We drove south on Interstate 95. Autumn was at its peak. Our trip was lined by the quilted patchwork of the season and took us across the magnificent Susquehana River. We thought we were being clever by not driving into downtown Washington DC. We believed we could avoid the crush of traffic and the expense of parking by visiting friends. We have dear friends, George and Yoonjoo, who we haven’t seen in years. They live in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. The plan was to drop our car off with them and have them drive us to the Metro.
George dropped us at Glenmont Station, a terminus for the Washington DC Metro’s Red line. We joined the funnel of people filing onto the down escalator which brought us to our first shock. We descended into a large vaulted hall and it was filled from wall to wall with people. As far as we could tell, it was primarily folks on their way to the rally. Vending machines selling Metro tickets were arranged against one wall and from each extended a row of people who only left a small gap by the opposite wall so others could squeeze by.
The Metro automated ticket system is a complicated issue for those not accustomed to it. I’ve only used it once before and badly, screwing myself out of eight dollars and change. I complained at that visit to one of the Metro staff, who cheerfully gave me a form to fill out. With an endearing smile he explained the system was intentionally designed to be confusing and scalp tourists, thus keeping the costs down for the locals. To the credit of the Metro, after dutifully filing out and mailing them the appropriate form that night, they returned to me a check for the money which arrived just last week, which is six months later.
Ms Keogh and I separated, taking different queues and updating our progress by cell phone. I had selected one of the two end queues for machines that only accepted cash and my line moved faster, so she joined me. Because the gentleman behind me was a local, familiar with the machines, at my invitation he was gracious enough to process my request and, by doing so, sped the process and avoided mistakes, which is not to say it was without problems. The machines only give change in unpopular gold-colored dollar coins. The machines would not give change for large bills and would not themselves accept back the gold dollar coins for payment.
We filled the platform. We wedged into the train until there wasn’t even standing room. The train departed the station and when we arrived at our first stop, there was another platform filled with still more rally goers. They stared at us in disbelief because we were already tightly packed. The truly amazing thing about this dilemma was the good cheer with which this inconvenience was then greeted. After absorbing the nature of the difficulty, the people on the platform laughed and waved, and we laughed and waved back, giving thumbs-up. That was how it went, again and again, at every stop heading into the city, the folks on the platform and we in the cars saluted each other, acknowledging our shared purpose and camaraderie. When some people not going to the rally got off the train, and they were very few, it made room for more people to climb in. The departers were applauded and folks called out “hooray” then invited people from the platform to fill the newly formed gaps.
Strangers talked with each other. We swapped stories with the people nearest us. Locals said they have never seen the Metro so crowded. The locals helped to lead visitors, advised them at which station to get off, although ultimately one simply allowed themselves to be washed along with the flood. Like rivers flowing into the sea, all the Metro lines were flowing into the rally. And the trains were late. There were delays. Conductors could not get sliding doors to close because too many people tried to be the last to squeeze in. The rally had already begun while we were still aboard the Metro. But fellow passengers were watching it live, streaming online, using their sophisticated phones, and announcing to those without what was going on.
Downtown we exploded from the trains, erupted out of the stations, and flowed towards the National Mall. As we neared the mall, we were surprised by the numbers of people leaving the rally. We soon understood why. There were just too many!!!
We never got close to the stage. We couldn’t even get close to any of the giant video screens and towers of speakers that spread out into the mall to service the remote viewers. We swam in a sea of like-minded individuals and only knew we were near the center when the rooftops of buildings to either side seemed equally distant. There were too many people taller than us and we had forgotten to bring our stilts. I put my cell phone on video, lifted it high above my head, and panned 360 degrees, twice. We then looked to see what video we captured. As far as one could see were people in every direction.
Every once in a while I caught a glimpse of a far video screen when the sea of heads parted. I could barely hear but recognized the voices of Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert, yet not what they were saying. We moved about in that great mass of people trying to get closer to the entertainment, even though entertainment was happening all around with amusing signs and occasional costumes. We noticed that people on the move formed into currents that would weave through those who stood stationary. As we moved first in one current and then another, we found people below our shoulders sitting on lawn chairs or reclining on blankets where they read books and worked crosswords. There was a kid, about eight or nine, who lay on the grass licking a lollipop. His lying down formed a gap and I joined the line of people who stepped over him. He looked up at each of us amused and unconcerned.
Overhead circled a helicopter. I imagine it was counting us. That was our purpose for coming, to be counted. We wanted to steal the fire from that egomaniacal fear-monger, Glenn Beck, who two months earlier staged a rally at the other end of the mall. We had to let the country know the madness reflected in Glenn Beck’s eyes was small compared to the rest of America - I hope it’s true. Glenn Beck and his ilk declared they spoke for Americans, disregarding the vast majority who don’t share his paranoia, bigotry, greed, and religious fanaticism. We came to Washington to show we were included in the term “Americans" and wanted to be counted.
With regards to that count, we did beat Glenn Beck’s score by more than double. And the count was only of the people who were there at a certain moment, not those still arriving or those who gave up trying to get closer and left. Comedy Central, the event’s sponsor, did not anticipate their success. They had applied to the National Park Service for a permit anticipating 60,000, which would explain why video screens and speakers did not reach far enough.
Our attempts to advance closer to the stage, or even the video screens, failed. The crowd grew denser and we were caught in a current heading off the mall. I heard them announce Cat Stevens, which they then corrected to Yusuf Islam. It was his voice that began to sing that old, familiar “Peace Train”. This was interrupted by Ozzy Osbourne performing “Crazy Train”. While this was going on, we left, content for having participated, excited from what we witnessed, but exhausted nonetheless. We returned to our friends in Silver Spring to share dinner and conversation. While it might not have been the most exciting part of the day, the four of us sitting reunited in their living room after many years was the best part of our day.
How many of us really showed up at the National Mall? Ask Comedy Central and they will tell you between 30 or 40 million. Ask Stephen Colbert, who co-hosted with Jon Stewart, and he will tell you six billion. Time will provide a more accurate answer, but as of this writing the estimate is in excess of 200,000. Hopefully we will eventually see a rerun on our television or computer of what we missed of the event by arriving late, not being able to see or hear it while we were in it, and leaving early.
This essay is the most recent in
a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr
Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the
writer would be pleased
to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"