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The Great Sleep

With millions visiting D.C., a few had to crash on the JCC’s floor

January 23, 2009

Every patch of roof-covered earth within miles of the National Mall was coveted by people bearing sleeping bags on Monday night, including the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center, which let about 300 people sleep on its floor. There were middle schoolers from Akron, Ohio, in a classroom; high school kids from Baltimore in the social hall; students and professors from a Connecticut community college on the basketball courts; and a journalist shown to her quarters by a fitness director simultaneously fielding a report about middle school boys caught peeping through the basketball court windows and yelling, “College girls!” Looking around at the equivalent of a luxury suite (an office with a door), it was hard not to think that the scene gave new meaning to the term “embedded reporter.”

But by midnight it was, as Barack Obama said in his inaugural address, time to put away childish things. Downstairs, there was a group discussion with pajama-clad high school kids and their chaperones, who had bussed down from the Baltimore JCC. Students and parent volunteers alike had beaten out their peers in a lottery for the coveted bus and floor spaces that would give them the opportunity to stand in the cold for eight hours staring at a dollhouse-sized Capitol.

Their discussion careened back and forth between the logistical—“Don’t expect your cell phone to work during the inauguration”—and the philosophical—“What historic event would you most like to have witnessed?” Responses to the latter included Woodstock, the burning bush, and, from a girl named Dani Weinberg, “the liberation of a concentration camp. Not any particular one, any of them.”

“Intense. Intense,” replied Melanie Waxman, 37, the Baltimore JCC’s youth and teen director, who was leading the discussion. “I marched on Washington to free Soviet Jews in 1984,” she added. “That was un-freakin’-believable.”

Determined to witness history for themselves, the high schoolers hit the Mall at six the next morning. The group from the community college was only slightly more leisurely: by seven, most of them were in the lobby finishing up their coffee and bagels. They had been hooked up with their sleeping arrangements by sociology professor Lucy Hurston (niece of Zora Neale) and, like the high school kids, had won their spots in a school-wide lottery.

As George W. Bush took off for Crawford, Texas, that afternoon, the slumber party guests stumbled back into the DCJCC and sprawled out on every conceivable surface in a state of giddy exhaustion. The high school students reported that they had succeeded in witnessing history. The experience had been “like a pilgrimage,” said Sister Mary Friel, a psychology professor at Manchester who has been on actual pilgrimages, as she re-caffeinated in advance of the long bus ride home.

Later, the refugees cleared out, back to Baltimore or into the carnivalesque streets of D.C., and the rooms they had inhabited were transformed into party spaces for that night’s “Inaugural Ball for Everyone Else” hosted by Entry Point-Gesher City, an organization that connects young Jewish transplants to the D.C. area. Partygoers, some of whom confessed that they had tried and failed to get into an official ball, drank Heinekens and danced to Britney Spears remixes holding aloft a life-size cutout of Barack Obama—as one guest put it, “like a golden calf.” Then they passed out, some in each other’s beds, and when they woke up it wasn’t with a hangover but with a modicum of hope.