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Across America, Indifference About Day

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 21, 1997; Page A20

The presidential inauguration came and went across America, catching some in a philosophical mood, catching others by surprise and giving still others yet another opportunity not to care.

"We usually run sporting videotapes on our TVs, but for big things like O.J. we'll turn it on if a customer requests it," said Lisa Hopson, manager at downtown Chicago's Alumni Club, a popular lunch spot with eight televisions mounted on the wall. "Is the inauguration on regular TV?

Because we don't have cable."

Across the street at J. Randolph's Bar and Grill, waiter Ted Ray eyed the inauguration in desultory fashion while waiting for the lunch crowd to arrive: "I guess to be interested in it, you've got to believe what they're saying. I'd rather watch 'The Simpsons.' "

In New York's Times Square, however, Airs Georgiadis spent his lunch break standing in snow flurries so he could read the text of President Clinton's speech as it flashed across the mammoth television screen looming above the bustling streets.

"It is kind of nice to watch it here," Georgiadis said, but few others were braving the elements to join him. "Times Square has always been a gathering place for important celebrations, but it seems no one wants to enjoy the spectacle of events like this anymore. . . The excitement is gone."

"The president has a second chance," said Roni Selig, a Democrat standing on the corner of 43rd and Broadway. "He is more experienced. He is wiser and more realistic. He is a great figure for our country as a leader. I think the entire country is rooting for him."

The inauguration may have suffered yesterday because it was Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and people had better things to do with their time off than spend it in saloons or stomping around in a snowstorm.

But the level of just plain indifference, whether in a Chicago bar, a Texas college or a Miami restaurant, was apparent everywhere. Some Americans tried to fit it into their schedule, but others simply couldn't:

"I was taking care of some business and I missed it except for the end," said Chicagoan Mike Hayes, 41, a technical consultant who dropped into Boston Blackie's for lunch as the ceremonies ended. "Did he say anything good?"

Yes he did, according to Richard Buangau, 21, a political science student at St. Edward's University, in Austin, Tex.: "I voted for [Robert J.] Dole, but over the last few weeks, Clinton has really been trying to bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans. I'm one of those 63 percent that are very optimistic about the next four years."

It was Jan Farquhar, 35, a speech instructor at St. Edward's, who switched the student union television from golf to the inauguration so Buangau and about four others could see it. "I look at it as a cultural event, and I want to be a part of it, even if that means just watching it on TV," Farquhar said. "Our students aren't interested, perhaps because a decision isn't being made, or because it's just another speech. These students are detached. It just isn't relevant to them."

Or, like Roque Thompson, 20, they had other things on their minds: "It's more important to me that it's Martin Luther King's birthday than Inauguration Day," Thompson said. "I would like to celebrate my African heritage today with everyone else." He watched the ceremonies for a moment, then went off to class, replaced by a small new clutch of students who paid varying amounts of attention.

"It's just another day," said Anyka Flores, 19, a sophomore theater student. "I just happened to be here, I didn't come to watch it."

The inaugural speech may have landed on mostly deaf ears, but it made at least one convert: "I really didn't know it was Inauguration Day until I stopped in here between classes," said David Sanchez, 19, a freshman social work major. "But I got excited. It makes me wish I could be there, I might feel more involved. I've never watched an inauguration before."

But in Chicago, almost nothing was happening. At J. Randolph's, bartender Jim Cryderman, 25, credited the holiday for the low turnout, but added: "I think that people aren't that excited about a second time."

Indeed, in a city where bars and restaurants have hosted shoulder-to-shoulder crowds for baseball games or the O.J. Simpson verdict, many downtown watering spots were literally vacant during the inauguration.

In the warmer climes of downtown Miami, the bars were filled, and some patrons, like hairdressers Trudy Center, 43, and Cindy Keck, 34, of Petoskey, Mich., were taking a professional interest: "His hair looks good," said Center, sitting in the Hard Rock Cafe at the waterfront Bayside Mall. "He looks awfully poised," Keck added, for someone who's "probably freezing his butt off." Clinton was a silent talking head on the Hard Rock's four televisions, with thudding rock music drowning out his words.

The two hairdressers noted that Miami is such a multicultural place that it was no surprise that few cared about the inauguration. Alan Engel, the manager of Hooters, another Bayside bar, agreed. "I haven't heard anyone ask for it," Engel said as an NCAA basketball game flickered on the television sets above the bar. "We have a lot of tourists here. Most of them are from other countries, and they could care less."

But it was a Brazilian couple who suggested that the orderliness of the ceremony and the citizenry's insouciance probably spoke volumes about the stability and health of the U.S. system:

"It's very organized, 100 percent more so than in Brazil," said Everton Pinzon, a car dealer from Porto Alegre, as he and his wife Viviane watched political adversaries in Washington shake hands. "But that's because this is a first-world country."

Special correspondents Jennifer Ordonez in Chicago, Elizabeth Hudson in Austin, Nancy Reckler in New York and Nick Madigan in Miami contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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