21 January 2009

The heat of heart

I ended my shift early last night, stocked up on hot dogs, sarsaparilla (another name for root beer, apparently) and Oreos, and staked out a position on the couch for the Obama inauguration. The Good Morning America coverage began with a shot of the Mall just as the first rays of the morning sun were lighting the tip of the Washington Monument, and already the space was crowded, with streams of people flowing in. By noon it was a solid mass of onlookers, all there to be a tiny part of history.

The GMA crew interviewed the spectators, asking, “Who has the most layers of clothing?” It was cold. Cold with windchill.

I’ve been there. I’ve walked through a bitter pre-dawn in Washington DC, and I’ve crunched across the Mall covered in fresh snow. That was exactly four years ago, the day after the second Bush inauguration, so I knew exactly how cold it was for the swelling crowd.

My wife and I had the city to ourselves then, and we spent a sparkling afternoon exploring the Smithsonians and marvelling at the wealth of art in the glittering halls of the National Art Gallery. But eventually the early twilight drove us outside, where we looked for a place to hail a cab. Most of the street was lined with parked cars, but outside an impressive building on Constitution Avenue, there was a clear space, albeit lined with the ugly cement barricades that have sprouted like toadstools in the years following the 9/11 attacks. I set down my heavy tote bag with a sigh of relief and in a few moments a cab drew up beside us, just as I became nervously aware of the approach of a couple of uniformed security guards. Heavily armed security guards.

We hustled inside the cab and sped off.

“Crikey,” I said to the cabbie, a silver haired gent, “What’s the story there?”

“That the Department of Justice,” he replied. “They antsy over Gitmo.”

Guantanamo Bay, where terrorist suspects were detained, had been the subject of some fairly high-level protesting in the weeks before our visit, so I guess that anybody carrying a bulky bag might arouse suspicions. After all, Washington itself had been attacked in 2001, and there were good reasons to be antsy.

The cab itself was an old model. Beautifully clean and tidy, but definitely showing the signs of a long life as a hack. I learnt later that the tax regime made it uneconomical to buy new vehicles, so cabs were operated until they fell apart, and this one didn’t have long to go.

We rattled through an intersection and I nudged my wife. “Look, the White House!”

“Yeah,” said the cabbie, “they got the wrong guy in there.”

We chatted the rest of the way to the hotel. He was interested in Australia, and we told him about the wildlife and the climate, stressing that we didn’t see much snow there. In fact it was summer right now, and we’d come straight from 30 degree heat to this snowy, subzero environment.

“Might move there,” he mused. “Might marry up one of them native girls, hey?”

We assured him that there was always room for taxidrivers in Australia, and gave him a small tip when he dropped us off at our hotel.

So when I saw Washington DC last night, looking frosty in the winter air, and joyous in the atmosphere of celebration, I remembered my own first fond impressions. Compared to Canberra, it’s a very different city, but there are similarities - the broad ceremonial avenues, the grand public institutions, the monuments and memorials. It’s a place where I can feel at home on the far side of the world.

“Aren’t you cold?” asked the television interviewer of one lovely old black woman, showing all her teeth in a fabulous smile.

“No, honey, I got my heart to keep me warm.”

There were a lot of happy hearts in Washington. A million strong, they thumped away and surged with excitement when Obama came out to take the oath. The sight of that sea of flags waving in a joyous tumult was unforgettable. I wish I was there, to share the excitement, to wave a flag, to feel the warmth of history and a glorious new dawn.

And somewhere, maybe in that crowd, maybe parked on a side street, listening on his cab radio, I am sure that there was one very happy cabdriver.

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