I wore my new shirt to the Y to walk today. Yes, it’s been THAT long since the March that my shirt has already arrived.
This part of the story has taken me a while to stew over. All of those things I was worried about? None of them mattered.
I didn’t hear a single dynamic feminist icon or fired-up celebrity because the speaker near us was broken. I couldn’t see the stage or a Jumbotron. Jean and I got separated and it took two hours to find each other in the throngs of people. The cell service crashed so we couldn’t communicate. Jean dropped one of her bottles of water in the portapotty not 15 minutes into our day.
None of that mattered.
Because I have never experienced such love in one place. Such fellow-feeling. Such kindness among strangers.
You’ve seen photos of the crowd size and read the statistics. I would not be surprised if the DC crowd alone numbered 1 million people. I’ve been in football stadium crowds before, and London Underground at rush hour crowds. This crowd was different, not just because it was 10 times larger than any crowd I’ve ever witnessed. This crowd was NICE.
Jean and I got there early but it was already crowded. We staked out prime seats on 4th Avenue, on a low wall outside the Museum of the American Indian. Great people watching. Jean decided to make one last potty run before the line up started. Being people who are older than technology and therefore aware that it can fail, we agreed that if we ever got separated for more than an hour, we would meet at the tall totem poles by the museum.
Good thing we did. I didn’t start looking for her until after the speakers had begun. I craned my neck to the right and scanned the ever-growing crowd for her…pink hat. Yeah, that wasn’t really helping. And y’all…Jean is SHORT. It’s easy to lose our pocket-sized friends in a crowd like that.
I started getting nervous after she had been gone an hour. I checked for a text–nothing. Then I realized that the cell service had given up because there were just too many people. Jean could have been calling me and I wouldn’t have known. I slipped into Southern Mama Mode: SHE COULD BE LYING DEAD IN A DITCH AND I DIDN’T PICK UP THE PHONE!
Finally, I got to Facebook and saw that Jean had posted a message that she couldn’t get back to me and she was going to the totem poles. Sweet relief–we had a plan. Unfortunately, our plan lay on the other side of this:
I gave up my prime position on the wall to a nice older lady (I mean, older than me). But there was nowhere to go. Jean and the totem poles were only about 50 yards away. That day? It took me 45 minutes to go 50 yards. CRUSH. People weren’t moving at all because there was simply nowhere to go.
This is where I learned my first lesson from the crowd. I couldn’t ask people to get out of my way. I couldn’t just bull my way through to my friend. Instead, I would touch a person on the elbow and ask, “Can I switch places with you?” We would literally pivot in a tight little circle to swap places then I would repeat the maneuver on the next person. That way, no one felt like they were getting shoved or had to fear that they would get separated. All I was asking was to swap places.
One step at a time got me to the totem poles…but no Jean.
I knew she was too smart to have given up and abandoned the plan. She had to be there but she also had to be SHORT. I climbed up onto a low wall around a flower bed. And bumped into the hilarious political comedian, John Fugelsang, which was highly entertaining. Y’all should follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and through a crowd because dude is TALL. Seriously, in this next picture, I was on a wall and he was not.
I spent another 30 minutes balancing on that wall, slowly rotating in search of Jean. A tiny lady next to me introduced herself as, “Penny, from Raleigh, North Carolina–but I ain’t like most of ’em down there.” I told her I couldn’t find my friend and she said, “Well, why on’t you wave your sign around? Surely she can see that easier than she can see you.”
That’s when I learned my second lesson from the crowd: when you are in need, tell someone. Other people have different perspectives and can offer solutions that haven’t been obvious to you. They want to help. Thank you, Penny! Within a couple of minutes of waving my giant neon green sign in the air over my head, I heard several people not 20 feet away scream, “ASHLEY!!!”
There was Jean!
Once we swore to never leave each other again, no matter what, Jean left. She had found a nice stand of bushes that kept people away from her so she planted herself right in the middle of them and got some breathing space. Because see that crowd over our heads? That’s the Mall and it was FULL. I stayed on the wall with my new friends Penny and John.
Here’s the part of the day that I don’t ever want to forget, so I’m writing it down here.
As I teetered right on the edge of the wall, two young people came up to the edge of the flower bed and tried to climb up. I said, “Oh honey, there is nowhere to go up here. There’s a line of shrubs right here and people as far as you can see.” The girl in front didn’t answer. She ducked her head farther into her hoodie and stared at her phone. Her jacket was mint green and the other kid’s was blue.
They both froze there, stopped by the wall and the crowd…and me. They didn’t say anything, just kept fiddling with their phones. I figured they were just hanging out like the rest of us, waiting for the crowd to start marching.
Twenty or thrity minutes passed by. Since we couldn’t hear what was happening on the stage, we chanted “Let’s march now!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” and Fugelsang started “Impeach Pence FIRST!”
During a lull, another message got passed along by the crowd. Just like Jean had asked strangers to yell my name, people to my right started yelling, “Zoe and Bobby! Zoe and Bobby!” I turned to my section of the crowd and yelled “Zoe and Bobby!”
The girl right there next to me jumped like she had been shocked and looked straight up into my eyes. That’s when I realized how YOUNG she really was–about 13.
“Are you Zoe and Bobby?” They both nodded urgently but still didn’t say a word.
I turned back in the original direction and yelled, “We’ve got Zoe and Bobby here! Zoe and Bobby are here!” The message traveled through several people until it stopped at one man. He was a dad-aged African American man, as tall as Fugelsang but as wide as a bear, and wearing a hot pink Women’s March shirt. We made eye contact and I nodded as hard as I could and pointed down to the kids. The look on his face, the relief that transformed his entire body. I’ll never forget that moment.
Every person in that flower bed pulled themselves in a little bit and swapped and wiggled until a path was cleared between Zoe and Bobby and their dad. Once they got to him, all of that frozen fear melted away. There was a big family hug and dad started crying. Hell, we all were, even little Penny from Raleigh North Carolina because she ain’t like most of em.
I’ve lost Carlos in a crowd before for 30 minutes. I know that feeling of scanning every face and not finding the one I need to see. I looked at that dad and thought about that method I had used to move through the crowd–Will you swap places with me? For an instant, I swapped places with him and the only natural response, one parent to another, was to help.
Zoe and Bobby and their dad taught me the third lesson of that crowd: THIS is who we are. It didn’t matter that I didn’t hear a word from the speakers or see a single performer. I got to meet US, the U.S.
Hundreds of thousands of people in one place can be a dangerous situation. We could have gotten angry or selfish. We could have panicked. We could have shouted each other down. Instead, we got kind. We took care of each other. We sang the national anthem and we cheered when the trans flag flew from a light post. We chanted and we shared water and snacks. We didn’t bump the old people and we watched our language around the kids, mostly.
We practiced being our best selves in challenging conditions. We the people.
That’s what people who weren’t there will never get. We chose to be our best selves, to each other, and for each other. That’s what America can be.
Gate A-4, by Naomi Shihab Nye
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”
Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,”
said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those otherwomen, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.