Thursday, January 22, 2009

Charisse's Inauguration Day Experience - A PROUD PURPLE TICKET HOLDER

Everyone said it would be cold on Inauguration Day. I was ready. My dear friend Mirian had armed me with hand warmers and toe warmers. I had on two pairs of pants, had doubled-up up top, and wrapped myself soundly in my brand new Obama scarf, hat and thermal gloves. I was right to be concerned, as I’d later find out, one of my cousins got hypothermia from the elements, his body temperature dropping to 90 degrees.

But somehow, I was not cold on Inauguration Day. My body temperature rose, I’m sure, beyond its obligatory 98.6. My spirit was on fire, my heart pumped voraciously, my soul warmed like babies’ breath, in fact my hands were so toasty, that I took my gloves off.

Perhaps my sweltering disposition was the culmination of the seemingly endless mind tripping I’d be experiencing. Not only does it boggle the mind that this country had put aside the nightmare of its racist past to elect the first African-American president, but also to think that this incredible man was someone who I actually knew from my little piece of the world, from my circle of friends and acquaintances.

I would have never forgiven myself if I had not stopped my world for a week and given myself permission to take it all in.

My inaugural experience began on Thursday with an impromptu book signing and appearance I did as a fundraiser for Hoop Dreams. It was the first time I sold and signed my new children’s book, I Am Barack Obama. My cousin Susan came along to help me out, and we were truly amazed by the awesome reception. Dick Gregory spoke about this moment in history contextualizing it for us. I hadn’t realized that he was the first African American to have run for president. I met Kellie Gauf, an up and coming author and political commentator and she purchased several of my books, which humbled me.

On Friday, my mom and sister Lisa arrived from New Jersey. They made a “getaway” from their jobs, left my nephew Jordan with his Auntie Dawn, and made their way to experience history first hand. As soon as they arrived, I whisked my mom away to a reception given by the National Congress of Black Women honoring Black Women for Obama at the National Chamber of Commerce. We arrived to a small but elegant dinner, and we sat at the table with Melody Barnes, a senior Obama advisor and her significant other. I’d never med Melody in person, though she is a dear friend of my friend Stephanie from Jamestown, and I knew how great and down-to-earth she was. My mom and I were so moved by the love and admiration that her man showed for her when the NCBW honored her. This event also drove home the point for me, that my new children’s book was doing really well. I showed up with 8 copies that fit into my giant purse, and I was “sold out” in minutes and scolded for not bringing more. The surprise of the night was that I was recognized as a grassroots volunteer for Team Obama for the work we did in Northern Virginia, helping to turn that state blue. Black Women for Obama took lots of photos, and a great time was had by all.

My mom and I took a cab home. It was frigid cold, but I was kept warm by my mother-in-law’s mink coat. As an eighty-something year old woman who has witnessed history by immigrating to this country more than forty years ago, Mrs. Nunes could not attend but she wanted me to be there in her MINK COAT!!! I had to oblige! 

When my mom and I returned home, Lisa had decided to stay in for the evening, and I was glad that I wouldn’t have to accompany her out in the cold (even if DJ Hass/Harvey Nunes was spinning his old school mixes at the Peoples Inaugural Party). But Mom Carney was having none of it. She literally pried Lisa out of bed and forced me to take her down the street to the Historical Society. It must have been meant to be because I got a parking spot right in front, and in no time we were doing “Obama” party chants and jamming to Doug E. Fresh like we were in high school. Too bad we’d miss Kurtis Blow, but luckily Lisa snuck into the “green room” area for a photo-op. Needless to say Harvey rocked the house, and I purchased some great Obama-gear from the living mannequins that were modeling that evening.

Saturday was again nonstop. We spent the day reconciling book money and receipts, cooking up kale and other food, and most importantly planning our outfits for the HOPE Inaugural Youth Ball. Someone had the bright idea to brave the downtown crowds and go down to the Waterfront for some famous Chesapeake crabs! Despite the fact that we had little time, my crab-greedy mom, husband and friends were all for it. Oh well. Nothing that a bit of lemon juice wouldn’t cure so we wouldn’t light up the HOPE Ballroom with the smell of fish!

Before going to the HOPE Ball, my mom, Harvey and I stopped by the Kiddie and Teen Inaugural Balls at Shiloh Baptist Church. Church members had turned Shiloh’s gym into a majestic scene of red, white and blue for their teens. They even transformed the elevator into a vessel, complete with a sitting attendant, to transport their party-goers to an evening of elegance. The Kiddie Ball had a bit less fanfare, but I was blessed with the opportunity to read for the children and welcome them to their first-ever inaugural experience. I was also interviewed by Voice of America, and sold an entire case of books to the church, donating of course part of the proceeds to Shiloh.

Finally, we ended up at the HOPE Ball – a family-friendly ball where I had agreed to attend and donate 400 copies of I Am Barack Obama to the children in attendance. The venture began when we had promising sponsorship leads who would do this. However, when they all fell through either because of Obama money-fatigue, the economy or both, I decided to donate the books myself.

Organizers had transformed the ballroom at Trinity University into event themed with food representing America’s diversity. Hosted by Jermaine Crawford (who played Dukie on The Wire), the evening was full of entertainment, magic and fun. I was recognized for the 400 book giveaway. It was like I was Oprah for a moment (without her bank account or TV show!) In the end, the children were so appreciative for the books that they received, some waiting in line for an hour to have me personally autograph, and I of course autographed every book that was presented to me. Lisa, my mom, Damien, and my nine-year old stayed with me until the bitter end. It was all a bit too much for my four-year old. Although I’d spent much of the early part of the evening dancing with him, the boy was truly annoyed by the fact that I was signing books rather than taking him to the bathroom. At one point, he actually hit me! And with that interesting comment on my parenting skills, my wonderful husband took his overtired-behind home.

The rest of us danced, signed books, and took pictures until late in the evening.

Sunday was a new day. Though we’d long planned to relax at home in the morning until it was time to attend the Harvard Law School Inaugural Brunch at noon, we’d met a lady the night before that loved the book so much she wanted to get it to Malia and Sasha Obama. The woman was in charge of volunteers at Sunday’s Inaugural Concert on the National Mall and explained that if we could get to a certain spot on Sunday morning, she could usher us in to present special autographed copies to the Obama girls. My friends Damien and Brian whisked me to the appointed location, but as you might expect there was too much madness and mayhem for me to get anywhere close. Oh well. Maybe next time.

Disappointed but not discouraged, Damien and Brian dropped me off to the Willard Hotel where I was greeted by scores of well wishers and old friends excited about the news of the day. The HLS Brunch was to be an important part of my inaugural experience. Several Black alums eagerly planned it and had optimistically convinced ourselves that one of the Obamas had to attend. After all, they were both alums with a special relationship to us all. They knew where they came from and knew that each of us helped in our own way from DAY ONE to get them to this point. Many, like myself, had been supporting Barack since his days as a state politician. Even when we received the official word that they’d passed up our invitation for a concert with Bono and Beyonce, we still couldn’t believe it. But alas, no secret servicemen came knocking. There was no high tech sweep of the premises. No Barack. No Michelle.

But we still had a great time! We listened intently as HLS Dean Elena Kagan, our next Solicitor General of the United State – the FIRST WOMAN – gave humorous but touching remarks. We also heard another perspective on the story of how Michelle & Barack got together from a partner in the law firm who was partially responsible for the matchmaking – the father of one of our HLS professors. We heard greetings from the esteemed Charles Ogletree and embraced Professor Derrick Bell who was with his HLS family for the first time since I was a student when he left the faculty in protest over their lack of diversity. Professor Bell joked about how when the media asked him if had known Barack he said, “no, I hardly knew the guy” (he said the Jeremiah Wright controversy was nothing compared to what they might have found in Bell’s writings). But having one of his former Black students ascend to leader of the free world was truly the realization of his life’s work, and it was wonderful to watch Professor Bell enjoy it.

My mom and Harvey were there – all the while – telling my friends about my new book and in the end we sold over 2 cases right there in the lobby until I had no more books left. I also had the opportunity to reconnect with Hill Harper and get a great “video sound byte” for the book. In the end being with all of my HLS friends in the context left me weepy but humbled. It seemed as though so MANY were there I can’t name them all. I protested incessantly about the school when I was there due to the same mindset that compelled Professor Bell to leave, but ultimately Harvard Law School gave me the gift of these wonderful relationships with people about whom I care deeply, complete my life, and also happen to be having a hell of an impact on the world. Go Barack!

I really needed to get over my weepy reflections, however, quick fast and in a hurry because I was now a bit late for my next event – a storytime reading at the Every Child Matters Children’s Inaugural. I jumped in the car with Harvey, my Mom, and my friend Nicole and my husband whisked us through downtown to the event. About halfway there, between my laughing and loving Nicole, I realized we had SOLD EVERY BOOK I’D HAD. What? An author showing up for a book reading with NO BOOK!! I could NOT believe it. Mirian and Lisa were waiting for us at the event. I called them but neither of them had any books either and it was 15 minutes til showtime. Frantically, we realized that there was a store selling the book about 3 blocks away but awful traffic. Harvey dropped Nicole and me off and somehow made it to the store and back with the book just as I was being introduced. I think he must have donned his Super Hass cape and tights and run through the streets while my mom sat in the car. Things were crazy, but I somehow knew that one day my story of being an author who showed up for a book reading with no book would make for amusing conversation.

Anyway, the reading went well. I’d partnered on this one with my new found friend Jan Buckner Walker, author of an awesome, family friendly series of crossword puzzles called Kids Across, Parents Down. We shared the time, and seem to have entertained the small audience of kids and families who were present. I gave away free posters to all in attendance. And I was happy, in the end, that my four-year old had been so entertained by his Auntie Lis and all of the children’s activities at the event, he was much more well- behaved than the previous evening! We all made it back to my house and conked out. Only 2 more inaugural days to go!

It turns out that Sunday was a light day as compared to what Monday had in store. What??? My only real, official booksigning had been planned for that morning at 9am at Clyde’s in the Verizon Center, sponsored by the National Congress of Black Women. My mom couldn’t get up and old, so believe it or not, my normally sleep-obsessed sister Lisa came with me to the early morning affair. My fabulously talented illustrator and artist Ann Marie Williams also joined us. From the time we walked in, we noticed that people were really taken with the I Am Barack Obama children’s book. After enjoying a delicious (and for us complimentary) brunch, I spoke in front of the now-large crowd. Okay, normally I am no Barack Obama. Harvey has had to seriously edit video tapes from a bunch of public speaking that I’ve done cutting out the “ums” and the “you knows” that can do any public speaker in. Of course, this time there was no video taping, but somehow the words rolled extemporaneously off of my tongue, including an impromptu recital of my poem Nappy. I just think it was the inauguration, the moment, the history, and my little tiny place in it that brought everything together. Lisa and I had 2 cases of books (this time we left 1 in the car for the next event). By the time we finished, I’d sold through both cases, a copy of Nappy (even though the book wasn’t there and I’d have to send it), AND two people followed us to the car for more. It was amazing. I also got to meet MC Lyte and share my book with her and her manager.

We then raced to the next event, which was the Howard Law School Inaugural Brunch at the J.W. Marriot Hotel 7 blocks away. Now, we were risking the DC street closures beginning for tomorrow’s inauguration, but we braved the traffic anyway. My mom and Mirian started off the event, and by the time Lisa and I arrived they had not sold a single book. Upon arriving, I bumped in Martin Luther King III, and I had the privilege of signing a book for his new baby daughter. The luncheon crowd, however, was WAITING to buy until the end of the festivities, which incidentally would have left us with about 15 minutes to spare before street closures would begin. Ultimately, Mirian and Lisa left to get the cars, my mom and I stayed to sell a few books, but we were all nervous about getting stuck so we left. Lisa came and scooped us in the car and whisked us up 14th Street to our next event – a reception for the Daily Voice.

Harvey was supposed to attend the Daily Voice reception with me, but he was walking up and down 7th Street selling books to passersby. No, we had not planned this, and it was pretty funny to imagine. 7th Street had been converted into a virtual OBAMA STREET MALL, and my husband was right out there with the street vendors vying for the crowd’s attention and business! I wish I could have seen it. I think he sold about 10 books in an hour.

So my mom and I went to the Daily Voice reception where we had a blast. It was a one-year anniversary celebration for the Internet magazine launched by my friend, classmate and partner-in-protest from Harvard, Keith Boykin. Keith is a former LBGT activist turned political commentator extraordinaire. Every time I have something to say, Keith publishes it without a second thought. For the occasion, he honored Sheryl Lee Ralph, Cory Booker, Charles Ogletree, and Isaiah Washington to name a few. I signed one of my books for Mr. Washington’s family, which was a great honor and of course for Keith. My mom and I enjoyed 2 slamming cosmopolitans, and on the way out with a group of my friends ran into author Teri McMillan. My friends tried to get me to go introduce myself but I froze up (yes, my shy nine-year old gets it honestly believe it or not). But I mustered the courage (or maybe that cosmo had taken off some of the edge) and she was AWESOME! We all met her, hung out a bit longer with her, took pictures, and I signed a copy of my book for her. Thank God for that bartender and my pushy friends.

While all of this was going on, I was SUPPOSED to be connecting with Nicole to pick up the children’s concert tickets that she was able to get for my daughter and me. MYLIE CYRUS and THE JONAS BROTHERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! A NINE-YEAR OLD’S DREAM! I’ll skip the details of how we were able to connect, but just know the story includes a taxi, traffic, an unhelpful concierge at the Washington Hilton where the bi-partisan McCain Dinner was held, my Super Hero husband and our around-the-way handyman Donte, and a series of three-way phone calls through jammed cell phone networks between Harvey, Nicole and me. But we got the tickets!

My mom and I made it home from the Daily Voice, I changed my shoes, grabbed my daughter, and my husband and I drove us as close to the Verizon Center as we could get, which actually wasn’t all that close. We jumped out of his truck, held hands and ran through the streets until we made it – we had 10 minutes to spare! We joined Nicole’s father-in-law and her two kids and jammed with Mylie Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana) and the Jonas Brothers, as well as the other child-friendly stars who were there. And we had GREAT SEATS only 7 rows up from the floor!!! Michelle Obama and Jill Biden spoke and we got to see Sasha and Malia dancing on stage looking so cute.

When the concert ended, I put Nicole’s family on the Metro in one direction, and my daughter and I took it in the other direction home. We exhaled, and crashed. WHAT A DAY! Tuesday was almost here.

Maybe we should have woken up at 4am to brave our way through the DC streets to the Mall. But somehow, we were convinced that a 7:30am start would be enough. After all, I was the holder of a coveted purple ticket (the same as many National Finance Committee members), a silver ticket, and had the promise of at least 9 Newseum Tickets, which would allow my family members to watch the festivities from a premier INSIDE location overlooking the Parade Route. I drove a few blocks to pick up my friend Rhonda and 2 of her children, and then my family and our crew walked to the Columbia Heights Metro. Along with Harvey and me, we had my mom, my sister, my nine year old daughter, four year old son, Damien, Brian, Rhonda and her eight and five year old daughters. We dressed warmly, but my son could keep his gloves on as they were too big.

The feeling on train was electric. We rode in a car with hundreds of folks in red hats from such faraway places as Alabama and Tennessee. As the train inched toward downtown, however, it became clear that control over our situation was fleeting. Cell phone service was sparse, and I could not connect with my friend who was holding our Newseum tickets. Metro then closed down many of its stations because of the crowds so we all jumped off blocks away from our intended location. I gave Lisa my silver ticket (as my ticket was for a much closer area) and told her to stay on the train to the Waterfront and walk back in to the silver gate. The rest of us jumped off of the train and walked through the streets listening to the kids complain about keeping up, being cold, and buying “Obama Puppets” from street vendors all within the first 10 minutes of our adventure.

Finally, we found some friendly police officers who directed my family in one direction and me in another with my purple ticket. For a moment I thought about ditching the ticket to stay with my kids, but my mom and husband told me that that was crazy. We split up, and they tried to make it to the Newseum; I walked down 3rd Street with my ticket. I later learned that after an hour of trying to get in touch with my friend with the Newseum tickets and trying to find their way through the maze of people and closed off streets to get ANYWHERE near the Newseum, my family smartly bailed out, and found 2 friendly taxi drivers to bring them safely home. They were so grateful to find those cabs, I heard, they almost sent him off with the children in a car alone, yelling “Go!!!” to the driver, forgetting that there were no adults in the car. They made it home by 11am or so and I heard that my four-year old was hugging the couch, the chairs, his bed, his toys, and even kissed the floor in gratefulness.

Meanwhile, I had walked down 3rd Street and been pushed through a security screening point only to learn when I was on the other side that those friendly police officers had had no clue about which they spoke. I was in the wrong location! I was directed back from whence I came, around the corner and on foot through the Third Street TUNNEL going south.

Also in the wrong location after having been pushed around and slightly trampled in the crowd was an older Black woman in a wheelchair. The very nice volunteers tried but were unable to obtain permission for her to enter anyway.

I finally got to the tunnel. It looked different from a pedestrian’s vantage point. I made friends but most of us were going in different locations with different color tickets. When I finally made it to the end of the tunnel, the volunteer at the end looked at my ticket, shook his head and sadly told me I was in the wrong place … AGAIN. I wanted to go home. My sister Lisa sent me a text to tell me that she was OK – chilling by the reflecting pool in front of the U.S. Capitol, in position to witness history. Instead of quitting, I decided I’d come too far, that this minor trial and tribulation was nothing as compared to what it took to get this far in history so I persevered.

I walked back up the southbound tunnel and up a ramp. I found 2 other purple ticket holders in my same situation. We now had to CLIMB over a concrete median to get to the northbound side of the tunnel to find the purple line. One of my new traveling partners had trouble, but we helped her make the climb. She and her friend then went to the left, but something told me to go to the right. I saw two 20-something year old White guys who looked exactly like the Obama campaign worker types with whom I’d spent so much time. They reassured me that I was finally in the right location, but warned me that if I stayed, I’d miss the inauguration. They’d been in the purple line since 7am, and saw no chance of getting in. It was still only 10:30am; they couldn’t be right. I decided to forge ahead anyway. I ran back, screamed to the lady who I helped climb the median so that they’d know where to go, and then quickly took my place in the purple line.

The line was endless. Thousands were there. I couldn’t even see the starting point. I know that people wouldn’t like it, but I’d been at this game since 7:30am and I was by myself, so I just kind of merged in without going all the way to the back. At that point I’d felt like I’d earned it whether I was right or wrong.

The energy in the line was electric. People were shouting, “PURPLE. PURPLE. PURPLE.” We shouted, “O-BAMA; O-BAMA; O-BAMA.” We did the wave back and forth through the line. And we inched along toward Nirvana – the purple gate. We had no idea what was going on during the festivities, because we were LITERALLY UNDERNEATH THE NATIONAL MALL … THE ONLY PLACE IN THE WORLD, it seemed, WHERE YOU COULDN’T SEE WHAT WAS GOING ON!

When I finally made it through, it was almost 11:30am. The gate had not only been chained shut, but there was another fence erected in front of it. I stood there in disbelief next to people who’d been there since 7am and even met someone who’d been there since 6am. Again, there were handicapped people, mixed into the craziness of everyone else with no accommodations. I ran into my soror, Patience, who was red hot steaming mad. Later I heard the story of a man who’d been there since 5:30am. Rumors swirled through the crowd. They moved the gate; they might open a new gate before 12 noon; there was some kind of security breech inside.

In the end, it was not to be. The crowd locked outside of the purple gate constituted a sea of mass disappointment. I zeroed in on an older, petite African American woman who was crying. I realized I knew her! It was one of my best friend’s mom … a woman who is normally full of fire and brimstone and who would never ever CRY. Suddenly, everything was put into context for me. I’d had my time with Barack. I had my experience years ago, and I had a picture to prove it! Maybe somewhere deep inside what would one day be. I’d also already had a wonderful Inauguration experience. I’d met hundreds of people promoting my book, and had the opportunity to touch and inspire so many.

But for so many of the people in that sea of disappoint, this WAS their Inauguration experience. Locked outside of a purple gate. And for a president who has inspired unprecedented levels of civic engagement and promised unprecedented transparency and accountability, this was a most unfortunate start.

I separated from Patience, picked up my friend’s mom and her family and we ran to Union Station at 5 minutes to noon, hoping to see the Inaugural event in the Great Hall. It was not playing. Ultimately, we tuned in at 11:59am, watching it on mute in the Amtrak section of the station on tiny little TV screens next to the digital train schedules.

Later we went back to my house, reconnected with the family, got a boat load of food and champagne, “rewound” the DVR, and sat back and pretended we were watching live TV!

(I hear that purple ticket holders were supposed to get some kind of penance from the Inaugural Committee, but I’m still waiting for that and my 40 acres and a mule).

All’s well that ends well. It’s all good!!!!!