Sunday, January 25, 2009

The First One

Crowds for Obama

A week ago on Tuesday I took the 5:56AM Caltrain to San Francisco, made it to work at about 6:45, and then realized that in about 2 hours Barack Obama would be inaugurated as our 44th president. There's never anyone around at that time of the morning on the 2nd floor of Adobe's building on Townsend street. Software engineers and musicians tend to start their day when the sun is warm and lunch is just around the corner. Still I was bit surprised about two hours later: still not a soul around.

I headed downstairs to see the swearing in ceremony on one of the big TVs in the cafeteria. As I reached the first floor landing I heard a familiar voice. Aretha Franklin was singing My Country of Tis of Thee and she meant it.

A presidential inauguration is an event of such significance that if you want Aretha Franklin to sing, all you have to do is ask. I turned the corner and discovered where everyone in the building was. And it's a good thing Aretha was wearing a hat with a ribbon so huge it would have inspired double takes if Wilma Flintstone had been wearing it. Because I choke up easily. I get teary eyed at supermarket openings. To see her in the ice cold singing her heart out on such an occasion would have been too much if it hadn't been for the comic relief provided by the hat. I read later on that she'd been disappointed with her performance, that the cold had bothered her voice. I also read that the millinery that created the hat to her specifications had recieved orders for 100s more. They could make a mint selling replicas, but they will not produce even one more. There's only one.

The final performance before what our Senator and master of ceremonies Diane Feinstein referred to as the "oaf" of office, was a classical quartet featuring Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Gabriella Montero, and Anthony McGill, the only black man in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I can't remember what musical selections were performed at George W Bush's inaugurations but I'd guess that they were short, upbeat, and melodic. Something by John Philip Irving Berlin Sousa would have been a logical choice. The quartet began and the sound they made was eerie and ethereal and moody. As the camera panned around the Capitol crowds, the music seemed to cast a gloomy dreamlike pall over everything. I began to hope that the opening would resolve to something a little less haunting soon, and it did. And the most beautiful parts were not played on the violin, or by Yo Yo, who'd really turned up the wattage by then, but by Anthony McGill. If I ever meet him, I'm going to thank him for making his notes smile when the two million people in the audience really needed them to. Later I read that John Williams had composed the opening music as a "bookend" for the old Shaker hymn that's the theme for Appalachian Spring and the smiley in the middle of his inauguration piece. And that the entire performance was a lip synch farce, recorded the day before. I'm looking forward to listening to it again, anyway, because recorded or not, the combination of uneasy and reassuring seemed about right.

So much has been written about the botched presidential oath that I can't muster the energy to add two words more. It was great to be in a room with a couple of hundred enthusiastic people for the conclusion of the oath. Everyone roared their approval and we all enjoyed the moment for a little while and then headed back to work.

I'll bet a trillion pictures were taken on Tuesday the 20th, and no one will ever see even a tiny fraction of all of them. I like the one below, which is from a Time photo essay here. The man in livery who's serving coffee and talking with our new president looks calm and dignified, not star-struck. He's talked with plenty of presidents before and he knows that they're just men, the same as the wait staff, the same as the senators, the same as anyone else. I'll bet he could tell you all kinds of personal things about elected officials, including stories that might embarrass them. But he will not. When he returns home in the evening, the new president will warrant a little dinner conversation, but nothing special. And yet, someday in the future, a child will proudly report that their grandfather knew the first one.