It was on my left foot. My big toe went first. I know exactly when it happened; my big toe was frozen. It had no feeling and there was no sensation when I thought about moving it. My friend had just told me the parade finally started because they assessed Teddy Kennedy’s condition as ok. I foolishly stopped dancing to the repetitive but excellent music of “tell me something good,” coming from the nearby PA system, in order to perch on top of a chair provided by the Inauguration Committee that only a lucky twenty or thirty of us were able to snag. By the way, If we are spending millions on a parade to usher in a new president, surely they could provide heated tents for us mere citizens or at least done away with a few port-a-potties in favor of a few heat lamps. Nonetheless, port-a-potties served as a refuge from the biting cold for many of us troopers lining the parade route.
My friend from New York City didn’t make it. Since four in the morning we stood in line at the checkpoint on 14th and F street to make sure we got a prime position where the presidential motorcade would leave and enter the White House. Of slight frame and barely 100 pounds, she didn’t have a chance. She couldn’t generate enough heat to save her life. In her boots she put those hand-warmers that just give off enough heat to give you the illusion you’re warm only to be shattered by the realization your nose is frozen. She tried following my example of dancing to whatever they played on the PA and she tried the port-a-pottie but returned to declare, “I’m done. I’m not going to make it. I’m out.” I’m from Los Angeles, where it was 80 degrees when I left four days earlier and you see mi, mi a wonder if Obama him eva gewn understand di sacrifice wi mek fa him today, January 20th 2009. I was reverting to my Jamaican roots with patois to wonder if Barack would ever understand the sacrifice we were making for him today, as the cold weather was sucking the life out of me and those around me. Close to death, I reached for my roots.
My doctor friends from Madagascar standing behind me surely understood. They heard that the parade had started at the Capitol but trying not to look wimpish after stuffing hand-warmers in their socks and huddling for the last nine hours to stay warm, after whispering indiscernible French among themselves, they told us they had to meet a friend in Maryland so they had to go. Yeah right. Bounce just when the cold was biting through that final layer of clothes. The gripping cold was clearly affecting the cognitive abilities of these everyday smarty-pants who had travelled to the USA to share medical knowledge with my friend but who insisted on being a part of this “historic” day. For a moment I turned to see the police officers who lined the parade route. They were shivering. They were dancing. They were doing whatever they could to stay warm without abandoning their post. Then I looked back. The doctors had vanished; another casualty of unfulfilled expectations today which by all accounts is now “historically” the coldest Inauguration … ever.
She looked Puerto Rican and her police badge identified her with her colleagues from Savannah Georgia; the same place I remember a movie many years ago declaring as “Africa” hot. She didn’t have a baclava but why would police in “Africa” hot territory know how to handle the cold? And being from the Caribbean as I am, I’m sure she didn’t know what to expect under twelve or fourteen hours of sub-freezing duress. She didn’t have a chance. She was shaking her hand-warmer and rubbing it against her face. I looked into her eyes and knew she wanted to cry but she couldn’t; she obviously had a rep for being tough. I couldn’t take it. I had two hand warmers left, so I gave her one. Her colleague next to her faired no better. I’m sure he was crying. He told me he had been there since 2 AM! The lady beside me gave him her hand-warmer. His eyes glistened with joy.
And so was the spirit this day; one of sharing and of good people allowing themselves to be good. As I head back to Los Angeles via Dallas I overheard a lady exclaiming that with the 350,000 plus people they let in to watch the parade, and the two million plus people in the Mall, there were no incidents. Maybe Barack has inspired something here; bringing out the good so we can play our part in this our shared human development. Lofty rhetoric aside, it was clear everyone was here for a common purpose but it was our perseverance battling the cold that did really bind us. Who can bother to fight with your neighbor when both your big toes are frozen? And by the way why is it always the big toe to go first?
I saw Barack coming in the distance in the “Beast”. That’s when I noticed my other big toe was frozen but I didn’t care. Today’s mission was about to be accomplished. I would survive to get my very own video of Barack and Joe; not that the shots on CSPAN or CNN would not have sufficed but these would be my shots that I could post on FaceBook! Earlier we heard from our unadventurous friends watching TV that Barack did indeed get out and walk, twice so far in the parade; good for you Barack. However, as he passed us in the “Beast” and the crowd in my section shouted “O-BA-MA, O-BA-MA,” I caught on tape his genuine smile behind the tinted glass. Then it was Joe’s turn. He and his wife were on foot! My friends and I where the only ones chanting “Joe, Joe, Joe.” He waved and passed us. We kept shouting, “Joe, Joe, Joe”. He actually turned around to wave and bow at us again flashing an infectious smile. Yes, they were completely oblivious but I knew my big toes would thaw.
In the freezing cold that united more than five million people in Washington DC on January 20, 2009 and
I’m sure to the hundreds of millions around the world who must have watched this, Barack and Joe might have seemed like two very likable regular guys. Regular guys who have inspired so much hope for a country and for humanity. Barack and Joe, two regular guys, who have been given a tremendous task of changing the course of the United States of America and undoubtedly humanity. As I hum, “Moving up” one of the phrases in a song they kept playing over and over, I see Barack and Joe are two regular guys who I know care deeply but who will never know that my two big toes froze solid as they made their first trip to the White House.