WASHINGTON — On November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy fell minutes past noon, a man entered Liggett’s — a New Haven drug store — and exchanged seven pennies for a copy of the Register.
“You have to read something before it’s true,” he said, according to the extra edition of the Yale Daily News printed that evening. “You have to read it.”
A Yale man entered Dwight Hall and didn’t come out; couples wandered Old Campus near the Yale Fence looking sick and saying nothing; two men cried to one another on opposite sides of Elm Street; Mory’s staff served alcohol to no one, and it was a Friday evening.
Everyone was alone; the leader was dead; hope was, too, and a generation wished it were dreaming.
On January 20, 2009, the day Barack Obama rose minutes past noon, a black man stood in the shadows of the Third Street NW underpass and belted the theme song from The Jeffersons, only modified: “We’re movin’ on up — to the White House. We finally got a piece of the pie.”
He said he did not mind if police forced him to remain in the dark all day. He said he did not mind if he were not able to see or hear the oath, the speech or the moment. The truth, he said, would be in the crowd. There were millions of us.
I watched, and I shivered, from Pennsylvania Avenue and Third. I spoke to almost no one for twelve hours and never sat down. I read about the “radicalism” of the American Revolution for class and never stopped wondering why I chose frostbite over a seminar on Cole Porter’s music and lyrics. I traded two double-A batteries for two macadamia-nut cookies.
I shed several tears at the mention of my favorite composer, John Williams, and several more at the fumbling of the Oath of Office. I snapped photographs on my iPhone, scribbled notes in my black-moleskin notebook (“Note to children: I was here on 1/20/09 … Biden’s kids emerge!! … THE TIME HAS COME … History, history HISTORY”), and sang “A Whole New World” when it spontaneously broke out nearby.
I considered what force had compelled me — and two million of my fellow Americans — to shiver for so long in this Washington winter.
I returned to my comparatively canicular dorm room that evening and, in search of an answer, read about a Friday 45 years ago that my mother and father tell me was like no other, if a day is measured by how much is lost or gained in its twenty-four hour span. November 22, 1963 and January 20, 2009, it turns out, are not so unalike.
Yet yesterday became true to us not by way of reading — nor even by way of televisions, telephones or terabytes — but by way of others: cohorts, colleges and crowds. It’s not always that way, which is why I — why everyone — chose to freeze.
Yale men and Yale women chanted in unison on buses on interstates; a senior draped himself in a flag, stood on a C Street NW barricade and energized a mass of Americans at a quarter past three; a freshman on a charter bus pensively wondered whether race relations had forever changed; a Yale professor-poet told the world that many had died for this day, and to say it plain.
Everyone was together; the leader was alive; hope was, too, and a generation was dreaming.