Three weeks ago, Paul received an email urging him to volunteer to help the Inaugural Committee in Washington, DC, during the President’s Big Weekend.

He signed us up.

The email gave no promises that we would be chosen from thousands of prospective volunteers, so we were overjoyed when Paul got a call from a Committee phone-elf asking us to distribute tickets from 2 to 9:30 pm on the Saturday before the inauguration.

She told him there would be follow-up emails with more specifics.

A day passed. Two. No emails.

But…the call really had been specific. So I called our favorite DC hotel for a room for Inauguration Weekend, Friday through Monday night.

The price was $50 higher than usual for Sunday and Monday, and the clerk warned me that it was nonrefundable. I took a deep breath and booked it.

The next day, we got a follow-up email: The Committee regretted to inform us that we had not been chosen to volunteer for Inauguration Weekend. However, our name would be added to a waiting list.

Paul emailed back for clarification.

A second email arrived: the Committee regretted to tell us that we had not been chosen from the waiting list.

Paul emailed back. I emailed an addy called “Questions,” which was supposed to serve confused volunteers.

I emailed again. And again.

No reply; nothing. Nothing.

**

On Friday morning, still unclarified, we took the train to Washington, DC.

Late that night, in our nonrefundable hotel room, I ordered two nonrefundable tickets on-line, a “donation” of $44 each, for the inaugural parade. The tickets entitled us to sit in the bleachers. A splurge—but how many Inaugural Parades would I experience? I’m short—the only thing I see in a crowd at ground-level is shoulders.

We had to pick up the tickets at the DC Convention Center, the place where we’d report as volunteers. If, indeed, we were volunteers.

Saturday morning, we stood in line outside the Convention Center. A man handed us an orange plastic card; we went in and stood in line with others holding orange plastic cards until we reached a room, where we stood in line until we reached a table. A man behind the table gave our names to another man; he walked behind a curtain and returned with tickets to the Green Ticket bleacher section.

The men wore tags around their necks that said “Ticket Distribution Volunteer.”

In the hall, we buttonholed a woman whose little earpiece with a crinkly cord marked her as a leader. We explained our volunteer dilemma.

She said she could use us: we should come back at 1:30 and tell the coordinator Josie sent us.

**

We stood in line at the door at 1:30. When at last we found the coordinator, she didn’t care that Josie sent us, because our names were already in her computer, entered three weeks ago.

The coordinator gave us “Ticket Distribution” tags and sent us to the ticket room. Where a young woman named Brianna, wearing the leaderly earpiece with a crinkly cord, grabbed us and replaced our tags with tags that read “Security.” She hustled us to separate points on a line that snaked around the exhibition hall and, ultimately, to a room on the other side.

For the rest of the day, I checked that people had a blue plastic card, which indicated they’d bought tickets through TicketMaster for the parade or one of the official inaugural balls. People with orange plastic cards, which meant they’d bought their tickets directly from the Committee site, went to a different line.

I sent my blue-ticket people down the length of the hall to Paul; he sent them down the width, to another volunteer. This third volunteer sent them around another corner, to a fourth volunteer, who sent them to the ticket room. It was a long, long walk.

At 3 pm, a great onrush of ticketholders made it a long, long line—one that doubled back on itself, a la Disney World.

But by 8:30 pm, only stragglers were left. Many came directly off planes, trains and buses, luggage in tow, desperate to pick up their tickets before 9, after which they became a true donation. Brianna sent us home, our mission accomplished.

**

On Sunday, we strolled the Mall. The sky was cloudless; the weather warm. Entrepreneurs hawked T-shirts, buttons, Obamacondoms (“Remember the election with your next erection!”). CNN broadcast from a slapped-up booth; tourists craned for a glimpse of Wolf Blitzer and waved at crowd-cams. Elves set up jumbotrons and barricades and plastic flooring for tomorrow’s Big Day. The place swarmed with guys with little earpieces attached to crinkly cords. They didn’t need tags that said “Security.”

**

Monday morning: Showtime. The Mall teemed with humanity. We stood in the shadow of the Washington Monument to watch the inaugural ceremony on a jumbotron. Americana abounded: Dads hoisted babies on their shoulders; children waved flags; families took pictures of each other. Entrepreneurs hawked T-shirts, buttons, Obamacondoms (“A souvenir that’s actually fun!”). It was cold and bright and festive, and as Obama laid his hand on the bible, the screen crackled and went black.

The crowd groaned in near unison. The screen pixilated and sizzled to life, then the sound clicked and skipped, recovered, and cut out entirely. The screen strobed on, off, on. Audio returned, ten seconds behind the video.

“Low bidder,” Paul said.

Obama’s inaugural address hitched and blurred like a train announcement, and the video—when it worked—froze and faded.

Paul suggested that Mitt might be scurrying about, pulling plugs.

We—and most everyone else—gave up before the President left the podium.

We set off to claim our piece of the Green Ticket parade bleachers. It was 12:30; the parade was scheduled to step off at 2:30.

“Plenty of time,” Paul said.

Except we couldn’t get there.

**

We started at 15th Street. The police sent us up Constitution Avenue to 17th. From there, they sent us past Pennsylvania Avenue, where all the bleachers were set up, to I Street. Then down I to 13th Street, to wait en masse for Security to check us through to our Green Ticket zone on Pennsylvania.

In other words, we surrounded the zone, stretching a half-mile trip into a two-mile square (honest: I mapped it out).

Even so, we might have gotten seats before the parade started if Paul hadn’t gotten hungry. We stopped to eat. It took a half-hour, from order to exit. “See? Plenty of time,” Paul said.

At 1:45, we reached the pack of humanity that stretched from 13th and I to Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands of us crammed into a half-mile, two-lane granddaddy-of-all-lines.

Somewhere up front was a tall wire fence and a white Security tent. Two young doctors who’d been working all night stood beside us. They could see the tent. Paul could see the tent. I could see shoulders.

We stood for 15 minutes, moved three feet, stood. Stood for 20 minutes, moved six inches. Stood. Stood. Stood.

At 2:15, one of the young docs texted a friend, a reporter, who told them the President was still speaking at a dinner.

“Let’s pray he keeps on talking,” said the woman next to me. I agreed: the later the parade started, the better our chance of getting there in time to see Obama wave from his limo. And we all wanted to see Obama wave from his limo; it was why we’d come.

“Maybe Biden will speak,” said the young doc. “That’d be good for an hour.”

At 2:30, we’d inched halfway up the street. Entrepreneurs on the sidewalk hawked T-shirts, buttons, Obamacondoms (“Be a patriot, even when you’re on your back!”). The day grew colder. Paul saw the white tent. I saw shoulders. The parade, amazingly, still hadn’t stepped off.

At 3:00, the doc’s reporter told him the parade had started.

The woman next to me groaned. “Obama’s in the front, or the rear?”

“He’s in the front,” I told her. “It’s Santa’s who’s in back of his parades.”

Still, there was hope: the start was a long way from us.

A gaggle of gawkers filled a low balcony near us. One of the women pointed toward the parade route. “There’s people coming now,” she yelled to us all.

We heard motorcycles. Paul craned his neck to see them pass beyond the white tent. The docs saw them as well. I saw shoulders.

“I think that’s HIM,” the balcony woman yelled. “It’s HIM!” Then, “Oops—not him.”

At 3:30, we were three rows behind the gate in the tall wire fence when a stern-looking man on the other side pushed it closed. “Aw, man—c’mon! We been here two hours,” the guy next to the gate on our side said.

The young docs shook their heads. “I can’t believe we drove all this way—“

The stern man inside stood his ground, saying nothing.

The woman on the balcony screamed, “It’s HIM!” She fanned herself with her hand. “It’s really HIM, and he’s out of the car—“

“Can you see him?” I asked Paul.

“No—I can’t see beyond the tent.”

Far, far away—miles away, a half-world away—just beyond the white tent, on Pennsylvania Avenue, the crowd went wild.

And then, silence.

“Aw, man!” said the guy at our side of the gate.

The stern man on the other side listened to an earpiece attached to a crinkly cord. People started to leave the pack. Somewhere behind us, entrepreneurs hawked T-shirts, buttons, Obamacondoms (“Salute the Big Man like a big man!”). I blew on my frozen fingers.

“Can’t you at least let us in to see the rest of the parade?” the man on our side of the gate pleaded.

“I think he’s going to open it,” one young doc told the other. “He keeps nodding.”

“Hunh,” said the woman beside me. “He’s been nodding for the last half-hour. I think maybe he’s on something.”

Five minutes later, the stern man opened the gate. We stepped in, unzipped our jackets, put our electronics on a table, turned front and back so a guy could wand each of us. Four tables; four wand-ers. For a crowd of thousands.

We zipped up, picked up our phones and cameras, and walked off to the Green Ticket bleachers.

They were not full. Obama was long gone.