Every four years, at noon on Jan. 20, the nation pauses. People slow and stop in airport concourses and outside the windows of electronics stores, watch the oath of office, perhaps catch some of the inaugural address. They move on.
Not Tuesday. The inauguration of Barack Obama was a moment of determined national gathering, an occasion when people wanted to be together, made plans to be together, with friends and strangers and giant projection televisions.
This was most obviously true on the National Mall in Washington. But it was also true in great halls and grade schools, in churches and casinos, in homes, at homeless shelters and even behind bars.
Watching the event in jail
Byron Shaw could not go to Washington to see Obama become president, because he was detained — for nine months.
But that did not prevent him and about 30 other inmates at the county jail in Madison, Wis., from celebrating the moment. Clad in blue jumpsuits, they huddled around a 19-inch television usually tuned to sports or movies; they clapped and shouted when Obama raised his hand and took the oath of office.
Shaw is 19 years old, and serving a term for burglary. Obama, he said, gave him hope that other young minorities might stay out of trouble, and that he himself can change when he is released in June.
"I think it will be easier to find a job, get into school, follow my dreams," he said.
So for a moment, Shaw and the other prisoners were equal participants in this great pageant of American democracy — fellows of the people in Burlington, Vt., who lined up in the biting, 17-degree cold just to get into a restaurant called Nectar's, where a crowd of 250 people watched on six big screens.
"I am painfully aware of the fact that I went to sleep in a country that's different than the one we woke up in today," said Aaron Burroughs, 37, who is black and waits tables there.
Significance of event impossible to miss
Americans gathered at places where the historical importance of the day was impossible to miss.
Tiny, handheld American flags fluttered in a crowd of hundreds at the Kansas school that was at the center of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Carolyn Jackson is black, a 49-year-old federal employee. "I finally feel like I belong!" she exalted, through tears and above the din.
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The Boutwell auditorium in Birmingham, Ala., which dates to the city's segregationist past, felt more like a church revival, with thousands of people singing gospel songs and clasping hands in the air.
Ted Roberts, 77, has vivid memories of police turning snarling dogs on young demonstrators and blasting protesters with water hoses. On this day he was working as a volunteer, handing out flags. "I never thought it would come," he said.
And after Obama said, "So help me God," people rose to their feet at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati, steps away from a restored slave pen, child-sized shackles among the artifacts.
Other public spaces served as gathering places: Hundreds came together along Independence Mall in Philadelphia. About 700 more at Boston's John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. In New York's Times Square, so many people crowded the sidewalks and concrete islands that cab drivers got out of their cars and snapped pictures — not of the giant screens showing Obama's address but of the people watching the giant screens.
"We wanted to see the American people celebrate, so we came here to Times Square," said Camilo Nunoz, a 19-year-old engineering student from Brazil who was among the thousands there. "I think the whole world is proud."
Some gatherings more intimate
Other gatherings were more intimate. Eleven people — 10 adults and a 4-month-old girl — got together in a stylish condominium with a view of the Chicago River, walking distance from the gym where Obama sometimes worked out.
They sipped orange juice and white wine from flute glasses, nodded silently when they agreed with parts of Obama's speech, complimented Aretha Franklin's hat ("That's the first stylish thing I've seen"). When the Marine choir sang, they stood.
Alison de Frise, who identified herself as a registered Republican, tempered her praise for the inaugural address: Good, she said, but not great. Certainly not as great as his Philadelphia speech on race.
Then again: "He is not trying to change everything. He's trying to move us forward. And that's the point."
In Honolulu, 200 people at Don Ho's Island Grill, standing room only, sent up cheers whenever their fellow Hawaiian appeared on television. At Punahou School, where Obama was educated until the 12th grade, students, teachers and parents by the dozen massed for a live history lesson.
And 23 students were glued to a TV in a sixth-grade history class in Roanoke, Va. (But then they were also hoping to catch a glimpse of their teacher, Stephanie Doyle, Virginia's Teacher of the Year, who had a VIP seat at the Capitol.)
Celebrations at homeless shelters
Inaugurations have been shown at schools as long as there have been televisions to show them, and heard on radio before that, but the Obama inauguration inspired gatherings in places not often used to politics.
Confetti, streamers and balloons fell on a crowd of about 60 at The Lord's Place, a shelter for the homeless in West Palm Beach, Fla. There were cheers, chants, head nods, applause and fists pumping the air.
Farrington James, out of work and homeless, wiped a tear from his face with the back of his hand. He was overwhelmed, he said. He talked about change, history and the hope that his luck will change. He himself was stirred to change it.
"Maybe I'll create my own job somehow," he said. "Man, it just feels like I just took an energy drink, 'cause you know, nothing comes to a sleeper but a dream."
The Sheriff family of Flower Mound, Texas — Julia and William and three children — chose to watch in Las Vegas, on vacation, only after deciding traveling to Washington would be a logistical nightmare.
There they gathered with dozens of others, among them Miss America contestants in their sashes and crowns, and watched on giant screens at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino.
"They'll always remember this," Julie Sheriff said. "People will say, `Where were you when?' And they'll be able to say they were on the Las Vegas strip."
As Obama took the oath of office and the crowd cheered, she buried her face in her hands and cried. She told her daughter, whose name is Kennedy, that that might be her some day.
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