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The Long Wait for a Quick Glimpse of History
Outside the Obamas' Temporary Home, Crowd's Patience Is Rewarded

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.

Maude J. Thompson, Vicki Thompson and Paula Godfrey move closer to the hotel. Three striking black women walking down the street.

"I hope to get a glimpse, if not a touch," says Maude Thompson, who's visiting from North Carolina. "I worked so hard for them during the primary and the election. I never met him. But I got a beautiful letter from him and his wife thanking me."

Vicki Thompson, her daughter, is wearing a full-length raccoon coat with black lining on which her name is embroidered in white. She talks about the historical moment: "A black man in the White House."

Godfrey, the Thompsons' cousin and a consultant from Herndon, says: "I don't know that racism will end or that it will become more pronounced."

They talk about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the difficulty of the presidential campaign. Every now and again, they glance at the windows of the hotel.

There is more movement on the street. People come and go. A group of tourists from Brazil wonders why so many people are gathered. Somebody tells them that President-elect Obama is coming and that Michelle Obama and the girls are already inside. They shade their eyes and look up at the windows of the hotel. They wait.

A Secret Service agent walks down the street. The waiting is like being in a movie. You know something will happen. But when? What? The sun is moving overhead. A squirrel crosses the sidewalk. The white canopy tent attached to a side hotel entrance flaps.

Maybe you will see nothing. Maybe you too will leave without the glimpse. It's getting close to lunchtime. The window with the light is still blank. Nobody has appeared.

Then suddenly and quietly, four black SUVS pour out of the white canopy tent attached to the hotel. The crowd hurries to the corner. Inside the second black SUV, an arm in a red coat is raised. "It's Michelle Obama!" Maude Thompson says. The crowd waves back. Mrs. Obama waves again. The girls are inside as well. Malia, her hair down, looks straight ahead. Younger sister Sasha, barely tall enough to see out of the window, peers at the onlookers with an unflinching directness, a little girl the day before starting a new school.

In seconds, the black SUVs hurry down the street, disappearing behind flashing lights and leaving behind awe.

"I saw her," says Vicki Thompson.

"If you weren't paying attention, you would have missed the whole thing," a woman in the crowd says.

"I saw her hand go up. I got the glimpse. The hand wave," Maude Thompson says, smiling.

An Obama transition aide will say later that she cannot reveal where Michelle Obama and the girls were going Sunday afternoon. "They are just in D.C. getting settled," she says. You explain the desire for people to know, and she explains the balancing act. "There is novelty that they are here. But there is still a need to protect their time as a family," she says.

The street is quiet. The white canopies flap. The crowd vanishes, having gotten what it needed: a glimpse and then a wave.

The street will empty for more hours. Then fill again as a new crowd arrives to await the president-elect, who finally arrives around 7:30 in a sleek presidential motorcade going the opposite direction down a one-way street. You see Obama inside the second car. For just a moment. Then in a flash he is inside the hotel. You do not notice whether he waved.

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