Outside the Obamas' Temporary Home, a Crowd Waits for a Glimpse of History

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 2009

It is just a glimpse they want. A momentary glance. A slight wave of the hand, perhaps. Something. Anything that will acknowledge the presence of the people who have gathered across the park from the White House, across the street from the Hay-Adams hotel, where future first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters, Sasha and Malia, had arrived Saturday night for an 11-day stay before moving to Blair House -- and then on to the White House.

On Sunday morning, crowds gather in front of the posh hotel on 16th Street NW, near Lafayette Square, where Secret Service officers have turned the block into a fortress of gray barriers and white canopies.

The barriers hold back scores of people who gather in front of St. John's Church, the pale yellow building across the street, where President and Mrs. Bush are attending services. The crowds do not appear to know that the Bushes are inside the church. People are facing the hotel, hoping for a sighting.

Barbara O'Malley stands in a black pea coat and sensible heels, tortoiseshell sunglasses, pearl earrings. O'Malley keeps staring at a hotel window on the fourth floor. From this side of the street, you can see a light bulb burning in the window. Perhaps it's the window.

"I keep staring at that window with the light. I don't know why," says O'Malley, a teacher from Newtown Square, Pa. "I keep looking at that window, hoping she will wave." She knows it's futile. Doesn't really make sense that Michelle Obama would step to that window and wave. Who knows what room she has checked into. But O'Malley waits nonetheless.

Just then, a woman in a red jacket walks up. "What time are they coming out?" Sherry Adams, 40, asks. "Does anybody know?"

There is a need to be here, up as close as one can get to the incoming first family. A curious need to press one's face to the gate, to look upon power. Wait and watch. Hoping the leader will acknowledge the common people who stand there. It is a curious human behavior: the need to be acknowledged.

You think about the poor crowds who pressed their faces against the black gates at Buckingham Palace to glimpse the future Queen Elizabeth II on her wedding day in 1947. You see in the old black-and-white grainy footage the anticipation in the faces of the crowd. You do not know how long the British throngs had been waiting. Or how far they came. But you see in their faces a need to be acknowledged. Then Elizabeth comes on a balcony and waves. It is not an excited wave. She doesn't bother to lift her arm above her shoulder. It is a tired gloved wave, a twist of the wrist. The crowd erupts in cheers. Elizabeth turns and retreats into the palace. But she has satisfied the need of those outside the gates.

It feels like that here, on a much smaller scale. Standing on 16th Street at midmorning, small crowds of Washingtonians and tourists have gathered with anticipation to watch for the Obamas. Not really knowing what to expect. Resting against the concrete barriers that have appeared in the middle of the night. Near orange posters attached to parking meters that announce: "Emergency. No Parking" from 1 a.m. Jan. 4 until "Further Notice." The signs give the impression of omniscience. But they don't tell you how long you should wait in your black high-heeled shoes. How long you will be out here to see the new first lady or the president-elect.

"We heard he was coming. I was thinking to myself, after January 20 you may never get as close again," said Michael P. Bailey, a construction manager who lives in Northwest Washington.

Floyd Patterson, 28, of Mount Rainier, left work to come here. "I am hoping to see," he says. "Every now and again, I look up there hoping I will see somebody."

A police car pulls up and turns around. A man in uniform holds the leash of a German shepherd that sniffs the street swiftly. The crowd looks. But then nothing.

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