My adult life has contained no such nocturnal roughing-it, either. I mean, what for? To go see the pope on tour? Couldn't care less about him. Super Bowl? I'd pay not to go. The new Star Wars movie? Please. It's hard to imagine inconveniencing myself so deeply for, well, anything.
And thus I was utterly shocked to find myself, a few weeks ago, sitting in a folding camping chair and eating a doughnut in the cold, predawn hours with event tickets on my mind. And the object of desire was no kick-ass band or hook-shaped Vicar of Christ on Earth. I had Easter eggs on the brain.
Indeed, the time had come for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, and this year I possessed a reason to make the effort: my pal D'Arcy asked me to. I hadn't a clue what an Easter-egg roll was, but I knew it had been happening on the White House lawn each Monday after Easter since 1848. And I'd never been. Since every two adults had to be accompanied by a person under 7 and D'Arcy had a baby and a husband who had to work that day, I was in like Flynn. Colored eggs brought about generally good memories, and whatever an Easter-egg roll was, I figured the day would surely provide a dandy preview of things I would face as a D.C. parent someday.
Problem was, D'Arcy and I vastly underestimated the effort required to get to this clambake. According to a White House Web site, the National Park Service was to give out 15,000 tickets starting at 8 a.m. on Saturday, and another 10,000 at 7 a.m. the morning of the event. Easy, we figured. Thinking ourselves some serious early birds, D'Arcy picked me up at 7:30 Saturday morning. We got down there by 8. By 9, we figured, we'd be back in our beds with gleaming tickets on the nightstand.
But alas, as we pulled up, we saw that the Ellipse--the huge grassy area behind the White House--was blanketed by a line of people that appeared to serpentine clear to Virginia. I hopped out of the car and trotted toward it, looking high and low for its end. But I saw no end. The line was a never-ending snake eating itself.
By the time I found the terminus behind a far-flung tree, some particularly foul park rangers were pointing to a woman in a pink coat and declaring her the official end of the line. She was about 10 people in front of me. My head began swimming. Internally, I whined like a baby. This just can't be! Next thing I know, the line is moving at a pretty good clip, heading toward the free tickets, and me and about 40 other people behind the woman in pink can't help but follow along. Apparently we were all thinking the same thing. Surely the ornery park rangers couldn't mean what they said.
They meant what they said. "You can walk along behind this line--it's a free country," a ranger barked as we trotted along with the line. "But trust me, you're not getting any tickets."
The bastards. Had they no mercy? No sympathy? Did they not realize how far I'd come, how early I'd gotten up? OK, maybe not me--but the others?
"I hear the people in the front of the line have been here since yesterday afternoon," a fleece-wrapped woman said to her friend.
I went dizzy, almost dropping my cell phone. Jeez, is that what it takes to provide a nice Easter for your kids in this city? Maybe I don't want to be a mom after all. In my daze of indignation, I continued my obsolete following of the lady in the pink coat. Finally, about five bitter minutes later, I accepted my fate and stepped out of line to call D'Arcy. We were crap out of luck, I told her as she was parking the car. But there was always Monday morning.
Flash forward two days. D'Arcy's dropping me off again but this time it's 5 a.m. 5 a.m.! I position myself in a line that has a manageable 300 people in it--not an impossible 15,000--and unfold the two-seater camping chair Marty and I received as a wedding present. I pull my hat down over my ears and begin shivering and cursing. It's in the 40s, and it's dark. What's become of me? I lament silently. When did I become a person who does these kinds of things? And without a child to enjoy the eggs, even?
I comforted myself by reasoning that it had less to do with being a childless freak and more to do with being a generally curious freelance writer with a wide-open schedule. Hell, when it was all over I could just go home and fall into bed, working at night if the need be. Yeah . . .
With D'Arcy still gone and a comfy chair to sit in, I had time to think about many things, some of them bad. Like this: The Easter-egg roll would be the first major public event on the White House grounds since Sept. 11. There would be 25,000 people milling about on the south lawn. What better time and place for a terrorist to strike?
Just then a female TV reporter wearing a smart red coat and way too much makeup hopped out of a news truck and began confidently approaching the line, making a beeline for me. I ducked. Show up in D.C. homes standing outside at 5 a.m., unshowered and in a stupid hat? Absolutely not. Luckily, she and her cameraperson accosted the people directly in front of me, interviewing them with way too much enthusiasm and bright lights.
"Hi! Are you excited about the Easter-egg roll?!"
"Yes," said boy of about 10, with no emotion.
"What do you think about standing out in the cold like this? Is it worth it?!"
"Yes," the kid said, in the same monotone.
"Ok! Thanks!" chirped the newscaster, satisfied that she'd landed the riveting interview she was after. And off she bustled.
D'Arcy arrived and handed me a doughnut. To kill time, we talked about our childhoods and shivered together, wondering why we hadn't brought a blanket and a battery-operated space heater. To my surprise, an hour and a half actually passed pretty quickly, and at about 6:45 the line started moving.
Magically, 20 minutes later we were standing before one of six park rangers behind long tables handing out the coveted timed-entry tickets. Our guy quickly handed us three tickets for 10:20 and shuffled us along. That time didn't work well for us, so I doubled back to try to exchange the tickets for some for that allowed us to show up at 11, or maybe 12. But the angry park people told me to clear out and just keep moving. I was the bad, bad cow who had turned around during herding.
Resigned to our fate, D'Arcy and I went home. Two hours later we were back, she in a suit and little Sean decked out in a handsome Easter one-piece. In jeans, boots, and a turtleneck, I looked like their handler--except I wasn't doing any handling. I was just standing there, staring off into space. We were all quite fatigued.
As instructed, we stood dutifully with a wide pack of people who were, like us, holders of 10:20 tickets. The cattle feeling returned as we shuffled forth on cue, stopping only to go through security. Guys with guns had set up big metal-detecting rectangles just like the airports have. But unlike the drill at airports, these dudes were confiscating sandwiches and jars of baby food and piling them up under a table. I guess you can make bombs out of strained beets. They searched my purse like it had never been searched before--even by me, looking for lipstick.
Finally, we were free to pass through the black iron gates, and enter George W. Bush's front yard. Waiting in line all that time, I had envisioned the event itself to include much visible emerald grass with a few kids here and there interacting with eggs in some way. Au contraire. The joint was as packed as Disney World on a summer Saturday, except with spiffier people and no rides. As far as the eye could see there were moms in pastel dresses and straw hats, dads in navy blazers, tykes festooned in Easter finery (often topped off with a set of bunny ears). Kids were running, kids were rolling, kids were shrieking. I went into sensory-overload mode. What to do now, besides hunt around in our purses for some Valium? We had no idea. D'Arcy sidled up to a volunteer.
"We're dumbasses," was all she said.
The guy understood. "Oh, OK. Well, to your right is the line to have your picture taken. And just beyond that the roll is taking place. Over there is storytelling and coloring, and beyond that, a giant jelly-bean mosaic of the president's face."
We decided to squeeze through oodles of humanity to get a gander at the headlining event. Emerging a few sweaty minutes later at the edge of a temporary fence demarcating the roll zone, we saw that participating in the famous Easter-egg roll basically meant being little and using a big plastic spoon to push a boiled egg past a finish line. Volunteers were taking children in batches of about 10, and the line snaked on for eons. When it was finally their turn, the innocents stood eagerly at the starting line until they got the signal to go. Some scooted their egg along the grass; others flung it wildly through the air. Many crossed the finish line, but no one won, really. Or everyone won, depending on how you look at it. Each little whippersnapper got some candy and was promptly scooted out. Where, I thought, is the sense of competition? How does this prepare a child for real life, where there are actual winners and losers?
There was no time to contemplate such matters. Giant Easter bunnies were loping by and we needed to have our picture taken with one. This was easier said than done. Competition was fierce. Parents failed to observe general politeness protocols and lunged at the bunnies as though their ids had completely taken over. If you stood by mildly waiting your turn, you got nowhere. I wanted to shield the eyes of the children from the behavior of their parents. But like the process of politics being corrupted, the situation deemed that you become one of them, or risk going home with no pictures. So D'Arcy and I thrust ourselves onto a bunny man.
I opted to have my picture taken with the less popular Egg Lady. She was roughly my age, with blond hair, a straw hat, and a giant fiberglass eggshell covering most of her body. I ached to know what made the Egg Lady tick. What could have brought her to this moment in her life? Would she step aside with me for just a minute and explain? Likely not, I told myself, and so I didn't ask. I just kept quiet, held Sean, smiled for the picture, and ambled on.
Next we passed by a stage that featured "The Broadway Kids." This consisted of youngsters belting out show tunes like only overcompensating teens can. It made me uncomfortable. D'Arcy too. Sean, he didn't care. So we kept moving, past the line forming outside the color-your-own-Easter-egg station, past the loping human bunnies, past a reading nook that was mobbed. At the end of the lawn, where the crowds thinned, we settled for a moment to watch a group of adults in shorts and khakis on a stage crooning "This Land Is Your Land."
Momentarily at rest, I contemplated the program in my hand. Among the guest readers at the east and west reading nooks were Laura Bush and Liz Cheney. I could see how those two would appeal to children, being nice mommy types with big, wide smiles and all. But what I couldn't understand was why the rest of the readers were people like Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez. Had federal government higher-ups developed a cult following among the under-6 set when I wasn't looking? What was the draw? I would have pressed in near to see if there was something to this, if these starched-shirt-by-day guys were actually champion emoters when the tots were around, waxing enthusiastic as they read from The Adventures of Itty Bitty Bunny. But the lines were just too long to get anywhere near.
My mental meanderings were pierced just then by a cry from D'Arcy. "Oh my god, it's Bear!" I whipped my head left and saw a huge Irish-setter-colored bear suit inhabited by a human stumbling across the lawn. D'Arcy quickly explained that "Bear" was a wildly popular new Muppet and that everyone was crazy for Bear. But in this moment, the Muppet wasn't reciprocating. "Stay back," commanded Bear's team of Secret Service types, swiftly escorting him through the crowd with great purpose.
They had their work cut out for them. Laying eyes upon the 7-foot furry rag, utterly shocked moms and kids dropped what they were doing and rushed after Bear as if he were the Messiah. All common sense and dignity was gone from the moms; they had to be one with Bear! I was scared. Were the moms doing it for their kids--or because, through overexposure and lack of other stimulation, they'd fallen in love with Bear too? I wasn't sure. I shuddered. Is this what will be expected of me five years down the line? Please god--no.
Next, D'Arcy wanted to see beloved naturalist and weather-beaten outdoorsman Jack Hanna, so over to the Jack Hanna stage we wandered. Some of Hanna's young assistants stood nubile, beige-clad, and engaged in displaying members of other species. There was a bald eagle whose wings had been clipped, a giant roach from some other country, and a monstrous, muscular snake. We waited for more exciting creatures to come out, but none did.
I believe both the high and low points of the day for Sean happened near the Jack Hanna stage. At one point, he toppled over. That was the low point. If I can read babies at all--and maybe I can't--his most gleeful moments came when D'Arcy stood him up on the grass and held his hands, giving him the illusion that he was standing on his own. He lightly stamped his feet and giggled. Whether the events of the day were entering his brain and memory, no one could say. But at least he enjoyed trying to dance around.
After that, D'Arcy and I decided it was time to leave. But before shuffling out with the other well-dressed cattle, we collapsed on a grassy knoll to rest for awhile. D'Arcy changed a poopy diaper and I stared off into space, hungry, spent, and mentally rubbed raw. I realized that, as an adult, I'd almost never voluntarily entered crowds like this. There was Mardi Gras, and New Orleans' packed Jazz Fest, but those offered beer and oyster po-boys. Here at the Easter-egg roll, which comes under the general umbrella of kid festivals--and apparently there are many of those--there was just crowds, tots, insufferable bands, and, if your timing's right, Christie Todd Whitman reading Little Bunny and Biddle Bunny.
But D'Arcy seemed into it, and that gave me hope. She'd passed into that mommy place. I stared at her in wonder. Could I do it? Could I care about Bear, and even think about running after him for my child's sake? Could I stave off the weariness to sing "This Land Is Your Land" while trying to get my as-yet-uncoordinated infant to clap his hands? Could I muster the energy to wait in line for hours in the cold in order to wait in another line so my spawn could push around an egg for 15 seconds, an experience he or she may or may not even retain?
I wasn't raised that way. But I could certainly try.
Exit Stage Fright (2/26/2003)
Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
Cabin Pressure (2/12/2003)
Escape -- you might think it's what you desire. Until you've actually run somewhere.
New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...
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