Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Ticket is Supposed to Be a Ticket: My Morning in the Purple Tunnel of Doom (and Reflections in the Aftermath)

I thought I’d wheel my way home, (nautural) high from the exhilaration of the Inauguration carrying me on a virtual cloud back to the Burg. I’d roll up my sleeves, put myself back to work on the Change (with a big C) Barack Obama talks about and promised to usher in. I’d work on the grassroots group organization to have Barack’s back, to build grassroots support for his initiatives, to fact-check the opposition. I’d breathe deep the mountain air, savor the sweet smell of cold earth, and bask in the feel of a Blue Virginia. But this is another story altogether.

Though I and my husband had the coveted Purple tickets for the Inauguration, we saw none of it, not even in real-time on TV. We were trapped in what is now nicknamed the Purple Tunnel of Doom, denied entry to possibly the greatest day in our nation’s history and certainly the most important (non birth, or marriage) day in my life. I did what I was told. I got to my gate while it was still dark around 6:30 AM, but couldn’t find where the line even was. We made several false starts, heading slowly back and forth through the congested corner. It was crowded and confusing there, but lawful and calm. It should be noted that there was not one single arrest on January 20th in Washington DC. That alone tells the story. And it makes it more appalling that ultimately, we responsible, calm, friendly legitimate ticket holders were ordered (for no reason) by DC police into the Third Street Tunnel.

I do not know Washington well. Had I know what tunnel I was in, I would have walked out the other side, walked to the nearest Metro station and gone back to where were staying. But I didn’t know it was the Third St tunnel, the tunnel where I previously read that they would offload buses of festivities goers. The Third Street tunnel was also a pass-through for those who needed to cross to the opposite side of the Mall, but couldn’t cross Pennsylvania Ave. Had I known better, I’d have known we were never getting in. Instead, after extensive deprivation (freezing air blowing at us from wall vents, dampness, ear-splitting sirens assaulting our ears as cars whisked through, absence of all creature comforts), we waited and got nowhere over many hours. Any appearance of progress, we later learned occurred because of compression and widening of the line up top. Late in our wait, a scout went up top on our behalf (there was zero information, zero officiating, zero police protection, zero rope lines—even Disneyland can do better than this). I can almost hear comedian Jerry Seinfeld saying, “You see a ticket is supposed to BE a ticket. And it’s not a ticket if it doesn’t get you in.” There was no good-faith effort to honor our tickets at the Purple gate.

I was walking on air when I got word that I’d get a ticket for myself and my husband. My Congressman and his staff couldn’t have known what was waiting for us on Tuesday. They conveyed to us the much sought after tickets with good intentions. I will treasure always that I received them. And yet things did not turn out the way he and his staff thought they would. Still, without question, my gratitude and respect for them is intact. It is not their fault.

Moreover, I am mindful that in the scheme of life what I write of is nothing compared to real tragedies, profound losses (as in life and health). This very week, as we attended a reception in the Rayburn Office Building, given by Congressman Boucher, his wife, Amy had to sub for him. He was back home in Abingdon, his wonderful, inspiring, accomplished, and brave mother struggling for her life. She ultimately lost it Wednesday. That is profound loss, real sorrow. It seems almost sacrilegious to mention it here in this context because it is on a completely different plane. I lost my own father less than three years ago. And though he lived a long, good life, it still hurts.

Yes, I know the difference between life’s real tragedies, global or national crises, and personal disappointments. Mr. Bush seems to not have a clear idea of the different between colossal failure, catastrophic failure, and disappointment. His not finding WMDs was a”disappointment” to him, as if starting a war for no reason were somehow a trifle. No, Mr. Bush, that was a colossal blunder of massive proportion, bringing crisis, even ruin upon a country, fiscal ruin at home, and massive loss of life. That was not “disappointment.” Yes, I know the difference. My January 20th was a major disappointment, the worst disappointment I ever had. On a continuum of personal disappointments, however, this felt worse than when I lost my job to the downsizer’s ax.

In my 2008 Christmas letter to friends I wrote of the best and worst of times. Once again, ironically, on this Great Day (and Best of Times), for me, it was simultaneously the worst of times. A ticket is supposed to be a ticket. I wish my President so many good wishes. Already he is doing numerous good things, of which I will blog when the wind hits my sails again. But I lost something precious on January 20, 2009--the dream that amazing things can happen, even to me, just once in my life. And I wonder if I can ever get it back.

It was this Inauguration, among all Inaugurations, that I wanted to see. It was this Inauguration which brought us full circle from that time when we joined the civil rights movement forty years ago, founding a human relations group in our living room (my husband serving as its first president and I giving speeches to community groups about fair housing). It was this election we sought, those forty long years ago, as we helped in our small way to piece-by-piece help build a country where this could happen. It was this election that we worked for (without knowing it) even way back then in primary 1968, when we tried to oust a sitting president—and he decided not to run. (And it was every election since). It was this election night at Grant Park which we sought to juxtapose to that awful Grant Park night back in 1968.

Yes, we have come full circle. It was forty years of activism by ALL of us, including me. It was the standing out at the polls and canvassing in below zero wind chills. It was the canvassing in years (such as 1968) when many couldn't or wouldn't. It was working for equal rights for women, the Equal Rights Amendment that never (even today) passed. It’s the issue advocacy for progressive values even during terms we were not “in power.” It was the 10-20 hours of activism a week (for two years) I spent trying to stave off the removal from office of President Bill Clinton. It’s a lifetime of phone banking, organizing, letter writing, op-ed writing, blogging(even on blog precursors). It was the poring our heartfelt energy into it… From the primary of 1968 to today, this was our moment, as Barack said. The perfect culmination of everything.

It was this election that we helped make possible with our nonstop work for Howard Dean. He ushered in the mouse pads and shoe leather campaign which made all this possible. In 2004 he was the first top-tier candidate in many years to use universal health care as one of his main issues. It was he who, along with Dennis Kucinich opposed the war, and helped make opposing it mainstream. Overwhelmingly, now, Americans see that Howard Dean was right about that. And it was he, through his Dean Dozen, and later DFA A-List, which made Barack Obama-for-Senate the very first pick. Barack Obama now belongs to us all (and the world). Somehow, though, watching a rerun and not having seen it in real time at all feels emptier than I can say. It was the day the world passed me by and I was supposed to be there. Instead I was entombed in the bowels of an uncaring city, left to rot like so much garbage. America partied on the earth above our very heads, while we were sequestered in the Purple Tunnel of Doom, ironically treated as though we had no place. There were thousands of us. Some even singing “Lean on Me,” But I never felt so alone.

From Capitol So., I cried all the way back to Van Dorn. I wasn’t the only one. Most of the people riding had been shut out of either Blue or Purple gates. Once back at my uncle’s house, through tears I watched the rerun of the speech. And then I went to bed even as Washington partied. I am not jealous of those partying overhead on Jan 20th. I truly wanted everyone there to feel the joy. Rather, I am deeply hurt.

There is talk about the JCCIC sending us Purple and Blue “rejects” some programs and photos in the mail. But I already have my official program. Don’t they know they came with our tickets? They need to do something, what I am not sure. Certainly that shouldn’t include the idiotic notion, bandied about by a wistful few, of throwing money at the problem. That would change nothing. And there are not the funds to do it anyway. It would be unseemly to even suggest there is a monetary value on what we missed. But those who say “stop whining,” just do not get it. They could only get it if they had been denied even the chance to get onto the mall in the un-ticketed space. If they had told us the truth, at least we could have made our way to the Lincoln Memorial. That would have been something.

Above all, this can never happen again. It just cannot. The brush off by the Sergeant at Arms of the Senate, that there were 236,00 happy customers, is an outrage. No one should have to experience what the gate security and DC police did to us that day.

Additionally, there are Several Questions Needing an Answer
•How could security at Congressional offices screen the same number of ticket holders on Monday, when they picked up their tickets, but not on Tuesday?
•Why were we forced to line up where unticketed people were passing through as well? This complicated the situation.
•Why were folks without tix allowed into ticketed gates and those with them not?
•Was anyone paid off to let unticketed people into the ticketed area?
•Was there any counterfeiting of tickets?
•Why were we not told anything? Why was apparently only one scanner used?
•Why did photos on TV seem to show people in our spaces?
•Why were some people without tickets processed through ticketed gates?
•Why did our line not progress at all in over five hours?
•Why were there no line workers, no one informing us?
•Why were there no porta potties?

Epilogue: The only “good” thing I learned is that I can manage to go without a restroom access for 9 hours. Somehow I do not think this “accomplishment” will hold me in good stead in 2013 when I’ll be nearly 70. Next time not only won’t be the same, it won’t likely be doable at all. My “accomplishment” does nothing to lighten the crushing disappointment of the day I had a ticket, but became a non person before my government. It’s not that I have felt all that empowered by my government before. It is just that I expected better on this of all days. I had a ticket, after all.

I cannot think much about the Inauguration Day others saw yet. Instead I am focusing on what has already changed for the better. One day, I hope another image will supplant my experiences of January 20th. I will try to replace it with the sight and sound September 9th of an image such as this: As I began to wind my way home on the highway near Lebanon High School, the helicopter bearing my president-to-be and my congressman sliced a crescent through the evening sky. It was around 7:45 PM. And as I drove the long ride home from the Town Hall I had the honor to cover for (our former and beloved statewide progressive blog), I whispered, “Godspeed, Barack. Godspeed, Rick.” "Take good care of them," I said quietly to the pilot. "They are our future." Then, with Springsteen cranked up, I let the exhilaration of that Town Hall carry me all the way back to Blacksburg.