On the March

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As you’ve heard or seen with your own eyes, it was amazing. It was three times the size of the inauguration. It was peaceful and positive. It was the Woodstock of marches!

Just as every Woodstock has its record turnout, and its cultural significance, and its moments of sheer joy, such events are also known for topped-out port-o-potties, claustrophobia, and shoe-sucking mud. As a person who fainted in the crowd at a Hot Tuna concert in 1971, I had concerns about this historic event from the start.

As soon as the march was announced last November, I started hearing from distant loved ones who were planning to come down for it. Soon I had 10 houseguests, four more than I have beds. Other friends from around the country were emailing with questions about lodging and transportation. It seemed like half the country was coming, and most of them were staying in Baltimore.

I worried early and often. About the crowds. About the logistics. About how to get my group of 11 down to the capital. The best choice seemed the MARC train, only $16 round-trip for unreserved seats. I bought the tickets in advance and planned to get to the station well before the first train at 7:30. There was another at 8:30. We’d be fine.

This is the part where everyone who paid $75 to take a bus that left at 4 in the morning gets to feel superior, because while I thought surface roads would be jammed and I would have the last laugh, what really happened was this:

My group – six adults, five 16-year-olds, including a boy from Germany – left the house in two cars. Pitch dark, light drizzle, heavy traffic. I managed to change lanes on St. Paul at an ill-advised moment and an SUV clipped my rear bumper, sort of tearing it in half. Neither of us stopped – we had a march to get to!

As we neared Penn Station, we realized there was a line stretching down and around the entire supersized block of the station and its parking lot, and we joined it at least a quarter-mile from the door. It was a pumped-up, well-mannered, but anxious line – how were they going to get all 5,000 of us to DC? Some people jumped into Ubers; other talked about driving down to the Washington metro. Someone said there would be a rally on the Hopkins campus at noon, and I started trying to promote that idea to the houseguests. But they had come from Brooklyn, New York State, Boston and Germany, for God’s sake — they weren’t giving up so easily.

As the 7:30, then the 8:30, came and went without making any real dent in the situation, our spirits fell. The next scheduled train was not until 11. Off to Hopkins! But suddenly, at 9:15, the line started to move. Perhaps the happiest moment of the day for me was when we bounded through the train station, hooting victoriously, high-fiving Amtrak employees as we passed.

We arrived in DC around 10:15 – plenty of time to get to the rally and hear the Indigo Girls and Gloria Steinem. We joined a flood of people heading south from Union Station, though lost at least a half hour in line at a port-o-potty we found along the way. It said Don’s Johns in big white letters on the door, leading to the suspicion that our new president has yet another business to hide the profits from.

Once we hit the mall, forward motion ceased, replaced by a kind of directionless milling about. We were in a crowd of tens of thousands in crocheted pink pussy hats bearing clever signs and the regulation-sized clear vinyl bags prescribed on the march website. Kind of funny, because there was no security in sight. Nor was the stage, or PA system, or jumbotrons. No one we asked had any clear idea of where it all was, and cell service was by now virtually overwhelmed.

Our group was 13 at this point, having absorbed a New Jersey friend and her mother. We attempted to snake through the ever-thickening crowd to the street – not the street where the rally was or even a street on the march route, but that didn’t seem worth worrying about. What was more stressful was how hard it was to keep the group together, and I handed out return train tickets just in case.

Almost immediately, the group was split up, and among those we got separated from were my sister and her daughter. My sister had come from far away; she is my younger sister, she got lost at the 1964 World’s Fair – in short, I panicked, and spent the next two hours unsuccessfully trying to text her our location. “I’m sure they’re having fun,” my daughter tried to reassure me, but I was not convinced.

The march was supposed to start at 1 – now it was 2, and we were in a huge, immobile mob. Giving up on our lost lambs, the remaining group threaded back onto the mall and joined a renegade march following a giant air-filled Planet Earth.

We were moving! And happy about it, too! We proudly sashayed, chanting and clapping past crowds of supporters arrayed on the steps of various federal buildings, jolted awake from the misery of the last 10 weeks by a straight shot of emergency-strength esprit de corps. The teenagers, who had been surprisingly patient during the technical difficulties, were loving the chants, particularly Hands Too Small/To Build a Wall, and We Got the Funk/Fuck Donald Trump, the latter led by some cool-looking people with a boom box.

When we hit Pennsylvania Avenue at about 3:30, we were swept into a sea of marchers so vast it had to be the real march, heading for the White House, where our new President was not, having escaped to Virginia to hide out at CIA headquarters and count the money from his port-o-potty operation. At this point, the remainder of our group split up intentionally. My knees were giving out, and I had learned that my sister and niece were back at the train station.

Turns out I was right: my sister was fuming, partly due to mother-daughter issues that had blown up, but also due to my having lost her. In return, she had lost the communal clear-vinyl food bag, still containing at least five hard-boiled eggs, three honey crisp apples and all my protein bars. We spoke little.

On the plus side, the MARC administration had put on several extra trains, so we took our sore feet and our issues home without much further ado. Over the next couple days, I taped my bumper together, said farewell to my houseguests, had a long, emotional phone call with my sister and started reading articles about the march and watching the speeches and performances on YouTube. Michael Moore! Ashley Judd! Madonna! Triumph the Insult Comic Dog! (Okay, that was the inauguration, but it’s a riot.)

In the ten days since then, things have gotten so bad so fast it’s scary. I am sustained by the memory of all those hordes of like-minded people, not just in Washington but all over the world. I know it’s just a beginning, but it’s a beginning. If you didn’t go, you’ll have another chance.

University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR and the author of First Comes LoveThe Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and other books. Visit marionwinik.com to sign up for her monthly email.

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  1. What a perfect description of the march! I will treasure your narrative. We were a group of three only, but even so we got separated at times. Very scary when it happened. But what a great time it was–so affirming that there are other like-minded people out there (and so many of them!). Let’s all hold onto each other during the coming weeks so we don’t get lost!

  2. I was having a wonderful time, in the thick of the crowd, with a view of the Jumbotron, until I had relatives texting me from 1,500 miles away saying, “Stay to the edge of the crowd.” And, “Take wet face cloths in case of tear gas.” That’s when it hit me: ” This is an endless crowd. What edge? I could be crushed like hammered buffalo dung!”

  3. What a day. I really enjoyed photographing the amazing signs and the people behind them, and sending them off to family around the country. . Ever since, I, too, have been trying to figure out how to not lose each other. What a day.

  4. “Neither of us stopped–we had a march to get to!” I love this recipe for disaster–the perfect blend of pathos, ethos, logos, and a big dash of humor.

  5. Somehow my sister and I lucked out (I think it was far easier for smaller groups) and had a slightly better experiences–we saw/heard the speakers/performers, etc…but holy heck…it was intimate at points, to say the least. Love the post!

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