I am not sure what I had expected, boarding the rally bus, but it was not the actual occupants who looked back at me as I gave the captain my reservation number. In a way, I had stumbled upon my own haven (or heaven): gay men, ex-hippies, and socially inept nerds (the kind that think interface jokes are really cool – and if you didn’t understand that then you actually are cool). One of the older women I had befriended while waiting to get on the bus hailed me towards the back and offered the window seat next to her. I had taken an instant liking to her when she first pulled up in an orange Honda Fit (I own a silver one) that was littered in COEXIST and OBAMA bumper stickers. We sat across the aisle from two older women who had most certainly put flowers in police rifles back in the 60’s and behind us were two guys bonding over Dungeons and Dragons references. Our bus captain informed us that he had never been in charge of a large group of people before, but would do his best not to lose anyone, and we were off.
Atlanta was the only city in Georgia to send buses to the rally and, from what I was over hearing from fellow passengers, it was the closest stop for many out-of-staters as well. Coming from five hours south, I believed myself to have traveled the farthest, but soon found others from Alabama, Tennessee, and both of the Carolinas. People (myself included) often joke about the South’s lack of open-minded people, but the occupancy of Atlanta Bus #1 certainly did not help to prove otherwise. Within a five hundred mile radius Atlanta was only able to scrounge up enough people to fill up two buses factoring into a little over one hundred people. And friends wonder why I refrain from vocalizing my political beliefs within large crowds down here.
The bus was full of chatter and debate, as one would expect of travelers headed to a political rally. Besides the aged hippies and computer geeks, my corner of the bus also consisted of two young hipsters (one of whom carried a stuffed white owl for no reason), two Georgia Tech students studying for an exam, and a biker-chick-divorcee. One of the hippies, Charlene, joked that we should all watch Fox News just before pulling into the capitol just so we could get riled up. Conversational topics ranged from everything between taxes, Bush, Monica Lewinsky, Rand Paul, Hugh Grant, the stereotypes of smoking and smokers (most of which were negative, which made me feel bad because no one had noticed my fellow Honda Fit seat partner had brought a pack of Camels with her), and bald vs buzz-cut men.
Lights began to turn off around midnight and through my contact lens-less eyes I could make out a sign pointing towards Clemson University just before nodding off. I woke up a few more times during the night (if our bus hit a pebble it sounded as if the entire façade might crumble) only to find the Tech boys still awake. The other bus-ers finally began to stir around seven a.m. as we sailed through North Carolina.
I’m not sure what happened next. One minute we were passing a sign for the Blue Ridge Parkway and then I was awoken by a blinding light, everyone around me had sunglasses on (and I mean literally everyone), and the Washington Monument could be seen out the left windows. Our bus was oddly calm and quiet as we pulled onto Massachusetts Avenue and made our way to Union Station. Already a thick line of people with picket signs and lawn chairs were filing straight from the station to the Mall. We circled Union twice before finding a parking spot and unloading. As we departed, our bus captain assured us that our bus would remain in this spot until we were to leave at eight p.m. “If for some reason it does have to move, however,” he said, making everyone freeze and pay attention, “we have a sign posted in the window that says Atlanta Bus Number One.” And with that we all dispersed, confident in the knowledge that if our bus were to leave all we would have to do is look for the 8x11 sheet of scrawled on computer paper in the front window. That should be enough to distinguish it from the other ninety-nine buses that had shuttled over five thousand ralliers from across two time zones.
Walking through Union was about as fascinating as the dichotomies of the people on Atlanta Bus #1. It was easy to see that the entire station had been over run with ralliers as the terminal was an ocean of red, blue, poster boards, and costumes. Cardboard cutouts of Barack and Michelle Obama had been placed near a storefront and I watched as everyone posed excitedly with the couple. This was foiled against the Sarah Palin cutout, which stood opposite, that people, for the most part, pretended to strangle.
I had planned to meet some of my friends and roommates from college at the rally so I sat on a giant stone structure outside of the station and waited for the Ann Arbor buses to arrive. I could not have picked a more perfect spot to perch as this was the exact corner that everyone snaked around when marching from Union Station to the Mall. Wizards, hippies, superheroes, Nixon masks, cat women, and an infinite number of Where’s Waldos filed past me. It became hard to tell who was dressed up for the rally and who was prematurely in their Halloween costume (it was October 30th after all). A television crew from a Catholic network (I assumed they were with a Catholic network because the anchorman was dressed as a priest, but maybe that was his Halloween outfit) stationed themselves on the stairs directly below me, asking passersby their reasons for journeying to Washington. Most answers consisted of, “The country’s gone insane,” “We need to restore sanity,” and “I love Jon Stewart and/or Stephen Colbert.” Two guys around my age sat near me to display their signs: “I’m moderate as HELL!” and “One of these things is not like the other” written above photos of President Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Hitler.
When the Ann Arbor bus arrived, our group of graduated college students consisted of a 6’3” guy dressed as Karl Marx, a kid in traditional army camouflage (including short shorts and a purple bandana), a cow, a sign that read “Did Jesus have health insurance?” on the front and “You tell me! I can’t even read!” on the back and someone with a box over his head that was painted to look like a TV and had a picture of Anderson Cooper. Those of us in the gaggle not dressed up paled in comparison, but between the cow, Jesus sign, and Marx’s shock of white hair, we were able to keep up with most of the group throughout the rally; a feat that I assure you was no where near simple.
To say the Mall was packed would be an understatement. To say that it was like being one of those red crabs during migratory season on Christmas Island in South Asia (where, from a distance, it looks as though the ground is actually red instead of just being papered in crabs) is a bit more accurate. My former housemate, Jeanette, and her boyfriend, Zack, and I joined hands as we squeezed through people, keeping our eyes peeled on the Jesus sign so that we wouldn’t lose our group. There were Pro-Choice advocates, anti-Tea Party posters, people inside giant marijuana leaves, Gay Rights banners, a trio of Banana People (and that is exactly what it sounds like), and a slew of signs that were just about being signs: “Sign!,” “My sign’s too damn big!,” “I wanted to carry a sign, but couldn’t think of anything to write,” “My sign is sad,” etc.
I will say this: the crowd was the most courteous and polite mob I had ever been a part of. There was no real shoving or cutting off and if people saw that you were holding hands with someone so as not to get separated then they kindly waited until you both passed. Those who did push past people apologized saying, “Excuse me,” and as we finally found our way to the entrance of the Mall (the National Park Service had blocked off the actual Mall property with fences and port-a-potties) everyone took their turn flooding inside (like a controlled dam, if you will).
The scene inside the fences and port-a-potties was even more jam-packed, if that was possible. Some viewers were lucky enough to make it up into the trees, although how they got up the trunks whose branches didn’t even start for the first seven or eight feet is beyond me. Others stood on top of the port-a-potties, leaving the durability of the plastic houses in question. While following our Jesus sign, Jeanette, Zack, and I somehow managed to loop in front of our group. At that point we decided to stay where we were, which was about twenty to thirty yards away from the stage, in between the National Gallery of Art and the First Aid tent (incase there was a sudden stampede), and with a clear view to one of the giant projection screens that would show us what was happening onstage. The rally itself was to a level of phenomenal that I can’t even begin to describe. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert put on such a show that the liberals and conservatives within the crowd couldn’t resist but feel united for once and even in our sardine-like state everyone was cheery throughout the entire three-hour stand-athon.
Since we couldn’t actually see the stage, I took pleasure in watching everyone around me. It struck me that the age range of the crowd seemed to be sixteen to mid-twenties and then leapt to fifty through well...old. Where were all the middle-aged people? The demographic was also alarmingly pale and Jeanette and I were surprised when, as Father Guido Sarducci asked for shout-outs for different religions, the faith that got the loudest cheers was Roman Catholic. Baptists and Methodists received a medium amount, Islam got an expected supportive cry, and the religion that I shouted for, Buddhism, had so few yells that Father Sarducci thought there were none in the mass.
What most endeared me at the rally, however, were all the single parents who had brought their children. My back corner of Atlanta Bus #1 had consisted of a mother who had brought her young teenage son along and in front of my group (and sometimes surrounded by my group depending on the crowd shift) was a father who had obviously dragged his daughter to the event. The dad was full of so much glee and pride that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Every now and then he would stop looking at the screens and turn in full circle to get a panoramic view of the historic event. Each time his rotation was ended with a comment along the lines of, “This is such a great nation that we live in.” His angst-filled daughter, on the other hand, was less than amused. Her clenched mouth, hunched shoulders and folded arms made it apparent that she (probably no more than fifteen) was not a fan of crowds and would rather seek solace in a book in her room. However, with each glance at her father, who simply beamed out over the sea of ralliers, her tension eased just a little. By the time Stewart and Colbert were having a musical war of sanity (Cat Stevens) versus fear (Ozzy Osbourne), the girl’s shoulders were completely relaxed and she was laughing right along with nearly 215,000 of her new friends.
No one was a stranger at the Rally to Restore Sanity. Everyone commented on everyone’s conversation and half the time, a question to Jeanette or Zack was answered by someone behind us. We laughed together; we cheered together; we even all shook our heads shamefacedly when a point was made that neither political side was wholly in the right: democrats, liberals, conservatives, and republicans attack each other with as much gusto and prejudice as the opposing side.
In the closing remarks, Jon Stewart made an analogy to something I found extremely appropriate to the crowdedness of the rally. On the giant screens appeared an image of the entrance to New York City’s Holland Tunnel as cars merged from multiple lanes into one single flow of traffic. He said that the way in which the cars let each other go one at a time was a display of the decency that we, as Americans, needed to show one another. It didn’t matter the make and model of the car or what bumper stickers it displayed, each vehicle yielded and shared the space. Every now and then some jerk will pull up along the shoulder and cut everyone, but there are people like that all over the world. The trick is to not become one of them.
“We know, instinctively, as a people, that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the Promised Land. Sometimes, it’s just New Jersey.”
– Jon Stewart
It's Emily again! Thanks so much for that, Georgia! When I asked Georgia to give the rally a rating from 1-5 (because why not?) she said, "I would definitely give the rally a 5. It was handled beautifully, the performances were fantastic, and all the speeches were amazing."