I decided I should take a look at the White House before Trump moved in. It was about a week before the inauguration, and the weather had turned weirdly warm. It was a nice night. I had on a light jacket, unzipped. There was a full moon. I’d had dinner with friends in Georgetown and thought I might just walk home. It was only about five miles to my apartment. I was in no rush. The kids were with their mom, at her house. She had them that weekend. She and I were separated, sharing custody. We were moving inexorably toward divorce. Besides, I had to walk anyway, Georgetown not having a Metro stop. Rich people had opposed it; they didn’t want to be easily accessible. I passed through Dupont Circle and then went down Connecticut Avenue. Some drunk people were out on the sidewalk, couples leaning on each other, talking loudly about themselves. It was Thursday night. This would, I thought, probably be the last time I saw the White House with Obama in it. It felt like an important distinction.
I don’t know what it was I wanted or expected. Maybe I just needed to see the place before it was changed. I stood looking at it. It was definitely the White House. The Washington Monument rose behind it. At night, the monuments are brightly lit, and the marble can look like cake, or plastic. The glassed-in viewing stand, where Trump and his family and assorted others would smile and wave and watch high-school marching bands parade by, was not yet complete. There were new fences though — interlocking layers of black metal fencing, like a maze — and cops, many cops. Robert Frost was wrong: Fences made good jobs for guards.
Washington is so good at seeming normal, I thought. It’s like that quiet friend who acts as if nothing whatsoever is wrong.
I walked on, past the Department of the Treasury. I was following the inaugural parade route in reverse. Trump’s new hotel, the Trump International Hotel, hove into view. It too was lit, and flags were uttering. In 2oo3, when I moved to Washington, DC, the building was a half-used mall featuring, mostly, souvenir shops selling postcards and bobbleheads, snow globes and key chains, and brightly colored ballcaps and sweatshirts that said FBI. Everyone called it the old post office building. For a while, a charity used bookstore occupied a small corner of the upstairs, which was the only reason I ever went there. A group of people — three men, one woman — stood outside, listening as a guy in a suit gave them orders. One of the men wore a surgical mask over his mouth and rubber gloves. This seemed odd to me, or maybe it was completely ordinary. In the larger context, everything seemed a bit odd.
I passed lines of locked port-a-johns and empty metal bleachers and cops in cars, just idling. It was only 1o o’clock, but the city seemed shuttered, apart from a few clubs and bars. The streets were dead, most everyone was inside. Washington is so good at seeming normal, I thought. It’s like that quiet friend who acts as if nothing whatsoever is wrong.
The Capitol lay ahead and, before it, the reflecting pool. The water looked like ink or oil. I saw something dart across a parking lot. It moved quickly, a blur. Rat, I thought. It scurried down the steps and then leaped onto the concrete lip around the pool. I stopped and looked, trying to see it. Maybe it was drinking water. Maybe it was looking for bits of bread. The pool is stocked, usually year-round, with well-fed ducks and some pigeons that stick to the side. I took comfort in the rat. I was glad for it. I walked away thinking, There are still rats here.
One sign counseled: ‘We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.’ I tried to bear that in mind.
A few days later, I was heading to pick up my younger son, James, at pre-school. I cut through Lincoln Park, where we go sometimes to climb trees. In the middle of the park stands a statue of President Lincoln. In one hand, he holds a scroll. Beside him, kneeling, is an emancipated slave. Manacles are around his wrists, but the chains are broken. Lincoln’s free hand hovers over his head, as if blessing the poor soul. When my older son, Elliot, was two, he asked me, ‘Daddy, why’s that man acting like a dog?’
Overnight, enormous signs had appeared in the park to guide people walking to and from the inauguration. They were like billboards. This way to the inauguration. That way to RFK Stadium. I saw a fellow dad from the school. I can never remember his name — I’m terrible at names — but his son is nice and he seems nice too. He’s British. I gestured at the signs. ‘I’m not sure those are nearly large enough,’ I said.
The dad said he’d seen some signs marking an emergency evacuation route.
I hadn’t seen those yet. Signs were sprouting everywhere. A woman from the neighborhood had printed and distributed yard signs with quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,’ one said. Another said, ‘Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.’ The signs were plain — white lettering on black background — but effective. I read them all, no matter how many times I saw them. Inevitably, or perhaps selfishly, I read some as advice. One sign counseled: ‘I have decided to stick to love… Hate is too great a burden to bear.’ I believed in that. ‘We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.’ I tried to bear that in mind.
‘What do you think is going to happen?’ the dad said. The way he said it, the question seemed existential, as if a void was opening before us.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
He asked if I had seen all this before.
I said, ‘It’s familiar.’ This was going to be my fourth inauguration. I was an old-timer now.
‘But it’s different,’ the dad said, ‘this time?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘It feels different.’ I thought of friends who announced shortly after the election that they would, under no circumstances, stay here for the inauguration. Two were escaping to New York. Another guy told me he planned to be far away, in Texas, watching it all on television.
The dad told me his wife had gone by the White House the other night.
I’d done the same thing, I said.
‘She wanted to see it,’ he said, ‘before Trump and his crew got in there and, you know, hung gold drapes.’
I was one of those people who didn’t believe this could possibly happen, not here, not Trump. The day before the election, I emailed a friend:
Was reading some election stuff tonight and showing Elliot some of the statistical models (your favorite). There’s just no way Clinton’s not going to win this. When you look at the polling. Leaving out the so-called battleground states, she has 268 electoral votes that are likely to go her way, or more than likely. Those seem secure. That means she can lose most of the battleground states and still win the election. She can lose Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio and still win. She just needs 27o, after all.
Trump has no way to win. It’s just not going to happen.
We can rest easy.
On election day, I dropped the kids off at their schools and then started for home. I’d voted already, the week before.
I said hello to this mom I know. She was walking with her younger daughter, taking her to pre-school. ‘What do you think?’ she said. ‘You think Clinton can win?’ She seemed worried.
‘Yes,’ I said. I said it like Don’t you?
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I think it’s going to be a late night.’
I scoffed a bit. ‘Really?’
‘You believe it’s going to work out?’ she said.
‘I believe in statistics,’ I said.
That night, I put James to bed at his usual time, around 7, and let Elliot stay up a while longer. We read together. Then we watched the election results on my computer. My wife had sent me an electoral map that morning, thinking Elliot might like to fill it out. I wrote her back. ‘That’s nice,’ I said. ‘Thank you. I’ll print it out and tell him you sent it.’ It was a completely ordinary exchange, just two brief emails, but they felt, like everything else, hopelessly strained and difficult. Elliot and I went back and forth between my bed, where we read, and my desk, where he sat in my lap and kept tally. It was a good way to practice adding. Clinton was behind, but I told him that was to be expected; it was nothing to worry about. When he went to sleep, Clinton had 1o4 electoral votes and Trump had 138. It still seemed like Clinton could win. I assured him that when he woke up, she would be President.
The next morning, I had to break the news to them. ‘Hey,’ I said, ‘I have to tell you guys something.’ I felt on the verge of tears. My voice was cracking. How do you explain something to your kids that you know to be wrong? I decided just to say it plain. ‘Trump won,’ I said.
Elliot thought I was kidding.
‘No,’ he said.
‘I’m not joking,’ I said.
He was speechless, which is rare.
James was sitting at the table, eating. ‘But I voted for Hillary Clinton!’ he said. He started to cry.
Elliot said, ‘Are there nonstop flights to Australia?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘So I guess he’ll build the wall?’ he said.
‘We’ll see,’ I said. ‘It’s not that easy, you know. He won’t be able to do everything he said he’s going to do. He needs Congress to cooperate for one thing.’ Then I launched into what I hoped was an optimistic but not inaccurate story of how our democratic system had, built into it, many safeguards against idiocy.
‘But what if he launches all our nuclear weapons?’ Elliot said.
‘That’s not going to happen,’ I said.
‘He’s the commander in chief though!’
‘I know, sweetie. I just don’t think he would do that. Okay?’
We all got ready and then we took James to school and dropped him off and then Elliot and I continued on to his school. While we walked, I told him how maybe this was a moment for us to clarify our arguments. His class had been talking about making civil arguments, with facts, and talking to people you disagree with.
‘Here you have someone you profoundly disagree with,’ I said. ‘I disagree with him. Mommy disagrees with him. We have to make better arguments.’ I looked at Elliot. He had his hood over his head, tightly cinched. I saw a bit of his nose. ‘Right?’ I said.
As I walked home, I called my wife. I don’t know why I did this. We didn’t chat anymore, but I thought I should see if she was doing okay. Maybe I still cared. She answered the phone. She was crying. She was in bed still, she said. She talked about moving, leaving the country, going somewhere, she didn’t know where. The conversation veered to what this would mean for her job, short-term. She had started an apocalypse playlist for her iPhone, she said. Did I have any songs for it?
I told her I’d have to think about it.
A few days after Christmas, I went to the National Gallery of Art and saw Stagecoach, the 1939 John Ford movie starring John Wayne. The boys had gone with my wife to visit her mom in North Carolina. Time without them was always slow. It felt like punishment, a prison sentence without bars. Sometimes it was hard to leave the house. I didn’t have trouble waking up — I woke up around 5:3o every morning, which is when James would wake me up, if he was staying with me — but if the boys weren’t there, I found it hard to get moving. For a while I lay there. I looked at the light coming through the blinds and dreaded the length of the day to come. I went swimming a lot. I went to the market. I tried to cook new meals with a lot of ingredients. Families were everywhere though, or it seemed like it to me. I just thought I should be with my family, that I wasn’t doing my job. I looked for other things to do. Sitting in the dark with strangers and watching free movies at the National Gallery was one of those things. Stagecoach, I thought, promised a bit of escape, a brief diversion from life. In the movie, a group of passengers is attempting to cross through Apache territory. Henry Gatewood, a banker, is among them. Danger lies all around. When a cavalry officer refuses to order his men to guard the stagecoach, Gatewood gives the passengers a good jawboning. He says:
We pay taxes to the government, and what do we get? Not even protection from the army! I don’t know what the government is coming to. Instead of protecting businessmen, it pokes its nose into business! Why, they’re even talking now about having bank examiners. As if we bankers don’t know how to run our own banks! Why, at home I have a letter from a popinjay official saying they were going to inspect my books. I have a slogan that should be blazoned on every newspaper in the country: America for Americans! The government must not interfere with business! Reduce taxes! Our national debt is something shocking. Over one billion dollars a year!
Gatewood’s policy proposals were not new. This was the businessman’s credo, after all. In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge had said, ‘The chief business of the American people is business.’ Trump, for all his novelty and bluster, was not new either. He was only the latest model of populist billionaire. In 1992, H. Ross Perot, another billionaire businessman, ran as an independent candidate against President George Bush and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. To his supporters, Perot was refreshing. He got off funny lines. He was a character. Lewis H. Lapham captured his appeal in the book A Wish for Kings:
By embodying the dream of unlimited wealth, Perot embodied the dream of perfect independence. Here at last was a man free to say what he meant, whose every statement wasn’t prepared by a speech writer or geared to an opinion poll, and Perot’s lack of hesitation between the thought and the word supported the belief that he could speak on behalf of the common good.
For Gatewood, the appeal was simple: ‘What this country needs,’ he said, ‘is a businessman for president!’
The audience booed and hissed. They laughed bitter, ironic laughs. In the end, Gatewood gets arrested and hauled off to jail for embezzlement. But in real life, in our lives, Gatewood was a free man. Soon he would be president.
The day before the inauguration, my friend Steve drove down from Syracuse, New York, with his kids Lance and Nola. Steve and I traded a few texts — they were on their way. He was an old friend, a dear friend, from graduate school. He hadn’t seen my new place yet, and this worried me. It was enough for me and the boys, I thought, but it wasn’t what anybody would call large. Elliot and James shared a bedroom, with a bunkbed and some bookcases, a cage with our two gerbils, Panda and Blackie. My bedroom, which also served as my office, had my desk and my computer in it, which was also like our TV. The boys watched Netflix sometimes. I checked out videos from the library. The living room — which James didn’t recognize as a living room, though what else was it? — had one upholstered chair that we could all sit in and read together, if the boys were feeling agreeable, or else Elliot could perch on the arm or sit beside us, on the ottoman. There was a coffee table that he and I had rescued off the sidewalk. The top was covered with kids’ books, piles of artwork, assorted school papers I really needed to go through at some point. Over by the windows, we had an old wooden tool chest, with sliding drawers full of art supplies. We called it the creators’ cabinet. One drawer had bits of hardware that James used to make fidgets, his little inventions. The kitchen was a tight squeeze for more than a single person. There was a combination washer/ dryer under the counter. The table we ate at, which didn’t fit in the kitchen, had three chairs, enough for us, but now we had three people coming to visit. We had only one bathroom. Nobody had stayed with us before. I’d gone out to buy extra towels and wash cloths, a new bathmat. But buying new linens meant figuring out where to store them. It was that kind of place.
I looked around, seeing what needed doing still. The new towels were still drying, locked in cool-down mode. How would this place look to Steve and his kids? It would be crowded, for sure. Steve’s kitchen was probably almost as big as the entire apartment. They had a dining area, two bars you could sit at, three sinks, an island covered with a slab of granite, this huge fridge, a huge stove with six burners, a special wine and beer fridge, and lots of cabinets, cabinets everywhere, and they really used it. This wasn’t one of those show kitchens. It was the centre of life in their house, the centre of their family.
The previous summer I’d taken Elliot and James to stay with them for a week. It was my first vacation with the boys since the separation, our first vacation without their mom. We swam, hiked, ate fried sh and hamburgers and ice cream, we took day trips. They had a good time. Steve’s kids were like cousins, a little older but not much. They didn’t have actual cousins, on either my side or my wife’s.
I just felt embarrassed. I felt this way a lot. The divorce embarrassed me. It was both sordid and lame, a depressing cliché. I felt like a failure. I was a failure. I’d wanted to be good at this, too, at being married, but I’d failed. For a long time, I had trouble telling people about any of it, even good friends. I hadn’t told my mom or dad. The people I talked to the most were divorced people, or people going through divorce; they understood. I’d been re-reading Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road. Certain lines stabbed me, and I felt characterized, pinned by them. I’d come across one such line the other night. Yates is describing this company of amateur actors who have just put on a disaster of a play:
The trouble was that from the very beginning they had been afraid they would end by making fools of themselves, and they had compounded that fear by being afraid to admit it.
I stopped and thought about that. I read it again. Was I compounding my fear by being afraid to admit it? I was. Of course I was.
Steve called. They were in the neighborhood, a few blocks away. I took a look around the apartment. It would have to do.
Just up the street, I saw them. Steve was parking their van. The kids got out. I waved, and we all hugged. Lance wanted to know if Elliot and James were here.
‘No,’ I said. I wished they were.
Before I could explain that they were at their mom’s tonight, he asked, ‘Did they have to go school today?’
‘They did,’ I said. ‘But they’re not at school now.’ It was late in the afternoon already. If they were with me, we’d be having a snack. I’d be fixing to start dinner. ‘They’re at their mom’s,’ I said. ‘We’ll see them tomorrow. They’ll come over in the morning.’ More embarrassment bloomed. I wasn’t sure what Steve had told them, about my new place, about separating, any of it. I just wanted to apologize. If I started to apologize and just kept apologizing, would it be enough?
We carried their luggage upstairs, and they looked around.
Steve said, ‘This is really nice, Paul. Wow.’
‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘It’s big,’ he said.
‘It’s not really big,’ I said.
‘It’s bigger than anyplace I lived when I worked in New York,’ he said. ‘Do you remember my place in Jersey City? How tiny that was?’
I looked at my feet. The rug I was standing on was all bunched up. It looked bad. The corner was curling. It was too thin. Sometimes I put books on it, or a shoe. I bent down and tried to flatten it.
‘We have a rug that does that,’ Steve said.
We decided to walk around, see what we could see. The kids had never been to Washington before. We walked toward the Capitol. A guy had a table set up on the sidewalk, selling Make America Great Again hats as well as calendars and T-shirts. An older man with a set of bagpipes was just hanging around the table. He was dressed in a trenchcoat and a fancy Scottish-looking hat — one of those big black fluffy numbers. He seemed to have no financial interest in the operation, but he offered to play a song if Steve bought a hat.
Steve said, ‘I definitely have to get the hat.’ He picked one up, looked at it. ‘How much?’ he said.
‘Twenty,’ the guy said. ‘That’s a really good hat.’
The bagpiper said, ‘If you buy a calendar or a T-shirt, I’ll play a longer song.’
It sounded like a threat.
Steve laughed. ‘I’ll just take the hat,’ he said.
The bagpiper suggested a few songs he might play. Then he launched into ‘Amazing Grace.’
I felt my face trying to smile.
Nola took the hat and put it on.
‘You’re going to wear it?’ Steve said. He was incredulous, like the hat wasn’t actually for wearing.
She smiled and shrugged.
‘You’re brave,’ he said.
We moved away from the table, and a woman came up and asked Steve if he could take her picture in front of the Capitol. She was wearing a pink Make America Great Again hat. She offered to take our picture too. We were part of the club now, apparently.
‘That’d be great,’ Steve said.
Some news out t was setting up in front of the Capitol: just a reporter and a camera man.
‘Who’s he?’ Lance said.
Nobody knew. Steve speculated that they were European. ‘American men don’t wear pants like that,’ he said.
‘Seriously,’ he said. ‘Look at them. You know I’m right.’
I looked again at the reporter. He was wearing ankle boots. His camera man had his phone out, waving it in the air. They were chatting. Everything seemed light, fun almost. They could’ve been anywhere, reporting on anything.
Around the side of the Capitol, a group of men was kneeling on the ground, their arms around one another’s shoulders, loudly praying to the Lord God and the Lord Jesus. They had two crosses, made from lumber. They’d laid them against the temporary fence that encircled the Capitol lawn. Metal brackets and bolts held the beams together, and a small wheel was attached to the bottom of each cross. It was hard to understand what they were saying. There was an overlapping music to the prayer, like layers of interwoven talk. One man spoke to God, and then another cut in, and then a third called out, ‘Amen,’ and then it went on. We stood there watching this for a while. People came up and took pictures and videos on their phones and then walked away. Other people came up and joined the prayer. They put one hand on the cross and raised their other hand up to the sky. Then the first man spoke again, louder. He asked the Lord God to turn this man of hate into a man of love.
‘Is he talking about Trump?’ Steve said.
‘I guess so,’ I said.
‘Wow,’ Steve said.
Then the men picked up the crosses, placed them across their shoulders and they rolled them away, toward the National Mall.
I was standing next to Steve. ‘Jesus didn’t have a fucking wheel on his cross,’ I said.
We followed the crosses.
Tall iron barriers were being put up all along the parade route. We walked down the middle of the street, past the National Gallery. It was already closed to traffic, apart from official vehicles with flashing yellow lights on top. At the Newseum we stopped and admired the relative sameness of all the front pages on all the newspapers from around the country. Trump on every one. The new president.
‘It’s hard to get used to that,’ I said.
‘I know,’ Steve said.
A skinny guy in a ballcap come up to us. ‘Last button,’ he said. ‘Anybody want to buy a button?’ He seemed like he needed the money, and I hadn’t bought anything yet. It was only five dollars. Trump and Pence were on it, grinning, gold rope going around them. ‘Inauguration of the President and Vice President,’ it said. I got out my wallet.
Steve said, ‘Oh, you got Pence on yours.’
Lance looked at the button. ‘Pence,’ he said. ‘That’s cool.’ Like I’d acquired a rare rookie card.
We went to dinner and had Spanish food, little plates. Steve and I got Sangria with sparkling wine.
Steve said, ‘You want to FaceTime Mommy?’ He got out his phone and called Debbie, who was home with their younger daughter.
‘Hey, honey,’ he said.
The kids had their own devices, small iPads that they could FaceTime friends with and take pictures. Soon Nola had a friend on FaceTime and she was telling her about what they’d seen. She passed her around the table. Steve said hello, and I waved, said hello too.
All this was new to me, kids with devices, FaceTime. It seemed like silly fun. It was how they related now. I thought of it as like my future, my kids, in a few years. I just had this old flip phone. It was fine. I didn’t want anything more. This other dad I know who has a flip phone said he was at a bar one night and he had his phone resting on the bar, and someone saw it and asked him, ‘Is that ironic?’ He said, ‘No, it’s just my phone!’
Elliot called me from his mom’s house. I knew it was him, because he’s the only one who uses the house phone anymore. He goes to the basement and calls. Sometimes he does prank calls. Sometimes I get messages from him where it’s just him laughing hysterically and yelling about checking my refrigerator, then hanging up. For a while, before I moved out, I lived in the basement. I slept on the daybed. At night, I unplugged the phone and covered the doors with a plastic tablecloth, then stuffed throw pillows in the windows to block the light. In the morning, I took it all down, folded it up, tried to make it disappear. I plugged the phone back in. The kids knew what was going on, but I didn’t want them to have to look at the evidence. I didn’t want to look at the evidence.
I got up from the table and stepped through a set of heavy velvet curtains into the foyer. Cold air leaked through the front door.
‘Hi, sweetie,’ I said.
Elliot wanted to know if I could read to him.
‘Oh, I can’t tonight,’ I said. Sometimes I did, if I was home. I picked up whatever book we’d been reading and started where we left off. I told him Lance and Nola were here. ‘Can you read with Mommy?’
‘I guess,’ he said.
‘Is she putting James to bed?’
‘Do you have something to read, or do you want to talk?’
‘Maybe talk a little,’ he said.
‘Lance and Nola are looking forward to seeing you guys.’
Elliot wanted to know where they were staying, and I told him they were sleeping in his room, on the floor. They’d brought sleeping bags. He didn’t say anything.
‘Does that sound good?’ I said.
‘We’ll see you in the morning,’ I said. ‘Then we’ll go to the inauguration. Okay?’
Elliot said he didn’t want to go. Sometimes he did, but lately he didn’t. All during the campaign, he and his friends had talked and joked about Trump. Many of them, Elliot included, did impressions. When I went on a field trip with his class, it was like dueling Trumps. Trump just fascinated kids, maybe because he acted like one.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘we have to go though, okay? We’ll just check it out, see what’s going on. I think there’ll be a lot of protests.’
Elliot liked protests. When he was two, we read on a cereal box about gorillas being endangered, hunted by poachers, and he wanted to protest about this, make signs, write letters, go to the Capitol — Mommy’s work, he called it — and yell, just yell about the gorillas.
I said, ‘Lance and Nola and Mr. Steve came down here for this. And they want to see you guys. Lance and Nola have never been to DC, so you can think about where you’d like to take them, too. All right? Maybe we can take them to Good Stuff.’ Good Stuff was this hamburger place he liked.
Elliot said okay, but it was his resigned okay. There was a pause, and then he asked, ‘Did Lance bring his Pokémon binder?’
‘He did,’ I said.
‘Good,’ Elliot said. He was happy. He said he guessed he would go read now. I pictured him in the basement. We used to read there, and play. I told him I loved him and said I would see him tomorrow. We said our goodbyes then I closed my phone. The little screen flashed how long we’d been talking. A few minutes. It was only ever a few minutes. It was never enough.
I went back to the table and sat down next to Steve and the kids.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘It was Elliot. The only call I would take.’
‘He all right?’
‘Yeah. He’s just getting ready for bed.’
I looked across at Lance and Nola. ‘I told Elliot you guys were here,’ I said. ‘He’s looking forward to seeing you all. He asked if you brought your Pokémon cards.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ Lance said.
Sometimes it could make me quite sad, to be around kids, when my own kids were away. Other times I felt joy even to be near them. I heard a boy singing nonsense to his mother as I walked past, and I felt happy. A baby at the pool burbled as his father changed his diaper, and I listened for the beginnings of words. This family with four kids — all boys, really nice people — lived downstairs. If I was sitting at my desk and I heard them go out, I went to the window, just to see the kids being kids, scootering away.
After dinner, we decided to walk home. Everyone wanted to.
‘It’s not too cold?’ I said. I thought it was cold.
Steve scoffed. ‘This is like spring to us.’
Anti-Trump signs were taped in the second-story windows of an office building. DUMP TRUMP, one said. BIGOT IN CHIEF. RACIST IN CHIEF. #BLM. We stopped to take pictures. The first floor of the building was occupied by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Visitors Center and Store. Washington is full of organizations like the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Visitors Center and Store, places that, when you see them, you think, I didn’t know that was a thing, and then you never think about it again.
We walked down to Pennsylvania Avenue and then headed for the Capitol. A woman rode by on her bike, in the bike lane. She saw Nola’s hat.
‘Dump Trump!’ she yelled. ‘Get your self-respect back.’
Steve yelled over his shoulder, ‘Fuck you.’ He turned back to us. ‘If it were me, I would’ve laughed,’ he said. ‘But you can’t talk to my daughter that way.’
Nola kept the hat on, and we walked home. She never took it off.
My wife wrote me to ask if she could drop the kids at my house. She wanted to come over at nine. That wasn’t the plan, but it was fine. The plan had been to let them sleep in. Then they could have a nice, easy morning over there with her, and I’d pick them up later. I thought that’s what she wanted, what we had agreed to, when we talked about my taking them to the inauguration, but now she had to be at her friend’s house. So many of our interactions were like this now; shifting plans and logistical discussions floated like puny rafts on a hard current of hurt and fear, hatred and uncertainty. Individual moments seemed petty — what, after all, was a minor change in plans? — but the totality was enough to make anyone scream.
The door buzzed, and I went downstairs to meet them. James was on his scooter, his helmet cockeyed as ever. Elliot was in his coat, a bright lime green number, the hood tightly cinched over his head. He always wore it that way, no matter the weather. His face barely showed. He was ready to come inside.
‘Hey,’ I said. I patted him on the head.
I picked up James’s scooter and gave his helmet a knock-knock.
It had only been a couple of days since I’d seen them, but it seemed like a long time. I’d been with them all their lives, staying home, taking care of them. Before Elliot was born, I was an adjunct professor, teaching creative writing classes at a couple of local universities. When my wife got pregnant, we decided that I’d quit teaching. I wasn’t making a lot of money, and nannies were expensive. Besides, wasn’t raising them more important than teaching budding writers what little I knew about point-of-view?
‘Are Steve and them here?’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘they got in yesterday.’ I tried to smile and then looked away. I had trouble looking at her.
‘So you all are going to the inauguration?’ she said.
She knew we were. We’d talked about this already. She had no interest in any of it, she’d told me: the parade, the protests, nothing. Her office got complimentary tickets, but no one wanted them this year. I just thought it was something we should witness, be there for. Trump becoming president might be the most significant historical event of the kids’ lives, like it or not. I had to remind myself, every day, that this was happening, it wasn’t a joke or a skit on Saturday Night Live.
‘We’ll head over in a bit,’ I said. It didn’t start for a while.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘you guys have a good time.’ She looked at the boys and then she held out her arms to James, and he gave her a hug.
Upstairs, Steve and I packed bags to take with us — granola bars, fruit twists, gold sh crackers, and cheese sticks. Also handwarmers. I’d bought a couple dozen handwarmers at a camping store, but it looked like it was going to be more rainy than cold. I packed them anyway, along with an umbrella. I checked my camera, to see was the battery charged.
We walked through Stanton Park. This was the park Elliot used to call seesaw park, when he was little, because the playground has seesaws. National Guard troops in camouflage were posted at the corner, next to a Humvee. It was more like they were hanging out. They were sipping coffee and eating bagels. They were friendly. Around the park, black SUVs and tour buses were waiting.
Up ahead, we saw Union Station. Protesters had gathered in front of the building, in Columbus Plaza, lots of protesters, with homemade flags and signs. We heard chanting. This was what we had come for, what we were hoping to see, but a guy was selling pretzels, and so we had to stop and buy pretzels for the kids. Steve asked the guy how business was. It was way off, he said, from past inaugurations. He was standing near his car. In the back, he had stacks of pretzels.
Across the street, people were taking pictures next to a truck, a Ford F-25o jacked up on knobby tires. THE OFFICIAL TRUMP TRUCK, it said on the side, in big red letters. DRAIN THE SWAMP! PRESIDENT ELECT TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! Four spare tires were tied down in the back. A narrative on the rear of the truck explained that on the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, this truck was driven to all the crash sites: Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon. Photos were available on the Facebook page of Mark the Patriot. ‘Get a free flag that made the trip,’ it said. An email address was provided.
At the protest, someone in a raggedy polar-bear costume was standing on the fountain, holding in its paws a sign that said, WILL WE SURVIVE TRUMP? The polar bear posed a good question. It was the question of the day — and of the next four years. A statue of an angel rose up behind the bear. She looked heroic, as if she were taking flight. A sign made from red cloth was draped over her body. RESIST! it said. I’d never really looked at her before. I’d never just stood here. All along the roof of the train station, birds perched in neat lines.
I saw a sign that said, MAKE EARTH GREAT AGAIN. Another said, WE MAKE AMERICA GREAT. A man in a sandwich board sign wove his way through the crowd. AMERICA IS NOT YOUR CASINO, his sign said. This was the Festival of Resistance, organized by the DC Counter-Inaugural Welcoming Committee. Skeleton puppets bobbed up and down on sticks. Two giant naked puppets swayed back and forth in the breeze. LOOK WITHIN, read the words painted on their heads. PROTECT EACH OTHER, said the words on their arms. Across their bodies, it said, WE ARE ONLY AS HEALTHY AS OUR MOTHER. A skinny bearded dude wearing no pants and rainbow socks milled around the edges of the protest. He had a Mexican blanket draped over his shoulders and a red wig on his head. His face was daubed with white makeup. A Statue of Liberty hat completed the look. His outfit was complicated, but his message was simple. It t on a small cardboard sign tied with yarn and hung from his neck. It said, POOP.
We headed down the hill, toward the parade route. On a corner, in front of a building home to the American Gas Association and the C-SPAN television network, six black-clad anarchists were having their way with an over owing trashcan. Coffee cups and plastic water bottles and fast-food wrappers littered the ground. The anarchists had a flag — the Antifa International flag — and they were trying to plant it in the garbage. It was like a parody — an unconscious one, I’m sure — of the marines struggling to raise up the US flag at the battle of Iwo Jima. The anarchists turned to go, but Steve asked them if they’d do the whole flag in the garbage bit again, so he could take pictures. He didn’t get a good shot the first time. The anarchists obliged, recreating the moment. All around them, people were taking pictures now. They were surrounded by photographers. There were more people taking pictures than there were anarchists. Lance stood in front of them and gave his dad a thumb’s up. James, meanwhile, was on the corner obliviously eating his pretzel. A military transport truck, painted desert tan, was parked in front of the trashcan. A guardsman sat in the cab, watching the scene unfold.
Then the anarchists were done, the reenactment ended. Steve thanked them, and they all ran off. One of them came back, though, and kicked the trashcan. It fell onto its side and rolled off the curb, garbage spilling everywhere. Lance looked at Steve, his eyes wide, like, ‘Oh, he’s naughty.’
I said to Steve, ‘Maybe we should go to the parade route now, I don’t know.’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Sure. Okay.’
A few blocks away, we got on C Street, which looks like an alley or a dead-end, but it actually winds back between the Department of Labor and the offices of the Brotherhood of Carpenters. There’s a bar here, called Hamilton’s, that I don’t mind. It’s not a popular destination. Next door, there’s a sushi place, where I used to meet a friend for lunch. A security checkpoint was set up in front of Hamilton’s under a white tent. We took our places at the end of a line of people waiting to enter. The line wasn’t long; not even the kids thought it was long. Homeland Security types armed with machine guns and wearing bulletproof vests and body armor stood near the front of the line. The body armor made them look like action figures, big toys. Under the tent, it was the usual routine, just more intense. It wasn’t unfriendly, just serious. We removed all metal objects, our phone and so forth, from our pockets and placed them on a table for inspection. A guy wearing rubber gloves checked out the phones then slid them down the table. Cameras had to be turned on and off and examined closely. Then there were the metal detectors.
A security guy said James could walk through. James jumped. On the other side, the security guy asked him to raise his arms, and James did. The security guy passed a handheld metal detector over the front of James’s body.
‘Now turn around,’ he said. James turned. Then he was done. Elliot followed, and I went last. James ran ahead, and Elliot and I caught up with him on the other side of the tent. Some security types were milling around, having coffee. Boxes of creamers and sugar sat atop a cooler along with assorted pieces of candy. James can find candy anywhere, and he was grabbing all he could.
I looked at the security people. ‘Sorry,’ I said.
Someone said it was all right.
‘James,’ I said, ‘just take a couple, okay? Leave some for… others.’
I looked again at the security people. They were watching James, amused, I thought. ‘He’ll clean you out,’ I said.
Presidential inaugurations take place inside a cage. It’s a large cage, which encloses a significant swath of DC and stretches for many blocks, but it’s still a cage. The Capitol, where the President takes the oath of office, is at one end of this cage. The White House, where the President will reside, is at the other end. Smaller cages, to contain the crowds, are positioned along both sides of the main presidential cage. We were now in one of those smaller cages, and it was nearly empty. Not many people had gathered yet and, depressingly, almost none of them seemed like protesters. No signs, no FUCK TRUMP T-shirts, nothing. But it was still early. Several action figures patrolled the area. A sign indicated this was a NO DRONE ZONE. A mobile command vehicle from Homeland Security was parked nearby. Tall metal fences, ten feet high in places, separated us from the street, where, in a few hours, the president would pass by in his motorcade. The fence was covered by iron mesh, with holes so small that a person would struggle to pass even a note through. Two lines of shorter barricades, roughly waist high, were set up on the other side. Cops lined the street in both directions.
It was getting cold, and we had time to kill. It was too much time for kids to just do nothing, to wait. Steve asked if we wanted to get something to eat maybe. He’d seen a place on this side of security.
The Capitol Café and Salad Bar combined the ambience of a forward operating base with a packed gate at an airport terminal. Security personnel garbed in various uniforms, some in camo, some in black, took breaks while civilians like us wandered around looking for an empty table or an extra chair. Basically, it was like a mall food court shoehorned into the basement of an anonymous office building. It was no Hamilton’s, but it would do. They had a salad bar with fresh-looking fruit, some veggies, a grill for hot sandwiches, and bulk bins full of sesame sticks, banana chips, almonds, trail mix, and the like — the sort of food-like material that Elliot and James would happily make a meal of.
We walked around, looking at all the food, considering. Elliot considered. I waited for him to decide, occasionally suggesting options. I didn’t push. If you pushed, he wouldn’t eat. Nothing seemed good to him.
A few feet away I saw a couple of anarchists eating McDonald’s French fries out of a bag. I thought about pointing them out to Elliot, but the levels of irony were beyond my ability to explain. Maybe when he was older.
We came to the grill. Two guys were working, making sandwiches. This was it, there were no more options.
‘They have hamburgers,’ I said. ‘You want a hamburger?’
He studied the menu, hoping for what I’m not sure.
I was holding James’s hand. I asked him to wait, please be patient, I’d get him some food. He was squirming. He wanted to run.
‘It’s just a plain hamburger,’ I said to Elliot. ‘I’ll tell them to make it plain, with nothing on it. How you like, okay?’
‘If I eat some of the burger,’ he said, ‘can I get something from over there?’ He indicated the bulk-food bins.
‘Elliot, I don’t want to negotiate. Let’s just eat the burger first, okay?’
James broke free and ran off. I tried to see where he went.
‘I need to follow your brother,’ I said. ‘Can you wait here? I’ll be right back.’
Elliot looked terrified.
‘I’ll come right back,’ I said.
‘I’ll come with you,’ he said.
‘Elliot, we’ll lose our place.’ There was a line already forming behind us, and I had the sense of everyone listening to this conversation. I didn’t see James anymore. We had to go. ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘We need to find him.’
Elliot said he saw where he went and ran off.
You don’t have to run, I thought. We don’t have to run.
Steve and his kids had found something to eat and claimed a table. James had found them too. I asked Steve if I could leave James and get some food for us.
‘Sure,’ he said.
‘James,’ I said, ‘stay here with Mr. Steve, okay?’
He was talking happily to Nola.
‘James,’ I said. I couldn’t get his attention.
I looked at Steve. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘I’ll be back. Sorry.’
‘It’s fine,’ he said.
Elliot and I went back and ordered his hamburger, and I got some other kind of sandwich, chicken maybe, or turkey, I don’t even know. At the salad bar, we got a container and I filled it with fruit for James.
‘Do you want some fruit?’ I said.
Elliot said he did.
He probably wouldn’t eat it, but I bought it anyway. It was fruit; even if he ate a little, it was good. And whatever he didn’t finish, I would eat.
The restaurant had TVs bolted to the walls. They were showing Trump. He was back inside the Capitol, signing papers. He seemed to enjoy signing stuff. The commentators were all saying these were his first official acts as president, and so forth. They had nothing to say, just the obvious.
‘Look at him,’ Steve said.
‘I can’t believe this is real,’ I said. ‘He’s president.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know.’
After lunch, we went in search of protests. Our area was just too sleepy. Nobody even seemed annoyed. We headed downtown. I took a picture of a sign that said, MORTGAGE CRISIS BANKERS AT WHITE HOUSE ALSO FUND HOLLYWOOD FILMS. It was an obscure issue. Was the problem bankers profiting off the mortgage crisis, or was it that they greenlit bad movies? Still, it felt like we were getting somewhere, somewhere angrier and crasser. A guy in the middle of the street was peddling T-shirts that said, HILLARY SUCKS BUT NOT LIKE MONICA. He had a lot customers. In front of the courthouse, two memorabilia dealers were talking. One said to the other, ‘So he says to me, “We’re rabbis,” and I think, “Of course Jews don’t want to buy anything.”’
I looked at Steve. ‘Did you hear that?’
‘No. What did he say?’
I repeated it back.
We came to the next security tent. The lines were long, but the area was thick with protesters. Some were trying to get through, to the parade route, but others were just digging in. This was where they’d make their stand. NOT MY PRESIDENT, one sign said. Another said, NOT MEIN FÜRHER. Someone carried a large color poster of Batman putting Trump in a headlock. Batman said, ‘Stop tweeting.’ A woman stood atop a concrete barricade, taking pictures. She wore a sign over her back. TRUMP / PENCE, it said. MAKE AMERICA HATE AGAIN. She’d drawn a swastika on it.
‘I don’t know if we’re going to be able to get through here,’ I said. ‘With that line.’
Steve agreed. He’d heard protests up the street, so we headed in that direction. It turned out just to be one dude with a megaphone — and he wasn’t even protesting. He was preaching, reading Bible verses. Steve saw a young black guy wearing a Trump hat. It looked like it had been signed, with Sharpie scrawl on the brim.
‘Is that really Trump’s signature?’ Steve said.
The guy said it was. Trump signed it at a campaign event.
A few feet away I saw a couple of anarchists eating McDonald’s French fries out of a bag. I thought about pointing them out to Elliot, but the levels of irony were beyond my ability to explain. Maybe when he was older.
Lance found a bike light on the street. It still worked. The kids passed the new treasure back and forth, pressing the buttons. Soon the light acquired additional powers. It was more than a light, and they all wanted it.
There was a park nearby, and the kids ran to it as if it were paradise.
‘Want to just let them play a bit?’ I said.
‘Sure,’ Steve said, ‘why not.’ It seemed like they needed to run around.
He started right in yelling, ‘Not my president! Not my president!’ His voice was high and clear and loud. He was fearless. Whenever he said, ‘Not my president!’ the people near them smiled coldly and said, ‘Yes, he is. He is now.’
There was a fountain in the park, but it was empty, drained. The kids jumped in and out of the basin and chased each other in circles. They invented games, hiding in the bushes, plotting ways to get the light from whoever had it. At the center of the fountain, a statue of a woman, gold and naked, stood on a marble plinth. Beside her was a little deer. With one hand, she reached down to pet it on the back. Her other hand was raised slightly, as if she was saying to the deer, ‘There’s one thing you must never ever forget…’ I don’t know what that one thing would be.
We headed back toward the first security area. It was almost time for the parade. A vendor was selling Trump buttons. ‘Dollar apiece,’ he said. ‘Everything’s a dollar.’ Prices had been dropping all day, but this was the lowest yet. I picked up a Melania button, and Steve bought a few more. On the button, Melania’s head has been photoshopped onto Wonder Woman’s body. MELANIA MAGNIFICENT, it says. The letter M is tattooed on her forehead. We walked by a garbage truck, and Steve spotted a pocket edition of the US Constitution stuck in the refuse. He stopped to photograph it.
Back at the tent, one of the security guys wasn’t sure about Lance’s light. He held it in his hands and looked at it, pushing at the buttons. He couldn’t get it to turn on. He gave it back to Lance.
‘Show me how it works,’ he said.
‘Oh,’ Lance said, happy to demonstrate. Then he did something, and it turned on.
The guy looked at it again and then handed it to another security guy, who’d come over to see what was going on. He looked at Lance and then us. Then he handed it back. It was okay. ‘I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t a laser,’ he said.
It was Elliot’s turn to pass through the metal detector, and then I followed after. The security guy said something.
‘What?’ I said.
He indicated Elliot. ‘He really serious or something?’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I guess so.’ I looked over at Elliot. ‘You okay, sweetie?’ I mussed his hair.
The security guard looked at him. ‘You all right?’ he said.
‘I think he’s just cold,’ I said.
The viewing area was more crowded than it had been. It was hard to find a spot near the fence, but there was still plenty of room farther back. Some kindly Trump supporters made room for Steve and his kids, letting them squeeze into the first row. Steve told me later that they were southern, and clearly Nola sporting the Trump hat earned her — and them — some points.
Elliot and James and I just hung back. One of the action figures was standing near us. I looked around to see were there any protesters. One woman had on a L♥VE TRUMPS HATE shirt. She appeared to be with a couple of other people, so I counted them all as potential protesters. This was no hotbed of radicalism.
I said to James, ‘Are you going to protest when we see Trump?’
I didn’t have to ask him twice. He started right in yelling, ‘Not my president! Not my president!’ His voice was high and clear and loud. It was a voice that cut through other sound. He was fearless. People turned to look. Steve said they heard James perfectly from up front, and that whenever he said, ‘Not my president!’ the people near them smiled coldly and said, ‘Yes, he is. He is now.’
James started chanting, ‘I am the president! I am the president!’ Then Elliot suggested he try chanting, ‘Donald Trump, poop your pants.’ And for a while he did, happily.
A few days before, Elliot and I had gone out to lunch — he had the day off school — and we got to talking about protesting.
He said, ‘Why doesn’t Trump just say, “I don’t like all these protesters,” and have them all taken away?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘he can’t really do that. And anyway, there is free speech.’
‘Oh, right,’ he said. ‘Good point.’
I said, ‘You could go to the parade route and yell at him when he comes by. Just scream your head off.’
He seemed amazed by this. I could see possibilities occurring to him, wicked little thoughts flashing across his face.
I said, ‘Elliot, you could conceivably go down to the parade route and give him the middle finger if you want.’
He got big eyes, like really?
‘Could I yell, “I want to kill you”?’ he said.
‘No, that would be a really bad idea,’ I said. ‘That’s a threat.’
‘What if I yell, “I wish you were dead”?’
‘That’s more of a gray area,’ I said, ‘but under the circumstances, on that day, that also would be perceived as a threat, probably.’
‘What if I yelled, “K-something-L-L!”?’
‘Let’s just not yell stuff about killing and dying. Okay?’
James had gone back to the classic ‘Not my president!’ A woman walked up and asked how old he was.
‘Four,’ I said, ‘going on five.’
James continued to yell, and she looked at him like she’d never seen anything like him before.
‘Do you mind if I take a video?’ she said. She had her phone out. She said she was a reporter, from France.
‘I’d rather you not,’ I said. ‘Sorry.’ I didn’t want some video of him floating around the internet.
James stopped yelling and asked the woman who she voted for.
She told him she hadn’t voted, that she was from France.
James looked confused.
‘You know France,’ I said. ‘Like Paris? Madeleine?’ It’d been a while since we read about the old house in Paris all covered with vines.
James was holding my hand, spinning around, then he stopped. ‘Who did you vote for, Daddy?’
I told him that I’d voted for Jill Stein. It never computed with him. No matter how many times he asked, he always thought there was Clinton, and there was Trump, and that was it.
The journalist said, ‘Is this hard for you, being here?’
She asked in a concerned way, as if my quixotic support for a third-party candidate must be crippling to my psyche. ‘No,’ I said, ‘not really. It’s okay. You know.’
I felt like saying, divorce is much harder. Because I blamed myself for it. In my mind, I ran through causes. I enumerated my failures. Trump’s victory, that was out of my hands.
From up the street, we heard engines rumbling. Motorcycles, it sounded like.
‘It’s starting,’ I said to Elliot.
‘Can I get on your shoulders?’
I bent down and then he climbed onto my back, and I stood. I held onto his legs.
‘You okay?’ I said.
He was heavy, fifty pounds, maybe more, but I didn’t care. I’d had hernias. It ran in my family. I’d had three of them, and three operations, but I still wanted to carry him and his brother when they wanted to be carried. I wanted to pick them up. When they were little, I tossed them in the air and caught them and we just laughed. It seemed like part of being a father, a duty to carry them around. The first hernia I had in graduate school. The second was when Elliot was two or maybe three. The most recent, which I’d put off having, was during the basement period.
James was hanging off a metal barricade, holding my hand, shouting his slogans.
Then the motorcycles came roaring by, a phalanx of Harleys with sidecars, red and blue lights flashing. Apparently, this was a tradition, going back to the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Steve was in front of me. He had his camera out and he was holding his phone beside it, one in each hand. He was taking pictures with both, or video on one. It was serious.
A flat-bed truck came by next, bristling with cameras and camera people.
‘Who’s that?’ Elliot said.
‘Media,’ I said.
‘Looks like a hayride,’ he said.
The rest happened quickly. A limo drove past followed closely by two black SUVs. Secret Service agents stood on the running boards, hands on the luggage rack, hanging on. Other agents walked beside the cars, scanning the crowd, watching. Then four more limos went by, side by side. They looked identical to the first. Two small flags uttered from the hood of each vehicle — the American flag and the presidential flag. And that was it. Marching bands came after, but the kids were ready to go.
We left the security area and walked across the street, to a park. The kids started playing, running. A new game formed out of nothing, and they knew all the rules. Steve and I sat a bench.
‘Did you see Trump?’ he said.
I wasn’t sure.
He looked at the pictures on his camera.
Later, back at home, we ordered pizzas for the kids and Indian food for me and Steve. That night, while the kids slept, we got to talking again about the motorcade. We didn’t know which car was Trump’s. Was it one of the four? Was he in the middle?
We started to watch C-SPAN on Steve’s computer. He forwarded through the feed, past the motorcycles and the media truck.
I saw the place where we had stood. ‘That’s where we were,’ I said. ‘That’s the intersection.’
Steve slowed the video. ‘Is that Elliot?’ he said. He pointed at the screen, then backed it up a few frames.
It was Elliot, high on my shoulders in his bright green coat. Steve took a few screenshots and emailed them to me.
Trump’s car had been first, it turned out, right after the media truck. It wasn’t what we had figured. We’d thought he was in one of the four that drove side by side. But in one of Steve’s pictures, I could see his hand and the cuff of his shirt. He was waving. Some of the police standing on either side of the street had turned to watch him pass. One guard had a camera out, shooting pictures over her shoulder.
In the beginning of the Trump presidency, in those first days and weeks, I kept tabs on his Twitter. I was not a follower, but I read it regularly. Sometimes I checked it several times a day, out of worry more than anything else, dread at what he might do or say next. Then one day I deleted it from my browser’s list of frequently visited sites. I haven’t looked at it since.
Every few days, I thought of this passage from Renata Adler’s essay ‘Irreparable Harm,’ about the Bush v. Gore decision:
Not infrequently, an event so radical that it alters everything appears for a time to have had no effect, or even not to have occurred. This is true in personal as in public life. A loss, a flood, a medical diagnosis, a rolling of tanks toward the statehouse — life goes on apparently as usual. Nothing is changed. It is particularly true of events that are irremediable. When there is nothing to be done, people go to work, eat their lunch, sleep, awaken to a vastly altered world, in ways that seem uncanny in their ordinariness.
That was my life, I thought: The tanks had rolled but much remained the same, or seemed so anyway. I did laundry, made meals. I picked the boys up at their schools. We went to the playground, the park, karate. We ate pizza and hamburgers. We watched movies. It was all so normal. I saw a lot of the same people around too, our routines crisscrossing. I said hello sometimes. I was friendlier these days. I craved those friendly interactions, a little smile and kind words between strangers. On the best of days, I thought maybe things would be all right. Or was that false hope? There were still metaphorical tanks in the streets.
One day I went back to the White House. I was just in the area again. I’d gone to see an opera, La Traviata. It was at the movies; the Met broadcasts them. I went when the boys were with their mom, because operas are long and I had a lot of time on my hands. I used to not get opera. I used to think, well, that’s not realistic. Now I like them. I like that the characters are honest. Even the dishonest ones seem honest about their dishonesty. I like the emotions out in the open, big emotions, leading, like a face. In opera, people will die for love.
After the opera, I got a coffee and just walked. There were no protesters at the White House, just tourists taking selfies. A father was standing by a bench with his son, reading a plaque. It said something about Boy Scouts. I got the sense that he and his son did Scouts together, that this meant something to them. Elliot and I had started Cub Scouts that year. He liked camping. I did too.
I watched the people taking pictures and then I just looked at the White House. It was like meditation: Think on this place. Think about what has occurred. I considered how easy it would be to jump the fence. There was just a little waist-high barricade, like the sort James had hung on. A few yards beyond it was an iron fence. It wasn’t that tall. It seemed climbable to me. There were spikes at the top, but they looked ornamental. It wasn’t razor wire. Thick green grass waited on the other side. A soft landing.
I believed in that Goethe quote, when he said he had never heard of a crime which he couldn’t imagine committing himself. It said a lot about the imagination, and how it worked, but also something about Goethe. I often imagined things I knew were wrong, that I knew I shouldn’t do.
A woman in skinny high heels was taking a selfie with the White House in the background. She was looking for her best angle. Should she face to the left or the right? She looked at her photo and then tried again, smiling for herself. When she was done, she shed around in her purse and got out a second phone and she called someone on it — a kid, it looked like. With the kid on the one phone, she tried to line up the other phone so that he could see the White House. Or maybe she was trying to take a picture of him on the phone, with her, and the White House in the background? It was complicated. I watched this for a while, then I walked home.
The next morning, I read that someone had jumped the fence just the night before. He got within steps of the White House. The Secret Service, the article said, had recently gotten plans approved to ‘install a stronger and higher perimeter fence.’
Around the neighborhood, we saw signs of anger and protest. They were appearing like flowers, more and more of them coming up every day. On the way to James’s school, I passed a house with a poster in the window. FREE MELANIA, it said. Another house had a sign stuck in the front yard. REMEMBER NOVEMBER, it said, with a picture of the White House and, behind it, looming, however anachronistically, a hammer and a sickle. Stickers that looked like a rainbow flag, for gay rights, said on them, PENCE LOVES PENIS. They were stuck everywhere. We saw a sign made to look like a movie poster, starring Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions as, it said, THE H8TEFUL ELF. At a bus stop, there was a yer, like one you’d make for a lost cat or dog. LOST, it said, JASON CHAFFETZ’S SPINE.
I watched the people taking pictures and then I just looked at the White House. It was like meditation: Think on this place. Think about what has occurred.
At the local arts center, there was an exhibition of work by Elliot’s class. They had made birds. Elliot said he wasn’t sure his drawing would be among them.
‘I drew a bird getting eaten by an alligator,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure the teacher liked it.’
We looked at the wall. I looked for one with an alligator.
‘Here’s mine,’ he said. He pointed to one down low by the door.
There was no alligator, just a sweet bird on a stem.
‘That’s pretty,’ I said.
Elliot had wandered over to a painting of Donald Trump mounted on the back of a flying dragon with seven heads. Typical fare at the arts center tended toward massive and soupy abstractions and sculpture made out of recyclables. In the painting, Trump is wearing tennis shoes. He looks like a kid. The boys loved it.
Elliot peered at the label. ‘The Coming Apocalypse?’ he said. The title was a question.
‘Ooh, yeah,’ James said. ‘Apocalypse.’
The protest we saw most often was less allegorical: FUCK TRUMP. The message was everywhere, scrawled in marker, on the sides of boarded-up buildings and electrical boxes and light poles. Elliot enjoyed pointing out each instance of FUCK TRUMP.
‘Daddy,’ he said, ‘look.’
If James was with us, he spelled it. ‘F-U-C-K Trump,’ he said.
James was becoming a decent speller though, and he liked a good puzzle. Also, he listened, intently, to everything his brother said. ‘That spells, “Fuck Trump,”’ he said.
I looked at Elliot. ‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘Is that right, Daddy?’ James said. ‘Did it say, “Fuck Trump”?’
Elliot was honing his impression of Trump. Once, when James and his friend were having an argument, Elliot stepped in and addressed them as the president. ‘You are such great friends,’ he said. He waved his hands in the air. ‘I’ve never seen two such… really amazing friends. People come up to me all the time and tell me what… great friends you are.’ Elliot was working on a skit about Trump for the school’s talent show. Elliot was going to be Trump of course, and his friend was either going to be Putin or Steve Bannon, they couldn’t decide which.
After school one day, James asked his teacher, ‘Who did you vote for?’
‘What?’ she said.
‘Who did you vote for?’ he said. ‘Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?.’
She covered her mouth and said to him, ‘Hillary Clinton.’
Then he said, ‘Do you know what’s going to happen?’
‘What?’ she said.
‘When Donald Trump dies, I’m going to dance on his grave.’
She laughed. I laughed. ‘On that note,’ I said.
We headed home. He was on his scooter, and I was walking beside him. I asked him where that came from, the dance on the grave business.
‘Elliot,’ he said and then he scootered ahead.
I was never that into protesting. It just never seemed like it would help or accomplish anything. Maybe it made people feel good, to be with other people they agreed with, but to me, it felt like impotent rage, yelling at a closed door, shouting at a building. Could anyone inside hear? And yet, in the first days of Trump’s presidency, I went to a protest. It was at the White House, and people were gathering to protest his Muslim ban. It was another weekend when the boys were at their mom’s. It was a few days after my birthday. I was 48 years old.
On the Metro, I saw people with signs. We were all going to the same place. Then a group of guys got on the train, very fratty-looking. They seemed like teenagers but were probably in their twenties. People in their twenties increasingly looked like teenagers to me. One of them started singing, ‘My Way’:
And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain…
The others joined in. When they were done, the people on the train applauded politely. Was this a pro-Trump anthem now? I didn’t understand. I knew the president and first lady had danced to the song at one of the inaugural balls, but what did it mean? One of the guys, red-faced and beefy, said, ‘Profound words.’ He shook his head. ‘Profound.’ He said profound like it was two words.
Hundreds of people, if not a thousand, were already at the White House. I saw a sign that said SMALL HANDS / SMALL CROWDS / SMALL HEART. Another sign said, WITHOUT IMMIGRATION, TRUMP WOULD HAVE NO WIVES. One person held up a sign that said, WE’RE ALL IMMIGRANTS. And the person next to him, held up a sign that was like a thought bubble that said, EVEN MELANIA.
I leaned against the wall of a building. A plaque explained it was the United States Court of Federal Claims. I’d never been. I didn’t even know what it was. Claims of what? I wondered. The crowd started chanting, ‘No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here.’ After a few minutes, the chant died down, and a new one started. ‘Let them in,’ we chanted, over and over. When that died down, people started chanting, ‘Fire Bannon.’ Then one person called out, ‘Show me what democracy looks like,’ and the crowd yelled back, ‘This is what democracy looks like.’ It was the most popular chant by far, the one they kept circling back to, but it didn’t do a lot for me. After all, the election, wasn’t that also what democracy looked like? Still, I tried to participate. I did. I spoke the words. I couldn’t yell them, but I spoke them. I felt like an observer. I was always observing.
The most powerful cheer, the cheer that really moved me, shocked me actually, was when all the people started yelling, ‘Shame!’ Just that: shame. It was simple and fast and angry, and we yelled it over and over. ‘Shame! Shame! Shame!’ I started yelling too, yelling as loudly as I could, and something burned in me. I felt it first in my face, like electricity, and then in my legs. It was something twisting inside me.
I understood shame. I thought President Trump should feel great shame, but I imagined he felt none at all. I didn’t know if he had ever felt shame, in his life, over anything. I remembered travelling with my wife. It was in the George W. Bush years, when we started dating and then later, when we were just married. Everywhere we went — in England, in France, in the Netherlands, and in Turkey — people asked us about Bush, and we apologized for him. We were ashamed then. Yes, we said, we don’t like him either. We were opposed to his senseless war. We hadn’t voted for him. We hardly knew anyone who did.
I felt enormous shame, daily, over the collapse of my marriage, this separation, the divorce to come, the toll it had taken and will take on the kids, and what they must think, and what they have never said to us, or me, and maybe will never say, for years, and what people around here, the people who know my wife, what they think of me — I feel shame for all of this and more.
I shouted along with the crowd, but then the cheer died down and was replaced by something else, less powerful, I can’t remember what. I hung around, looking at the signs and people. Protesters were still arriving. Some of the other cheers were all right, and I spoke along with them, half-heartedly mouthing the words. I was waiting for that feeling to return, waiting for someone to start chanting shame again. I wanted to feel that way again. Why couldn’t we just chant shame? It said everything.
After a while, I left. I was meeting a friend for coffee.