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I'm hearing tales of angry crowds from my colleagues, but we were docile and fervent on my unticketed patch of inauguration earth and pavement just west of the Washington Monument. We stood close together and blocked the wind. No one could see the Capitol rotunda, or even really imagine where it was out there in the distance, exactly. But we were on a rise, and we had our JumboTron, and the two women in front of me who wouldn't let anyone tall block our view.
Those women were sisters, Betty and Joyce, from Raleigh, N.C. Betty had decided to make this trip the day after the November election. She was staying with her daughter Remi, who works in D.C. at a nonprofit on U Street. Remi stood next to her mother in a black wool cap. "I went to Howard, and I majored in African-American studies, and I've been saying, 'Why am I still in D.C.?' " she said. "Now today, this is why."
"I wish my daughter had come, too," said the woman Remi was talking to. Her name was also Betty, and she had traveled from Seattle with her husband, Owen, who was hiding behind an Inauguration 2009 ski mask.
Betty from Raleigh, who is black, was wearing a fake brown fur coat, track shoes, and a white wool hat. Betty from Seattle, who is white, had short red hair, a black hood, and a purple bandanna to wave. The two women figured out they had the same name before I came along and introduced each other to me. We stood for the next two hours in a small huddle of Betty fellowship. It encompassed the passing around of pieces of a granola bar (Betty from Raleigh) and Kleenex (Betty from Seattle).
Behind us, a family of four from Brooklyn sat down on the ground for a few minutes so that Ebonie, the mother, could feed her 4-year-old son, Miles, and 2-year-old daughter, Savannah, small plastic pineapple cups. Miles looked behind him and pointed to the Washington Monument. "Daddy, how did Barack Obama build that?" he wanted to know. My friend Rachel, who'd come from Vermont to hang in the crowd with me, shared a laugh with Miles' father, Wes, and she and I tried not to worry that the kids would freeze. (They didn't.)
On the JumboTron, familiar faces began to appear. The first one to get a real cheer was Ted Kennedy, and then the whoop for Colin Powell rippled long and loud. There was a lull for the pageantry of Congress and the vice presidents, and the Betties and Joyce started talking. "Were you close growing up?" Betty from Seattle asked Betty and Joyce. "We shared the same bed, and I couldn't move my head because she has to feel my breath," Betty from Raleigh answered. "She would cry and my mother would say 'What's wrong?' and I'd say 'All I did was move my head!' And she'd say, 'Well then put it back the way it was for her.' " Joyce nodded. Then Betty from Raleigh told us about how she'd gone to Woodstock, and Betty from Seattle confided that she and Owen had celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary the day before.
On the JumboTron, the announcer intoned, "Please be seated," which got a big laugh from everyone around me, as we swayed and tapped our feet for relief from the cold. A man in a white hood said with authority, "There just about 2 million people here," and before anyone could point out that there was no way to know that, he added, "Here, I'll count them: 1, 2, 3 …" That got another big laugh.
When about-to-be ex-Vice President Dick Cheney came out in his wheelchair, the crowd gave a rumble—not a sustained boo so much as a low thunder of disapproval. President Bush got a bigger rumble. No one was in the mood to thank him for the gift of his departure. And then, finally, after huge cheers for Malia and Sasha and Michelle, the crowd got who it wanted: Obama, walking forward unsmiling, lips pressed together. Betty from Seattle waved her purple bandanna and then cried into it. There was so much somber longing on the faces around me that I started to feel like I was at a wedding, waiting for the groom to say "I do." As in, I do promise to love and honor you, all of you who waiting for me out there.
But first came Rick Warren. He gave the crowd something it wanted, too: the chance to participate. When he came to the Lord's Prayer, people said the words along with him. Some bowed their heads. Some looked straight ahead. One woman behind me raised her face to the January heavens.
Then it was Barack Obama's turn to participate. And if he didn't pledge marriage, he did promise to be there, alongside us, for the next four years. It didn't matter that he and Chief Justice Roberts stepped over each other's lines—Obama's promise was all some of his thronged supporters needed to hear. Before the inaugural address began, the two Bettys hugged—a real hug—and then Betty and Joyce slipped away.