Today I came out of work unusually exhausted and very much ready to go straight home (it’s been a long week). But as I started walking towards 53rd street, where I catch the subway back to Queens, I noticed that a lot of people ahead of me seemed to be doing an about-face and walking back in the other direction.
“That’s funny,” I thought. And then I arrived at the corner of Lexington and 50th, and discovered that I had to turn around, too. The police had erected a barricade and were waving people and cars away. A large bottleneck had formed as confused pedestrians gathered around the emptied street. Too annoyed to stick around and figure out what was going on, I decided to backtrack a block and walk up 3rd ave instead. But 3rd ave. was blocked off at 50th, too. And so was 2nd. By this point, I was utterly exasperated. My feet hurt (and the bug bite just beneath the edge of my sneaker was itching like crazy), I was hot, and tired. And now, it seemed, I wouldn’t be able to get home, unless I backtracked to an earlier station. Exasperated, I stopped a police officer and grumpily asked him how far the barricade went, the implication being, how on earth did he expect me to be able to get home with the whole street blocked off?
“Well, as soon as he passes by, which should be any minute now, we’ll open the street to traffic again.”
“Can you tell me what’s going on?” I demanded irritably.
“The President’s passing by,” he replied.
Suddenly I didn’t mind being stuck so much anymore. I edged my way as close to the barricade as I could, and sure enough, about 10 minutes later, a cadre of motorcycles came whizzing by, followed by several black sedans, and a series of limos with flags, one of which had the President in it. I caught a fleeting glimpse of someone in sunglasses peeking out of one of the windows, whom another woman standing nearby said was Obama himself.
“He waved!” she cried, jumping up and down. A few people clapped and cheered. Unfortunately, I was either too slow, or too short, to see, because I missed it. But judging from the grin I’d seen (or perhaps imagined) on the sunglasses’d face that went zooming by, I’m sure he must have given at least a little wave. More cars with tinted windows barrelled past, and then more motorcycles, and then it was all over, and we were back to grumbling, as it took them a long time to finally open up the street to traffic (I guess they were waiting until he’d gone all the way down 50th), and in the meantime they kept yelling at people to get back on the sidewalk (even though it became increasingly obvious that not all of us would FIT on the sidewalk anymore). But all around, the griping seemed less vehement than before. I think all of us were trying to balance out the inconvenience of being crammed together on the sidewalk, unable to go home, with the awe of seeing the Presidential motorcade. And somehow, the fact that it was Obama who was passing seemed to tip the scale in the motorcade’s favor. I’ve seen a Presidential motorcade before — Bush’s, when he visited Stanford — and in fact, had a front row seat, as my dad’s car was the first one they stopped when they shut down the highway. And even though that had been just as, if not even more, dramatic (imagine motorcycled cops squealing, Hollywood-chase-style, into the middle of the intersection, to block off the incoming cars, and much huffy gesturing and self-important arm-waving, and guards dressed in full war gear and armed to the teeth riding in an SUV behind the Presidential limo, trunk open, ready to jump out at a moment’s notice), that moment seemed more like a charade to me. Bush, as it turned out, wasn’t even in his motorcade that day (they flew him out in a chopper because they were afraid something might happen after all the student protests), and definitely nobody peeped out of the Presidential limo and waved to a crowd full of hot, tired, crammed-up-against-one-another commuters. As Obama went by, nobody shouted epithets or giggled (at least no one that I heard). We all kind of stood there — curious, if not awed — essentially just caught up in the moment.
Later, as swung through the Subway turnstile, it occurred to me that the moment had felt a bit like the one in To Kill a Mockingbird when someone in the balcony nudges Scout during the trial. “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise. Your father’s passing.” Stand up and watch, I thought as I replayed the memory of those limos going by, plates gleaming and crisp flags aflutter, a great man’s passing.