Two days before the inauguration, I talk with my dad about Joe Biden.
With the pandemic, I hadn’t been in Washington, D.C., for two years, so it is much overdue. Dad and Joe have much in common. Dad is 47 days younger, and I assume is stupefied that his aged generation is still running the country. Joe comes from Scranton, Pennsylvania, Dad from Brockton, Massachusetts, two Northeastern industrial towns where things used to be made and now they are not. Both are devout Catholics, diligent Mass attenders. Dad and Joe were line-towers, except when they were not: Joe confronting “Corn Pop” while a lifeguard, Dad breaking car windows with snowballs in the A&P parking lot. (Both stories are possibly apocryphal.) They both come from an America we thought was in our rearview mirror, but here we are again. Thank you, Donald Trump, for morphing our country into a hellscape of boldfaced lies, naked racism, and open rebellion so terrible that we must press back into action those skiing for free on the Super Senior discount.
There’s one key difference between Joe Biden and Peter Rodrick. Joe is being sworn in as president in 48 hours. Dad? He’s been dead for more than 40 years; Cmdr. Peter Rodrick was lost in a plane crash off the USS Kitty Hawk in 1979. I have to make a trip to Arlington Cemetery, where I talk with his marker in Grave 99, Section 3. Still, I keep him in the loop. I regularly drop things off for him: a copy of a book I wrote about Navy pilots, a photo of his namesake grandson, a can of Coors, which was quite the hipster beer in the late Seventies. Since high school, I’ve told him how his wife is doing, about the bust-up of my marriage, and how I can’t wait until his executive officer is interred here so I can go piss on his grave. (Federal authorities: I would never actually do that. At least not during regular business hours.)
Today’s topic is our departing despot. I want to tell him that Donald Trump’s craven reign is over and that maybe a brighter tomorrow awaits us. But Donald has one more indirect “Fuck you” for us. Arlington isn’t exactly closed, but it is not really open. The events of January 6th, my dad’s 78th birthday, have left America’s most hallowed ground on lockdown. The Metro station is closed and police are scattered about the place, asking for identification and the purpose of my visit. SUVs and cops block off my usual pathway to Dad’s marker. No one seems to care when I say too loudly, “I’m here to visit my father’s grave.”
Eventually a policewoman tells me that my dad’s section is inaccessible due to a combo of an abundance of caution and the fact that a band is rehearsing for Biden’s January 20th post-inauguration appearance. She sees the tears welling in my eyes.
“If you stay off the paths and cut through the graves I think you can make it there.” She pauses for a second. “I didn’t say that.”
I trudge on brown grass through a garden of stone. There’s a grave for Patton’s son, an Army dentist from World War I, and a marker for the six-week-old daughter of a naval aviator. I’m spotted by a policeman and pretend I am mourning the loss of an Army sergeant who died in 1957. A police van glides by and I hide behind the conveniently giant monument to a dead quartermaster. Thank you, pompous 19th-century-born bureaucrat.
My dad’s marker is on a slope, and for the first time I assault it from the top of the hill. I curl myself on the ground and run my fingers through the grooves of his name. I sometimes feel that this marker is the only tangible proof he ever existed. Arlington is nearly deserted and quiet, no tour buses talking about Audie Murphy and how Robert E. Lee used to own the land. The branches of the bare trees crack and moan. Blackbirds screech. A flag at half-mast rattles in the wind.
I tell my dad that it is almost over. Trump has just two more days. I confess it has been the four longest years of all our lives, from the moment he was sworn in, ranting about American carnage. There were so many humiliations, the mocking of the weak and lame, the kowtowing to dictators. And somehow we had made it through the first three years without a colossal, massive loss of life. But then the bill came due. There was Covid-19, and a president who talked of injecting bleach and who refused to wear a mask even after catching the disease. And now there are 400,000 dead.
Dad doesn’t say much when I come to visit, it’s not a séance. But this time I could hear his voice as clear as when he watched a Celtics game and used the almost-swear “son of a biscuit eater” when Jo Jo White took an ill-advised shot. A different 400,000, the number of Americans who lay beside him, joined his voice. They ask, “What was it all for? Is this what I died for? Buffoons invading the Capitol with Confederate flags at the behest of a cotton-candy-haired con man?
I didn’t have an answer.
The troops. We have to start with the troops. They are everywhere, blocking off corners, men and women in camo with their rifles pointing downward. A busload of troops check into my hotel, apparently none of them qualifying for Diamond status. And then there is everyone else. And what I mean by everyone else is no one. The city is so devoid of civilians that I am asked twice to do a man-on-the-street interview, once by CNN. Still, I wanted to come for the transfer of power. It’s the old question: If no one witnesses a transformational historical event in person, did it really happen? You know, like the moon landing.
This all provided a slight reporting challenge; there was no one to talk with outside of my hotel maid and the upscale bodega workers selling me my morning dose of melons. Well, there were the scores of pup tents hosting the homeless who had been displaced from our nation’s very own Green Zone, but they mostly growled and told me to beat it.
And then there were subsistence issues. Washington, D.C., will never be mistaken for London or New York, but usually you don’t have to resort to a chicken salad sandwich from 7-11 for dinner at 8:45 on a Sunday night. The Ritz Carlton was boarded up and McDonald’s was not dispensing combo meals.
Wherever you want to go, rest assured you can not get there from here. Want to see the flags representing the 50 states on the Mall? Blocked off. The 400 lights near the Lincoln Memorial signifying the 400,000 Covid dead? Best to watch on television or rent a helicopter, although I’m pretty sure the helo would be shot down in six seconds. All the Metro stops within two miles of the Capitol are closed; if you want to get around you are either hoofing it or zipping it on a scooter.
So I walk over to the only sanctioned protest area in downtown D.C., Black Lives Matter Square, just a Bible’s throw from St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Trump tear-gassed protesters so he could hold the Good Book upside down. A hardy dozen or so protesters had been inhabiting the place for a few months, surrounded by flags with BLM slogans, one reading “Fuck Trump and Fuck You for Voting for Him.” Dancing in the encampment, Smokey Sims, a thirty-ish man, born in the Bronx and now a Manhattan resident. He raps and acts, but that’s been put on hold since George Floyd’s summer.
“Every once in a while we get a hotel room,” says Smokey, who has a leather mask and spikes running up his arms, which makes fist bumping painful. “Mostly, I’m here, just waiting.”
He’s waiting for Trump to depart the premises.
“I mean, I’m not a huge fan of Biden, but he’s not out every day trying to divide and conquer.” He shakes his masked head, changing the subject to the White House’s current occupant. “That fucker doesn’t care about anything or anyone but himself.” Smokey points at some cardboard mansions. “I mean, he can see this shit from the White House, but he doesn’t do anything.”
January 6th was the only day Smokey feared for his safety. First, his group of protesters were moved back a block to avoid conflict with Proud Boys, and then they got word of what was happening up at the Capitol. “I don’t want to get killed, I’ve got too many things I want to do with my life.” It didn’t take much prompting for him to state the obvious. “You know what would have happened if we had done that.”
Smokey laughs and then flaps his arms like he is trying to shake off insects.
“I’m still nervous.”
“It doesn’t seem real. Do you think he’s really going to leave?”
It is a question I heard often from the few humans remaining in Washington, D.C.
That night, I meet an old friend for a chat. He’s a senior military officer with many years in a jet and then at the Pentagon. To tell you the truth, I’d been avoiding him during the Trump years because I remembered that he was a Southern guy who woke up to Fox News, chewed tobacco, and was very rah-rah America. (Stereotypes! Where would we be without one good stereotype a day?)
He knows why I am in town and we take a seat. I pre-empt him and say we can just catch up and don’t have to talk politics. He shakes his head. Since we last saw each other, he entered a relationship with a black woman and had a child with her. That opened his eyes. He’s been to BLM rallies and finds Trump despicable.
“I got 22 years in the military,” he tells me. “Flying over Iraq and Afghanistan. You think I’m in favor of a bunch of losers taking over the Capitol? Shouting about Q? And what are they rebelling against? The fact their guy lost? Our Revolution was fought over repression and no representation. These guys have nothing in common with ‘patriots.’ They are just idiots.”
I want to kiss him on the lips, but Covid will not allow it.
I try to find some Trumpsters, I really do. I even have a dinner at Café Milano, long considered a Donald safe zone and a favorite of folks like Mike Pompeo and the pointy heads who try to put an intellectual spin on Trump’s America First, post-modern fascism. But all I see is John Kerry in a bomber jacket. He is 77 and living his best life.
“I thought they’d be here,” says a Washington-insider friend over a luxurious bowl of risotto. “They still got work to do, pardons and stuff.” His eyes light up. “That’s it: They’re all working.”
Someone needs to monitor the burn bags.
But it’s not like I’m running into Biden loyalists. A three-hour walking circumference turns up only a Virginia couple who came in to see what they could see. “Can’t tell you our names,” the husband says. “Kids think we were isolating at home.”
Mostly it’s because a day trip to a militarized zone during a pandemic isn’t actually anyone’s idea of a good time. I spent a sliver of my misspent youth working on Capitol Hill, and it’s disconcerting to see old haunts empty and no one on the street. Well, there’s the one guy toiling on a pedicab past the Hart Senate Office Building, huffing to his only passenger, “I used to work there for Carol Moseley Braun doing press. That was a long time ago.” He seems to have his own unique set of challenges.
Many of the scatterlings out on the Hill are TV folks looking for a stand-up shot that catches both an armored personnel carrier and the top of the Capitol dome. Otherwise, it’s Capitol Hill parents with kids being home-schooled through the plague. Putin could send over some missiles and they would still get their offspring some outside time. One mom patiently explains a chalk quote of MLK saying “Justice delayed is justice denied” to a three- or four-year-old more intent on picking up gravel and staring at it with wonder. Another parent chases after a slightly older girl, who loudly pronounces, “I don’t think I want kids, they are so annoying.” A beat passes and she adds a counterpoint. “But they are really good for hugs.”
These happily banal moments are all happening under the smiling eyes of soldiers packing automatic weapons. It reminds me of the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, during the height of the cocaine wars. The kids hardly notice; they are so fucking adaptable it breaks your heart. One little boy looks up at a soldier and then back at his dad.
“Pretzel? I want pretzel.”
The soldier laughs and watches son and dad totter away hand-in-hand toward pretzel. Just another day in America.
It’s still dark when I wake up on “Independence Day.” I’d fallen asleep watching Biden highlights: Arriving at magic hour on a civilian plane, since Trump wouldn’t send a government aircraft, and then standing on the Mall looking at 400 lights representing the 400,000 dead, Biden exudes more empathy the night before his inauguration than the paper-towel tossing, “good people on both sides” Trump did in four years. It still doesn’t seem real, the end of four years of our president eating away at our minds, like a particularly virulent form of brain cancer. Like Smokey, I wonder if it is really happening. I head out my hotel door and reflexively tell an older solider to “stay safe.” He points at my press pass and gives a kind smile. “You too.”
Smokey’s hangout is the nearest I can get to the White House to watch Donald take his last Marine One flight out of town. I walk over and the energy is different from yesterday, two dozen photographers complement the multiracial crowd, and the throng is in manic suppression, kids forced to stay in their rooms until 7 a.m. on Christmas morning.
The sound system is turned up to 11 and pounding out Nipsey Hussle’s “Fuck Donald Trump” on an endless loop, save for the occasional Spotify commercial for a menopausal product. Some white cops cover their ears in mock torture. One of them howls out.
A protester glares back at them. “This is Black Lives Matter. We ain’t playing Skynrd.”
I find Smokey, and he has a giant smile on his face. “It’s happening, right?”
Indeed. My military buddy texts: He’s exiting right now; Marine One is starting up, followed by a smiley emoji.
And then you see it, refracted against a beautiful sunrise, a helicopter appears in the sky, rotors past the Washington Monument, past the reflecting pool and the Lincoln Memorial, and is gone. There’s a moment of silence, like everyone can’t quite believe it. Then, an older white woman in an “Arrest Trump” sweatshirt starts shouting, “The fucker is gone, the fucker is gone!” She is immediately swallowed up by the media, but not before she and Smokey dance to Hussle. I go in to forearm-bump him and get spiked on the wrist, but I feel no pain. I ask him what he is going to do now. Stay here and keep up the fight?
He shakes his head and smiles.
“No, I’ve done my job. I’ve got to get home. I’ll come back, but right now I need some rest.”
Like the rest of America, Smokey is exhausted. He needs a break. Like the rest of us, he dreams of a world where we can go two days without wondering what your president is fucking up now.
I’m near the Capitol when the inauguration starts, which means I can’t see anything and I’m watching it on a New York Times live feed. The Washington Police and the United States government have so definitely decided they want no one here; there are not even loudspeakers put up so the happy few could hear the speeches. That doesn’t matter to the Rev. Dr. Marcia Smith, a vision in silver dreadlocks, a Kamala Harris ski cap, and a fur coat. She’s a pastor in New Haven, Connecticut, and says that no white-supremacist threat was going to stop her from seeing a black woman become the vice president of the United States.
“We’ve had to deal with that stuff for years,” says Smith, mentioning the pre-civil rights era. “People just like to forget.” She and her friends talk of black women facing not a glass ceiling, but a cement one. “Look, I’m a daughter of the African diaspora. I have to be here to bear witness. For my mother, for my daughter, my granddaughter, and great granddaughter.”
Jennifer Lopez sings an odd version of “This Land Is Your Land” and I’m momentarily distracted by the concept of Alex Rodriguez as the most famous plus one in American history. But then I snap back into reality. It is happening. At 11:48 a.m., Joe Biden takes the oath of office and becomes the 46th president. I am on a blocked-off street, sandwiched between National Guard vehicles and the sound of distant cheers. Then I hear it, coming out of a window near 4th and H.
Ding-dong, the witch is dead
Which old witch? The wicked witch
Ding-dong, the wicked witch is dead
Wake up you sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed
Wake up, the wicked witch is dead!
I laugh and make a promise to myself that I will be part of the kinder, gentler America that Joe Biden says he wants. It takes me all of three minutes before I get a chance to put my white hubris into practice. A panhandler comes up to me and asks for a dollar. I say sure. Then I look in my wallet and all I have is a 20. I give him a so-sorry shrug and walk away. But a moment later, I double back and give him my Andrew Jackson. Soon Biden will be taking down the genocidal Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office. It is time I do my part.
The man grins.
“Thanks, guy,” he says. “Next time we play basketball, I’ll let you win.”
It’s morning in America.
I make it back to my hotel room just in time to catch President Biden arrive at Arlington National Cemetery. He has some powerful friends in tow: Vice President Harris and former Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Obama. Trump is long gone, retreated into the Pit of Self-Pity down in Mar-a-Lago. Thank God.
Biden has never served in the military — neither have I — but like me, he has strong ties. His son Beau was in the Army Reserve, serving as a major in Iraq, less than a decade before his death from cancer at the age of 46. I can’t equate the loss of my father at 13 with the president’s loss of a wife, daughter, and then a favored son. But I can tell you it kicks up and enlarges your empathy gene. You’ve faced unspeakable pain so you can — to borrow a Bill Clinton bromide — feel others’ pain. It is likely Biden’s best attribute, not a bad one to have when presiding over a broken and brokenhearted nation.
I watch Biden and Harris approach the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, take a special delight in the click-clack of Harris’ heels, a new sound in, hopefully, a New America. Biden pauses in prayer for a moment and crosses himself, just like my dad would do in that situation. It’s hard not to think of what my father would have done with 40 more years of life. Biden then quietly walks away, followed by three ex presidents, heads bowed in respect.
Tomorrow, I’ll go back to Arlington. I need to talk with my dad again. I need to tell him it’s going to be OK. I need to tell him that his sacrifice and that of his 400,000 brothers and sisters were not in vain. America is not healed, but its prognosis is no longer terminal.
I need to tell him he can rest easy. We’ve got it from here.