THE KID WAS HAVING FUN. The kid was backstage at the Kennedy Center where he shouldn't have been posing as someone he wan't right next to John Wayne and wondering if he should say something. Suddenly, the orchestra struck up God Bless America and everyone including John Wayne rushed out on stage for the finale. The kid sang the song softly to himself and wondered if he should just walk out on the stage with John Wayne and everyone else and know that his mother watching on television would plotz.
This was the kid's first inauguration and he was having a good time. He has written a column about it already, but now he was looking for something else, something with meaning. But so far it meant nothing more than standing back stage with John Wayne and noticing things like how Jack Nicholson is shorter than you would think and John Wayne bigger and Leonard Bernstein looks exactly like you would imagine.
But the kid was having fun. Later he went to the party after the gala and was introduced to Paul Newman. The kid was thrilled and he wanted to say something to Paul Newman, but Newman just looked down at the can of Schlitz in his hand and said nothing. It was very awkward. So he moved on. He was still having fun.
On Thursday night, the kid went to one of the balls. He had taken the Metro down to the Capitol earlier in the day to watch the inauguration and he had been cold. Now he was hot and tired and could find no place to put his coat. He saw some stars but he was no longer thrilled. He wanted to be at home. But he strolled through the ballroom anyway and then out in the corridor and he almost stepped on a lady. He looked down and he saw the lady was sitting on the floor, her back against a pillar. He saw that he knew the lady. She had once been a neighbor and her name is Peg Tyler.
The lady was very tired, she said> and she didn't care what people thought. She was going to sit on the floor anyway. She had been working all week, helping to run free bus tours of Washington. She seemed a bit depressed. The tours went to places like the inner-city and Anacostia - to the slums and through the old downtown, and the aim was to show inaugural visitors what the city was really like. Not many people were taking the tours. She asked if I would.
The next morning I did. I climbed aboard the bus and waited for it to fill. A man from Australia wearing a plaid beret came on, and a lady from Washington and then two black women and two black children. They said they were from Hyattsville. That was it. The driver, a man named Paul Diggs, closed the door and we were off. About an hour later, we pulled up to the home of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia. We got off the bus and trudged up the steps to the great man's house and there we were greeted by an old, black lady dressed in a long, polka-dot dress - 18th century style.
She formed our little group in the entrance foyer and then she walked behind a guide rope to tell us about Frederick Douglass before we saw the house. There was a large portrait of Douglass behind her, the courage and commitment plain on his face, and the old lady told us how Douglass had been born a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and how he had been taken from his mother and how he had eventually escaped to the north where he established a newspaper.Later, I looked at a copy of the paper which is under glass in the house. The date was Dec. 22, 1848 and there was a story in it by someone named Roger Williams. It was entitled "An Account of Slavery in the District of Columbia," and it mentioned something called "the pen" which was near the Capitol where Jimmy Carter had just taken the oath and it was the place where slaves were sold.
The old lady who was doing the talking said she had been working in the Douglass house for 20 years. She wore her hair straight back and tied it in a bun and she talked with poetry in her voice. she mangled her verbs, saying "was" when she meant "were," but it mattered not at all. She wasn't talking to us anyway, but to the two black kids who had been on the bus. They stood in the front, right before the guide rope, and she fixed them with her eyes and held them with her words.
"Frederick Douglass was born a slave," she said. The word "slave" spent a long time coming out of her mouth. "He never went to school a day in his life." She told the kids how Douglass had taught himself to read and write and how as a boy he had asked one of the older slaves if he had to be a slave all his life.
"Go north," the older slave had said.
"Where's north?" the young Douglass had asked.
The older slave took the boy out into the night and pointed to star. "You see that star?" he asked. "That's the north star. You walk until you reach that star." Later, Douglass did just that, stopping in Rochester where he edited his newspaper.
"And what did he name that paper?" the old lady asked the kids.
"The North Star," they both said.
And then the old lady told the kids about the books Douglass had written. She named the titles and told them that they found find these books in the Martin Luther King Library. She named the books twice, saying the titles slowly, always saying where they could be found.
We left the house and started down the steep Anacostia hill where Douglass had lived to the bus parked on the street below. From up there you could see the Federal City, which was white in snow and ice and the stone of monuments. Above it all stood the capitol where Carter had been inaugurated the day before, the sun bouncing off the dome, and you knew right off what the old black lady had been telling those kids and how there was really meaning in the inauguration after all. She was telling them that if a slave could become a great man, if a Georgia farm boy could become President, maybe they could do it, too.
This kid thought the Capitol looked like the North Star.