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Joel's Two Cents

Cold, Crowded and Upbeat on the Mall


People gathered for the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

By Joel Achenbach
Now that's a big crowd. If this crowd isn't a million people strong, it's doing a credible impersonation. This reporter walked nearly the length of the Mall this morning -- there are so many people you'd think many of them were created by Hollywood special effects. Are those people real or is that just CGI?

The crowd at the kick-off concert two days ago seemed big at the time, but it could fit into this crowd's thermos (if thermoses weren't banned).

The strange thing about this crowd is that there doesn't seem to be any back of it. Usually there's "the back of the crowd," the place to which some of us instinctively migrate. But when you get to the back of this crowd, you see more crowd, and then when you finally get to the back of THAT, you see about 50,000 people surging down 18th Street from the Metro.

Where do they all come from?

Elizabeth Saenger, 66, came from Mamaroneck, N.J., stayed in Tacoma Park with a college friend she hadn't spoken to in 45 years, took the Metro to Federal Center SW, and got in line at 7a.m. By 9a.m., the line had barely moved. She wasn't going to bail.

"This is historic. We worked so hard. I worked my tail off for more than a year for Obama. I want to be part of it," she said.

The problem for Saenger and so many others was that she had a silver ticket. A silver ticket basically gave the possessor the right to stand in a line that reached most of the way back to Alexandria, or perhaps North Carolina. Worst of all, the crowd control isn't sufficient to prevent large numbers of people from jumping the line, sometimes without even realizing. (One silver ticket line stretched along SW 3rd Street, then back up D Street to 6th street, then back to Independence Avenue, up beyond the Air and Space Museum -- but enterprising inauguration-goers could simply circumvent the entire line and go to the front near the National Museum of the American Indian.)

This is a logistically challenging event, made all the more so by the cold. It's legitimately, authentically cold, and almost unbearable in the wind, though being compressed in a mass of bodies helps a lot. And a positive spirit seemed to warm people a lot as well.

"It's so exciting. It's good to be alive," said Sam Taylor, 51, an author from Richmond, as he walked with thousands of people through the I-395 tunnel from the north to the south side of the mall. Even in the gloom of a tunnel he had a bounce in his step.

Posted at 11:57 AM ET on Jan 20, 2009  | Category:  Joel's Two Cents
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