Visitors Pour Into D.C., Loaded With Luggage But Lightened by Hope

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009

They were rolling north, at the end of a four-hour drive from Durham, N.C., almost there. The rest of the car was focused on the directions to a hotel downtown.

Then the Washington Monument appeared in the distance.

Anjanée Bell pointed it out, but the others were distracted. So she savored her thrill in silence.

"That was the moment to say, you know, 'We're really here,' " said Bell, 31, the artistic director for a dance company. She had visited Washington before, but Bell said she could feel something different in the capital at that moment yesterday -- even if, technically, she was still in Virginia.

Inauguration fever broke out across the Washington region yesterday as thousands of visitors began filtering into spare bedrooms, rundown motels and four-star lobbies. They came with Obama action figures, with snoozing babies, with homemade signs and with a more noble view of the capital than most of its full-time residents can sustain.

And many came with memories that made this occasion -- the swearing-in of the first African American president -- seem wonderful and a little unreal.

"I lived through segregation," said Marion Garrison, 87, of Bakersfield, Calif. She and five friends were settling in at a Comfort Inn along New York Avenue NE. "I waited for this. It finally came."

Yesterday was expected to be one of the busiest arrival days for inaugural guests: All but 400 or so of the District's 29,000 hotel rooms were booked.

But the rush didn't seem to strain the seams of a city used to conventions and tourists. Highways flowed smoothly. Airports were busy -- Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport reported 28,000 passengers, up from 20,000 on a normal day -- but didn't feel Thanksgiving-crowded.

"I worked so hard on the campaign that I just wanted to see the fruits of my labor. I'm excited. I'm elated," said LaRue Henderson, 73, who had flown in from Atlanta with her daughter and a friend.

They were waiting at Reagan National Airport for a ride to a relative's home in Falls Church, where they will stay for the long weekend. The group brought along Obama T-shirts and caps, although they needn't have worried. Every business in the region with a roof and a cash register seemed to be selling inauguration souvenirs yesterday.

For some airline passengers, the celebration of Obama's swearing-in began even before they touched down. Len Solak, 59, of Albuquerque arrived at BWI wearing a homemade sign around his neck. "We The People get our country back in THREE days! (Loyal opposition is welcome, but cynics can go home!)," it said.

"It was the most photographed sign on the plane," said Solak, who bought his ticket to Washington in September despite his wife's fears that he would jinx the election. "Of course, it was also the only sign on the plane."

Many arriving tourists dived right into Washington rituals. At Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street NW -- which was upgraded from a local to a national icon this month when Obama dropped in for a chili half-smoke and sweet tea -- crowds got so big that the staff started turning them away at 10:25 a.m. Many were directed to another D.C. favorite: the Florida Avenue Grill.

Some visitors were inventing their own rituals. The Hauldren family, from the Chicago suburb of Northfield, Ill., brought along a small plastic action figure of Obama, which they planned to photograph at major Washington landmarks.

Such as . . . the Court House Metro station.

"We took a picture of him on the plane, and we took a picture of him here," said Julia Hauldren, 43, a stay-at-home mother who was at the station yesterday morning with her husband and four children. She said the idea was inspired by Flat Stanley, a children's toy that is supposed to be photographed in strange and exotic locales. "We thought we'd do sort of [a] Flat Stanley, but with Tiny Obama."

On a Greyhound bus from Pittsburgh, Gloria Moore was talking about living in segregated Selma, Ala. She was taking her 13-year-old granddaughter to see a black man become president and thinking about those who didn't live to see it.

"I wish my grandmother who never learned to read and worked in the cotton fields of North Carolina could see this," Moore said. She thought of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., too. She added: "I believe God orchestrated this. It is time for a change."

And as they were arriving, Washington was getting ready. Thousands of National Guard soldiers filed into the D.C. Armory, carrying green duffle bags and wearing fleece jackets under their camouflage uniforms for warmth. As many as 10,000 Guard members from 25 states and territories will be involved in Tuesday's festivities, the largest deployment of citizen-soldiers for any inauguration.

Other preparations ranged from the elaborate to the mundane. In the lobby of the Capitol Hilton downtown, Brooks Brothers had set up a satellite office for pre-gala fashion emergencies, selling formal coats and giving bowtie lessons. At Frager's Hardware on Capitol Hill, people began streaming through the doors at 7:15 a.m. to buy hand warmers (still some left) and toe warmers (all out), plus space heaters and weather stripping for houses full of guests.

And keys. Lots of keys. At midday, 15 people were snaked down a narrow aisle of the store waiting to have copies of keys made for their inaugural guests.

"I noticed the lines back there, but it didn't dawn on me why it was," said general manager Nick Kaplanis. "It has been extra heavy back there all [day] long."

In the lobby of the Mayflower hotel downtown, florist Jerome Williams, 60, was touching up his displays, wearing a plaid shirt in a lobby full of suits. Among other arrangements, he had made eight special ones with red roses, white orchids and blue hybrid delphiniums.

Now Williams was checking the flowers again, wanting them to be perfect. He plucked out a rose that was turning slightly more crimson than the rest of the bouquet.

Williams, who lives in Charles County, said he sensed a special enthusiasm among the hotel's employees, most of whom voted for Obama. Williams said he thought the man himself might walk down this hallway, past these flowers.

"I just want to show my best" in case Obama passes, he said. "Wanted to show the things in my repertoire."

Even for the workers who didn't get to see the visitors arriving, the first day of the inaugural weekend brought a special electricity. Renee Sullivan-Norris, 47, of Prince George's County spent the day in a closed-in office behind the front desk at the Marriott Wardman Park, manning the hotel switchboard.

Throughout the day, she talked to tourists who wanted directions from the airport or updates on their seats for Inauguration Day events.

In five of those conversations, she said, people had spontaneously told her, "Congratulations!"

Why would that be?

"Because I live in D.C., and I guess they figure we need some help about now," she said. "I say, 'Thank you, and congratulations to you, too.' "

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