard soldiers march the streets in camouflaged packs. "We need one of those," says a Guardsman to his buddy as they wave me along. I briefly imagine the Segway with a bulletproof fairing and .50-caliber machine gun mounted atop the handlebars.

At full speed—about 13 mph—the Segway subjects its rider to a biting wind. Couple this with the 23-degree temperature outside, and by the time I pull up to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, my cheeks and ears are raw and rosy. Once inside, there's a 20-minute delay as crowds gather in the lobby and wait for the broken escalator to be repaired.

Hawiian Ball.
The Hawaiian Ball

This Hawaii ball sold out quickly on expectations of yummy luau food and a possible appearance by our new, Hawaiian-born president. It now seems unlikely that Obama will show up, as he's holding a separate, official "Home States" ball inside the convention center. As for the luau: It's nothing but a pan-Asian steam-tray buffet—with unbearably long lines.

Everybody's wearing wilted leis and wandering around in a series of contiguous, basement function rooms. They edge themselves away from the ukulele quartet. It feels like we're all onboard a discount cruise ship.

I'd love to eat some food, but I can't afford to waste another moment here. So I swoop into the buffet line, snatch a pair of greasy dumplings, and wolf them down as I make my escape. Back outside, I retrieve my Segway from the valet and scoot into the night.

I rumble across the gravel of the now-desolate National Mall, bits of trash swirling in my wake. The streets around here are still blocked off to most cars, so I'm zooming down the middle of wide, empty boulevards, my streetlight shadow stretching out before me. I've put on my black ski mask to fight the cold, and I'm fairly sure that I'm terrifying the pedestrians I pass. With the background noise of sirens, the inky night sky, and the eerily barren streets, I must look like an outtake from a Batman movie—a psychotic, Segwaying villain who zips around Gotham, emitting toxic gas from the knot of his bowtie.

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