Obama Inauguration: We Had a Ball at the Purple Ball

Phoebe and I both thought, if we’re going to the Inauguration, we’re going to do the Whole Deal – and that meant going to an Inaugural Ball too. There were 10 official Balls that the President and First Lady attended; getting tickets to one of those was outside of our control. There were others, many others, sponsored by various groups and supporting various causes, that were more accessible. After reading some of the horror stories about attending Inaugural Balls, I wanted to minimize the chance that we’d spend the evening standing around a crowded ballroom, feeling uncomfortable and out of place, with long lines at the bar, and dinner composed of finger food. Thanks to the Washington Post, I found a few that looked interesting, and Phoebe and I settled on the Purple Inaugural Ball.

The Purple Inaugural Ball was being thrown to celebrate the ideas of diversity and non-partisanship embraced by the new President. The advance information said that funds raised from the Ball would benefit the Erascism Foundation headed by Lou Gossett. The information also said that the organizers planned to honor our military forces by giving away two tickets to the ball and by recognition the night of the ball. The program included a three course dinner, champagne provided by Moet and Chandon, performances by two musical groups, and a Presidential toast to be offered by Harper Hill, the actor and classmate of President Obama from law school.

While some aspects of the event planning made me a little uncomfortable from the beginning, the Purple Ball seemed to be a pretty good bet if we weren’t going to get tickets to one of the official balls (which we weren’t!) The cost of the tickets was higher than most other balls, but the prospects of a sit down dinner and program of entertainment, along with the promise that some portion of the funds would go to a good cause, made it a reasonable choice.

The first signs of trouble in paradise came a few days before the Inauguration when I went to the webpage for the ball, and discovered that all references to the Erascism Foundation, and Lou Gossett’s support, had disappeared. It turns out that he withdrew his support for the ball when it was not possible to reconcile differences with the event planners over diversity among the planned program. I have to admit, when I looked again at the program, I realized he was right – there was not a single person of color on the program. I was disappointed that the goal of the ball – to support diversity – was not even being met in the event itself, and disappointed that Gossett had pulled out. The webpage indicated that the new benefactor of the ball would be the United Negro College Fund – which is a worthy cause in support of diversity, especially given the circumstances of President Obama’s inauguration. While Gossett had pulled out, I did not feel I could sacrifice the price of the tickets to make a point, and was disappointed that he had not worked more closely with the organizers to see that his goal of diversity and representation was met. In any case, it was now a few days before the Inauguration and my anxiety about the ball was going up.

On the day of the Inauguration, I was even more nervous. Getting back from DC took longer than I had planned, and we ended up having only a few minutes to get ready for the ball before we got in the car and headed back to the District. And as I posted elsewhere, we weren’t even sure we would be able to get our shoes on, much less be able to walk after our trek earlier in the day.

Happily, most of our worries were behind us once we got dressed and headed to the Fairmont Hotel. Traffic was nearly non-existent, we found the hotel easily, valet parking was a breeze, and there were no real lines waiting to get into the ball. From there, it was, well, a Ball!

There was a purple carpet in front of a wall with “The Purple Inaugural Ball” printed all over it where some of the stars and dignitaries in attendance were having their pictures taken and giving interviews. 100_0682Phoebe and I thought briefly about getting our picture taken there, but decided against it. We should have! Phoebe was especially pretty – golden from head to toe! Her dress was a pretty golden yellow, with a band of embroidered ribbon across the waist. She had gold sparkles from her eye shadow, to her wrap, all the way to her very tall (!) strappy golden heels!

Our table was surrounded by fun people – Gene and Rob, Kim and Jay, Rollie and Sara, Jennifer and Gene, and the most fun couple in the entire room, Melody and John. Although our table was off to the back of the stage, our limited view was compensated by getting to see all the comings-and-goings of the performers and speakers right behind us. Deidre Hall gave a short presentation – very touching – and had asked Rob for a glass of water just before she went on. Rob’s friend Gene was joking after that, “Deidre Hall drank MY water!…”

View Our Table Mates at the Purple Inaugural Ball

We saw some of the stars who were there – Ashley Judd, Amy Brenneman, Deidre Hall – and would have liked to spot some of the others who were reported to be there or coming at least – Ed Harris, Dionne Warwick, Kate Walsh.

DessertThe meal was lovely, with a starter plate of small samples – cheese in pastry and artichoke heart; followed by the main course; and ending with a sampling of three desserts. The servers kept the champagne glasses full, and each of us got an engraved commemorative wine glass.

The entertainment proved to be remarkable.  I had never heard of Il Divo before the Ball – that was part of what was making me nervous. They are a group of four young opera singers, or “popera singers” as someone called them – a blend of popular and opera. It turns out their most recent performance prior to the Purple Inaugural Ball was at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway.

Il Divo at the Purple Inaugural BallI don’t remember the first song that they sang, but after that, they sang “Hallelujah” and ended with “Amazing Grace”. Their rendition of Amazing Grace was amazing – complete with bagpipes. They chose to sing it one voice, one verse for the first three verses; with the bagpipes for the fourth verse; and then all together for the fifth verse. The power in their voices was stunning; it was hard to remember that it was just four men on stage, not an entire choir. I have since bought the tracks for these two songs, listening to them again brings chills. I added the links to the Amazon mp3 download pages – go ahead, treat yourself! Heck, get  the whole mp3 album. You won’t be sorry! For me, it makes for a perfect souvenir of a lovely evening at a magical ball!

Obama Inauguration: Unique Perspective of DC – on Foot!

I had joked with Phoebe earlier in the day that with the crowds, the fastest way to get out of the District might be by walking across the Memorial Bridge, and heading south. It turned out to be no joke. We just took a different bridge!

When it was clear we wouldn’t make any progress any time soon at L’Enfant Plaza, we kept walking. Of course, I had not brought a district map with me, so we were making our way based on my recollection of directions, metro stops, highways and bridges. I reminded Phoebe about my comment of walking across Memorial Bridge. She asked how far it was. We were at about 12th Street; I told her the State Department building was between 21st and 23rd, and Memorial Bridge was the the west of that. So, we only had a dozen blocks to go just to get to the bridge. Happily, as we walked west, we saw that there were a handful of people walking on the 14th Street Bridge. This is the bridge that carries I-395 traffic into DC. It was surreal not to see any traffic on it, and even more surreal to walk the length of the bridge into Crystal City.  

Wait!? You mean we can walk the 395 bridge?!?!

Apocolyptic view of walking the 14th Street Bridge

The Jefferson Memorial from the 14th Street Bridge I have never made a special trip to see the Jefferson Memorial in all the time I lived in the DC area, or in any of the trips I’ve made back there. This could be the closest I’ve ever come. Certainly, it was the best – unobstructed! – view I could ever expect!

As the crow flies, the distance from the Capitol to Crystal City is about 3 miles; our path from L’Enfant Plaza to the Capitol, to the Mall, to L’Enfant Plaza, and then to Crystal City was about 6 miles. We weren’t prepared for quite SO much walking, but our boots and thick hiking socks served us well. Nonetheless, I don’t think we were even half way across the bridge before Phoebe and I started to wonder how we were going to be able to put on our shoes for the Ball that evening, much less walk in them.

100_0679 It was gratifying at least to see that we were making better progress than the traffic on the bridge heading out of town. There was a convoy of emergency vehicles that screamed by as we started across the bridge – they were still on the bridge trying to cross when we got to the other side. Ouch!

It was disorienting to see Crystal City from “the back side” and so deserted. When Phoebe and I stopped at an intersection for a light, a taxi asked if we wanted a ride. At first I was tempted, and then couldn’t figure out quickly where we would have him take us – the metro stop? to Franconia? that seemed silly. I had even forgotten that we weren’t parked at the metro, and that our car was at the shopping center. Anyway, we waved off the taxi and walked the rest of the way to the metro. By then, we had no problem getting on a train, and rode the rest of the way to Franconia. Too bad we had to walk back to the shopping mall to get our car!

The "back side" of Crystal City; Clark Street on footCrystal City, relatively deserted

Obama Inauguration: Metro Meltdown

Phoebe and I weighed two options for getting in to the district. We could drive to Pentagon City Mall, park and take the metro the rest of the way in. The problem would be getting onto already crammed metro cars. Instead, we chose to start at the end of the metro near where we were staying, at the Franconia station. We left the hotel at about 7:15, thinking that would be enough time to wait in the various lines we expected to encounter and still be in place in time for the beginning of the music at 10:30. Ha!

Trekking from Springfield Mall to Franconia StationWe were stunned to see a long line of cars already jamming the entrance to the metro station by the time we turned the corner from the hotel. Instead of trying to park in the station parking lot, we pulled a U-turn and parked at Springfield Mall, and walked the few blocks to the station. Just like several hundred other people we saw at the time.

When we got to the top of the stairs at the station, we encountered our first breathtaking mass of people, left. At least by walking to the station, we managed to get into the line much closer to the actual metro. Not like the people who had to try to cross the sky bridge. It was jammed with people the entire way across, right.

At Franconia Station waiting to get inSkybridge from Franconia Station parking deck

The line moved surprisingly quickly and we lost a lot of people who hadn’t bought their tickets before the actual day. We even managed to get seats when the train came. Our plan was to ride to L’Enfant Plaza, head to the hotel for a bio break (Phoebe had heard about some math involving the ratio of people to Porta-Potties that was scary!) and then hoof it to the Blue Gate a few blocks away. It took a lot longer to move from station to station than we had expected. The time seemed to be flying away as the starting time got closer, and we were still on the metro. Finally, the cars emptied out as we got into the District, and we made it to L’Enfant Plaza. The shortest line of the day was the one at the restroom in “L’Enfant Plaza – only four people ahead of us. Amazing!

The line for the Blue Gate was, sadly, somewhat longer. Since I’ve told the story of Heartbreak at the Blue Gate in another post, I will skip ahead to the end of the ceremony and the beginning of our attempt to get back to our hotel in Springfield, Virginia. The estimated 1.8 million people who had collected on the Mall got there over a period of several hours. In contrast, almost all of them wanted to leave within a few minutes of each other. The crowds we had seen that morning were tiny by comparison to the crowds afterward. Knowing that the system would be jammed, we made our way slowly off the grounds. We went by the Blue Gate to see what it looked like from the inside (so sad…).

Security screening stations at the Blue Gate; they were NOT working before the ceremony

This is where we were when they closed the gates. Arg...........

We sat for a while and watched as thousands of people walked by. And then we started to make our way toward L’Enfant Plaza metro station. The first bulge we met was a few blocks from the Federal Center station. We heard that it was closed. There was no way to confirm many of the things we heard during the day, but certainly the large number of people who had been moving in the direction of Federal Center stopped moving. We made our way to the edge of the crowd and tried to head south to get as far away from the Mall as we could and then head west toward L’Enfant plaza. The strategy seemed to be working, as the crowd had thinned slightly (left). But as we turned the corner leading to L’Enfant Plaza, we were amazed to see the steps to the plaza completely jammed with people (right).

Crowd at HUD leaving the Inauguration Amazing mass of people waiting to get into L'Enfant Plaza metro station

In yet another example of the spirit of the day, there was little movement in the crowd, no pushing and shoving, people just there waiting to file into the metro station.

Thousands of people, one police officerThere was one police (or security) officer on the deck who was trying to keep people informed of what was going on, and telling stories to the crowd – “I’ve lived here 15 years and I’ve never seen anything this amazing…” What a human way to keep everyone connected and caring.

At this point, however, it was clear to Phoebe and me that the Metro was not going to be the way to go for quite some time. How then, to get out of the District? We walked!

Obama Inauguration: 250,000 Tickets; Ten Feet; Heartbreak; Heart Healing

There were 250,000 tickets issued for the swearing in ceremony. They were color coded for which section you were in. Orange, blue, silver, purple. Of the 250,000 ticket holders, the Inauguration officials were able to accommodate 245,000 of them.

Several thousand people with tickets to the purple section were caught in a tunnel for several hours without any communication about what was going on – or going wrong. They didn’t make it in.

The silver section was just behind our section, and the blue line and silver line came close to overlapping waiting to get into the gates. Delays in processing people through security were met by anxious ticket holders who eventually over ran the security barriers. Many of the silver ticket holders had turned back, but of those that remained, we believe that many of them got onto the Capitol grounds.

One block of ticket holders in line for the blue gate Our tickets were for the blue section. The line wrapped around all four sides of the building next to the actual gate where we were to go onto the Capitol grounds to watch this amazing historic event. Four blocks of line. Surprisingly, it moved quickly and we were hopeful – past the point of reality – that we would get in. The crowd got denser, moved slower, the closer we got to the gate. And then all movement stopped. In the distance, we heard the ceremony begin – and no movement. With each recognizable stage of the ceremony (my memory is usually so bad – why was it I remembered so well from a few quick glances at the program exactly what was happening at each stage?) people became more upset that they were missing the history they had helped to make happen, that they had looked so forward to seeing in person, themselves. When Phoebe and I got within about 10 feet of the gate, two things happened – the crowd began pressing so hard I was worried about a trampling, and then the security officials closed the gate.

Watching the Inauguration Ceremony from the MallPhoebe and I inched our way to the side of the crowd and hustled to the mall so that we could at least watch from there. Amazingly, we made it to the center of the mall, just behind the pond in front of the Capitol, in time to watch Obama give the Inaugural Address.

From what we can tell, our gate suffered a dead generator that powered the equipment to scan people through security. Someone said that when the silver ticket holders broke through security, some of the officers from the blue section were diverted to the silver section for damage control. We also heard that the section was full – that the estimate used to judge how much real estate one person requires didn’t include heavy winter coats that were needed in 20 degree weather. It may also be that our comrades in arms — the renegade silver ticket holders — filled the empty space in the blue ticket section.

Phoebe and Barbara at the Obama Inauguration I’m glad that they closed the gates finally. If they hadn’t, Phoebe and I might have been stuck there until the ceremony had finished, unable to see or hear anything. Being able to watch Obama give the address on the mall, watching the hundreds of thousands of others there to celebrate the moment, listening to that voice boom over the loudspeakers and the crowd respond – it was as inspiring as we had expected it would be – whether we were on Capitol grounds or in the middle of the Mall.

Obama Inauguration: Other Peoples’ Stories – Serbia

The two questions Phoebe and I asked over and over while we were in DC for the Inauguration were, “Would you like us to take a picture of you all together?” and “Where are you from?” 

100_2061It seems there were a LOT of people in DC from Georgia (especially Atlanta) and Texas. We were surprised while transiting through Pentagon City Mall with a different answer. As we took a picture of the two young women together in the same shot, we asked where they were from. Serbia.

Serbia?!? I had to ask, why would you come all the way to the United States to see our new President get sworn in? Because one of them was specifically invited, and because it was important.

Obama Inauguration: Other Peoples’ Stories – South Carolina

While we were waiting in line for tickets from Senator Murray’s office, we talked to the family behind us in line. It was a woman, two sons old enough to have come to DC before on school trips, and two little girls. They were from South Carolina. When Phoebe and I talked about the celebrations we had heard about on election night, she told us that in her town, it was eerily quiet, deathly quiet. There were no celebrations, and no plans to celebrate.

Obama Inauguration: Tickets!

I was in Vienna, Austria, on work during the National Democratic Convention, and again on election night, so I haven’t had a chance to enjoy the celebration of seeing Senator Obama elected President. Phoebe and I planned to come to the Inauguration, but until now, I wasn’t sure it would really happen. We were prepared to come to be among the millions converging on DC for the celebration of democracy. Amazingly, with abundant thanks to Senator Patty Murray and our colleague, David Chassin, we have official tickets to the ceremony.

We came into BWI yesterday, have a place to stay that is not as outrageous as some, and spent most of today picking up our tickets. We were in good company – lots of happy people in line with us. Here are pix of us in line at the Russell Senate Office Building, and the line behind and in front of us.  As we were leaving with credentials in hand, we had a chance to see the crowd still waiting to get into the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

View Picking up tickets for the Inauguration

Waiting in line to clear security was the long part of the process – it took about half an hour. Finding Senator Murray’s office and picking up the tickets took about five minutes. The staffers who were handing out the tickets were laughing about how many inauguration scrap books they would be featured in. Well, and blogs… here they are! And a picture of Phoebe on the elevator in the RSOB – reminds me of the shirts that say, “A woman’s place is in the house… and the Senate!” Certainly Washington State has a fine tradition of outstanding women in the Senate!

View Picking up Inauguration Tickets at Senator Murray's Office