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.

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.

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.

Bidens Home State Ball.
The Bidens' "Home State" ball

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.