WASHINGTON — From overhead and on television, the inaugural throng on Tuesday resembled a singular human blanket sprawling over miles. Up close, what was striking were the tears -- visible up and down the Mall and the parade route, dripping from the eyes of adults and children, at all points of the day.
Unlike election night, Inauguration Day is a fait accompli, not meant for uncertainty or surprise. And yet so many in the crowd spoke of their own recognition of shock, an identifiable moment in which Barack Obama's presidency suddenly became real.
When did it become real?
"When I first heard his voice on a loudspeaker," said Tiajuana Lee, a 42-year-old schoolteacher who traveled here with her family from Kentwood, La. "There was something very private and almost personal about being here and then hearing that voice."
James Peters of San Antonio said he was struck at the exact moment of noon, when Obama, by law, assumed the office.
"That was when I felt it, when the announcer said he was in," said Peters, who managed to get as close to the action as the television of the basement coffee shop at a Courtyard by Marriott hotel about a mile from the Capitol. By his reckoning, it was an awesome spectacle that was almost too big to fathom, let alone put into words.
Wandering the streets of Washington, the human blanket revealed itself to be more of a quilt of intimate subcultures. "Amen" choruses broke out around barroom televisions while the new president spoke. "Obama" chants erupted on corners, and uniformed black schoolchildren sang "God Bless America" en route to the parade, or as close to the parade as they could get.
People often referred to Obama as "he" or "him," as if the identity of the man was so understood that it made uttering his name unnecessary.
The crowd seemed increasingly quiet -- even subdued in places -- as it moved closer to the Capitol stage. It started out loud from a distance -- packs of suburban teenagers responsively chanting "Barack" and "Obama" on a Metro subway car at 6 a.m. (more joyous than obnoxious, but most assuredly loud). Then the crowd hushed as it approached Pennsylvania Avenue, the Mall and the Capitol, or maybe people were just cold.
Even on a normal day, Washington is a fortress town, but there are rare occasions when the city -- despite the sense of order and process it strives for -- manages to break free of itself. "It is hard to explain, but you just feel it," said Fred Hooks, 64, a lifelong Washingtonian.
And as with any event of such magnitude, commerce was a recurring pursuit: There was a woman selling handmade Obama earrings ($26 a pair on the mall), an Abe Lincoln look-alike on stilts selling "Yes We Did" buttons ($5), a woman selling Hillary Rodham Clinton T-shirts bearing the message, "Madame Secretary, 2016," among others.
Shortly after Obama's speech ended, clouds rolled in, the air chilled noticeably and several of the vendors commenced "Going Out of Business" sales. "I'm closing," announced Willie Hill of Washington, who was packing up a large inventory of marked-down Obama T-shirts. "It's getting cold out here."
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