Crowds gather for the inauguration of Barack Obama. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
I flew to Washington a few days before the inauguration, doing my best to recall the optimism and emotion of the night of November 4. It wasn’t easy. Even the most partial listing of bad news since election day was sobering: the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, the endless drug war along the Mexican border, the savage assault on Gaza and the ensuing humanitarian disaster, the European and Russian natural gas stand-off, with its dire intimations of energy conflicts to come. One could go on and on. Closer to home, the State of California teetered on the brink of insolvency, while in Oakland, the city where I live, a riot erupted after an unarmed twenty-two year old man was shot in the back by a police officer on New Year’s Eve. The victim was a butcher at my local grocery store – I recognized his face from the posters that appeared all over town – and he was killed at the train station I use almost every day.
With few exceptions, presidents do not comment on or even recognize an individual loss like this one; they operate on another scale, and there is no room within their discourse for something so small. It’s better left to mayors, pastors or activists. But the mood of a city or a region can be profoundly affected, and in the early days of January, this particular death seemed for many to be of a piece with a more generalized gloom: a tragedy, a local one, to join the wide and grim chorus coming from all sides. The night of the riot I fell asleep to the hum of police helicopters buzzing overhead, and the next morning went downtown to find the sidewalks of my city littered with broken glass, the smashed, ruined storefronts boarded up and tagged with slogans like ‘We’re Still Here!’ or ‘Open for Business!’ – statements designed to reassure the frightened storeowners inside, rather than the few passersby, who were not likely to believe it anyway.
Washington was, just as I’d hoped, an entirely different story: festive and expectant, overrun with out-of-towners eager to soak it all in, tipsy with thoughts of a bright future. The crowds were happy, as if they hadn’t read a newspaper in eight weeks, and seemingly unfazed by the freezing temperatures. For their benefit, the nation’s capital had been transformed into an open-air emporium for all manner of Obama merchandise, an endless stream of ordinary consumer goods made new and historic by the word ‘Obama’, for sale on fold-out tables set up on every corner. Men in heavy black coats hawked T-shirts at Metro stations and bus stops; they stomped up and down Eighteenth Street, announcing their goods with the enthusiasm of carnival barkers, pushing shopping carts brimming with commemorative sweatshirts and posters and shot glasses. There were inaugural pins and scarves and handbags, naturally; but also bottles of filtered water and earrings and chocolate-covered sunflower seeds and eighteen-month wall calendars with photos of the smiling First Family. It is a quintessentially American brand of faith, this one: that anything can be sold, that anything can be bought. History can be commodified, as can hope or change, or any notion large or small, no matter how abstract.
Late Sunday night – it must have been two in the morning – I met a man who’d driven up from a small town in north Georgia to stand before a brick wall and sell portraits with a life-size poster of Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha. I wasn’t interested, but in a vague sort of way I’d been thinking about a souvenir. I must have paused for just an instant, but that was enough. He was a hustler, a good one, and businessmen like him always have exactly what you need. I’m not sure how it happened. ‘What you looking for?’ he asked.
We Americans are people who sell things: a moment later, I was following him to a blue van where a woman of indeterminate age slept in the passenger seat, covered in Obama blankets. He opened the trunk, and even in the low light, I could see how tired he was, how hard he’d worked that day. There was perhaps a thousand dollars worth of T-shirts and posters piled in the van, items he’d printed himself, his own optimistic investment in this national milestone.
‘They’re beautiful,’ the man said of his own T-shirts as he passed me one after another. He touched them all, rubbing his palm against the fabric. Most were imprinted with the front page of a newspaper or magazine from the campaign – ancient history by now, those days when candidate Obama was just beginning to make noise. Some bore the date – January 20, 2009 with the words I WAS THERE. ‘I’m almost out,’ the man said proudly. Others, more to the point, read simply MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK, and of these only a handful remained. I bought one of the November 5 Chicago Tribune cover, just for old times’ sake.
On Monday, I went out into the cold to prepare myself for the trials of the following day, and to see something of the city. I wandered for a few hours, pausing for the occasional squealing motorcade, joining a group of tourists taking photos as a fleet of tow trucks cleared an entire city block of parked cars in a matter of minutes. By the early afternoon, I was lost; even with the Washington Monument to guide me, downtown seemed to keep getting farther away. I crossed the Duke Ellington Bridge heading east and came across a newly-painted mural of the last eleven American presidents: Eisenhower at one end, Obama at the other with an arm around George W. Bush. The unlikeliest detail of all: except for Ike and Kennedy, each of these men was smiling.
The painting adorned the wall of Mama Ayesha’s, a Palestinian restaurant, and when I stopped, a man named Roberto handed me a business card. Not his, but the artist’s. ‘The pride of El Salvador.’ Her name was Karlísima, and she was inside, he said, giving an interview to Univision, the country’s largest Spanish-language network.
Roberto and I got to talking as we waited for Karla to come out. I asked him if he intended to go to the Mall the next day, and he nodded. Of course he’d go. He had no work, nothing else to do, and besides he liked Obama. He loved the US, Roberto told me, and he’d seen much of it on his travels. He was in his early forties, I’d guess, grew up in Quito, Ecuador, had run away at sixteen and lived for years as a vagabond in his native country and later in Colombia. It was a good life, a free life, but eventually he joined his parents, who’d been living in the US since he was a boy. He described how difficult things were in DC when he first arrived – the violence, the drugs, the punishing wars between Latinos and blacks fought over turf in Columbia Heights. After 9/11, he lost his job, then got mixed up in drugs, and was looking for a change. He met another Ecuadorian, a man who made his living selling watches – Rolex knock-offs sent from New York – and together they decided to see America.
His friend’s name was Oscar, and they travelled together for three years, becoming like brothers. Oscar read the Bible a lot, and Roberto picked up the habit too. He didn’t crave drugs anymore, never searched for them out on the road as they made their way from Washington to Atlanta, down to Florida, across the Deep South, into Texas. ‘It’s a great country,’ Roberto said, and though we must have crossed paths before, he’d seen more of it than me: Arizona, Las Vegas, Seattle, dozens of small towns dotting the Plains and the Midwest. They got their watches for three or four dollars each, sold them for ten, making enough money to keep moving. They’d arrive in town on the Greyhound bus – ‘Greyhouse,’ Roberto called it – find the Latino neighborhood, and go to work on street corners, in bars, at pool halls. The watches sold themselves: they were cheap, but looked good. On Father’s Day, a customer, feeling particularly generous, might buy ten or twelve at once.
We talked for a long time out there in the bitter cold, as people kept coming to get their picture taken with the mural. Roberto offered them business cards, and eventually Karlísima herself came out to attend to her many admirers. She gave a few impromptu interviews, and Roberto went on with his story. By the third year, he and Oscar had come to Pittston, Maine, the last leg of their journey, and were about to turn south back to Washington. It was 2006. He doesn’t remember much about that town, except that it was small and sad. He and Oscar were in a bar, playing pool against some white men – ‘winning,’ Roberto noted – when things got out of hand. Oscar had his duffel bag full of watches in the corner, his life savings, really, and for a moment it looked like the white men were going to rob them. Threats and slurs, and then the pushing started, a bottle was broken – Roberto and Oscar barely had time to get their things and escape as the white men chased them. At the door of the bar, the two friends, the two brothers, split up: Oscar, his duffel thrown over his shoulder, went right. Roberto ran left. The night was very dark, and they never saw each other again.
By the time Karla came over to talk to me, I could think of nothing to ask her. Still, I pretended to be a journalist, stumbling over a few questions and dutifully writing down her answers, but my mind was elsewhere. Listening to Roberto’s story, I’d forgotten about the inauguration of Barack Obama, or the millions of visitors who’d descended on the capital, or this mural and its many smiling presidents. The sun was bright, but it was painfully cold, and all I could think about was this disappearance, and the vastness of this nation; the imagination required to consider it a country at all, and not a loose collection of provincial concerns, of tribes occasionally united by a broader grievance, or by virtue of consuming the same set of television programmes and roughly the same goods and services. I thought of the many kinds of people who feel loyalty to this place, who live here, work here, and all the places they hail from. It seems impossible to fashion a nation out of this. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine it all falling apart, each of us heading home – however that word is defined – or moving on, disengaging from a project far too outlandish and foolhardy to survive.
‘Where is Oscar now, you think?’ I asked Roberto.
He shrugged. ‘He always wanted to go to Canada,’ he said. He was quiet for a moment, as he reconsidered the idea. ‘Oscar is here, probably, in the US,’ Roberto said after a while. He found it hard to envision his friend doing anything but travelling and selling watches, discovering his adopted country.
I was still thinking about Roberto’s story the next day, on the Mall, when millions of Americans arrived before dawn and waited for hours in the cold to hear Barack Obama recite a thirty-five word oath.
Roberto’s friend, I thought, could be anywhere, but wherever he is, he’s likely watching right now, or is, at minimum, aware of this moment. Oscar could have even been in Washington: indeed, it seemed like the entire country had come. We saw the sun rise over the Mall, felt the space filling with people, heard a children’s choir singing, kept our eyes fixed on the giant television screens. We pointed as we recognized the dignitaries who arrived, laughed and joked with strangers as we wondered aloud how someone like John Cusack scored a ticket. ‘He hasn’t made a movie in years!’ someone called out, and everyone laughed. A mixed-race couple held their two heavily-bundled infants on their shoulders so the children could see the big screen. My legs went numb around mid-morning, but I didn’t mind. The waiting was endless, the crowd joyful and calm, and the first real jolt of the day came when the camera panned out to show the entire area from above, the endless crush of people amassed between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. The crowd saw itself then, its nearly infinite size, and roared.