The party: $40 million.
Flipping Dubya off: Priceless.
Wednesday's surprise storm almost aborted the mission. Our third attempt at departing succeeded; the previous terminated at 10:30 in a wall of taillights to the horizon at 401 and U.S. 1. We killed some time sledding and hanging out at the Berkeley Cafe. Finally, a bold end-run out Creedmoor Road, and Elliot and I broke through to I-85. It was three in the morning. By 8:30, we're berthed deep downtown at 6th. We avoided a rat trap of security, walking all the way around the Capitol against a mob of big, black hats and fur coats, all headed the wrong way by my reckoning.
"George W. Hitler, stay to the right," says Elliot, looking like trouble in his mutton chops and a Bolshevik wool hat.
"Get a job," a hat sneers.
It's a long walk made longer by the chain-link fencing, soldiers with machine guns, portable electric tank-stopper gates bolstered with city buses--all very Eastern Bloc with a certain western flair--boots and bullets.
"George Bush will eat your babies," I say to a startled young couple.
North of Pennsylvania, at 3rd, we take our position under a heavy concrete overpass. Democracy can be untidy. Today it is a train wreck. At a nearby coffee shop, a melange of dirty kids, fresh-scrubbed white people, runny-nosed newsboys and wary cops jostle for a cuppa joe and relief from a cold only described as bracing, all there for a day caught forever in thousands of images and words.
"Peace and freedom" figured into the day, drenched with irony. D.C. was an armed camp bolstered with 7,000 cops from as far away as Oregon, ready for the worst.
For the time, we hung at the coffee shop and engaged in a tete-a-tete with two guys looking like pro wrestlers; plants, I guessed, judging from their professionally made vinyl cut signs: "President Bush 4 more years--Trust Jesus Forever." I take to calling them Mutt and Jeff.
"Hey, boy," Mutt yells at Elliot. "This ain't Berkeley."
"That's right. It's D.C. Berkeley is 3,000 miles that way. Don't you know?"
Soon the two have one planter secured and a young socialist kid is perched on another. What amounted to a sort of screaming contest ensued, but no one took things seriously. No one is buying their opponents' coffee, but it's close. All great fun.
Mutt weights in on "Muslim terrorists who want to destroy the United States."
"Woit a minute, pal," I've put on a cockney accent, "Ain't no one hites 'merica more'n oy do. Plottin' an plannin' twenny four hours a day to take her to her knees, I am."
The crowd laughs out loud. This is breaking down into the absurd.
A woman says something to one of them. "She's worse than you are," Mutt calls to me.
"That's a lie. No one out here is worse than I am, pal," I laugh.
Elliot and I have signs made from real estate posters illegally placed by developers on a right of way. "Yew stole those." We don't even try to explain.
Then it's 2 p.m. Time for the parade. We go through the pat-down at security. There's a pretty gal working, but despite our request, she won't feel us up.
Curbside in the pit, it's like the Nathaniel West novel Day of the Locust: sailors, hippies, Uncle Sam, mysterious people with big cameras, smooth-faced GOP types, all bumping and nudging each other for a glimpse of the inauguree.
I have wormed myself deeply into Black Hat territory. There is a new tension--the motorcade is forming up, a galaxy of blue and red lights winks in the distance. The first dissident they will see looks like it is going to be me. Heading up the procession, a phalanx of muscular Harleys advances, equipped with stout oaken staffs bearing the flags of the U.S., the president and D.C. It is absolutely imperial. You can squint your eyes and you are in Rome, clattering horses replaced by muttering chrome and steel.
At this point all journalistic objectivity went out the window. They are all there before me behind the sullen black window of the monster state vehicles, heavily armored Cadillac sedans and Escalades: DeLay, Lott, Cheney, Bush--all of them.
Forgive me mother. I had to. I let fly with a torrent of unprintable excess--the double bird, the whole deal. All semblance of creativity is abandoned. I well may have been that guy on FOX with the two-word vocabulary.
"Let the man have his day," someone groused.
"It's always that guy's day. This is my day."
While I unload, there is a man behind me solemnly playing taps on a trumpet. In front of me, a young soldier watches the parade. I can see his jaw muscles flexing, from me or taps it is hard to tell, but from his movements it seems that the mournful song is reaching something deep into his world.
A camera truck rolls by. Oh, I have some special venom reserved for those guys and I start afresh, calling out my colleagues who sat idly by and made most of this possible with their inaction. "Suckers," I scream. "Sycophants." A battery of gun-like lenses is trained on the crowd, at me.
Then it is over, the last marching band glides by and everyone starts breathing again.
It wasn't like I was even that mad. I know enough about the world to know that the people in those armored cars are merely shadows of the real power. My performance was my only chance to let them know that this particular citizen was on record as making a stand against the lies, the murder and the greed--it's all as futile as ramming a stone wall with a bicycle. But then I realize I do feel better. Catharsis.
We're making our way out of the pit. Elliot nudges me, pointing at a handsome black woman. Then I see that it is U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, unseated in the previous election by Republican machination, now newly returned to her seat by her Georgia constituency. I run up to her.
"I am so glad to meet you, sister." The shutter clicks and we are captured like kin at a reunion. "I love what you do," I tell her.
Once again, history was made. Despite the millions of taxpayer dollars, all those fences, 13,000 cops and soldiers, the kids tore down barricades, pelted the motorcade with garbage (oranges this time), disrupted the parade, PETA gals ran around butt-ass nekked in 30 degrees--two separate attacks finally repulsed amid desperate clubbing on both sides and, finally, deployment of a sort of giant mace-spewing flit-gun. Kids 6, Cops 12.
Only 12 arrests. Whether from sympathy, managing the news (low arrests look good if you are trying to make dissent disappear) or the fact that D.C. has had to pay major money for the now-illegal practice of "preemptive arrest," we'll never know. What I did know was that a sense of democracy was aloft in the frigid wind that day, in all its messy, heartfelt honesty, a big quarreling family. And in that, there is magnificence.
"How was it?" I asked an older cop as we trudged along--a Sam Sheepdog, Ralph Wolf moment.
"All right except for you guys," he says, smiling grudgingly.