Washington, stay home.
The rest of the country — 600,000 to 800,000 humans, at last estimate — will be swarming the Capitol on Monday, bums-to-tums on the Metro, cross-legged and squirmy in the bathroom lines of all of the Starbucks in the land. But you? You can be —
“Years ago, I used to go,” says Bertha Jackson, who has lived in the Washington area for 30 years. “There was the excitement of being able to walk around on the Mall,” says Jackson, and when her children were small, she thought it was important to introduce them to democracy.
But now? “You could see it on television,” she says. And so? “I will be watching it on my couch.” The couch! The comfy sofa with the nubby blankets and the HDTV, so crisp and clear as to showcase every breath exiting from Chief Justice John Roberts’s mouth into the frigid air. There will be those who insist that living within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol translates into mandatory attendance. That it is our patriotic duty to pull on a balaclava, pop into some Dr. Scholl’s, suck it up and get on down to watch the inauguration of the president of the United States of America.
But: If you live in New York City, do you go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve? If you live in Cancun, do you do the beach during Spring Break? One would never say that a presidential inauguration is amateur hour in Washington, but one would be permitted to note how many of this weekend’s public transportation users will be blithely standing on the left and walking on the right. (It should be the reverse, folks. Please squinch over.)
“I’m a native Washingtonian,” says Rose Swain, who works in education. “I can go to the Mall any time I want.” And she has. On field trips. For visitors. She has pilgrimaged to the Smithsonian Castle nearly every time she has hosted an out-of-town guest. She has done the White House at Christmas, when the crowds are neat and manageable and orderly.
It’s the occurrence of this inauguration that would be special to her, not the location, she explains. And so does she really have to be there?
Important events buckle under the intense weight of their historical import. Everyone gets the sense that they should “be there.” To experience it, yes, but also to obtain bragging rights so that in the future we can all inject these events awkwardly into random conversations. (Did someone mention coffee? I drank it at the 2009 inauguration).
There is, however, the question of precisely where “there” begins. To be “there,” must one be on the front lines of the Mall, smushed up to the wooden inaugural platform? What about farther back? If you are experiencing the inauguration through Jumbotron and loudspeakers, if you are staring through your binoculars at someone you believe to be President Obama, but who you discover is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then does that still count as “there?”
Washington: You live here. Without leaving your yard, you will experience the same weather as Michelle Obama when she holds the Lincoln Bible. Must we go even more “there” than that? Must we sit on the first lady’s lap?
Proximity to power can breed a blase attitude toward it.
“I have this feeling that I should, that I really should,” says Jack Cobb, who is a government worker and has lived in Washington for three years. “But, you know, it’s not that hard to find a way to see the president speak.”
It is not actually hard at all to be standing 10 to 12 feet away from the leader of the free world, if you count the times when he whizzes past you in Limo One, a.k.a. The Beast. “If they shut down the road, it’s the president,” says Cobb, who, like most Washingtonians, has mastered the elusive and delicate art of motorcade spotting. “The vice president usually has a bunch of motorcycles before his car.” The senators or other big-name dignitaries, “don’t they ride in those short buses?” he asks. Like the ones you rent to go out drinking in?
Stay home, Washington. Feel not the guilt. Buckle not under the pressure.
“It was so nice and comfortable last time,” says Ben Schumin, who works for a nonprofit and blogs about District transportation in his spare time. He stayed home for the last inauguration, too, after doing some calculations regarding temperature and tourists.
This time is a no-brainer. Washington grows more humdrum every day. “The last time I passed the White House, it was on my way to somewhere else,” he says. “I’ve been to all of the touristy places. I’ve run into Ralph Nader on the street.”
But does he regret it, not going last time, on the day that everyone else went?
“Honestly, I feel more badly that I never got the 2009 SmarTrip card,” he says. “I mean, that thing is cool-looking.”