Back on Election Night, Xianyi and I ventured out to Times Square, and then to Rockefeller Center. The latter was pretty crowded, so we ditched out. But then five minutes later we got a call from China asking us what Rockefeller Center was like: Nate’s mom had spied us on TV and called him in Shanghai. Pretty funny. There had been all sorts of decked out preparation for the election in the public squares that night, so I figured when Barack Obama was inaugurated as President of These United States, they’d have a similar effort for the occasion. As it turns out, not quite.
My company was telling people they could gather in the conference room to watch the swearing in and the speech on television, but I wanted to share it all with Xianyi, who has been kind of getting into the whole democracy thing since she’s been here (she’s come at a pretty good time: we arrived in America in August 2007; the Presidential race was just starting to dominate the news). So I told her to come into the city at 11:30 and I ditched out like I was going to lunch.
We met up right by the police station in Times Square, and soon found a little real estate on the island in front of the ABC studios. There was a crowd, but it wasn’t crowded; about fifteen minutes later it was busier, but still nothing like we were seeing on TV on the Mall – literally a sea people. It was stirring to see those spaces so full, when I’ve seen them so many times empty and peaceful and ordinary. Seeing the National Mall really as the front yard of the country, and everybody out there, was invigorating.
Unfortunately, we were only seeing it, not hearing it. There was no sound. Whereas in November, ABC had piped its audio feed into Times Square to accompany the broadcast, on Inauguration Day all was silent. And it was quite strange. We were watching Diane Feinstein speak, but not hearing; we were watching Aretha sing, but not hearing! That was it. After 15 minutes of wondering when they were going to turn it on, seeing Aretha sing in silence made me snap. “Let’s get out of here, now,” I said, and Xianyi and I wormed our way through the baffled crowd.
But now what? We had to find a bar fast – there was the little “Brooklyn Diner” (great name – in Times Square?) so we ducked in. “Two?” asked the maitre’d – and my reply was “Yes – actually if we could just get a view of the TV at the bar…” and he shrugged us off. His demeanor was flaccid. There were already 30 people at the small bar, but almost every table was empty. Well, shove off – we came to see the President. To his credit, his attitude changed after several more groups did the same thing we did. His face changed, as if to say, well, it’s only 20 minutes every four years, and this one is pretty special…
Having secured our spot behind the occupied stools at the bar, I tried to get an order in edgewise – the barback was overwhelmed for the moment and ignoring everyone. So I gave up. We watched the botched swearing-in. And then the speech. In the middle of it, Xianyi went and ordered us two glasses of wine, and we toasted Obama. People cheered at several moments. The speech was not memorable, but it struck very professional, serious tones – I thought it was a good speech. I was happy to see Obama taking over, taking power, assuming the mantle. I felt sorry – but not that sorry – to see Bush taken away, removed. Change is good, and this country does it better than anybody.
After it was over – the speech, that is, not the ceremony (the bar cleared out during the poetry reading, just like the National Mall) – we went to Sichuan Gourmet for lunch. It’s the best Sichuan place in the city, according to Xianyi, who ought to know. When lunch was through, I had to go back to work, and she went home to enjoy the rest of her last day of Winter Break. Sascha happened to call me at that exact moment, to go over the ceremony, share in the joy and whatnot, and I regaled him with some of the TV I’d watched the night before. Because I’m a huge dork, I actually tape Meet the Press every week, and I was catching up. The guests assembled were talking about the economic stimulus bill before Congress, which they often referred to as “the package.” As in, “The question is not the size of Obama’s package, but the degree to which it will stimulate the economy.” Or, “Barack Obama’s package is built to grow.” I mean, really – what were they thinking? Good Lord, they make it too easy sometimes.
Later that night, I came home, Xianyi was watching the parade on TV. Obama’s daughters looked bored at the sight of yet another marching band. Xianyi decided she wasn’t up for cooking, and so we settled on taking a walk through Hoboken and choosing a restaurant at random. We thought about Thai food, and went to a place up the street that happens to be closed on Tuesdays – no luck. So we walked on, in the cold, dry air. People were shuffling to and fro; the night was clear. “Bangkok!” Xianyi said, and led me toward a garish neon light heralding a differnt Thai place. We walked in.
I’m not sure why, but every restaurant in Hoboken has a television in it. Whether it’s full every night or empty, there is at least one TV blaring away in every single eatery on Washington St. Bangkok City is no exception. We sat down, the only customers, and tried to ignore the informercials the owner was immersed in. I thought we had gone for takeout, but I guess Xianyi had other ideas. I tried to talk to her, but between the TV and being the only customers in the place, it was awkward. I cursed the TV, and cursed Hoboken, for having such an infantile restaurant industry. I thought of Jarrett, with his sophisticated ideas of food and the dining experience, and I thought of how he would laugh at Hoboken’s terrible restaurants. But then the news came on.
There was Obama, again, giving the same lines I had heard live at lunchtime. We both watched again, engrossed again. Some other people started coming into the place, filling out its empty corners and breathing life into the room. Everyone watched Obama; no one spoke. I thought to myself, this is the day that the first black president was sworn into the White House. Wow, what a trip. I tried to let that sink in for the rest of the meal.