Only in Washington, D.C., could an epic historic moment take on the overtones of a natural disaster. But that’s exactly what’s happening with the Obama inauguration. Inaugural hell is officially about to freeze over.
The shut down of the city—no bridges from Northern Virginia, most of the downtown streets entirely cut off—is forcing key government employees to bed down at their desks, literally. Over at the State Department, essential personnel, which given the present flammable state of the world includes quite a number of people, are going to be sleeping on air mattresses, unveiled for the occasion. Then, post-inauguration, they must negotiate the nearly five miles from their office dorms to Union Station for the presidential ball that hosts the diplomatic corps.
Washington, D.C., will have 10,000 people minimum per bathroom, optimistically assuming that not everyone will have to “go.”
And the State Department gang has it easy. TV news crews being dispatched out “in the field” to cover the Mall and other key gathering points are being told to pack for survival conditions, which includes likely toting along a five-gallon jug to use for bodily functions. Sadly, bathrooms may become the big issue as the big day unfolds. The city’s subway system is planning on locking all of its bathrooms for security reasons (they will post a total of 150 or so port-a-potties outside of the stations, concentrating them in the suburbs, outside of the city itself; Metro may also close some of its escalators to help with crowd control, leaving newly minted riders to walk up steep metal steps 100 to 200 feet high). The rest of the city plans to deploy up to 5,000 jiffy johns, which works out to something on the order of 10,000 people minimum per bathroom, optimistically assuming that not everyone will have to “go.”
No word yet on whether ticket holders for the actual swearing in will get priority in the bathroom lines, but that is also going to require a Herculean exercise in crowd control. Approximately 240,000 tickets, seated and standing room only, are being given away for the actual Obama swearing in at the Capitol. That’s the equivalent of 12 fully packed concerts at Madison Square Garden being seated and then let loose simultaneously. It’s also about the same number of people who came to hear Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, which was delivered in the balmy, picnic-friendly days of late August, without metal detectors and bag searches. Just clearing security to get to your seat or standing spot is going to be the equivalent of a negotiating an outdoor security line at Chicago’s O’Hare. And the potentially million plus more coming to watch on the 10 jumbotrons being set up along the Mall are going to be even farther away.
In fact, entire busloads of inauguration goers from as far away as New England and the Carolinas are, under current plans, going to be dropped en masse at Metro stations and told to buy fare cards and head toward the Mall. New Jersey reporters are actually speculating that there may not be a single available chartered bus left in the entire state; they will all be crawling south on 95 to Washington. That’s scared off lots of people who regularly come into the city, like food wholesalers, who have told groceries and supermarkets that they will not be delivering any new food or other deliveries in the days around the inauguration—this in a city that strips store shelves bare of milk, toilet paper, and bread when forecasters direly intone a prediction of three inches of snow.
And that leaves us with the hell freezing part: an arctic air mass is descending on the District for the weekend. Friday’s projected high temperature is 20 degrees, Saturday’s a comparatively balmy 29 and clouds.
Lyric Wallwork Winik is an award-winning writer and author and the Washington Correspondent for Parade Magazine. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Washingtonian Magazine, and Forbes FYI, among other publications. Her next book will be about Magellan’s Voyage for Crown, and she is married to the best-selling historian, Jay Winik.