Inaugural Ballin’

In January of 2013, I attended President Obama’s second Inauguration and the official ball. A longer story I had written on the hilarity of the Inaugural Ball was cut down for space constraints into a much shorter item.

I came across it today on my desktop and figured I would share it with you:

Walking from THE WEEKLY STANDARD offices to the Walter Washington Convention Center should have been an easy task; it’s just a few blocks down M Street.

But, seeing as the convention center was housing the official inaugural ball, a quick straight walk became a little more cumbersome, which tends to happen when government gets involved. Directed elsewhere by police officers from North Carolina, I paired up with a nice couple from California to find my way in.

Making small talk, the gentleman praised my spiffy Secret Service credentials and inquired as to their purpose. “I’m a journalist,” I told him, “but with a small j.” He asked where I worked, and I obliged him. “Oh, so you’re the enemy,” he joked, but I’m not entirely sure he was joking.

As we made our eight-block walk around the convention center to security screening, I casually asked how much one would pay to attend a ball like this. Conveniently, the man had to stop to tie his shoe. With reports that the price to attend the ball was slashed, maybe I made it awkward. Then again, I was “the enemy,” so I wished them well and pressed onward.

With interest waning, lots of the inaugural balls were slashing prices. I had hoped to attend the National Wildlife Federation’s “green” inaugural ball so I could mingle with the likes of Al Gore, Van Jones, John Cusack, and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Sadly, their progressive PR firm told me: “Going to be honest with you,” (an age-old PR trick to let us in the media down gently) “we are currently at capacity with media due to an overwhelming amount of interest in the Green Ball.”

The interest was, allegedly, “overwhelming” on the media side, but not so on the “green” side— that is those willing to part with paper that depicts deceased presidents—since Groupon was selling tickets to the ball at a steep discount. I guess $400 for a normal ticket and $1,950 for a VIP ticket might be too much to ask, especially when the media is getting in for free. No wonder the media interest was overwhelming.

Hurt feelings aside, I was happy to attend the “official” ball.

Media were instructed to arrive early, by 5:30 at the latest. Alone now and fighting the clock, I raced through the labyrinth of barricades and metal fences, eventually making it to the checkpoint with a few minutes to spare.

Famished as I was, not having eaten since the morning’s wee hours, I briefly considered ducking into the local Subway to satiate my need for food. But, as a man of my word and someone who respects timeliness, I got in line.

Security was tight. We had to put our bag(s) down, go through security, and wait in another line to go back out and retrieve our bags. It’s almost as if Rube Goldberg moonlighted as an adviser to the Secret Service. When it came to our bags, only a bomb-sniffing dog was on the line of defense to find contraband. No x-ray machines, only metal detectors. And Fido.

Once I was through security, I was ushered to the special “press” line. How great, I thought, that our esteemed president and his compatriots have seen fit to rid us journalists from the scourge of the long lines of bourgeois!

Minutes later, I discovered that was naïve.

At the end of the long special line awaited an escort, ready to take us to the special press section. It’s a similar realization that pigs have before their lives are taken to create delicious bacon and pork rinds. My father—a former pig slaughterer—once told me that the contagious panic among the pigs is what alerts them to their impending demise.

To be sure, the Washington press has its share of pigs, but that night at President Obama’s inaugural ball, there wasn’t any panic—we all found out after it was too late.

The majestic press area was, well, like a low-security prison. Once safely in its confines, you’re told the ugly truth: You’re not allowed to leave on your own. Kind of like the Hotel California.

Then there was panic. How will I eat? How will I get drinks? Talk to ball-goers? Relieve myself?

However, should you need to use the facilities, the Presidential Inaugural Committee allotted volunteers to escort you to and from the bathroom. Just as if I were visiting, say, North Korea.

To immediately test this theory, I set my bag down, made some quick friends, and went off to the bathroom. Mind you, it was only 200 feet away, but there the escort waited patiently while you did your business.

This was before most of the many thousands of attendees arrived, and the dance floor was about as empty as a mixer at a Catholic grade school. Leaving the bathroom, I bluntly told my escort: “I need a drink.”

My escort, a retired businesswoman living in northern Maryland, said she knew just the person and took me past the closest bar to meet her drink-slinging connection.

On the way, I quickly realized that I did not have any cash. Not wanting to blow my chances of acquiring precious libations, I asked if the bar took credit cards. “Yes,” my escort told me, “you can buy drink tickets with a credit card.”

I purchased my drink tickets, and even for D.C., the drinks were expensive. The prices would probably even make a strip-club owner blush: $10 for a small “premium” drink, like whiskey or vodka, $7 for an imported beer, and $6 for a domestic.

As I was buying my tickets, I joked with the cashier that I was “investing in alcohol futures.”

While not the same as buying Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice futures like in Trading Places, there do come advantages to buying your tickets early—mainly avoiding lines.

My escort took me over to her friend, and I ordered a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks, straight. As someone who appreciates good service, I felt bad not having any cash because I prefer to tip for good service. I explained/apologized for not having any money for tips and promised, if my escort were kind enough—that I’d go to the ATM later to get some money to tip her for her services.

The bartender gleamed. “I appreciate that honey,” she said. And, like many bartenders, if the tip was good she said would “hook me up.”

I told her I’d see her soon; after all, I bought eight nonrefundable drink tickets. I went back and my new friends in the Washington press were surprised I was gone for so long. While there were hundreds of press, there were not very many escorts.

As I sipped my whiskey, I chatted with a nice gal from NPR who had two cups (made of corn, for the environment’s sake) filled with water. She, too, managed to get out of our media playpen to acquire them. They cost her $6, three dollars for each bottle.

I asked why she couldn’t have just used the bottle and she informed me the bartender wouldn’t let her keep them. Such waste would have never occurred at the “green” inaugural ball, I mused.

Our little cadre was comprised of: a writer for NPR, two Elon college journalists, a gal whose affiliation I forget, a Russian writer for Komsomolskaya Pravda, and me.

We quickly realized that we were, in effect, quarantined, and agreed to a credo: “We won’t turn on each other.”

I finished my drink in short order and sought out my escort. I told her that I’d like to go to the ATM to make sure I had cash to take care of her bartender friend, and that it made more sense to go before it got busy. She agreed.

I elected to withdraw $60, keeping $20 in reserve for emergency drinks and petty cash, and put the remainder towards tips. We went back to our bartender and I proffered my remaining “super premium” ticket, asking for another Jack Daniel’s on the rocks.

“Would you like two?” she asked. “Of course!” I said, and who wouldn’t? Before she got to the business of pouring my drinks, she poured a red wine for my escort and gave it to her. It was promptly consumed.

The bartender grabbed the big cups, the 16 ounce ones, and poured me two straight whiskey drinks on the rocks (totaling a pint between them). She asked if I needed anything else. I said, “Sure, a beer would be nice.”

As it turns out, a big tip and a solitary drink ticket can grease the skids for good access to booze in Obama’s Washington.

Off I went, effectively triple-fisting liquor as the attendees were just beginning to pour in to the tune of “Everybody, Everybody” by Black Box. It was as if I were transported to a mixer in the 1990’s, and yes, it was that awkward.

Back in the media playpen, I offered the excess of the fruits of my labor to Alexey the Russian and Linda from NPR. Linda happily accepted the free beer and Alexey thanked me, but dryly responded in his Russian accent that he preferred vodka. To his credit, he offered to take me to Brighton Beach to experience real Russian-American life next time I’m in New York.

A moment later, my friend Mike came over to the media demarcation fence and yelled out to me. I brought over my extra whiskey and offered it to him while we waited for his girlfriend to return from the long line to check overcoats. Mike is never one to reject a free drink, which shows why we’ve been friends for 26 years.

That night, such a drink would have probably cost $30, so my investment was wise. We hung out for a short while and commiserated over the plight of my minimum security imprisonment. Hopping the fence would have been easy, but it also would have been obvious. I told Mike to go have some fun with his girlfriend so I could plot my escape and hopefully meet up with them later.

A few minutes later, Alicia Keys took the stage to perform a short set. I went around the large pipe and drape riser to get a better view. Alicia belted out “OBAMA’S ON FIRRRRRRRE!!”and nobody, not even the Secret Service, seemed to take her claim about the president’s conflagration seriously.

I felt like I was in that Citi “private pass” commercial where the recently single guy gets to meet Marilyn Monroe, Giada De Laurentiis, and Alicia Keys because he spends a lot of money. After Alicia Keys’s performance, I was stopped by a middle aged woman in the press playpen who assumed that—based on my age—I would know how to spell the performer’s last name.

That was a mistaken assumption; since I told her I didn’t know. For what it was worth, I replied that I thought it was “Keys.” A twenty-something behind me incorrectly assured her it was spelled “Keyes.”

That wasn’t all for entertainment—the Mexican band Mana played, as well as Brad Paisley. But the capstone for most attendees was the band “fun.”—whom you might know from their songs “Some Nights” or “We Are Young.”

At this point my stomach was running quite literally on fumes. Alcohol fumes. I needed food. I sought out my escort and made another trip to the bar and stopped at a food station on the way back.

For all of the money people spent on tickets, the only food they were given was pretzels, Cheez Its and trail mix. Beggars can’t be choosers, so I scooped up what I could carry and brought it back to the media playpen.

Others tried going to the bar or out to get snacks, but found their requests denied by the escorts. As the crowds swelled, the escorts were increasingly unlikely to grant requests to go anywhere but the bathroom. Except mine, of course. My arrangement was paying dividends, kind of like paying “insurance” to organized crime does.

My greasing of the skids got her some free drinks on the side, too. I scratch your back, you scratch mine, they always say.

Mike returned with girlfriend in tow to say hello. Then, it dawned on me. Being part of the media elite, we had spiffy Secret Service credentials complete with mugshot-like photos. Guests, like my friend Mike, had a tux and no credentials, just a ticket. I asked him if they had to wear credentials too.

They did not. It was time to blow this Popsicle stand. My opportunity to escape had arrived.

I would take off my credentials, put them in my bag, hand the bag to Mike and simply waltz out past the other escorts into a sea of thousands of similarly dressed people, pretending not to hear them—“Sir! Excuse me, sir!”

It worked.

I went around to the other side to meet Mike and reacquire my bag and enjoy my new-found freedom. While I wasn’t there to celebrate four more years like he was, it was nice to spend the remainder of that historic day with my best friend.

It’s sort of ironic—to have any real fun as a member of the press at Obama’s inaugural ball, I had to essentially bribe my way out of our playpen to get access to the booze. Crony capitalism is the Chicago way, they say, and for the next four years, it will also be the Washington way.

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