Gathering For Change

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By Daniel Gilbert/Media General News Service
Published: January 19, 2009

WASHINGTON – The lines outside the metro were saying it.

The man selling the “Yes We Can” hand-warmers outside the station was saying it.

The people on the trains – as tightly packed as rush hour– were saying it, too.

The police at every street corner in the city were saying it, and the National Guard vehicles blocking off Constitution Avenue were saying it.

The words were spoken in a jumble of languages, they carried from a CVS in the suburbs to the National Mall, and this is roughly what they sounded like: The masses are arriving.

“This is part of it,” one woman patiently told a group of friends at the Vienna metro stop in Virginia, where the wait to buy a fare was 15 minutes and climbing. “It’s like we were going to a football game,” she said.

Something out of the ordinary was happening on the train, too: The glacial conversational ice of the Washington metro was cracking, and people were talking to one another.

“We’re Canon people,” one man remarked to his wife after giving another man a tutorial on how to use his new camera.

A husband-and-wife couple from Minnesota, toting three young children, explained to nearby passengers that “this is the first metro ride,” for the kids. “I think they’re getting the hang of it,” the woman said.

“Where in Minnesota?” asked another man standing by the door. “I’m from Winona.”

“Really,” said the first man. “I’m going there next week.”

The people poured out of the metro stations, walking quickly down, down, down to the Mall. It was 2:30 p.m.; the concert was about to begin.

Thousands upon thousands swept across the cold-stiffened ground to position themselves in front of a JumboTron screen. The space in front of the Lincoln Memorial and along the reflecting pool had filled up hours ago.

“I hope it lasts,” a young black woman said to her friend.

“I don’t know, it’s still a pretty rough world for brown people,” said the friend, a Latina.

“I’m not missing Beyoncé!” shouted a man in a Steelers jacket.

There were beanies and shawls and turbans and balaclavas. There were binoculars and digital cameras and bags of potato chips and trail mix. Parents hoisted young children upon their shoulders. Children waved American flags.

“Excuse me, you just stepped right in front of me.”

“Everyone’s just standing around in this town.”

“I can’t feel my toes.”

“I don’t actually know where the stage is, I’m not gonna lie.”

And then a brass chorale struck up with Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Attention turned to the giant screens to see Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his wife step down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to screams and applause. And when the president-elect and his wife followed the Bidens down the steps, the crowd drowned out his name with a roar, and resurrected it in a chant.

O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!

Actor Denzel Washington was the first to take the stage, kicking off the concert with the words, “Music has always been the creative heartbeat of the American experience.”

“Come on up, for the rising,” belted out Bruce Springsteen, backed by a gospel choir.

Martin Luther King III called on the crowd to “renew faith and commitment to each other,” and Mary J. Blige segued into “Lean on Me,” as the crowd swayed.

Tom Hanks took the stage.

“Run Forrest, run!”

Tiger Woods offered a tribute to military service.

The stars turned out in musical trios: Herbie Hancock, Will.i.am and Sheryl Crow; Stevie Wonder, Usher and Shakira.

Irish rock band U2 played. Garth Brooks sang. Jamie Foxx, Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei, Laura Linney, Jack Black – all took the mic.

“No, not Jack Black,” shouted a woman in the crowd. “Yo, what’s up Jackie!”

“They ain’t never had anything like this for an inauguration before,” said the woman, Elizabeth Bishop, a retired railroad worker from Philadelphia, Pa. “Not even when the Kennedys were in the joint,” she said. “I’m just looking at the crowd, and people are friendly and smiling and not pushing or shoving.”

But the Hollywood stars were a supporting cast to the man of the hour; a name known to few in the country and across the globe only a year ago.

“These actors – they are well known here?” asked a French student who has closely followed the American election. “Everyone in the world has been watching the United States election,” said Laurim Strauss, an economics student at New York University who came to Sunday’s concert.

“Do you think Obama can satisfy all the hope he has inspired?” Strauss asked a reporter.

He might save small-time capitalists, if the cottage industries marketing his likeness are any indication.

Vendors were aggressively peddling T-shirts, sweatshirts and snowcaps – “who wanna wrap up with Obama?” one vendor addressed passersby.

Commemorative buttons were everywhere – “these are some of the finest,” a vendor told two girls at street corner downtown. “They light up, they light” pitched another vendor on Constitution Avenue.

There were bumper stickers and framed Obama portraits for sale. Metro fare cards were printed with Obama’s image.

The president-elect was above the fold on most newspaper front pages in the District, regardless of the language.

“Llega un día histórico,” proclaimed one Spanish-language paper. “A historic day arrives.”

The lead article in El Tiempo Latino predicted that by Tuesday, Jan. 20, “all roads will lead to the National Mall.”

There were signs Sunday that it might already be happening.

“Hey! Hey!” a man in a black cowboy hat shouted at this reporter. It was the man from Minnesota on the metro train, with his wife and three children in tow. “So you made it, too.”

Asked one of the young sons, “Are you coming back on the train?”

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