Ever wonder why so many people think it would be great to be an American? All I had to do was get on the Washington Metro this morning in Silver Spring, Md., and any lingering doubts just disappeared. It was about 6:15 a.m., and I got on at one of the first stops on the Red Line. It was already rush-hour packed. People were bundled up, smiling, bumping into each other, and joking. It was a like a big adventure that everyone was sharing.
“Happy Inauguration!” someone said.
“You, too, you too,” came a chorus from the crowds.
McAllister Hayes was one of them. He’s originally from Tennessee but now lives in Maryland. He was standing crowded in a corner by the Metro car doors with his wife and daughter. He had all of the usual things to say about this being a historic day for America and the world and an extraordinary moment for African-Americans like him. He works at the Department of Defense, but this is the first time he’s ever wanted to go to an inauguration.
“The change that’s coming about, it just makes me proud,” he says.
When he was a little kid, he did believe he could become president – just like the cliché says. But then he grew up. “Events, things that happened, and the way things were, then I realized it probably was not possible,” he says. “But this - this has changed my mind drastically, like it has a lot of people.”
He was smiling. So was Linda Berk. She’s in the music business in New York City. She came down with enough family to fill three Metro seats full – cousins, siblings, in-laws from as far away as Canada. One in-law was originally from Palau, a small island in the Pacific. Like everybody else, they were bundled up. They had blankets, fur coats, fanny packs full of food and cameras, plenty of cameras.
“We’re going to document this. There’s just magic in the air. It’s history, an adventure, and one that I wanted to be able to say I lived through and witnessed,” she says. “I’m just so excited about having a president who is a visionary, who’s compassionate, who’s intelligent, who is ready to engage the world. There’s a sense of unity that I’m happy to see in my lifetime.”
Jessica Donah was standing in the aisle nearby. She was alone on the train, but headed to meet friends on the Mall. She’s from Plattsburgh, N.Y., but has been living in the D.C. area for two years. She’d already been to the concert on Sunday and was looking forward to more of what she experienced then.
“There were just so many people being so nice to each other. I’ve never sensed that before,” she says. “It’s good to see in the city. This is the big change, hopefully, and we need it.”
Bridget Hill Gunn was standing nearby, smiling and listening as Ms. Donah was talking. She brought her 11-year-old daughter, Skye, up from Del Rey Beach, Fla., so they could share today’s experience. After Obama won Iowa, she says, she was determined to see his election through to the end.
“It’s hard to put in words what this means as a mother, as a descendant of slaves, who grew up in the South, whose parents went through segregation,” she says. “There’s still an east side and a west side of town; we’re still very segregated. My grandmothers and Mom never had the opportunities that I had. And now my child knows she has a responsibility to be engaged in our political system for change. It’s just powerful. It’s not just about an election. It’s about democracy and empowerment.”
As the Metro train pulled into the center of D.C., the train emptied out as fast as it had filled up. People who’d just met shouted good-byes, helped a man on crutches through the crowded doors, and then the Metro car was quiet. There were only a few stragglers headed somewhere other than the Mall. I was going to our bureau near the White House. David Hoffman was headed home.
He was carrying his tuxedo fresh from a long night at the Virginia Democratic Ball. He was planning on changing clothes and heading out again.
“I was up pretty late and up pretty early, [and] now I’m wondering if I will find a place on the Mall when I get there. It’s already pretty crowded,” he says. Mind you, it wasn’t 7 a.m. yet. Still, he says, he’s determined to make it back to the Mall by 10 a.m. for the inauguration. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I lived overseas for many years, and that makes me appreciate this all the more.”
So, any questions left about why it’s great to be an American? It’s amazing what one short Metro ride can convey.