As President-elect Barack Obama's train rolled slowly through Maryland yesterday afternoon on his way to the nation's capital, people eager for even a glimpse of him pulled on their warmest hats and snuggest gloves. They lined the railway paths and packed a downtown plaza, prepared to wait as long as it took. And what it took was hours - hours in the frigid cold, to spot the historic train car or, better yet, catch a wave from the man who, in a few days, will be president.
'I had to be here'
A diverse crowd of about 60 began to gather at 1:30 p.m. in Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood, huddling together in the frosty air in the median of North Broadway.
After standing in the cold for hours, at about 3:30 p.m. they finally heard the first notes of the approaching train's whistle.
Law enforcement officers tried to restrain the crowd, ordering them to get back several hundred feet, but when the train came through, everyone rushed forward.
They erupted, screaming and cheering, jumping and waving. Horns blared.
"I thought I'd never live to see a black president," said LaVerne Stills, 60, of Oliver.
"I had to be here to experience this moment in history. It is an honor and a privilege to be standing here today."
Added Rosalind Johnson of Northeast Baltimore: "I just had to be here. I had to see that train. What an incredible day for Baltimore."
Some of the crowd had distant memories of standing in this same place and seeing another train carrying a politician who electrified a nation - albeit on a much sadder occasion.
From this spot, they'd watched Robert Kennedy's funeral train move through the city in 1968.
"I was brought up in this neighborhood and watched the Kennedy train," said Angela Jones, who drove in from Pikesville with her mother, Patricia Quarles, and son, Kyle Jones, 6. "It is another day in history. We are especially delighted for Barack Obama and Joe Biden coming to Baltimore."
'Now, it's Obama time'
In Middle River, it was possible to get a great view of the train near Martin State Airport. About 200 people milled about at an Exxon station, passing the time throwing footballs and swapping stories.
There was a family of Bush supporters from Kingsville who wanted their 9-year-old daughter to experience a historic moment.
There was a former Freedom Rider with tears in his eyes.
Bonnie Thomson and her husband, David Harris, decided at the last minute to drive in from Glen Arm. They hurriedly took a marker to a piece of poster board so they could have something to wave at the passing president-elect. It read: "Yes, we can. God Bless You."
Zach Free, an 11-year-old from Elkton, braved the cold with his mother, Tammy. "This is the first time I've seen a president," Zach said excitedly. "This doesn't happen every day."
And there was Sylvia Wyche, a nurse from Essex, covered in Obama buttons, who wished her parents were alive to see what she was so proud to witness.
As the train inched toward her on its way to Washington, she pulled up her sleeve to reveal an Obama watch:
"Now," she said, "It's Obama time."
Signs of hope
For a mere 30-second glimpse of Obama and Biden, about 700 people waited for hours in the biting cold at the Edgewood MARC station.
Lines for hot chocolate and coffee rivaled the lines at the security checkpoint as neighbors greeted one another and danced in place to keep warm to music supplied by a small jazz combo.
Chants of "Yes we can" turned to "Yes we will," as someone unfurled a giant Baltimore Ravens banner and predicted that the team would beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in tonight's AFC Championship game and move on to the Super Bowl.
Homemade signs were the order of the day. Pat White of Havre de Grace hoisted a two-part sign with the words "Hope" and "Hon."
Nearby, two small girls bundled up to their eyelashes in hats and scarves held their signs high. For Allure Sapp, 10, of Edgewood, the message was: "I made it to see my president. Jan. 20 2009 = change."
Imari Hawkins, 7, of Abingdon gripped a sign with the message: "2009 We made history! 44th president, Barack Obama."
Witness to change
Bhek Simmons, 40, a project manager with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Baltimore, sees parallels between Barack Obama and himself. He, too, has an African father who returned to his home country when Simmons was just a young man. His wife, too, is from Chicago. And he, too, has two young daughters.
Simmons, who lives in Catonsville, started watching Obama at the beginning of the primaries. When the field narrowed to just Obama and Clinton, he became obsessed, watching CNN at 3 a.m. because he couldn't sleep.
He brought his wife, Allison, and daughters Jaylyn, 10, and Jordan, 8, to see Obama in War Memorial Plaza.
"We've been following this from the beginning. We've taken them [his daughters], too, as much as possible," Simmons said.
"This is not just another election. This is not just another president. This is a shift in the paradigm for our country. From acceptance of what always has been to believing that change is possible."
He's looking forward to going to work on Tuesday, when, after the inauguration, he'll have a new presidential portrait to see every day in his office lobby.
Matthew Hay Brown
Standing in the crushing crowd at the corner of Gay and Fayette streets, Roshaun Wardlaw readily admitted she might not have attended Obama's speech had it not been for the insistence of her 7-year-old son, De'Anthony Creighton.
"He made a big deal out of it," she said, waiting for the president-elect to take the stage. "Even if I wanted to back out of this whole thing, for the sake of my son I couldn't."
Wardlaw, a phlebotomist, said her son - who shivered in the cold along with his sister, Tyshaun, 11, - had studied up on Obama's life in school.
Sure enough, De'Anthony popped off a couple of biographical details about the president-elect - the fact that he was born in Hawaii and how he moved to Chicago after law school and became U.S. senator.
Wardlaw, and to all appearances just about everyone else, warmed back up when Aretha Franklin's "Respect" boomed over the loudspeakers, and, a little later, Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," which Obama had adopted as his campaign song.
The gathering seemed like a party, with thousands singing along. Wardlaw got so carried away, her daughter turned to her and said, "Mom, that's embarrassing."
Working the crowd
Spectators waiting shoulder to shoulder in War Memorial Plaza treated the president-elect like a rock star, shrieking and thrusting cell phone cameras high into the air to record the moment.
As Obama worked the crowd after his speech, Darick Warsaw of Miami, Fla., hoisted Obama's book into the air and screamed, "One signature! One signature! Mr. President, please sign my book!"
When Warsaw realized that a gate separated him and any chance of getting that book signed, he shrank back, saying, "That's OK. I'll make do with my pictures."
A story for the grandkids
Six students from St. Timothy's School in Baltimore County and their Latin teacher considered the whistlestop a brush with history.
Ayesha Ibrahim, 17, a senior, said seeing Obama downtown would be "monumental," almost like having a chance to hear Martin Luther King Jr. in person.
To live through it, Ibrahim said, she was wearing "50 million layers," including four pairs of leggings and, of course, her Obama T-shirt.
"This will be one of those old stories that we make fun of our grandparents for saying," she said. "We now have one of those stories to tell our grandchildren."
Braced against the cold
The bone-chilling, teeth-rattling, frostbite-inducing chill simply couldn't be ignored.
Even though Fire Chief Jim Clack pooh-poohed the weather as "nothing" compared to what he experienced in Minnesota.
And even though Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III left his ears unprotected, saying, "I'm an old hockey player."
Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein walked through the crowd, tapping people on the shoulder if they looked a little too frosty and sending them to one of two "heating tents" on the outskirts of the event.
"People stayed for a few minutes and went back out," Sharfstein said. "The most important thing was that people prepared [for the cold weather]."
'A great hill we've climbed'
Ann Parker, 60, a respiratory therapist from Thibodaux, La., canceled her annual trip to Las Vegas for her husband's birthday to instead come north to celebrate Obama's inauguration with her family.
Parker grew up on her grandmother's stories of slavery and deprivation. She heard all about how hard it was during the Great Depression.
With belts tightening once again in America, she believes Obama's the man for the job. She thinks he can motivate the country and inspire young people to strive for more.
"His winning the election means that America can make changes. It shows the world that America can adapt to change," she said.
"It's a great hill we've climbed. Never in my lifetime did I imagine something like this."
Matthew Hay Brown
Feeling 'part of America'
Obama's words rang true for some in the crowd.
Dylan Callahan of Somerville, Mass., drove to Baltimore with his wife, Maya Escobar, to attend the pre-inauguration festivities along with his brother, Sean Callahan, who lives in Catonsville.
"He's bringing us there," he said. "We're ready to go to work. We're here to show that we've heard his message, and we're ready."
Added Sean Callahan, who is executive vice president for overseas operations of Catholic Relief Services: "He makes a lot of people feel part of America, a lot of people who had felt dispossessed."
Nathan Clements, a compliance officer with a financial services company in Baltimore, thought Obama tied everything together, saying, "He really brought it home, how we all really need to work as one and unite if we really are going to improve our state of affairs."
April Mosby, a patent attorney from Princeton, N.J., called the speech "wonderful."
"Barack is so articulate," she said. "I have high hopes and belief and faith that he can do an excellent job."
Mosby's friend Linda Hunter, a retired elementary school principal from Dallas, keyed in on Obama's use of the word "united."
"The one thing I remember is 'united.' We're all together in this. We've got to be patient. He will make mistakes. It's going to take all of us working together."
Mosby chimed in: "We've all been commissioned."
Matthew Hay Brown and Nick Madigan
'It's great theater'
Chris Heidelberg, 45, who lives in Baltimore and works at the Social Security Administration, waited in front of City Hall for four hours.
He figured that would be more efficient than going to Washington for Tuesday's inauguration. Because Obama's election means so much to him, he couldn't miss a chance to see him and to see everyone coming together.
"It's my generation that got him elected, and not everyone who voted for him looks like me," he said. "This is something you want to pass on to your kids. I was here.
"It's great theater. He's following the steps of what Lincoln did."
Matthew Hay Brown