With every entrance to the Mall blocked, my new goal was to find a JumboTron, even if I had to watch it from a few miles away. The inauguration is due to start any minute but I’m being shuffled around (with a few thousand other folks) by the National Guard.
Then I’m funneled into a dead end – a ring of PortaJohns. I’m alone in a big crowd and would feel extremely sorry for myself except for the family around me. They are three generations, here from Alabama. The woman standing next to me is – like me – the middle generation. Her mother is in front of us and her sixteen-year-old son is a few people in front of his grandmother. I get a kick out of listening to their constant remarks to each other, the teen respectful but still with that adolescent edge, and the grandmother dignified, even though she’s being buffeted a little by the constantly moving crowd. The mom offers me half of her chicken sandwich. I hesitate. “Go ahead,” she says, “take it.” I do and we eat standing so close to each other that – because I can’t lower my arms – I have to be careful not to knock her in the face with my right elbow.
A few younger men have climbed into the branches of the bare trees and are shouting down a blow-by-blow to those of us who are earthbound. “I see Michelle. She’s wearing a yellow dress.” The words echo in murmurs through the crowd, “yellow dress, oh.” And then “there’s Obama!” We can’t see a thing (because all the dang JumboTrons are pointing in the same direction toward the Mall) but the energy charge that jumps from person to person is unbelievable. The cheer that goes up is like music from a brass band, loud and long and full.
The ceremony starts and the crowd cheers for each speaker but we’re waiting for the Oath of Office. When it comes time, the sixteen-year-old from Alabama turns around and says to his mother (who is smashed against me, about a dozen people back), “Great. I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren that I watched the PortaJohns when Obama took the Oath of Office.”
His grandmother reached forward to tap him. “No,” she said, and she spoke with a dignity that caught the attention of all of us who could hear her. “You will tell your grandchildren that you were HERE.” And all of us, hundreds of us jammed together on PortaJohn Hill within stone’s throw of the Washington Monument, were connected. We were HERE. I’ve always thought of the lines from Whitman’s poem, “I Sing the Body Electric” as one body, one person, the joy of being alive within your own skin. But as Obama repeats the words, “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States…so help me God,” and the people around me – people from Alaska and Florida, Michigan and Arkansas – raise up a joyful noise that rings for so long it drowns out even the canon’s firing – I think that this is the Body Electric. This bonding that includes three generations from Alabama and a person from California and millions of normal, everyday Americans who felt the need to be here. A current that flows through each one of us connecting us in hope and good will.