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Party On? Well, If You Must . . .

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009

Here we go again.

Every four years I warn starry-eyed rookies about the inaugural balls, and every four years they ignore my hard-earned advice. I feel like the mom who tells her lovesick teenage daughter, "Trust me, he's going to break your heart." Does the daughter listen? Of course not. She says, "But this one is different."

It's never different.

But if you insist on going, a little advice from someone who's been there, done that:

Tickets: Scoring an invitation to one of the 10 official balls means you're plugged in enough to get in. Either buy a pair of tickets and go, or politely say no and give someone else a chance. Do not be a jerk and resell the tickets, anywhere. Lousy manners, plus that makes it easier for bad guys to sell counterfeit tickets, which unsuspecting folks will learn are no good at the door, breaking their wallets and hearts. Keep hope alive.

Clothes: If you listen to nothing else, please pay attention to this: Do not spend a fortune on a fancy ball gown. And do not wear killer high heels.

Guys, you have it easy. Tux. Comfortable shoes. Trust me, no one cares what you wear, as long as it's not baby blue or ruffled. Ladies -- how can I say this? -- at this ball, there's only one belle: Michelle. The rest of us are just window dressing. It's insane to wear an expensive gown that will get crushed, ignored, stepped on (for God's sake, people, no trains!) and otherwise defaced.

The balls will be jampacked with thousands, and most people will see you from the waist up. Wear something flattering on top, and if you must splurge, treat yourself to a great pair of glitzy earrings. Don't bring heirloom anything, including Grandma's diamond bracelet or anything else you might lose. Not that kind of night.

This is crucial: Wear. Flat. Shoes. I wore four-inch heels at my first inaugural ball and was ready to cut off my feet by the end of the night.

Historically, all the little old ladies immediately claim the few chairs scattered throughout the ballrooms; you will stand all night. There are long lines for security, coat check, bars and restrooms, and no place to sit down, except the floor. You will probably dance to kill time while waiting for the president to show up. Oh, and don't forget the long wait at valet or the long walk to the Metro.

Since most flat shoes don't look great with short skirts, I'd wear a long gown, which will also keep you warm. (See Getting Around, below.)

Coats: Unless you're being dropped off by a limo and can toss your sable in the back seat, you're stuck with a winter coat or wrap. Don't get me started on Coat Check Hell, the stuff of ball legends. Lost coats, mislaid coats, endless lines, overwhelmed staff. But then, it's not safe to throw your coat in a corner, either. Basically, you're stuck.

My one tip: Insist your and your date's coats go on the same hanger and claim check. Wear a bright-colored scarf and wrap it around the coats so they'll be easier to spot in the sea of black. Then pray.

Getting around: First, let's hope if the Presidential Inaugural Committee is running shuttles from local hotels to the ball sites. No word if that's going to happen -- but if so, that's your best bet for getting to and from the parties.

Second-best bet: Hire a car and driver. If you never, ever hire one again in your life, this is the night to do it. A limo will get as close as possible to the ball venue and maybe even close enough so you can leave your coats in the car. A limo means you can drink without worrying about a designated driver. A limo can also inch you around town when you discover the ball is even lamer than you anticipated and it's time to go somewhere -- anywhere -- else.

Taxis? Good luck with that. Driving and parking your own car? Go for it, if arriving at the ball in time to see the president isn't a big deal. Maybe all those dire predictions of gridlock are overkill, and it will be smooth sailing that night.

No big bucks for a car and driver? Metro is your late-night friend, baby, open until 2 a.m. A safe, efficient way to get to the ball, although it might mean walking a few blocks. Flats -- remember?

Food and drink: Eat before you go. Grab something at home or make reservations and enjoy a good meal. The food at these official and pricey affairs ranges from cheese and crackers to various over-steamed buffets. Assume the worst, and you won't be disappointed.

The good news about the bars: Will serve some form of alcohol. Bad news: Usually cash, with wine or beer only (if you're lucky, cheap liquor), plastic cups, long lines. Have a nice cocktail of your choice elsewhere before. Skip the flask. Won't go through the metal detector. Plastic? We're "don't ask, don't tell" on that one.

Final tip: Keep it light. Bring one of those cheap disposable cameras. Laugh a lot. Enjoy the moment. Assume this will be your first -- and only -- inaugural ball.

Trust me: It will.

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