BY ELI KABERON
This past weekend, Poor Scholars’ Eli Kaberon had a special opportunity to attend the Presidential inauguration of Barack Obama and the inaugural ball in Washington, D.C.
After having a few days to reflect, I think the most surreal part of my weekend in Washington, D.C. was walking past Dikembe Mutombo while in a line to check my coat.
Let me start at the beginning. A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail saying I was invited to claim tickets for President Barack Obama’s second swearing-in ceremony on Monday afternoon in Washington. Also in my inbox was a separate e-mail saying that I could also buy two tickets to an inaugural ball for that evening. The e-mails made some sense: I had been a supporter of Obama’s going all the way back to 2004 when he ran for Senate in Illinois, and had worked for his re-election campaign last fall. These ticket invites were common for people who had been on the staff and had been loyal backers of the President.
Since I have a close friend who lives in D.C., had some free time on my hands, and figured the chance to go to a swearing-in and inaugural ball were both once in a lifetime events, I claimed my tickets, booked my flights and made my way to our nation’s capital. On Monday, my buddy and I stood out in the cold for several hours, waited in several long lines and were two of the nearly a million people who saw Obama put his right hand on a pair of bibles and take the oath of office. Very cool moment.
The historic-ness of the afternoon was nothing compared to the absurdity of the evening. The ball was a black tie event; it also had a guest list of about 40,000 people. Because of those two things, I was one of several people who took the D.C. Metro to the Washington Convention Center in their fancy outfit. As somebody who has ridden the train to and from all sorts of events my entire lift, the sight of being on a crowded train with people in tuxes and fancy gowns was just hilarious to me.
After waiting in more lines – a common theme of the weekend – to just get in the convention center, I then had to stand in another line to check my coat. With so many guests arriving simultaneously, the coat check line basically was a giant U, essentially looping around itself. As I waited and looked for some of my former co-workers, I saw a tall gentleman pass me. Because he was next to me in line, it really meant he was about 400 spots in front of me in the U-line. I looked up, and couldn’t believe it – it was none other than Mount Mutombo himself. By the time I realized it, we both had moved in our separate directions in the line. No worries, I figured. The night was young; I’d be able to find him again.
Once I got in, the ball itself was incredibly remarkable. Basically, it was a combination of a wedding and a music festival, attended by some of Washington’s most important people, in a convention center that stretched the length of about 10 football fields. Everyone was dressed to the nines, people were drinking and the vibe was just joy that the election was over and Obama had won. When I got there, Alicia Keys was just finishing up her set. Yes, she was the opening act. (Though you’ll see later they didn’t exactly do the best job of ordering the performers based on talent or acclaim.)
The music kept going. After Keys, there was a half-hour lull while a DJ played before country star Brad Paisley grabbed the mic. I met up with my friends and got a drink. Paisley finished up, some more DJ hits, then the band Fun. I’m not the biggest fan of theirs, but their live show was pretty good. “We Are Young” clearly was a crowd favorite, especially among the youthful Obama staffers.
After they finished up, there was another little break before an orchestra began playing “Hail to the Chief” and the DJ introduced President Obama and the First Lady. As expected, the crowd went bananas. I’ve seen the president speak several times, shook his hand, even got a bro-hug from him the day after the election. Still, to see him come out there with his wife, in a white tux, was spine-tingling. The first couple – who met all those years ago on the South Side of Chicago – began to dance, as another Windy City star – Jennifer Hudson – serenaded them with Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Everyone sang along, including Mr. and Mrs. Obama.
After the Obama’s danced and waved goodbye, everyone went back to their conversations and drinks, thinking the highlight of the night was done. Nope. Soon after the president’s exit, the DJ introduced the next guest: Stevie Freakin’ Wonder! Not only did he play, but Stevie killed it. For about 45 minutes, he played Motown hit after hit, with nearly 40,000 people dancing and singing along to every song. Again, these are Washington elites, members of the administration, important lobbyists – and schlubs like me. At that point, we were all yelling “Signed, sealed, delivered – I’m yours!” at the top of our lungs. To me, the night was made.
But it still wasn’t done. After Stevie, the orchestra played again, and out came Vice President Joe Biden, and his wife, Dr. Jill. To sing for them, another dual Oscar and Grammy winner like Hudson – Jamie Foxx. A terrific moment, though I was kind of hoping Biden and Foxx would stop their dancing and singing so they could do a buddy comedy act.
The R&B hits didn’t stop there. Following the Veep was one of the administration’s biggest celebrity fans, John Legend. He kept the party going, mixing in his fun songs with slow, soulful jams. As he played, the rumors circulated around the room as to who would be the final act. Some people had heard Usher. Others said Katy Perry. One person even thought it might be Jay-Z. After Legend was done, all we could do could was wait.
Finally, the announcement from the DJ came. “Ladies and gentleman, to close out the 2013 Inaugural Ball, Grammy Award winners, Soundgarden.” Huh? Soundgarden? People started flowing for the exits like the place was one fire. I mean literally, as soon as the band hit the stage, the line for the escalators was longer than the line for the bar. I had to take the train back home, so I bounced as well.
After waiting in another hour-long line to retrieve my coat, I headed out into the cold D.C. night happy with my decision to attend the inauguration and the ball. I had caught up with some good friends, seen some incredible music and checked “See President Slow Dance” off my bucket list.
But in the great tunes and huge crowds, I never found Dikembe Mutombo again. Maybe I’ll have to return to Washington in four years for the next inauguration.