At 3:46 p.m. Monday, the presidential limousine stopped in front of the FBI’s headquarters at Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
On both sides of the boulevard, the crowd rumbled as a cluster of Secret Service agents stood like statues around the car. Then the thick rear-passenger doors opened, and a steady roar began to fill the canyon leading from the U.S. Capitol to the White House.
Out stepped the president and the first lady.
“O-bam-a! O-bam-a!” people shouted, as the first couple’s shoes hit the pavement. They smiled broadly, their arms extended in buoyant waves.
“Oh, my God! There he is!”
As the Obamas walked west toward the White House, the throng was a swirl of laughter, hugs and high-fives. They had gotten their Inaugural Moment, seeing the Obamas in person on the block where they had waited for hours.
Some struggled to articulate their particular thrill.
“Michelle’s hair was all, and — oh, my god! — Michelle was amazing,” gushed Amaya Jernigan, 12, of Waldorf. Amaya said that she is 4 feet 11 inches tall and that she had never jumped so high in her life. “She was, like, here! And Obama was, like, here! And Michelle’s coat was cute!”
For hours Monday, beginning as early as 5 a.m., people had camped out on Pennsylvania Avenue, many of them cagily trying to calculate that spot where they might catch a glimpse of history ambling by.
The Obamas spent nearly 20 minutes on the pavement, getting out of their limousine twice on their way to the reviewing stand, first at Ninth Street and climbing back in near 12th Street. They got out again at 15th Street and walked toward the White House.
“I almost died,” reported Precious Moore, 16, after seeing the president at Ninth Street. “He is taller in person, and he is fine.”
Of course, there was more to the inaugural parade than catching a glimpse of the Obamas.
A spirited mix of small-town charm and unabashed patriotism, the parade followed the same route mapped by Thomas Jefferson at the first procession more than 200 years ago, beginning at the Capitol and ending past the White House.
More than 58 groups were represented, a broad spectrum that included the marching band from Obama’s high school in Honolulu, the Lesbian and Gay Band Association of St. Louis and the Majestic Marching Knights of Ballou Senior High School in Southeast Washington.
At least eight custom-made floats were in the parade, four of them representing the home states of the Obamas and Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill. Other floats honored the Tuskegee Airmen, Martin Luther King Jr. and the contributions of women, immigrants and other groups.
“I feel so excited to be here,” said Alexandre Alves, a tourist from Brazil, as he sat in the bleachers across from the White House.
“Obama wants all people to be closer, to all be equal,” he said. “He is the best thing that could have happened to America.”
The logistics of the day made it difficult to be at the Mall and also along the parade route. Hard choices had to be made. Standing at Seventh and Pennsylvania, DeLisle Horton-Williams said her family took a vote “and the parade won.” She didn’t care if she saw Obama get out of his car. “I’m just happy to be in the mix,” she said.
Others said they would be satisfied with nothing less than a clear look at the president.
In 2009, the Obamas got out at Seventh Street and walked five blocks. Where would they step out for their encore?
By 5 a.m., Erica Deleon, 28, a Germantown teacher, had bet that the special spot would be at Eighth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. She had learned her lesson four years earlier, when she stood at 14th Street and only saw the president’s limousine.
“I don’t need a handshake,” she said. “I just want a picture. I’m not greedy.”
Jannell Addison used a different calculus in deciding to stand outside the FBI building. She saw the clutch of menacing silhouettes on the roof and decided that they were snipers ready to protect the president. Another phalanx of police officers stood shoulder to shoulder at the curb.
“This spot has potential,” said Addison, 31, clutching a blown-up portrait of the first family. “This could be it.”
At 10th and Pennsylvania, eight Girl Scout volunteers stood for hours, helping spectators reach the Mall and the parade route. Their troop leader said her hands and feet felt like ice, but they were inspired by the prospect of something they said would make the day perfect: The Picture.
Maybe they would see the Obamas walk by.
“Just poking their heads from the car” was all Sydney Witherspoon, a 15-year-old from Fairfax County, wanted. By noon, she had taken only two pictures, determined to save her cellphone battery for the moment.
At 2:20, the sun appeared on the west front of the Capitol, as D.C. police cars turned on their flashing lights and flag bearers held their colors high over Constitution Avenue. An hour later the parade began.
On 15th Street, the crowd roared when the vice president stepped out of his limousine. Some people tried to get his attention. Only one was successful, Paul Tonko, a Democratic congressman from New York.
“Mr. Vice President,” he shouted.
“How are you?” Biden asked.
“Good,” Tonko answered. “How are you?”
“Good to see you, man,” Biden replied.
In the annals of discourse, it wasn’t much of an exchange, but on Monday it qualified as gold.
The conversation was more than what Ron Hubbard, 62, of Roanoke got in front of the Old Post Office Building as he strained for a peek at Biden’s boss.
“Is he out? Is he out?” Hubbard asked.
The crowd roared.
“O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!” they chanted.
Hubbard stepped onto a metal bike gate to get a better look. He leaned forward, twisted sideways, and then stood up straight and craned his neck. He pumped his fist.
“I saw him!” he shouted. “I saw him face to face!”
His wife, who had somehow managed to get a seat in the grandstand, came bounding over.
“Did you see him?” he asked.
“I did!” she said.
“We saw Obama!” he exulted.