Pre-Inauguration Update: Witness to Witnesses of History

obama metro card

The special edition Obama metro card.

"I have a surprise for you."

These were the words my brother, Greg, said to me and my other brother, Todd, as we prepared to step into the overcast, 18-degree D.C. morning on Saturday. We were standing in the entryway of the house Greg shares with three other roommates. We had arrived at midnight and crashed on the futons in his living room before waking up, eager to embark on our Inaugural adventure.

He handed both of us official-looking white envelopes, each one proudly proclaiming, "$10.00 Inauguration."

My life briefly flashed before my eyes. Every lottery-ticket moment of my life suddenly disappeared: Tickets to the most historic presidential inauguration of our lifetime had left all those experiences in the dust.

Greg immediately recognized the looks on our faces.

"Oh, no, it's not that," he said.

Confused, I looked closer at the envelope, this time recognizing the word "Metro"--referring to D.C.'s clean, efficient mass-transit rail system. Clinging to a faint hope, I made a feeble reference to the Obama Express that would soon be making its way by rail from Philadelphia to D.C.'s Union Station. Had he somehow secured tickets to that historic train ride?

"Look," he said excitedly, opening one of the envelopes, "It's a special-edition Obama metro card!"

After recovering from my brief bout with raised expectations, I had to admit it was pretty cool. By the time the rest of the civilized world arrives in Washington today, you won't be able to get these mementos of history. Greg even put $10 of train fare on each card--and got one for my girlfriend, Rosie, who will be joining us around midnight tonight.

To be honest, we've all come to this 44th presidential inauguration with lowered expectations, knowing full well that we'll be among the estimated 2 to 4 million competing for even a glimpse of a man who represents a defining moment in our country's history.

We are content that we are witnesses to the witnesses of history. We have contented ourselves with having our Obama moments through the shrieks and cheers of those in front of us.

We froze for pictures and defrosted in the pub.

We went down to the National Mall on Saturday so we could get our only up-close look at the setup for the swearing-in. A college basketball game between Butler and Illinois-Chicago was playing on a jumbotron at the steps of the Capitol Building as workers scurried around, making preparations. It seemed appropriate.

As we defrosted frozen toes and fingers at a nearby Irish pub where one of Greg's roommates works, tipping a traditional Fitzpatrick brothers toast of a pint of Smithwick's and a shot of Jameson's, we learned that the Obama Express would be pulling into Union Station--just two blocks from where we were drinking.

We had a brief debate about the merits of staying at the pub (where it was warm and likely to get warmer if we continued drinking) versus fighting thousands of people for a glimpse of the new First Family at the train station.

We decided we hadn't come all this way to sit in a pub and watch TV, so we waded into a sea of humanity to attempt our brush with greatness. After jockeying for position for a few hours at various exits (it helps to have a brother who knows Union Station), we received the disappointing news that the train had arrived, and the Obama party had been rushed through a side exit and into a waiting motorcade.

Crowd at Union Station

False alarm at Union Station. 

We streamed out of Union Station with thousands of others and suddenly heard hundreds of people screaming ahead of us. We rushed toward the excitement and heard sirens and saw flashing lights fading in the distance.

The motorcade had just roared past the pub where we had been drinking.

Since that moment, I've decided that if my Obama moment is meant to happen, it will happen. I'll be happy to just be part of the excitement.

As I write this, sitting in front of my brother's living-room window, my concentration is broken by an odd, distinctive siren. The street is suddenly empty, and then three motorcycle cops roar past the window, followed by an assortment of police vehicles, black SUVs and a distinctive black limousine. An ambulance takes up the rear.

The whole thing takes less than 10 seconds. I don't have time to grab my iPhone or the Flip video camera in the jacket next to me. The ruckus wakes up my brother, Todd, who is asleep on the other futon.

President-elect Obama is headed to a nearby school to help with some painting. Without crowds lining the street, sitting quietly inside, I feel I've been a solitary witness to history.

Now it's time for my brothers and I to head out--we're running late to help clear brush at Washington International School.

outside the living room window

The scene outside my brother's living room window - moments too late.