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Inaugural Journal

Monday, Part II: Waiting to Party

by Jo Freeman

Balls were big for the four days of the Inaugural Celebration, not only in DC, but all over the country. I had no plans to go to any of them — until a friend offered me her two tickets to the Illinois State Society Inaugural Ball on Monday night. She had bought them months ago believing that Obama might show, but once it was clear he wouldnt, she no longer wanted to go. Im not a party person, but Id never been to an inaugural ball and I figured it was worth a try. I gave the other ticket to another friend, and arranged to meet her and a third friend at the Renaissance Hotel at 8:30 — when the Gala dinner was scheduled to end and the Ball to begin. Get in early, we thought, and get out early.

Everyone else had the same idea. When I arrived there was already a cluster of people outside the hotel doors waiting to get in. Inside, people were packed thicker than the New York City subway during rush hour. We inched across the very long lobby only to be ushered outside at the other end. Our line snaked to the left. To my right I could see through parked cars a longer line of people waiting to enter the hotel. Those were the ones who came after 8:30.

I heard a reference to "the tent," which I thought meant a security search. But there was no search when we finally entered that tent, just a longer line. The tent was about 20 X 100 feet. At one end was a brass marching band. I couldnt see it, but the noise was deafening. The rest of the tent was full of people moving like snails to ... someplace.

It was a little like an airport security line, only the crowd was more tightly packed and better dressed. When we left the tent we entered what looked like an office building and then descended an escalator. At some point someone took my ticket. I knew I was reaching the end when I passed a table with champaign and apple cider in plastic glasses. Each one was imprinted with "Toast to the First Lady. January 19, 2009, Illinois Inaugural Gala," though the lack of a search meant no protected persons were coming.

It was a little hard to tell when the line ended and the party began because the crowd didnt thin by much. Instead of a ballroom, we walked a hallway, off of which were small meeting rooms. The hallway led around a square, so eventually I returned to my starting point. I finally realized that the party was in those little rooms. Each one was themed; some had food, some had music, some had drinks, one had movie clips, another sports trivia. One could have a caricature drawn in one or commemorative photos taken in another (for a fee of course).

Seats were in short supply. And it was hot. Hotel employees passed out paper fans, like they used to do in church before A/C. Commercial logos were on everything, even the plastic glasses and paper fans. Each room had a commercial sponsor. People mostly milled around, or lined up to get into one of those little rooms. From talking to the hotel staff, I guessed that there were about four thousand people in space built for one thousand.

Of course I never found my friends. It took an hour and a half to get from the hotel entrance to the party floor. I spent another hour walking around, finally leaving sometime after 11:00 p.m. When I walked back up Massachusetts Ave., the traffic was just as thick as the crowd inside the hotel.

The Illinois State Society Ball was quite different than the cocktail party at the Womans National Democratic Club in Dupont Circle, where Id stopped by before walking to 9th and K Sts. The number of people didnt overwhelm the amount of space and the atmosphere was much cooler. I went to view the exhibit of inaugural ephemera and political collectibles dating from Grover Cleveland which decorated the Clubs walls. Id dropped off an "Arrest Bush" poster that I had picked up at that afternoons march; it was nicely displayed on a door.

Tuesday was the big Ball night, but my only plans were to watch TV with a friend. As I walked up Connecticut Ave. a little before 7:00 p.m. I saw another long line of eager party goers waiting to get into the Youth Ball at the Washington Hilton. It was much colder than Monday eve; the women in flimsy ball dresses and high heeled shoes did not look happy. One told me that she had already waited an hour and a half to get in.

The Youth Ball, for campaign supporters between the ages of 18 and 35, was one of the ten official Balls which the first couple was expected to visit that night. I hoped I didnt hit security barricades on my way back.

Four hours later there was still a line on Connecticut Ave., though the people in it told me that they had been there only for an hour. They hoped to get inside before the President arrived. I turned east on S St. and crossed 20th St. Police cars lined the street. As I looked toward the Hilton I could see lots of flashing lights. I and half a dozen others paused to see what was going on. When a cop told us to get on the sidewalk I thought I knew.

Ten police motorcycles with sidecars roared down the wrong way on that one-way street, sirens wailing and lights flashing. Then came the black SUVs and "The Beast" — the Secret Services name for the armor-clad Presidential limousine. I didnt have my camera with me, but even if I had, it was too dark and the cars moved too fast to get much of a shot. But I did have my Obama moment. It was late at night on a dark DC street, but I didnt have to wait for hours in the cold, or be crushed by a crowd, or even buy a ticket.

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