Over the tops of assorted hatted, hooded and even blanketed heads, across a waist-high metal barricade, between the left shoulder of one Kentucky State Police officer and the right shoulder of the next one, behind the thick protective glass of a fortified Cadillac: a smile.
"I saw him clear as day!" Jackie Randall declared.
"I got him!" her husband, Tyrone Randall, announced.
His digital camera revealed as much window glare as President Barack Obama, but no matter.
For the Randalls, it was a promise fulfilled, on many levels: For Tyrone Randall's grandmother, who at 87 wasn't up for the trip but had long regaled him with stories of her journey here - 45 years ago, to hear Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. And for their 6- and 8-year-old daughters, for whom the several hours on a frigid sidewalk along the inaugural parade route must have seemed just as long.
"We're going to see Barack Obama. Barack Obama is going to come in a little while," Tianna Randall, 6, said, no doubt repeating the parental reassurances of her is-he-here-yet questions. "Barack Obama is president, and he has guards."
He is, and he did. But he also had untold numbers of well-wishers and revelers who braved the cold and the crowds, the sardine-packed subway cars and the lengthy walks around the barricaded city, the multiple checkpoints and bag searches - all for what turned out to be, in most cases, a speck of a red tie off in the distance, or a fleeting wave from the passing car.
The Randalls live in Brooklyn, N.Y., and have bunked the past couple of days with their niece and her husband, Cheryl and Brendan McLeod, who live in Northeast Baltimore. With all their kids - the McLeods have two as well - they took a practice run Monday to scope out just how they would navigate Inauguration Day.
"We came to see history," said Cheryl, a staffer at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore.
It was indeed a day for the ages. With a crowd that by some estimates approached 2 million, the city was transformed, at least for a day. It was a festive crowd, yet for its size and the amount of police presence a remarkably mellow one. Blissed out, even. I tried to have an ironic thought, but apparently irony was in as short supply as cell phone reception in Washington yesterday.
"The whole thing has been so emotional," Leslie Starr, an oboeist from Baltimore told me as we waited in line to a Starbucks after the swearing-in ceremony. "I feel happy all the time."
Starr had volunteered for the Obama campaign - she was sent to the battleground state of Pennsylvania - and it took until yesterday before she really felt the fruits of her labor. "I was so stressed during the campaign, going on the Internet, fivethirtyeight, all of them," she said, referring to the wonkiest of Electoral College projection Web sites. "Even last night, I wasn't feeling good. But now, I think things are going to be OK."
"It's a great moment," agreed her friend Neil Hertz, a retired Hopkins literature professor. They had met four years back, on the Kerry campaign, and when Starr's crowd-abhorring husband decided he didn't want to go to the Obama inauguration, she asked Hertz to come along. The answer, after so many failed campaigns in the past, was a decided yes.
"It's a very cheerful crowd," Hertz said.
When I got off the train at Union Station, one of the first groups to cast something in my hands was Meetup, the online networking group, which was giving out a variant of those "Hello, my name is" tags. "Get to know your neighbors," one of the members encouraged me. The thing is, people took them up on it.
It was even small-d democratic: Those who arrived before dawn to get as close as they could to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony suddenly found themselves crossing paths with celebrities. Oprah Winfrey - or rather, her curly head, which is all I saw - created quite a stir when she arrived in the section in front of me. A woman I ran into told me she saw actor Ed Norton in her section, which was a standing one, not even seated. As I was talking to a group of University of Pittsburgh students in another standing section, Mariah Carey and Wyclef Jean passed by. Actress Ashley Judd tried to get past a barricade to a portable bathroom there, but even all her considerable charms - and the crowd's chanting, "Let Ashley go!" - failed to persuade the police to drop their guard.
"That was the best celebrity sighting," Matthew McCabe, one of the Pitt students, decided. It definitely beat his alleged Will Smith sighting, which his friends decided was a false alarm. But for someone like McCabe, who took a semester off to work on the Obama campaign, the only celebrity that really mattered was "the guy walking up to the podium." Knowing that he had even a small part in that, and that he was in the crowd on the Capitol grounds the very moment he took office, that was worth getting there at 4 in the morning.
The Randalls and McLeods took a little longer getting in place, what with four kids in tow. Two-year-old Aniya McLeod slept through some of it, fussed through some of it but somewhere down the road, she'll get to use the bragging rights that her father bequeathed her yesterday.
"You," he told her triumphantly, "were there!"